Nalanda, situated south of Patna, literally means the place that confers the lotus. Nalanda is the oldest university of the world, believed to have been established in 5th century b.c.
Although Nalanda is said to have been blessed by the presence of the Buddha, it later became particularly renowned for its great monastic university from where developed Buddhism in India. The name was possibly derived from one of Shakyamuni’s former births, when he was a king whose capital was here. Nalanda was one of his epithets meaning ‘insatiable in giving’.
At the time Hsuan Tsang, the Chinese traveller, stayed at Nalanda and studied with the abbot Shilabhadra, it was already a flourishing centre of learning. In many ways it seems to have been like a modern university. There was a rigorous oral entry examination conducted by erudite gatekeepers, and many students were turned away. To study or to have studied at Nalanda was a matter of great prestige. However, no degree was granted nor was a specific period of study required. The monks’ time, measured by a water clock, was divided between study and religious rites and practice. Students received explanations by discourse, and there were also schools of debate, where the mediocre were often humbled, and the conspicuously talented distinguished. Accordingly, the elected abbot was generally the most learned man of the time.
The libraries were vast and widely renowned, although a malicious fire broke out in which many of the texts were destroyed and irrevocably lost. The fire is said to have eventually been put out by a flood of water that poured from the texts on the highest yoga tantra, kept in the topmost storey. During the Gupta age the practice and study of the Mahayana, especially the Madhyamaka, flourished. However, from a.d. 750, in the Pala age, there was an increase in the study and propagation of tantric teachings. This is evidenced by the famous Pandit Abhayakaragupta, a renowned tantric practitioner, who was simultaneously the abbot of the Mahabodhi, Nalanda and Vikramashila monasteries.
Much of the tradition of Nalanda had been carried into Tibet by the time of Muslim invasions in twelfth century. While the monasteries of Odantapuri and Vikramashila were then destroyed, the buildings at Nalanda do not seem to have suffered extensive damage at that time, although most of the monks fled before the desecrating armies. In 1235 the Tibetan pilgrim Chag Lotsawa found a ninety-year old teacher, Rahula Shribhadra, with a class of seventy students. Rahula Shribhadra managed to survive through the support of a local Brahmin and he did not leave until he had completed educating his last Tibetan student.
Nearby is the Nalanda Institute of Pali Studies, where a number of ordained and lay students have re-established a tradition of Buddhist knowledge. In the year 1951, an International Centre for Buddhist Studies was established here.