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Like Nalanda, India must remain a melting pot of civilisations

By Pranab Mukherjee
August 29, 2016 13:11 IST
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Universities must be the bastions of free speech and expression. It must be the arena where diverse and conflicting schools of thought contend. There should be no room for intolerance, prejudice and hatred within the spaces of this institution. Further, it must act as flag-bearer for the coexistence of multiple views, thoughts and philosophies, says President Pranab Mukherjee.

Image: President Pranab Mukherjee presents a degree to a student at the first convocation of Nalanda University at Rajgir, Nalanda, in Bihar on August 27, 2016. Photograph: Courtesy, Rashtrapati Bhavan.

I have often spoken of the time when India played a dominant role in the higher education system of the world. Renowned seats of learning like Nalanda, Takshashila, Vikramashila, Valabhi, Somapura and Odantapuri were magnets which attracted scholars from all over the world.  They stood at the crossroads of many civilisations and spread knowledge far and wide. Sadly, India’s modern day universities are yet to reach the top position in world rankings.  We must work towards regaining that glory of the past.

As Visitor to Nalanda University, it is my hope that this university will truly attain the status of Nalanda of yore. There are many practices of the ancient Nalanda which are worthy of emulation by the new Nalanda.

One of the most important characteristics of ancient Nalanda was that it was an international institution where inter-Asian connections, in particular, flourished. Chinese monks like Xuan Zang, Yijing and Huichao among others visited, lived, studied and taught in Nalanda. At a later period, scholars from Tibet kept coming to Nalanda for studying Buddhism and other branches of knowledge. Monks from several other countries including Sri Lanka also came to Nalanda, revealing the diversity of religious and cultural influences on the institution. And, the traffic was not just in one direction. Monks from Nalanda spread their wisdom across the world and had reached China before Xuan Zang’s visit to India. 

Ancient Nalanda was known for the high level of debate and discussion it nurtured. It was not a mere geographical expression but it reflected an idea and a culture. Nalanda conveyed the message of friendship, cooperation, debate, discussion and argument. Discussion and debate are part of our ethos and life. They cannot be done away with. Universities and higher education institutions are the best forums for debate, discussion and free exchange of views. Though the main subjects of study were the Buddhist texts, importance was also given to critiques of Buddhism by various schools, study of Vedas and beyond. 

Nalanda was a melting pot of civilisations and modern India should remain the same. We should not close our windows and yet we should not be blown off by winds from outside. We should let the winds flow freely from all over the world and get enriched by them. We should embrace free discussion and debate, leaving behind narrow mindsets and thoughts. Prof Amartya Sen who is with us today, has written about how our history and traditions have always celebrated the 'Argumentative Indian'. The lesson for modern Nalanda is to ensure that this great tradition finds new life and vigour within its precincts. 

Universities must be the bastions of free speech and expression. It must be the arena where diverse and conflicting schools of thought contend. There should be no room for intolerance, prejudice and hatred within the spaces of this institution. Further, it must act as flag-bearer for the coexistence of multiple views, thoughts and philosophies.

Nalanda Mahavihara flourished for about 800 years. Its survival over such a long duration of time occurred because the monastic scholars of Nalanda created social and political networks that helped them ensure its continuation as an institution of international repute. According to the accounts of Chinese pilgrim Yijing, Nalanda was granted over 200 villages for its sustenance. Scholars of Nalanda must have developed plans to maintain, regulate and retain these village grants. They also developed adequate infrastructure for these villages to ensure agricultural productivity and retention of manpower.

Engaging with the local communities surrounding the Mahavihara was as important as maintaining relationship with the world abroad. I am happy that Nalanda University is taking steps in this direction through its engagement with the local weavers, farmers and other projects in the field of environment and heritage, including academic support for the government’s efforts to have Nalanda declared as a World Heritage site.

Image: President Pranab Mukherjee with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar at the first convocation of Nalanda University campus at Rajgir, Nalanda, in Bihar, on August 27, 2016. Photograph: PTI Photo.

What ensured Nalanda’s rise as a premier institution of the world was its cutting edge curriculum not only in Buddhist knowledge but also in various disciplines including astronomy, medicine, general logic, linguistics, books and manuscript production, architecture and art.  The discovery of a furnace at the site of Nalanda and other archaeological evidence indicate that production of manuscripts with textual and pictorial content must have happened at a large scale. The rich stone and metallic image collections from the site also demonstrate the existence of a major art atelier, which developed its distinct style and kept introducing new images.

The artists of Nalanda created a wide range of images which showed their knowledge and engagement with myriad religious traditions. In addition to teaching religion, philosophy and other subjects, Nalanda propagated knowledge of disciplines such as sculpting, metal smelting and book production. These show that the Nalanda of ancient times valued inculcating in students and the community around it multiple skill sets. This is yet another lesson worthy of emulation in modern times. 

Modern day Nalanda University has a non-metropolitan location in the heart of rural India. All three pillars of the university -- the faculty, administrative staff and students -- need to make a commitment to living and working in these environs. By doing so, Nalanda is setting an example for other institutions to follow. I compliment the faculty and students from all over the world and different parts of India who have made this commitment.

The 21st century is expected to be an ‘Asian century’ with countries of this continent regaining their pre-eminence in the world through all–round development. Nalanda University is a symbol of Asian resurgence. At a time when the world is facing complex challenges and the destinies of the peoples across the continents are inter-linked, institutions of knowledge such as Nalanda are of critical importance.

Nalanda stands not merely for quality education but also for global cooperation. Nalanda stands as a symbol of inclusion, harmony, peace, knowledge, inspiration, creativity and innovation.  I call upon the faculty and students to internalise these values and instil them in everyone whose lives they touch.

Excerpted from President Pranab Mukherjee’s speech at the first convocation of Nalanda University, on August 27, 2016.

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