Skip to content

Nalanda—site of the great monastic university

First published in 1981 by Mahayana Publications, Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre. This article first appeared in Teachings from Tushita, Journal of Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre.

Born and educated in England, Jeremy Russell’s interest in Buddhism was initially sparked during his first visit to Dharamsala in the early 1970s. He subsequently studied at the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives for several years. He has lived in Dharamsala with his family since 1981, dividing his time between working as an editor for several offices of the Tibetan government-in-exile and leading trekking groups into the nearby mountains. He is editor of Chö-Yang, the Journal of Tibetan Culture.

This publication has been translated into Spanish by Ediciones Mahayana, and is now available for download as a pdf file.

Nalanda—site of the great monastic university
Nalanda, the site of the great monastic university in India.

"'What do you think, householder? Is this town of Nalanda successful and prosperous, is it populous and crowded with people?'
"'Yes, venerable sir, it is.'"
Utpali Sutra

Although Nalanda is one of the places distinguished as having been blessed by the presence of the Buddha, it later became particularly renowned as the site of the great monastic university of the same name, which was to become the crown jewel of the development of Buddhism in India. The name may derive from one of Shakyamuni's former births, when he was a king whose capital was here. Nalanda was one of his epithets meaning "insatiable in giving."

Shakyamuni stayed here on a number of occasions, for a mango grove had been offered to him by 500 merchants. Hsuan Chwang mentions a number of temples and stupas marking places where Buddha had taught. On one visit he preached to men and gods for three months, and a stupa containing his hair and nail clippings of that period was erected. A remarkable tree that had been miraculously produced from a discarded tooth stick of the Buddha stood in this area. Next to a water tank, a stupa marked the place where a non-buddhist, holding a bird in his hand, had challenged the Buddha to divine whether it was alive or dead. The Buddha declined to answer him. Another stupa commemorated the occasion that a foreign monk had prostrated himself before the Buddha, praying for a rebirth as a universal monarch. Shakyamuni sadly told his followers that this monk possessed such vast merit that he might have become a buddha, but because of this action he would be reborn as a universal monarch as many times as there were atoms of earth beneath his prostrate body.

The sitting place of Shakyamuni and the buddhas who had come before him was marked by a stupa, as was the spot nearby where Bimbisara first came to greet the Buddha. In two neighbouring villages, Ashoka built temples and stupas where Sariputra and Maudgalyayana were born and also entered parinirvana.

During his stay at Nalanda, Hsuan Chwang saw a number of temples in and around the monastery. Some contained images of the Buddha, others of Avalokiteshvara and also Arya Tara, whom he describes as having been a popular object of devotion at that time. He also mentions the great temple erected by King Baladitya, which was similar to but slightly larger than the Mahabodhi Temple. The ruins of this are now prominent on the site.

Modern historians have tentatively dated the founding of a monastery at Nalanda as being in the fifth century. However, this may not be accurate. For example, the standard biographies of the teacher Nagarjuna, believed by most historians to have been born around 150 AD, are quite specific about his having received ordination at Nalanda monastery when he was seven years old. Further, his teacher Rahulabhadra is said to have lived there for some time before that. We may infer, then, that there were a monastery or monasteries at Nalanda long before the foundation of the later Great Mahavihara.

It is recorded that Kumaragupta the First, an early Gupta monarch who reigned between 415 and 456 AD, built a monastery. In the century following this his various successors each built a further monastery. Between the years 530 and 535 a king of central India, perhaps Yashodharman, added another, and by building an encircling wall around them all created a mahavihara.

At the time Hsuan Chwang stayed at Nalanda and studied with the abbot Shilabhadra, it was already a flourishing centre of learning. In many ways it seems to have been like a modern university. There was a rigorous oral entry examination conducted by erudite gatekeepers, and many students were turned away. To study or to have studied at Nalanda was a matter of great prestige. However, no degree was granted nor was a specific period of study required.

The monks' time, measured by a water clock, was divided between study and religious rites and practice. There were schools of study in which students received explanations by discourse, and there were also schools of debate, where the mediocre were often humbled, and the conspicuously talented distinguished. Accordingly, the elected abbot was generally the most learned man of the time.

The libraries were vast and widely renowned, although there is a legend of a malicious fire in which many of the texts were destroyed and irrevocably lost. The fire is said to have eventually been put out by a flood of water that poured from the texts on highest yoga tantra, kept in the topmost story.

During the Gupta age the practice and study of the mahayana, especially the madhyamaka, flourished. However, from 750 AD, in the Pala age, there was an increase in the study and propagation of the tantric teachings. This is evidenced by the famous pandit Abhayakaragupta, a renowned tantric practitioner who was simultaneously abbot of the Mahabodhi, Nalanda and Vikramashila monasteries. Also Naropa, later so important to the tantric lineages of the Tibetan traditions, was abbot of Nalanda in the years 1049- 57.

Much of the tradition of Nalanda had been carried into Tibet by the time of the muslim invasions of the twelfth century. While the monasteries of Odantapuri and Vikramashila were then destroyed, the buildings at Nalanda do not seem to have suffered extensive damage at that time, although most of the monks fled before the desecrating armies. In 1235 the Tibetan pilgrim Chag Lotsawa found a ninety-year- old teacher, Rahula Shribhadra, with a class of seventy students. Rahula Shribhadra managed to survive through the support of a local brahmin and did not leave until he had completed educating his last Tibetan student.

Nalanda was perhaps most important for its mahayana activities. Under the guidance of Nagarjuna, formulator of the middle way, it eclipsed even the monastery at Bodhgaya. Aryadeva, Nagarjuna's principal disciple, held his famous debate with Maitrichita at Nalanda. Two further disciples of Nagarjuna to attain great fame in India were Chandrakirti and Shantideva, both students of Nalanda.

Nalanda: Monastery ruinsArya Asanga, father of the lineage of extensive teachings and formulator of the mind-only school, also spent twelve years at Nalanda. His brother Vasubandhu, introduced to the mahayana by Asanga, became abbot after Asanga retired and taught to thousands. The great mahayana logician Dignaga, author of the Pramanasamuccaya, was another abbot at Nalanda. His excellent successor Dharmakirti, who defeated the renowned hindu scholar Shankaracharya in debate, also received his training at Nalanda. Also of this lineage, Kamalashila wrote most of his works at Nalanda. He and Shantiraksita, another renowned scholar of Nalanda, were among the very first teachers to carry the Dharma to Tibet.

A pilgrim to Nalanda today finds vast and well-excavated ruins, many of which are more substantial than the mere foundations remaining in other places. It is easier here to imagine the former glory of the monasteries and temples described by Hsuan Chwang. An adjacent museum houses many buddhist and hindu images from different ages, as well as other findings from the site. Nearby is the Nalanda Institute of Pali Studies, where a number of ordained and lay students have re-established a tradition of buddhist knowledge. While the range of study at this Institute is broader than its name might imply, it would be most appropriate if in the future the present holders of the direct traditions of Nalanda were able to reintroduce them there.