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The six Buddhist universities of ancient India

D. Amarasiri Weeraratne

It is well-known that with the rise of Buddhism in India there dawned the golden age of India’s culture and civilisation. There was progress in all aspects of Indian civilisation under the impact of Buddhism. This is very much in contrast to what happened in the Roman empire in Europe with the rise of Christianity. With the coming of Christianity into power the Dark Ages dawned upon Europe. During this era whatever progress that was achieved by the Greeks and the Romans received a set-back and came to a stand-still. Schools and centres of philosophy were closed down. The famed library at Alexandria was burnt down by a Christian mob led by a prelate. Hypatia the learned philosopher and teacher was dragged into a Church and her flesh was torn off her body. As a result of these barbarities Europe was plunged into the darkness of ignorance and poverty for a thousand years. The Dark Ages of European history was really the golden age of the Christian Church, because it did the conversion of the barbarians to Christianity during this time. The great philosophers and intellectuals of Europe who left their mark on human civilisation were all pre-Christian pagans who lived prior to the rise of Christianity, e.g. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Pliny, etc. The Christian era was masked by an absence of such men. Illiteracy and religious intolerance prevailed during the Dark Ages.

At the end of this period the Muslims had conquered parts of the Roman empire and established their rule in Spain, Portugal and parts of France. They introduced the learning of the Greeks and Romans as well as knowledge gathered from their contacts with India. This set the pace for Martin Luther’s reformation which broke the power of the Catholic Church. The ensuing liberal policies persuaded by the Protestants brought about the Renaissance, after this the Europeans pushed back the power of the Churches and began to make progress in civilisation.

In contrast to this with the rise of Buddhism in India, there arose many centres of learning which did not exist before. Buddhist monks could opt for a life of meditation in the forests, or a life of teaching, preaching, propagating the Dharma as a result of the activities of the teaching monks, seats of learning arose. These seats of monastic learning (Pirivenas) gradually developed and some of them became full-fledged universities. As a result Buddhist India came to have five major universities which achieved wide fame. These five were 1. Nalanda, 2. Vickramasila, 3. Odantapuri, 4. Jagadalala and 5. Somapura.

Nalanda University

Nalanda is the best known of ancient India’s universities. It’s site has been discovered and it’s ruins have been preserved by India’s Department of Archeology. It is situated in Bihar State, the ancient Magadha country. Magadha is well known as the cradle of Buddhism. Bihar is so called because it had a large number of Viharas or Buddhist monasteries. Nalanda was a prosperous city during the days of the Buddha. He visited it during his preaching itineraries. When in Nalanda, the Buddha sojourned at Ambavana the mango-park with his disciples. Nalanda was also the home town of Ven. Sariputra, King Asoka had erected a Stupa at the spot where he was cremated.

We get a comprehensive account of Nalanda university from Hieun Tsang the brilliant Chinese scholar who came there for his studies during the reign of King Harsha-Siladitya. Back in China he wrote this famed "Ta - Tang - Si - Yu - Ki" Buddhist Travels in the western world. This has been translated into English by Samuel Beal a British scholar who was once the ambassador to Peking, China.

It has been called the treasure house of accurate information by European Archeologists. They found the information given there invaluable for them to locate the sacred shrines of the Buddhist in India. Indians and their scholars were hopelessly ignorant of these places and could do nothing to help the archeologists. I - Tsing (675-685) was another Chinese monk who came to India and studied at Nalanda. He too like Hiuen Tsang has left an account of his travels. In this he gives an account of Nalanda and his stay there. At the time of Fa-Hion’s visit it was an ordinary Buddhist monastery. Lama Taranata the Tibetan historian also gives an account of Nalanda in his works.

It appears that King Kumara Gupta (AC 415-455) built the first monastery at Nalanda. It was a seminary for training Buddhist monks. It’s site was not too for nor too close to the city. Hence it was selected as an ideal centre for the pursuit of Buddhist studies by monks. Nalanda University was an expansion and extension of this seminary. King Buddha Gupta (AC 455-467) Jatagatha Gupta (AC 467-500) Baladitya (500-525) and Vijra (525) made additions and expansions to the buildings. King Baladitya made a shrine-room a house of worship which was 300 feet high. His son Vijra built the fifth monastery. King Harsha Siladitya built the sixth monastery and surrounded the university buildings with 9’ high wall. In the 10th century when Hieun Tsang entered the university, there were 10,000 resident students. They came from all parts of India and foreign lands. It was India’s leading University. It’s chancellorship was reserved for India’s foremost Buddhist scholar when Hieun-Tsang visited Nalanda Silabhadra Maha Thera held the post. At that time there were 10,000 students, 1510 teachers, and about 1,500 workers at Nalanda. Students from foreign lands such as Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, Sumatra, Java and Sri Lanka were found there. Admission to Nalanda was by oral examination. This was done by a professor at the entrance hall. He was called Dvara Pandita. Proficiency in Sanskrit was necessary, as it was the medium of instruction. All Chinese monks going to India for higher studies in Buddhism had to go to Java and brush up their Sanskrit. Hieum Tsang reports that of the foreign students only 20% managed to pass the stiff examinations. Of the Indian students only 30% managed to pass and gain admission. Therefore the standard required were high. Casts, creed and nationality were no barriers in keeping with the Buddhist spirit. There were no external students at the university. Nalanda was maintained by the revenue from seven villages which were granted by the king. The study of Mahayana was compulsory for Buddhists. One could also study the doctrines of 18 other Buddhist sects. One could also study secular subjects like science, medicine, astrology, fine-arts, literature etc. The six systems of Hindu philosophy were also taught. One could study Hinayana forms of Buddhism. This included the Theravada commerce, administration and astronomy were also taught. The observatory of the university was situated in a very tall building. Lectures, debates and discussions were part of the educational curriculum. Hieun Tsang states that 100 lectures were delivered there every day. The discipline was exemplary.

Nalanda university occupied an area of 30 acres. There were three large libraries bearing the names Ratna-Sagara, Ratna-Nidi and Ratna-Ranjana. One of these was nine storeys high. Nalanda was graced by the presence of India’s most brilliant Buddhist luminaries. Some of them were Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Dharmapala, Silabhadra, Santarakshita, Kamalaseela, Bhaviveka, Dignaga, Dharmakeerty etc. The works they left behind are mostly available 14 Tibetan and Chinese translations. The originals perished when Muslim invaders under Bhaktiar Khilji set fire to Nalanda and beheaded the monks. (AD 1037), Prior to that Nalanda flourished for a thousand years, a lighthouse of wisdom and learning, the first of it’s kind in the world. Bhaktiar Khilji the invader of Magadha set fire to Nalanda. When the monks were about to have their meals. This is revealed in the archeological remains which show food abandoned in a great hurry. Charred rice from the granaries also tell this sorry tale. Nalanda’s ruins and excavations are preserved in a Museum by the Indian government. On 19.11.58 the President of India, Rajendra Prasad inaugurated the Nava Nalanda Viharaya at a site close to the ancient university. Master of the Tripitaka Ven. Jagadish Kashyap was appointed head of the institution on 12. 01. 1957 the Dalai Lama handed over the ashes of Nalanda’s famed alumni - Hieun Tsang to the Indian government, headed by Pandit Nehru. The Chinese government donated five lakhs of rupees for a mausoleum which enshrines these relics. The Muslims carried the university idea to the West, and after that universities came up in the western - world.


Vickramasila is said to have been situated on the banks of the Ganges near the northern part of Magadha. Although it’s site was undiscovered, the Indian newspaper ‘Searchlight’ of 25.4.80 carried an account of the discovery of the ruins of Vickramsila by Dr. B. S. Varma, Superintending Archeologist in charge of the discovery of the ruins of the Vickramsila Excavation Project.

According to this Vickramasila was situated at Antichak Village, Kahalagon, Bagalpur District Vickramasila was said to be a sister institution of Nalanda and was said to have been founded by a monk called Kamapala, under the patronage of King Dharmapala. (AC 770-810). The King granted land-endowments for it’s upkeep later King Yasapala also patronised the institutions by liberal land endowments. Under the Pala Kings Vickramasila rose to 9 positions when it rivalled Nalanda and bade well to outshine it. In the centre of the university was the main lecture-hall. It was called ‘Vidyagriha’. There were six entrances to this building and near each entrance was a monastery for resident monks about 150 teachers were accommodated in each monastery. Like Nalanda Vickramasila was also surrounded by a high-wall. There were six ‘Dvara Panditas’ i.e Professors who examined candidates seeking admission. Here too high standards were maintained. 108 Professors were engaged in teaching and administrative duties. The curriculum of studies was similar to that of Nalanda. Here preference was given to the Tantric form of Buddhism.

Dipankara Sri Gnana who is also known as Atisha (AC 960-1055) was the more-famous of the scholars of Vickramasila. His fame spread far and wide as the propagator of Buddhism in Tibet Tibetans hold his name in the highest veneration. When he was at Vickramasila he was invited to teach and propagate Buddhism in Tibet. He postponed it for some time till he completed his work at Vickramasila and then undertook the task. Vickramasila achieved it’s high water mark of prosperty and fame under him. Sri Gnana’s period was the golden era of Vickramasila. In 1038 Sri Gnana left Vickramsila for Tibet to organise Buddhist studies in that country. Vickramasila was managed by a staff of Professors. They constituted the Board of Education, Board of Administration, Board of Discipline and the Board in charge of entrance examinations. Inaugurated in about 800 A.C. it graced the land until it was demolished by the Muslim invaders.


Odantapuri was considered the second oldest of India’s universities. This was situated in Maghada, about 6 miles away from Nalanda. Acharya Sri Ganga of Vickramasila had been a student here. Later he joined Odantapuri King Gopala (660-705) was the patron who helped to found this university. According to the Tibetan records there were about 12,000 students at Odantapuri. Our knowledge of this seat of learning is obscure, and we are not in a position to give more details. This too perished at the hands of the Muslim invaders. It is said they mistook the universities with their high walls for fortresses. They thought the Buddhist monks were "Shaven headed Brahmins" who were idolaters.


Somapura was situated in East Pakistan. King Devapala (AC 810-850) is said to have erected the Dharmapala-Vihara at Somapura. The ruins of these buildings cover an area of about 1 square mile. There was a large gate and the buildings were surrounded by a high-wall. There were about 177 cells for monks in additions to the shrines and image houses. A common refectory and a kitchen are among the ruins, Remains of three -strayed buildings are to be seen. This university flourished for about 750 years before it was abandoned after the Muslim invasion.


King Ramapala (1077-1129) is said to be the founder of this University. Jagaddala University was the largest construction works undertaken by the Pala Kings. This was a centre for the study and dissemination of Tantric Buddhism. It followed the methods, practices, and traditions of Nalanda. According to Tibetan works many books were translated to the Tibetan language at Jagaddala. The Buddhist teacher Sakya Sri Bhadra, seeing that Nalanda, Vickramsila, and Odantapuri were in ruins after the Muslim invasion, entered Jagaddala for his studies. It is said that his pupil Danaseela translated ten books to Tibetan Sakya Sri Bhadra was responsible for the propagation of Tatntric Buddhism in Tibet. He lived for seven years at Jagaddala. In 1027 the Muslim invaders sack and destroyed Jagaddala.


Vallabhi University achieved as much fame as Nalanda. The Maitraka kings who ruled Western India constructed a monastery at Vallabhitheir capital. While Nalanda was the centre for Mahayana Buddhism, Vallabhi achieved fame as the centre for Hinayana Buddhism. The Maitraka kings spent lavishly to maintain their university. They gave every encouragement and assistance to Buddhist studies at this institution. In the 7th century Vallabhi was as prosperous and famous as Nalanda. Hieum Tsang visited Vallabhi, and reported in his "Ta-Tang-Si-Yu-Ki" as follows:

-"The population of Vallabhi is very large. The country is rich and prosperous. There are over a hundred millionaire families there. Imported luxury goods are seen in this city. There are about 100 monasteries with about 6,000 Buddhist monks. Most of them belong to the Sammitiya Sect. There are also many Hindu temples and a large Hindu population in this past of the country. The Buddha had visited this land during his ministry. There are stupas erected by King Asoka to mark the spots hallowed by the Buddha’s visit."

There are about 100 shrines and about 6,000 resident monks studying at Vallabhi. They do not believe that Abhidharma was the teaching of the Buddha. They believed in the Antarabhava doctrine and were exponents of Puggalavada a traditions that disregards Abhidharma teachings that are inconsistent with the Sutra-Teachings.

I -Tsing’s record

I-Tsing records that foreign students were found at Vallabhi. They come from many lands far and near from these facts we know that like Nalanda-Vallabhi was internationally recognised. There was a large library. This was maintained by a fund established by the King. An inscription put up by King Guhasena confirms this. Precedence was given to Sammitiya doctrines at this University. The course of studies included Comparative Religion. The Six systems of Hindu Philosophy and various other schools of Buddhism, Politics, Law, Agriculture, Economics also formed a part of the curriculum.

I-Tsing records that the graduates of Vallabhi, displayed their skill in the presence of the royalty, nobbles, and other eminent people. The Elders Gunamoti and Sthiramatic were Nalanda’s alumni and were teaching there for a time. They are said to be the founders of Vallabhi. As the founders came from Nalanda, Vallabhi followed the Nalanda pattern in most of it’s activities. It flourished from 475 to 1200 A.C. It met the same fate as other Universities at the hands of the Muslim invaders.

Thus it would be seen that as long as Buddhism was a power to reckon with in India, it rendered yoemen service in the field of learning and culture. This is how it should be in a religion that teaches that ignorance is the worst enemy of Mao and the cause of ace his sufferings while knowledge (Pragnya) is his highest asset. Pragnya wins all that is good in this world, and finally brings him the highest happiness, mundane as well as supra-mundane.

When the Portuguese conquered the Kotte Kingdom there were flourishing Buddhist Seminaries (Pirivenas) at Totagamauwa, Keragala, and Wattala. The Sandesa poems of the period give glowing descriptions of them and their rectors. They were all raised to the ground "leaving not one stone upon another" according to Portuguese writers of the period. Quyroz mentions the demolition of the Wattala Vijayabahu Pirivena and the erection of the R. C. Church on it’s land. Then followed an age of ignorance, decay and corruption for some 200 years. Finally during the reign of King Kirti Sri Rajasinha, Ven. Weliwita Saranankara started his Buddhist revival opening his Seminary at Niyamakanda, Udunnwara. His papillary successors opened the Vidyoda and Vidyalankara Pirivenas in Colombo. These Seminaries were upgraded and converted to secular Universities by the S.L.F.P. Government.


Source: The Island, Sri Lanka, 15 May 2003,  http://www.island.lk/index.html

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last updated: 21-05-2003