Nalanda — A Site of The Great Monastic University

    • Nalanda, Bihar, India

Nalanda — A Site of The Great Monastic University

"What do you think, householder? Is this town of Nalanda successful and prosperous, is it populous and crowded with people?"

'Yes, venerable sir, it is.' 

                                                                                          ---Utpali Sutra

Although Nalanda is one of the places distinguished as having been blessed by the presence of the Buddha, it later became particularly renowned as the site of the great monastic university of the same name, which was to become the crown jewel of the development of Buddhism in India. The name may derive 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."

Shakyamuni stayed here on a number of occasions, for a mango grove had been offered to him by 500 merchants. Hsuan Chwang mentions a number of temples and stupas marking places where Buddha had taught. On one visit he preached to men and gods for three months, and a stupa containing his hair and nail clippings of that period was erected. A remarkable tree that had been miraculously produced from a discarded tooth stick of the Buddha stood in this area. Next to a water tank, a stupa marked the place where a non-buddhist, holding a bird in his hand, had challenged the Buddha to divine whether it was alive or dead. The Buddha declined to answer him. Another stupa commemorated the occasion that a foreign monk had prostrated himself before the Buddha, praying for a rebirth as a universal monarch. Shakyamuni sadly told his followers that this monk possessed such vast merit that he might have become a buddha, but because of this action he would be reborn as a universal monarch as many times as there were atoms of earth beneath his prostrate body.

The sitting place of Shakyamuni and the buddhas who had come before him was marked by a stupa, as was the spot nearby where Bimbisara first came to greet the Buddha. In two neighbouring villages, Ashoka built temples and stupas where Sariputra and Maudgalyayana were born and also entered parinirvana.

During his stay at Nalanda, Hsuan Chwang saw a number of temples in and around the monastery. Some contained images of the Buddha, others of Avalokiteshvara and also Arya Tara, whom he describes as having been a popular object of devotion at that time. He also mentions the great temple erected by King Baladitya, which was similar to but slightly larger than the Mahabodhi Temple. The ruins of this are now prominent on the site.

 Modern historians have tentatively dated the founding of a monastery at Nalanda as being in the fifth century. However, this may not be accurate. For example, the standard biographies of the teacher Nagarjuna, believed by most historians to have been born around 150 AD, are quite specific about his having received ordination at Nalanda monastery when he was seven years old. Further, his teacher Rahulabhadra is said to have lived there for some time before that. We may infer, then, that there were a monastery or monasteries at Nalanda long before the foundation of the later Great Mahavihara.

It is recorded that Kumaragupta the First, an early Gupta monarch who reigned between 415 and 456 AD, built a monastery. In the century following this his various successors each built a further monastery. Between the years 530 and 535 a king of central India, perhaps Yashodharman, added another, and by building an encircling wall around them all created a mahavihara.

Continue to Part-02

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