India's Nalanda International University is a miserable failure. China actually contributed a million dollars to it a few years ago but, it seems, was already constructing its own more splendid version which has now successfully launched with more students than the Indian venture.
India's Nalanda seems doomed to failure. You can't have a post-grad 'soft subject', Research based, University in the middle of nowhere. It is already haemorrhaging students and appears to be shifting to an exam based degrees.
China's Nanhai seems bound to succeed. The local people benefit from value added tourism. The students are likely to be able to work while they study and gain secure employment on graduation, and the State benefits by an increase in 'soft power'. Why is Nanhai the polar opposite of Nalanda in all these respects?
The answer is that China's University is a dedicated, monastic, Buddhist University teaching courses which add value for Buddhist practitioners and Institutions in a manner which creates synergy for the local economy and gives credibility to the tag of 'pure land' used to promote the area.
Nalanda is an imitation Ivy League Research University with no link to the local economy and whose Secular vision is antithetical to the Buddhist associations of its ancient site.
A Buddhist website reports, that the subjects taught at Nanhai for a four year undergraduate degree are-
Chinese Buddhism, Temple Administration and Management, Buddhism and Life Sciences, Social Work and Charity Management, Meditation and Tea, Buddhist Art, and Buddhist Architectural Design and Preservation. In addition, students can follow courses in three languages: Chinese, Pali, and Tibetan. The academy is circumventing Sanskrit—the language which is usually taught in Buddhist studies programs—and replacing it with Chinese.
Clearly the aim is to disintermediate, not just India but Eurocentric Buddhist studies. The new academy will also be useful in creating a comprador Tibetan Buddhist clergy. Eventually, some portion of the Tibetan diaspora might find themselves reintegrated into Chinese Society such that the special Spiritual status of their Language is recognised in return for their loyalty.
Unlike India- where Buddhism lost salience hundreds of years ago- an increasingly affluent China has an almost unlimited ability to absorb and create decent livelihoods for Buddhist monks and upasakas trained at Nanhai Academy or others like it. By contrast, Western Academic Buddhism can't create livelihoods for actual Buddhists because Academic appointments will go to more or less demented Philologists or Logicians or Po Co theorists.
Nalanda International University was envisaged by Amartya Sen as an autonomous institution where Professors would enjoy diplomatic immunity and thus feel empowered to 'speak truth to power' without fear of India's laws against libel and hate speech. Furthermore, if a Naxalite insurgency once again took root in the region, Leftist Professors and students could play a vanguard role without living in fear of the National Security Act.
Naturally, the Govt of India had little incentive to permit Nalanda to flourish. Nor, to be honest, was the Government of any other country enthused by the prospect of sending students to be indoctrinated in subversive ideologies.
Asian Buddhist intellectuals had turned against the project earlier.
Dr. Kalinga Seneviratne wrote in 2013- a year before Nalanda opened-
the revival of Nalanda University is seen by many as the restoration of the ancient intellectual exchanges between the two great civilisations of Asia – India and China.
When in 2006, after a symposium in Singapore, a grand scheme to revive the ancient Buddhist university was announced, it was widely welcomed across Asia, especially in Buddhist countries.
Singapore’s then foreign minister George Yeo hit the correct note when he told the symposium that the project was “about Buddhist values and philosophy which have become an integral part of East Asian civilisation”. He added that as Asia re-emerged on the world stage, Asians could “look back to their own past and derive inspiration from it for the future”.
Unfortunately, more than six years later, this inspiration has turned into sourness and deep resentment among Buddhist intellectuals in Asian countries, who see the Nalanda Mentor Group, headed by Nobel Economics laureate Amartya Sen, as a self-appointed group mainly educated in the West and adrift from the Asian Buddhist intellectual community.
The resuscitation of Nalanda University has recently been questioned by Buddhist groups across Asia. The biggest lament is that no Buddhist scholars or monks have been elected to its board.
“Why is it that the regeneration of a once great ancient academy is based on a secular curriculum entirely focused on humanities and economics?” asked Lim Kooi Fong, a Malaysian Buddhist and the founder of the Buddhist Channel, the world's foremost Buddhist news website.
“At first glance, it would seem that its hallowed name has been borrowed to entice funders to rebuild a fabled campus,” noted Lim. “What is truly tragic, however, is the revivalists' lack of vision and courage. They totally missed the core philosophy and ingenuity of the original Nalanda.
“If Nalanda were to claim back its glory, it needs to be 'monumentally ahead' of its time, just like its predecessor. More importantly, it needs Buddhist teachings and ideals as its core identity to drive its sense of purpose,” added Lim.
“Why submit a famous academy to mundane courses (where it has to compete with numerous and better endowed institutions) when it has the chance to explore an ancient teaching so radically ahead of its time and create undreamed of synthesis using tools of modern science?”
In a recent article in Sri Lanka’s Daily News, lawyer and Buddhist activist Senaka Weeraratne called for wide-ranging discussion across the Buddhist world on the direction, curriculum and aims and objectives of the Nalanda project.
“There is a huge difference between the scope and direction of the old and the proposed new Nalanda University,” he observed. “There is no Sri Lankan representation on the board [of governors] despite this country’s claim to have the oldest continuing Buddhist civilisation in the world.”
Weeraratne pointed out that most of Sen’s recent comments on the Nalanda project have tried to play down its Buddhist heritage and promote the wisdom and validity of secularism.
“It is tantamount to blasphemy to downsize your own, that is Indian, wisdom and religious heritage merely to display that one is on the right side of intellectual fashion in the West,” he argued.
Nalanda’s Mahavihare education tradition has been preserved and nurtured for centuries by Buddhist universities whose offshoots still exist, such as the Buddhist and Pali University in Sri Lanka – which even has an offshore programme in Singapore – Mahamakut and Mahachulalongkorn universities in Thailand and numerous others in Myanmar and Cambodia, as well as the Nava Nalanda Mahavihara in Nalanda itself.
None of the above have been invited to participate in the new Nalanda project. Nava Nalanda Mahavihara was set up by the first president of independent India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, to ‘revive the great Nalanda tradition’ and it now functions as an autonomous university under India’s Ministry of Culture.
In 2011 it had over 400 students, a quarter of them foreign students, studying in 10 departments. This university has been totally ignored and few seem to be questioning whether it would not be better to help expand this Nalanda rather than build a new one.
The project itself has become a political ballgame, with its main funds coming from non-Buddhist countries such as Australia, Singapore, India and China after the East Asia Summit in Thailand adopted the project in 2009. It is believed that China’s support is conditional on keeping the Dalai Lama and his supporters out of its way.
As Lim pointed out: “It is inside these walls that much of Tibetan Buddhism as we know it, both its Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, stems from the late 9th-12th century Nalanda teachers and scholars. Mahayana Buddhism that followed in Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan flourished from the scholarly endeavours of this university.
“Nalanda became the synthesis and fusion centre where new ideas of Buddhist psychology and philosophy were debated, coded and classified. It is here – through inter-disciplinary study, practice [of meditation] and translation – that Buddhism became a global religion.”
There is much scope for modern medicine, bio-ethics, neuroscience, food and agricultural science, information technology and communications to adopt Buddhist principles in developing new courses for the 21st century.
If Nalanda is going to realise its true potential, the challenge facing its initiators is not to make it a clone of Harvard or Cambridge located in Asia with an Asian cover page.
It needs to be developed with an Asian mindset, and many Asian intellectuals with that mindset do not have PhDs from the West. That needs to be acknowledged first and only then will the revived Nalanda University be able to provide a world-class university that is defined by an Asian context.