Amartya Sen on Nalanda Reviving an ancient Buddhist campus

by Yojana Sharma, 20 July 2013 Issue No:281

Bodh Gaya, India -- Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard and former master of Trinity College, Cambridge, was last year appointed as the first chancellor of the proposed Nalanda International University on the site of the ancient Buddhist institution. YOJANA SHARMA spoke to him about the project located in India’s impoverished Bihar state not far from Bodh Gaya, where Buddha is said to have received enlightenment.

Sen had served as chair of the Nalanda Mentor Group, which brought together eminent international academics and policy-makers to help revive the ancient centre of learning that dominated Asia from the 5th to 10th centuries.

UWN: How did you become involved in the project for the new Nalanda university?

Sen: I’d been interested in Nalanda University as one of the major heritages of the world and possibly the most outstanding educational achievement, at the organisational level, in the history of India.

I went to see the Nalanda campus when I was about 12 and remember being thrilled by it. I read translations of the Chinese accounts of it as well as whatever little fragmentary accounts exist about Nalanda within India. When I wrote a book called The Argumentative Indian, I had a fairly extensive discussion of Nalanda in it.

Some of the people who were enthusiastic about Nalanda in Thailand and Singapore had seen my discussion in the book. So I got linked [to the Nalanda project], making the world aware of the major achievement of a university that was already 600 years old when the oldest European university, namely Bologna, was being founded.

Nalanda survived for 700 years. It was destroyed [by Muslim invaders] shortly after Oxford was founded and shortly before Cambridge would be founded. It was a university of higher learning of very great distinction – an historical achievement of quite remarkable extraordinariness.

My admiration for Nalanda was very much present in my writing, so when people in the East Asian summit – mainly initially Singaporeans and Japanese – were involved in it, they thought it seemed natural to ask me to chair the mentor committee. I was asked and I thought it was a privilege, so I agreed.

UWN: Starting from scratch is daunting. Is there a plan for an old Nalanda that you can base it on?

Sen: There’s no alternative to building the university from scratch. There was nothing there after it was destroyed in the 1190s. It lingered on for a little while – some people noticed there was some teaching going on there from time to time in the following couple of hundred years – but it wasn’t anything like the university had been.

Now there is absolutely nothing. We acquired some land and were given some land, but we have to start from scratch.

You can’t base the new university on old Nalanda. You can be inspired by the fact that old Nalanda was the avant garde establishment of higher education of its time and it didn’t make compromises – it looked for academic rigour of the highest distinction.

When Nalanda was being established in the 5th century, and when it was flourishing, there were no other universities. It was one of the most flourishing citadels of intellectual pursuit in the world and there wasn’t any doubt that it would have to be a world-class university.

It wanted to attract students from elsewhere and indeed they came plentifully from Japan, Korea, from China and Mongolia. It’s worth mentioning that Nalanda University was the only establishment of higher education in which any ancient Chinese had ever studied outside China, including some of the finest academics of the time. That in itself is such a tribute to the establishment, because the Chinese had very high standards.

UWN: What will be the model for the new Nalanda to become a world-class university?

Sen: The university has to be of the highest level of rigour and international standard. Not just the Indian standard, not just the Asian standard but world standard, because that was what Nalanda was at the time.

We are beginning with six faculties. The first two faculties will be the school of history and the school of environmental ecology. In each of these schools we have to offer education that reflects the state of knowledge in the world today, although the focus will be somewhat different.

We will have general courses on history and so on, but the focus will particularly be on Asian history and especially on the links between Asian countries. Nalanda was very distinct in linking up Asian countries.

Similarly, when it comes to ecology and the environment we will be concerned in dealing with environmental problems at the world level – like climate change – but particularly the environmental problems that Asian countries in general, and this region of India in particular, will face.

In history, particularly for Asian history, we will be drawing on Chulalongkorn University in Thailand and Seoul University and the Korean Academy in Korea, and Peking University, which has shown a great interest in collaborating with us.

UWN: Will Nalanda be an Asian institution or will it go beyond that to be world class?

Sen: Knowledge is not confined regionally. The focus is on Asia, so absolutely it is an Asian institution. But people who train there, for example in ecology and the environment, should be able to practise whether they are in Asia or Africa or Latin America or the United States or Europe. We will draw on the best talent everywhere.

It so happens that the leading universities in the world today are disproportionately more in Europe and America than in Asia, and in India even more so. So we will draw on them not on the grounds that they are Western, but on the grounds that they are the best universities from which we can learn.

Nalanda’s ‘Asianness’ is in terms of involving Asian countries – ASEAN countries of South East Asia but also China, Japan, India, Korea and even Australia and New Zealand. These are also participants of the East Asian Summit, and we are hoping that other countries [of the East Asian summit] too will be involved.

It’s Asian in inspiration, and Asian in motivation, but it is not Asian in terms of knowledge or the range or expertise, whether in terms of personal involvement or in terms of communications and contacts. If the knowledge works in Asia, it ought to work in Africa as well.

UWN: How much money do you need to raise for the university to be viable and how will it be raised?

Sen: The viability of a university is not independent of its size. We’d love to have a billion dollars.

George [Yeo, former Singaporean foreign minister], who chairs the international advisory board for Nalanda, is a visionary man, very committed to Nalanda. And there is also a separate fundraising committee chaired by NK Singh, a member of parliament in India.

We hope we will get large sums of money. We have some money initially from the government of India to survive the core plans that we have at the moment. We will start with six faculties, and as and when we have the money, we will expand. We have to make sure the quality of education in those areas is extremely high.

The six faculties are environment, information technology, economics and management, history, linguistics, and international relations. One of the problems many newly created universities face, especially in India, is this idea that you have to begin with absolutely every department.

That’s not the way we have to see it. We have to expand faculty by faculty to be financially comfortable. Within the finances we will try to provide curriculum reach and coverage as we can, subject to maintaining the highest quality of experts that the world can offer.

There is no such number like US$1 billion to be viable. We can be viable at a smaller level, at a bigger level and a still bigger level.

UWN: To provide that high quality you will have to pay high salaries, so how will you ensure you have enough to attract those kinds of people?

Sen: Salary is an important issue, and that to some extent is a concern when the money is coming from the government of India. Some people who are part of the ministries involved were very concerned that the salaries may look more like those of civil servants. But they were to a certain extent mistaken, because we have to offer salaries to attract people to come.

[Academic] Salary levels in the world are widely varied. The question becomes difficult when you want to attract faculty from elsewhere. There is a need for a rather higher salary than Indian universities have. That point has been very well accepted although it caused resistance at first. It is a point that has been taken.

There is a big gap between US salaries, let’s say five to 10 times Indian universities salaries. If the Indian salaries are doubled, it won’t give you five times, but it will still give you a level of affluence in India.

And some people are looking for challenges. Some people are not only concerned with an affluent lifestyle. It’s a much more complex story than simple salary comparisons.

There are other factors. Some people will have a special interest in coming to India; for example, historians will have the old Nalanda university close by. It is a huge site. Only about 10% of the old university has so far been dug up. An archaeologist can build a lifetime’s reputation there.

UWN: Can you build a world-class university in underdeveloped Bihar? What are the challenges?

Sen: We intend it to have some local benefits as well.

One of the reasons for choosing environmental studies has been the fact that it particularly benefits this locality and this place. The next two faculties that we will start, namely information technology and management and economics, will be of particular interest to people in what is after all a very backward region of India, to let them have the job opportunities to catch up with the rest of India.

So would it help Bihar? We very much hope it will.

Is it possible to have a world-class university of outstanding standards in a rural setting? First of all, a large number of universities in the world have been deliberately placed not in the metropolitan locality but elsewhere.

Some of them were in the centre of town – the best example is Paris. But Padua is quite some distance from Venice. Oxford and Cambridge were not in the centre of London but easy to reach by car.

The second point that it is important to note is that communication is a lot easier today than it was in the earlier days. There’s the internet, there is rapid transport and I think the barrier of transport is easy to overestimate. I don’t really think that’s going to be a problem.

The problem will be of course that we have to build up the facilities. You need schools for the children of the teachers, you need hospitals, medical services, to provide the kind of security and safety without which you won’t be able to attract academics to come here.

You have to have technological connections so that they are well linked to all the modern communication devices that the internet has made possible. That requires money and that requires time.

We are about 50 miles – I don’t know the exact distance – from Bodh Gaya and some miles from Patna. It’s not terribly beyond Oxford and Cambridge compared with London. I don’t really give much credence to that argument.

[The state government of] Bihar has done absolutely everything they promised, with the utmost rapidity. On the other hand, very few of the things the government of India promised went through quickly. We are actually hoping to advertise the [academic and research] posts this summer, and beginning the first appointments in the fall, starting in a small way in 2014.

Our job is to get the university going and to establish the teaching. But this is just the beginning – the old Nalanda took 200 years to come to a flourishing state. We may not take 200 years but it will take some decades I think.

* Q&As are edited for length and clarity.

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