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India's grand university plans falter

India's grand university plans falter

Author: Raja Murthy
Publication: Asia Times
Date: September 27, 2011
URL: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/MI27Df01.html

A grand pan-Asian plan to revive India's historic Nalanda University has run into troubles, with allegations of favoritism and a lack of transparency putting pressure on the project chief.

In its heyday between the fifth and 12th century AD, the university hosted over 10,000 resident students and 2,000 teachers - particularly from China, Korea, Japan and even Greece.

India is rebuilding it as the Nalanda International University, 10 kilometers near the stately ruins of the original site in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. It's a joint effort also involving China, Thailand, Japan, Korea, Singapore and some Southeast Asian countries.

While the Indian government is funding the project, other countries have not specified their roles apart from hosting annual meetings of the Interim Governing Board of Nalanda. The next conference is in Beijing this October.

Nalanda and Taxila, now in the Rawalpindi district of Pakistan, were the world's earliest residential centers of learning.

Nalanda graduates included the well-known Chinese travelers and historians Hiuen Tsang (Xuan Zang in Chinese) and I-Tsing. The monk Xuan Zang (602-664 AD), from Chen He village in northern China, spent five years studying the Buddha's teachings there.

Chinese historians say Nalanda was the only university outside China that attracted its noted academics.

Nalanda is said to have been destroyed by the Turkish raider Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1193. Khilji is accused of killing resident monks, and burning the nine-storey library and its millions of books to the ground. The book collection was so vast, it is said, that the library burned over three months.

Talk of reviving Nalanda had been in the air for over two decades. More concrete plans came with the Indian parliament passing the Nalanda University Act in August 2010.

Indian Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, the Thomas Lamont Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, heads the revival as chairman of the Interim Governing Board of Nalanda University.

Sen gave a sold-out talk at the Asia Society in New York on September 22 on the new Nalanda. Delivering the inaugural Phillips Talbot Lecture at the Asia Society premises in Park Avenue, Sen said the project would honor India's long history for higher education, and would be important not just for India, but for Asia and the rest of the world.

But the new Nalanda is having trouble taking off. A significant setback came with former Indian president Abul Kalam quitting the project in September, apparently over differences with Sen's blueprint.

It was Kalam's vision during his presidential days to revive Nalanda. He has a varied background of being both a leading scientist and a constitutional head.

Critics accuse the Nalanda governing board of lacking transparency, such as in its appointment of a little-known professor of sociology, Dr Gopa Sabharwa, as vice chancellor of the new university.

The original Nalanda University taught subjects such as astronomy, medicine and mathematics. But its central purpose, and for which it received patronage of great Indian emperors such as Harsha Vardhan (606-647 AD), was a deeper study of the Buddha's universal, scientific, practical teachings. This appears to have been pushed to the background in Sen's plans for Nalanda.

The new Nalanda, expected to start circa 2013, will have a school of historical sciences and a school of environment and ecology.

Sen's plans to include information technology as part of the curricula, for instance, might not exactly be great unique selling point for Nalanda - given that the world has expressed no serious shortage of IT training centers.

Significantly, the host state of Bihar appears unimpressed with Sen's vision of Nalanda. "What Bihar is going to have perhaps is 'Amartya Sen International University' instead of Nalanda University," wrote a scathing critique of Sen in the Bihar Times, published in the state capital Patna.

"All we want is the end of arbitrary decision-making and more transparency in the functioning of the Nalanda project," says Ajay Kumar, editor of the Bihar Times, which has been reporting closely on the Nalanda project the past five years.

"We are not against Prof Amartya Sen or the project, but only against the ad hoc way it is being executed." Kumar told Asia Times Online. "The feedback we are getting from a cross-section of people here is discontent with the way the Nalanda project is unraveling. Nalanda University is closely linked to the history and culture of Bihar."

Bihar was the epicenter of what is called India's "golden age". Patna, which lies about 55 kilometers from the Nalanda ruins, was formerly Pataliputra, the celebrated capital of Magadha.

Magadha was the seat of two of India's greatest empires, Emperor Asoka and the Mauryan dynasty (321 to 185 BC) and the Gupta empire (320-520).

The site of Bodh Gaya, where Prince Siddhatha of the Gotama clan became a Sammasambuddha (a fully enlightened being and the most compassionate teacher of men and gods) is also about 103 kilometers from Nalanda. The area includes the famous ancient cities of Vaishali and Rajgiir, which are closely associated with the Buddha's life.

Ajay Kumar pointed out that, Pranab Mukherjee, India's then external affairs minister and current finance minister, says he specifically stated in a June 2007 letter to Professor Sen that Nalanda was being revived as a center for studying the Buddha's universal teachings. This was the focus of the original Nalanda University. "But the Buddha's teachings does not seem the focus of Sen's Nalanda University," says Kumar.

The 77-year old Amartya Sen, who won the 1998 Nobel Prize for economics for his work on causes of famine, is known for his work on poverty and some call him the "Mother Teresa of economics". However, he continues to receive less than charitous appraisals over his handling of Nalanda's second coming.

- (Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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