Located in Bihar, in northwestern India, near the southern border with what is now Nepal, Nalanda was the great lighthouse of knowledge of medieval India. Although there are indications of universities older than Nalanda (the University of Taxila, also in India), it is considered that Nalanda was the first great university in the history of humanity and one of the longest, with almost 800 years of activity. The university spreads in more than 14 hectares, came to house some 10 thousand students and was considered an architectural masterpiece, receiving patronage from several emperors. Even today its ruins are one of the most visited archaeological sites in India, and a multinational effort has recently created a new Nalanda University.
Historical reports maintain that from the third century of our era a stupa was built in the area to commemorate Shariputra, the Buddha’s most brilliant disciple, who would have attained enlightenment right there. The Tibetan lama Taranatha, of the seventeenth century, mentions that also in the third century Nagarjuna and his disciple Aryadeva inhabited the area, being in some way the spiritual founders of the university. Nagarjuna is the central figure in the transmission of Mahayana Buddhism, which would be the fundamental academic dissemination of Nalanda. The accepted historical beginning of Nalanda is in the era of the Gupta Empire, probably during the Kumaragupta Empire (415-455).
A prestige comparable to that of the Museum of Alexandria as a center of knowledge in the West, has it in Asia Nalanda, and a tragedy for knowledge similar to the burning of the Library of Alexandria (which would have been destroyed in part by Julius Caesar , then by the Christian patriarch Teófilo and finally by the Muslim invasion) was the destruction of Nalanda at the end of the 12th century. Both Nalanda and Alexandria were characterized by gathering knowledge from the most diverse cultures of their time and allowing access to knowledge to individuals of the most diverse creeds and, in contrast, were destroyed by religious intolerance. It is impossible to really know how many books Nalanda housed, but figures of up to 9 million are handled, something that some people consider exaggerated and estimate something closer to hundreds of thousands of copies – in Alexandria it is also estimated that there were hundreds of thousands of manuscripts.
In addition to Buddhist studies, Nalanda students learned medicine, astronomy, grammar, logic, Sanskrit, studied the Vedas and Sankhya philosophy, among others, which shows the inclusive and ecumenical nature of this center. Pupils from Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia, and Turkey studied there. Prominent Buddhist masters of Mahayana and Vajrayana such as Aryadeva, Atisha, Naropa, Chandrakirti, Dharmakirti, Shantarakshita, Dignaga, Arhyabata and others, learned and taught in Nalanda. To date, the Dalai Lama is considered part of the lineage of the great masters of Nalanda.
Nalanda was destroyed by the Turkish general Bakhitayar Khilji in 1193, as documented in the book Tabaqat-i Nasiri by the Persian historian Minhaj-i-Siraj. In this raid, hundreds of monks would also have died and it is legendarily pointed out that the library burned for several months, filling the sky with smoke and ashes. Nalanda continued to operate for about 1 century but already come to less. The Muslim invasions were ending with Buddhism in India, because of this religion, since centuries before, was marginalized. Buddhism would practically cease to exist in its motherland in the 13th century and would continue its development in Thailand, Indonesia, China, Tibet, Japan, Korea and other Asian countries.
Some Indian nationalists consider that the destruction of Nalanda and its innumerable manuscripts is one of the causes of the decline of knowledge in mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, and anatomy in that country. Some Buddhist manuscripts, however, were saved by Chinese and Tibetan monks and travelers, who copied and translated some Sanskrit writings. Thinking about the glory of Nalanda’s wisdom and the barbarity of its destruction, it certainly saddens the spirit.