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Updated: April 16, 2011 10:35 IST

Nalanda revival: why this media apathy?

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S. Viswanathan
The Hindu
S. Viswanathan

How an exciting international project of rebuilding a great ancient Indian university, which was destroyed 800 years ago, could not inspire the Indian news media to any great extent is a matter of surprise and concern.

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen's keynote address at the 98th Indian Science Congress in Chennai on January 4 was devoted to the theme of ‘Nalanda and the pursuit of science.' The full text of this interesting speech was published in The Hindu


Professor Sen chairs the governing body of new Nalanda, which is scheduled to start functioning near the old site in 2013. Professor Gopa Sabharwal has been appointed the first Vice-Chancellor of the post-graduate university, which will start with seven schools, primarily in the humanities. The courses on offer will include Buddha studies besides international relations, peace studies, and the information sciences and technology.

“We are talking about the oldest university in the world by a long margin,” Professor Sen, who has taught at Oxford — where, according to the university's website, ‘teaching existed…in some form in 1096 and developed rapidly from 1167' — reminded his audience, “that is, if we do not insist on continuous existence…Nalanda was an old centre of learning that attracted students from many countries in the world, particularly China and Tibet, Korea and Japan, and the rest of Asia, but a few also from as far in the west as Turkey…a residential university, [it] had at its peak 10,000 students, studying various subjects… while Nalanda was very special, it was still a part of a larger tradition of organised higher education that developed in that period in India — in Bihar in particular…[it belonged to] a larger social culture.”

Raising the question of what a religious institution had to do with science, Professor Sen argued that while the central focus of Nalanda as a Buddhist foundation was the study of Buddhist philosophy and practice, “it nevertheless pursued general intellectual and scientific studies, the products of which were of great interest also to people who were not religious, or did not share the religion of the foundations involved.” He highlighted the fact that “the faculty and the students in Nalanda loved to argue, and very often held argumentative encounters.” One reason, he suggested, for its keenness to accept students from abroad was its “passion for propagating knowledge and understanding.” The author of The Argumentative Indian added: “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 locality. Science has to fight parochialism, and Nalanda was firmly committed to just that.”

Professor Sen laid before the Science Congress his hope that “the pursuit of science in old Nalanda…[would] inspire and guide our long-run efforts in new Nalanda” — in the science faculties as well as the humanities and the social sciences.

A lot of hard work, especially in the matter of attracting a world-class faculty at a site that will be considered remote and not easy to access today, will need to be done before this project takes off. But when it does, it will be the fulfilment of a cherished ambition of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. It was President Kalam who, addressing a joint session of the Bihar Legislature in March 2006, pleaded for the revival of the ancient seat of learning in Nalanda. Excited by the idea, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar moved quickly to get legislative approval for the scheme and also offered land for it.

Around the same time, the Singapore Government came out with a “Nalanda Proposal,” which would facilitate the founding of a 21st century educational institution that could link South and East Asia. This gave a new dimension to the proposal. At the 16-nation East Asia Summit held in Thailand in 2007, the leaders endorsed the Nalanda University project, with opportunities opening up for closer ties among the member-countries and the overall development of the region. Following up, the Government of India in August 2010 got the National University Bill, 2010 adopted by both Houses of Parliament.

It is unfortunate that a progressive international effort to revive a great tradition is sought to be trivialised by a section of the politically active media. The debate that preceded the passage of the Bill provided a clue to the lukewarm interest in, if not negative attitude, to the project demonstrated by a section of the polity. Is China's participation, along with 15 other nations, a sore point? Or is the importance that will be given to Buddhist studies in keeping with the tradition of old Nalanda unwelcome to the communal Right and to sections of the news media sympathetic to it?

This criticism is not meant of course to pre-empt the historical debate over what exactly was the character of old Nalanda and its long-term role in the pursuit of science. There can be legitimate historical criticism that there has been a trend of romanticising the tradition — considering that Nalanda was predominantly and pre-eminently a centre of Buddhist philosophy and studies, and that other fields of knowledge followed from this central feature.

But these questions cannot take away from the enduring significance and great value of the Nalanda tradition at its best.

Readers suggest

The response from readers of the last column (“What media can do for education”), which focused on the dismal conditions in schools and student hostels catering to the needs of extremely disadvantaged students in Tamil Nadu, was substantial, interesting, and borne out by their own experience.

Particularly valuable was this set of suggestions coming from A. Padmanabhan, former Chief Secretary of Tamil Nadu and former Governor of Mizoram, to rectify defects and mismanagement in educational institutions: the Minister, Secretary, and Commissioner for Adi Dravidar Welfare should take effective action to set right the pathetic conditions in Adi Dravidar hostels and schools in a time-bound manner; teachers, particularly in primary schools, should be given proper orientation training in dealing with students; district and State educational officers and district collectors should make surprise visits to schools and hostels, pull up errant teachers and ensure proper maintenance; parent-teacher meetings should be regular and fruitful; and, finally, it is time the Chief Minister himself called a meeting to discuss and sort out the problems before they get out of hand.

Mr. Padmanabhan recalled that in the 1950s and 1960s education administrators such as Director of Public Instruction N.D. Sundaravadivelu and District Education Officer K. Venkatasubramanian (later Vice Chancellor of the Central University in Puducherry) made surprise personal visits to schools and hostels and helped rectify the defects.

Incidentally, it was Mr. Sundaravadivelu who successfully implemented a mid-day meal scheme — launched by Chief Minister K. Kamaraj on a small scale before Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran made it a breakthrough social entitlement programme for the whole State and eventually a model for the whole of India — with a view to bringing in children to schools and minimising the drop-out rates.

Arumugam Ponnusamy (Salem) e-mailed his concern over handing out corporal punishment to schoolchildren. He also suggested the introduction of “examination with textbooks” on a trial basis. Criticising corporal punishment, P.S. Sundaram (Chennai) said in his e-mail that teachers should seriously be sensitised about it. He suggested psychology-tests on teachers, many of whom, he said, were under-qualified.

B.R. Kumar (Chennai) recognised that All India Radio and Doordarshan continued to broadcast educational and informative programmes. Several other television channels and FM radio stations were also doing so. But he noted sadly that most viewers and listeners were only interested in soap operas and film-oriented programmes.

Some readers called to remind us of the fine work done by the news media in the 1980s when the literacy movement and adult education programmes were making rapid strides. Some Tamil dailies distributed free study material printed in bold letters and opened a couple of pages in their newspapers for the benefit of learners.

Its very saddening to see the media, craving for spicy and celebretity news only and, not giving even a small priority to the news related to the national prestige. Today, media, in the form of print as well as electronic, in race of bestselling and high TRP going for filthy and meagre news to cater taste of particular section of people. In fact, it distracts the common man and deviates to the wrong direction. News about revival of Nalanda university - historically showing indian legacy in the field of science and technolgy - has neither aired nor printed by even a single active media. Nalanada university, which is most invaluable antique of our country, and the thing of national pride must be paid proper attention so that everyone around the world would know our rechness in the field of education and knowledge.Media must be more flexible and diverse.

from:  Jitendra Jha
Posted on: Apr 16, 2011 at 07:53 IST

@Madanmohan Pandeti You sound too pessimist,while this revival is all about being optimistic.People like you are obsessed with talking about agony of country.I don't know how people like u manage to see negative even in positive.All the best in life.

from:  Rishi
Posted on: Mar 7, 2011 at 00:42 IST

Thank you,for doing such an article and drawing readers attention towards the issue.Hope other media sources takes notice.

from:  Rishi
Posted on: Mar 7, 2011 at 00:38 IST

it is a proposal worth appreciation and implementation. The University will uphold India as an ancient nation with glorious civilisation.The university should have its functioning on the basis of ancient type system.Selection and Examination should be foolproof.Modern culture and effect of Western culture on youth will be some problems while conducting the University but special organising committee under the chairmanship of any spiritual leader like Shri Shri Ravishankar can make the dream come true.

from:  sandeep k jain
Posted on: Mar 6, 2011 at 22:37 IST

Only in India can this happen: a country which has proved incapable of running a single university properly, where the majority of the population is engulfed in poverty, where even today only foreign accreditation is of any worth in academic or any other field, where higher education is conducted in English, a language which very few people know well enough to write, let alone reflect on serious academic matters: in this country the upper caste elite, obsessed with its past glories, wants to revive an ancient university! What a joke1

from:  Madanmohan Pandeti
Posted on: Mar 4, 2011 at 12:02 IST

The idea of setting-up a world class university which has its routes deeper than Oxbridge universities which were set up in 1240s AD, will not only boost the self-image of India but all Asian countries. This project should be supported by people of all religion and faith through print and electronic media. It will also act as a constructive filter to other religions.In fact it was the Buddha who dared to infuse scientific temperament in day-day activity of common folks in their own local language and laid the foundation of peaceful human society.

from:  Pradeep Dheer
Posted on: Mar 3, 2011 at 18:00 IST

Not only Nalanda university.. The very idea of Buddhism needs a revival in modern India which best fits to the new social architecture which the new generation is building (like intercaste marriages, decreased role of religion in daily life). I personally think Buddhism is much greater idea which perfectly suits to the New Age.

from:  Srinivas
Posted on: Mar 2, 2011 at 09:19 IST

The Indian media is quiet about it because the Western media is not talking it up. Once they do so, our increasingly tabloidish media will also celebrate it. A bunch of wannabes.

from:  SM
Posted on: Feb 28, 2011 at 20:48 IST

Now the Hindu, has initiated the process of media reporting on the exciting international project of rebuilding a great ancient Indian university, which was destroyed 800 years ago. Others will follow. is running FREE ONLINE eNālandā Research and Practice UNIVERSITY. In one of the lessons, it has answered the question of what a religious institution had to do with science.

from:  Jagatheesan Chandrasekharan
Posted on: Feb 28, 2011 at 13:44 IST

The Hindu and Mr S Viswanathan: The stage is set for the proposed Nalanda university to revive glory and ancient culture at Nalanda, about 60 km from Patna, the capital of Bihar. The Bihar government has almost completed all formalities for setting up Nalanda university and lands have also been by and large acquired. Amartaya Babu, the chief of the mentor group and core committee of the proposed university ,is taking keen interest to start the functioning of the university from 2013academic session. Notwithstanding the union government has also enacted the law for reviving the old and ancient university, it will have to arrange massive fund and budget allocation for the same. There is no question of any religious sentiments obstructing the opening of the university. The core committee will have to move quickly for the cooperation promised by many countries. Hope and dream of reviving old university will come true-but there must be strong will among the political rulers of centre and Bihar government. Huge university infrastructures will have to be created soon for smooth functioning of the university. As regards science and modern teachings, the Nalanda university act has already provided the inclusion of science and information technology teaching in the proposed university. About media's silence over such dream project, this is most disheartening and cause of disappointment- you have rightly pointed out the least caring of media to create public awareness for revival of the university on the pattern of spreading and reviving many educational institutions in south India. At least local and state media should write about the proposed university as early as possible although the media have developed strange fancy for corporatisation and multi-nationalisation.

from:  Krishn Kumar Singh
Posted on: Feb 28, 2011 at 11:30 IST

The disinterest being shown by the National media towards the cause Nalanda University is really very very surprising despite the fact that intellectual like Amartya Sen is taking interest in the revival of this ancient university from Bihar. University is going to be a reality very soon and present apathy of media as well as intellectual community from India will also be on record. Perhaps this is the way we deal with the matters pride in India.

from:  Amar Nath Jha
Posted on: Feb 28, 2011 at 07:26 IST
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