Unfortunately, the quality of education in most of our institutes is below par. If we delve into our past, we could find renowned seats of higher learning – Nalanda, Takshashila, Vikramashila, Valabhi, Somapura and Odantapuri – that dominated the world higher education system for eighteen hundred years beginning sixth century BC. Scholars from round the globe flocked to these ‘poles of knowledge’. A different scenario is noticeable today. Many meritorious Indian students pursue their higher studies from foreign universities. Nobel laureates – Har Gobind Khorana; Subrahmanyam Chandrasekhar; Dr. Amartya Sen; and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan – did their graduate or post-graduate studies in Indian universities before they went abroad for higher learning. Since 1930, no scholar from and Indian university has won the Nobel Prize. It is ironical that our higher education system, which is capable of producing world-class scholars, loses them to foreign universities.
Taxila as it is called today, Takshashila University established around 2700 years ago was home to over 10500 students where the students from all across the world used to come to attain specialization in over 64 different fields of study like vedas, grammar, philosophy, ayurveda, agriculture, surgery, politics, archery, warfare, astronomy, commerce, futurology, music, dance, etc. Famous graduates of this University include the ones like Chanakya, Panini, Charaka, Vishnu Sharma, Jivaka etc. This is the world’s oldest university.
Nalanda University was established by Shakraditya(Kumaragupta) of Gupta dynasty in modern Bihar during early 5th century and flourished for 600 years till 12th century. Nalanda was the world’s first university to have residential quarters for both students and teachers. It also had large public lecture halls. Students from countries like Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey came to study in this university.
The library of this university was the largest library of the ancient world and had thousands of volumes of manuscripts on various subjects like grammar, logic, literature, astrology, astronomy, and medicine. The library complex was called Dharmaganja, and had three large buildings: the Ratnasagara, the Ratnadadhi, and the Ratnaranjaka. Ratnadadhi was nine stories tall and stored the most sacred manuscripts including the Prajnaparamita Sutra and the Samajguhya.
In 2010, the parliament of India passed a bill approving the plans to restore the ancient Nalanda University as a modern Nalanda International University dedicated for post-graduate research. Many east asian countries including China, Singapore and Japan have come forward to fund the construction of this revived Nalanda University.
Bakhtiyar Khalji sacked the university. It was in the 1860’s that the great archeologist Alexander Cunningham identified the site as the Nalanda University and in 1915-1916 the Archeological Survey of India began excavations of the site. What has been excavated to date is only a small part of the entire site but much of the ruins are beneath existing villages and are unlikely to be revealed.
Vikramashila University was established by Dharmapala of Pala dynasty during late 8th century and flourished for 400 years till 12th century. It was located in the Bhagalpur district of modern day Bihar. It gave direct competition to Nalanda University. This university was well-known for its specialized training on the subject of Tantra (Tantrism). One of the most popular graduates from this University was Atiśa Dipankara, a founder of the Sarma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism who also revived the Buddhism in Tibet.
Valabhi University was established in Saurashtra of modern Gujarat at around 6th century and it flourished for 600 years till 12th century. Chinese traveler Itsing who visited this university during the 7th century describes it as a great center of learning. Gunamati and Sthiramati, the two famous Buddhist scholars are said to have graduated from this University. This University was popular for its training in secular subjects and students from all over the country came to study in this University. Because of its high quality of education, graduates of this University were given higher executive posts.
Pushpagiri University was established in ancient Kalinga kingdom (modern day Odisha) and was spread across Cuttack and Jajpur districts. It was established in 3rd century and flourished for the next 800 years till 11th century. The university campus was spread across three adjoining hills – Lalitgiri, Ratnagiri and Udayagiri. This was one of the most prominent centers of higher education in ancient India along with the universities of Takshashila, Nalanda and Vikramashila. The Chinese traveler Xuanzang (Huien Tsang) visited this university in 639 CE. Lalitgiri is said to have been commissioned by early 2nd century BCE itself and is the oldest Buddhist establishments in the world. Recently a few images of Emperor Ashoka have been discovered here, and it has been suggested that the Pushpagiri University was established by Emperor Ashoka himself.
Odantapuri University was established by Dharmapala of Pala dynasty during late 8th century in Magadha (which is in modern day Bihar) and flourished for 400 years till 12th century. The famous Acharya Sri Ganga who was a professor at the Vikramashila University was a graduate of this Odantapuri University. According to the ancient Tibetan records there were about 12,000 students studying at this University. Ancient Tibetan texts mention this as one among the five great Universities of its time, the other four being Vikramashila, Nalanda, Somapura and Jagaddala Universities – all located in ancient India.
Somapura Mahavihara was established by Dharmapala of Pala dynasty during late 8th century in Bengal and flourished for 400 years till 12th century. The University spread over 27 acres of land of which the main complex was 21 acres was one of the largest of its kind. It was a major center of learning for Bauddha Dharma (Buddhism), Jina Dharma (Jainism) and Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). Even today one can find ornamental terracotta on its outer walls depicting the influence of these three traditions.
Other Ancient Universities
The above mentioned list is not a complete list of ancient Indian universities either. Dharmapala of Pala dynasty alone is said to have established 50 mega learning centers across his kingdom, and they have been as huge and as popular as the ones mentioned above. For instance, the Munshiganj Vihara discovered as recently in 2013 in Bengal is said to have been established in 9th century and was home to 8000 students who came from faraway places like China, Tibet, Nepal and Thailand.
Rest of the Speech:-
To enable Indian institutes of higher learning to emerge as world-class institutions, a National Institutional Ranking Framework has been launched recently. It ranks institutions on parameters covering teaching, learning and resources; research and professional practices; graduation outcomes; outreach and inclusivity; and perception.
Indian universities indeed have the potential to be leading institutions in the world if we ensure academic freedom. For that, urgent improvements in academic management are needed. Our institutions must pursue excellence in every sphere of academic activity, be it teaching, evaluation, research or project work. To make learning more effective, teaching pedagogy must be refined, curricula up-dated regularly, an inter-disciplinary approach adopted and evaluation mechanism reformed. Physical infrastructure must be improved. To pursue excellence, core competencies must be identified and centres of excellence nurtured. To create quality consciousness, every institution must be benchmarked and accredited.
Research and innovation are the keystones for widening the country’s production potential. Our future growth will result not so much from the utilization of our resources with existing technology than from its better usage through more advanced technology. Unfortunately, investment in research in our country is lacking. R&D expenditure as percentage of GDP is a mere 0.8 percent in India. Compared to that, it is 3.6 percent in Japan, 2.7 percent in the US and 2.0 percent in China. Higher academic and research institutions must be the hotbeds of research activity. Building a sound research eco-system calls for a slew of measures like collaborative partnerships and better financial incentives for attracting and retaining research talent. To imbibe a scientific temper and a spirit of inquiry in students, research at the under-graduate level must be promoted.
The role of educational institutions goes beyond mere pedagogy and classrooms. It is incumbent on them to mould students into responsible human beings. They have to instill in the students the civilizational values of love for motherland; performance of duty; compassion for all; tolerance for pluralism; respect for women; honesty in life; self-restraint in conduct; responsibility in action; and discipline
In a pluralistic democracy, it is important that the values of tolerance, respect for contrary views and patience are inculcated amongst the citizens particularly the youth. Pluralism and tolerance have been the hallmark of our civilization. This is a core philosophy that must continue undeterred. For, India’s strength lies in her diversity.
India is a multi-faceted nation of 1.3 billion people, 122 languages, 1600 dialects and 7 religions. In the words of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru which I quote: “It is a country held together by strong but invisible threads” . Diversity of our country is a fact. This cannot be turned into fiction due to the whims and caprices of few individuals. Plurality of our society has come about through assimilation of ideas over centuries. The multiplicity in culture, faith and language is what makes India special. We derive our strength from tolerance. It has been part of our collective consciousness for centuries. It has worked well for us and it is the only way it will work for us. There are divergent strands in public discourse. We may argue. We may not agree. But we cannot deny the essential prevalence of multiplicity of opinion. Otherwise, a fundamental character of our thought process will wither away.
Gandhiji had said : “Religion is a force for unity; we cannot make it a cause of conflict”. The harmony of faiths in India stands out as an important moral example in a world where several regions have been torn apart by sectarian conflicts. We must continue to lead by example. We must work towards maintaining the continuing goodwill amongst different communities. At times, communal harmony will be put to test by vested interests. We must therefore remain alert to communal tensions rearing its ugly head anywhere. Rule of Law must form the sole basis for dealing with any challenging situation. It is our democratic underpinning that must prevail at all times.
Democracy is not all about numbers but also calls for consensus building. A phenomenon seen in recent times is the way the common man is engaged with affairs of the nation. While we must wield no space to anarchy, efficient democratic machinery must have the means and wherewithal to absorb public opinion for formulation of sound policies.