“Science has to fight parochialism, and Nalanda was committed to doing that”

Science has to fight parochialism, and Nalanda University (which existed in Bihar during the early fifth century and the 12th century) was firmly committed to doing just that, according to Amartya Sen, Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University in the U.S. and chairman of the Interim Governing Board of Nalanda University.

Recalling that the university was “violently destroyed” in an Afghan attack led by Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1193, Prof. Sen, who addressed the Indian Science Congress at SRM University in Kattankulathur near here on Tuesday, said it was being re-established through an Asian initiative, involving India, China, Singapore, Japan and Thailand.

Delivering a talk on Nalanda and the pursuit of science, Prof. Sen, the recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics, said Nalanda stood for the passion of propagating knowledge and understanding. This was one reason for its keenness to accept students from abroad. “If the seeking of evidence and vindication by critical arguments is part of the tradition of science, so is the commitment to move knowledge and understanding beyond the boundaries of locality.”

Noting that Nalanda had attracted students from many countries, particularly China, Korea and Japan, he said there were students from Turkey too. It was a residential university and at its peak, it had 10,000 students, studying various subjects. “Incidentally, Nalanda is the only non-Chinese institution in which any Chinese scholar received higher education in the history of ancient China.”

Citing the accounts of Chinese chroniclers such as Xuangzang and Yi Jing, Prof. Sen said that among the subjects taught in Nalanda were medicine, public health, architecture and sculpture, in addition to religion, history, law and linguistics. Going by Indian accounts, logic was a subject taught and “my guess is that eventually, evidence would emerge on this part of the curriculum in Nalanda as well.”

Noting that the mixture of religion and science was by no means unique to Nalanda, he said the Buddhist foundation made much room for the pursuit of analytical and scientific subjects within the campus of Nalanda University.

The faculty and students in Nalanda loved to argue and very often, they held argumentative encounters. “There were plenty of organised argumentative matches going on in Nalanda and this too fits, in a very general way, into the scientific spirit that was present in Nalanda,” he added.

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Nalanda and the pursuit of scienceJanuary 8, 2011