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How an Economist Wrecked the Nalanda Revival

by Sandeep Balakrishna, India Facts, Aug 30, 2015

This is a translation of the original essay by S.R. Ramaswamy that appeared in the September 2015 issue of the Kannada monthly, Utthana. Translated by Sandeep Balakrishna.

New Delhi, India -- Nalanda University was established as an university of eminence in Bihar during the period when both Sanatana Dharma and Buddhism were at their peak. It provided free accommodation and fee-less ( free ) education to all those interested in pursuing knowledge.

Apart from the various corners of India, students from Tibet, China, Japan, Sri Lanka, Java, Sumatra, Korea, Indonesia, Iran, Turkey, and Greece had enrolled there. Chief among the subjects taught there included Grammar (Vyakarana), Logic (Tarkam), Astronomy, Astrology, Medicine, Mathematics, Vedas (including all the Vedangas, or “limbs of the Veda”), Yoga and Philosophy.

Because the influence and power of Christianity had escalated hugely in Europe, the pursuit of knowledge retrogressed in proportion to this escalation. The burning down of the world class, mammoth library at Alexandria, the public humiliation and murder of the world-famous scholar, Hypatia is now common knowledge. Thanks to this Christianity-induced blind fanaticism, Europe was immersed in darkness for several centuries where knowledge and learning was concerned.

A Golden Era

However, from the perspective of scholarship and development of knowledge, this period was the Golden Era in India. Great centres of learning flourished across the vast spectrum of Bharata: Nalanda, Vikramashila, and Odantapuri in Bihar; Jagddala and Somapura in Bengal; Pushpagiri in Odisha; Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh; Nagarjunakonda in Andhra Pradesh; Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu; Manyakheta in Karnataka; Valabhi in Gujarat; Sharada in Kashmir; Takshashila (now in Pakistan).

The crown of such awe-inspiring centres of learning was undoubtedly the vast university complex established in the 5th Century at Nalanda, about 95 Kilometres to the Southeast of Patna. Since then, for about 600 years, it flourished in peak form.

Nalanda has a rich, glorious and elaborate history. There are stray evidences that tell us that it existed even before the time of Mahavira and Buddha. Mahavira had stayed there during the monsoon season for fourteen times. Even the Buddha, during the course of his mendicant-wandering (Parivraja), had stayed back there on several occasions. One of Buddha’s prominent disciples named Sariputra was born in a village called Nala, near Rajagriha (today’s Rajgir).

Some hold the view that the name “Nalanda” was also known as “Nala” and “Nalaka.” The sprawling and expansive Nalanda Vihara was built by Ashoka in the Third Century BCE. In later years, the progenitor of the Mahayana School, Nagarjuna (2nd Century), the proponent of Madhyamika Prasthana,Aryadeva (4th Century), Vasubandhu (5th Century) and other towering Buddhists had made Nalanda their home for long periods.

In 1197, this grand educational complex became one of the most high-profile victims of the destructive Islamic iconoclast, Bhaktiyar Khilji who mercilessly razed it to the ground.

In its pristine days, the Nalanda University, which towered over the world of scholarship, was characterized by these features:

Accommodation for 10,000 students and 3000 teachers at a time
Numerous conference halls, study rooms, eight sprawling gardens, and 10 massive temples
Boasted of having the most prestigious library in the whole world

A nine-storied library named Dharma Ganga contained a repository of lakhs of books on almost every conceivable branch of knowledge including specialist literature. It is now a fact of history that when Bhakhtiyar Khilji set fire to it, it burnt over several months.

That only the brightest would be admitted can be adduced by the fact that the university’s gatekeepers would test an aspirant’s knowledge of basic Sanskrit proficiency.

Equally, Vikramashila and Odantapuri universities also imparted knowledge to about four thousand students. Both these universities too, were destroyed by Muslim invaders.

Today, the entire notoriety for reducing this magnificent, ancient centre of learning to an object of derisive ridicule lies squarely at the door of the infamous Amartya Sen who headed its so-called revival.

Disillusionment Meets Expectation

The announcement of the project to revive the Nalanda University—which had once symbolized Indian culture as well as the world’s best traditions of excellence in learning—as a global centre of educational excellence naturally received enthusiastic response across the country.

Before it was destroyed at the end of the 12th Century, the fact that it attracted the best talent in droves from nations like China, Korea, and Japan is recorded by the Chinese traveler, Huien Tsang whose praise of Nalanda’s greatness is widely known.

The revival project was well-received by Australia, Japan, and Vietnam among other nations. However, it is tragic that this lofty and prestigious initiative was mired in controversies right from its inception.

The heart of the ancient Nalanda University lay in the study and the imparting of traditional learning in various subjects. Therefore, it caused immense public disappointment when the economist Amartya Sen, who has absolutely no knowledge of these traditional disciplines, was appointed to head the revival project.

The fact that Amartya Sen, throughout his long career, has heaped scorn on everything that is rooted in the Indian tradition, is self-evident. In this background, the widespread allegation that he has used the Nalanda revival project to further his own agenda is not baseless.

Amartya Sen has justified the inherent, barbaric violence and iconoclasm of Muslim invaders as “but this nature is in their blood.” In the same vein, Amartya Sen’s wisdom-laden thesis denies Hindus the right to avenge this unprovoked violence. Indeed, Amartya Sen grants only Muslims the right to take pride in this “nature is in their blood.”

In a letter dated 4 July 2011 to the then External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, former Indian President (late) Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam recommended that important positions like Chancellor and Vice Chancellors should be awarded to scholars who are renowned throughout the nation for their learning and scholarship. We can estimate the disappointment felt by Dr. Abdul Kalam over Amartya Sen’s antics from this letter. Indeed, the seed for reviving the Nalanda University was sown by Dr. Kalam in 2006. He had criticized the decision to appoint an economist like Amartya Sen who has no background in traditional scholarship as the Vice Chancellor despite the availability of several distinguished scholars who were definitely more qualified and suitable for the position.

Wanton Flouting of Rules

As early as May 2010, the Government had issued a set of guidelines and rules governing the university. This received the President’s seal of approval on 21st September of the same year.  Given this, can anybody justify the fact of Amartya Sen (or anybody) flouting these rules and guidelines?

The UPA government constituted an 11-member Committee, which included Amartya Sen, to study the feasibility and do the groundwork for the Nalanda University revival project. However, even after the Nalanda University was officially inaugurated, Amartya Sen continued to use his position as the member of the said Committee to decide on the new University’s syllabus and other programmes. This became controversial. He also ignored the rules governing the University, which the Government had by then issued.

Amartya Sen who was mandated to submit a detailed Project Report on the progress of the Nalanda University project within nine months failed to do so even after three years. Despite this, it’s pretty strange that his own Committee elevated him to the position of Chancellor of the University in 2011.

After this momentous appointment, a chain of rule-violations ensued. Gopa Sabharwal who was appointed as Vice Chancellor was unfit for the post on all counts. She was merely a Reader in Sociology in the Delhi-based Lady Shriram College and had no knowledge about the history or the details of the project to revive the Nalanda University. Neither did she possess any qualifications mandated by the UGC for those aspiring to become Vice Chancellors. Her salary at the Nalanda University was 5.6 Lakhs, twice that of the Vice Chancellor of Delhi University.

Neither did it stop there.

Gopa Sabharwal then appointed her counterpart at Delhi University, Associate Professor Anjana Sharma as Officer on Special Duty at Nalanda at a princely salary of ? 3.3 Lakhs, a sum that no central university anywhere in India offers to an Associate Professor.

Indeed, there’s no shortage of evidence to show the flagrant violations that occurred in appointments and proceedings at Nalanda.

Amartya Sen inducted the then Prime Minister’s daughter Upinder Singh in his pet Advisory Committee. Her colleague Nayanajyoti Lahiri was awarded the title of “Expert.” Neither of these are renowned as experts in any discipline.

Even after the new university came into existence officially, Amartya Sen remotely continued his Nalanda durbar from Delhi.

Lack of Direction

The Manmohan Singh Government branded Nalanda as an International University in order to insure it from potential financial irregularities, by keeping finance-related rules out of its direct purview. However, in practice, the Government treated it as merely a national university. Its expenses, which exceeded ? 1000 crores were entirely borne by Indian taxpayers.

From the early days of Nalanda’s conception, the widely held expectation was this: as far as possible, it must revive, retain, preserve and perpetuate the vision, ideal, and framework of the original Nalanda (i.e. up to the 12th Century), which placed the greatest emphasis on Buddhist studies. In this backdrop, establishing a School of Information Technology only clarifies the directionlessness of Amartya Sen’s gang.

Amartya Sen’s brazen flouting of rules counts as an act of unparalleled shamelessness with the result that the revival project has completely lost track from the original, noble vision with which it was conceived. After his term expired in July 2015, when the Government didn’t express any interest in his continuance at the University, he took to the media to shamelessly claim “political interference in education” (for e.g. Indian Express article dated 20 May 2015).

One can spot the irony here: when the Manmohan Singh Government appointed Amartya Sen as the head of the revival project despite his being totally unqualified for the task, why didn’t it occur to this eminence that there was “political interference in education?”

Ideally, Amartya Sen should have been independent. However, by opting to become both the handmaiden and beneficiary of the UPA Government’s largesse, he has openly advertised his pettiness. He would frequently talk about “my friend, Manmohan Singh.” Ever the one to find some or the other fault, Amartya Sen never managed to find a single fault throughout the UPA’s decade-long tenure.

Indeed, it is open knowledge that the sole qualification of Amartya Sen to head the Nalanda University was his proximity with Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi.

What compels Amartya Sen who has crossed 81 years in age to still insist on doling out guidance?

In the end, it is a profound tragedy of our times that a lofty project like the revival of the ancient Nalanda University continues to suffer under the foot of stumblebums.

Related story:

Why Buddhism must be at the forefront of Nalanda U

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