TakshaShila, the ancient world’s first international university (c. approx. 400-500 BCE to 550 CE), was named after “Taksha’s Cut-Rock City” in ancient northern India. Situated strategically on a branch of the Silk Road that linked China to the West, TakshaShila was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980 and is located near Rawalpindi in modern-day Pakistan.
At the time, TakshaShila was described as the wealthiest city in India. The campus attracted students from faraway places like China, Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Babylonia and Greece. It is believed that students started their studies at Takshashila at around age 16, after they had completed their primary education at home, and secondary education in the Ashrams. Education was considered sacred; an ancient Sanskrit quote says “स्वगृहे पूज्यते मूर्खः स्वग्रामे पूज्यते प्रभुः। स्वदेशे पूज्यते राजा विद्वान्सर्वत्र पूज्यते॥” (A fool is worshiped at his home. A chief is worshiped in his town. A king is worshiped in his kingdom. A knowledgeable person is worshipped everywhere). Education was accordingly undeniable to even the poorest students. Admissions were based on merit and financial support was often provided by the community or through work-study arrangements.
The university accommodated a student body that numbered upwards of 10,000 with two out of three applicants rejected. The campus had 300 lecture halls plus laboratories, an observatory and a huge library that spanned 3 buildings. The university thrived for approximately 9 to 10 centuries, with a resurgence under the rule of King Kanishka, until its destruction in the 6th century CE.
During its time TakshaShila attained recognition as an important center of learning for Vedic and Buddhist studies, as well as for mastering various arts and sciences. Nearly 2,000 master-teachers taught an array of at least 68 topics at the ancient university. Courses covered the fields of science, mathematics, medicine, politics, warfare, astrology, astronomy, music, dance, religion, vedas, grammar, agriculture, surgery, commerce, futurology, and philosophy. Among the more curious subjects were the art of discovering hidden treasure, decrypting encrypted messages, the Vedas and the Eighteen Arts, archery, hunting, and elephant lore. TakshaShila University was specialized in the study of medicine, as it was a place in which Ayurvedic medicine and surgery could be studied for up to seven years before graduation.
The process of teaching was very thorough. Until a unit was mastered completely, the student was not allowed to proceed to the next. The curriculum for any given subject was considered complete when the teacher was satisfied with the student’s level of achievement. True knowledge, not examinations, was considered essential to complete one’s studies. It was understood that knowledge was its own reward. Thus, no convocations were held upon completion, and no written degrees were awarded.
Remarkably, no external authorities like kings or local leaders sought control over the curriculum at TakshaShila. In fact, in most cases, the schools were located within the teachers’ private houses. With complete autonomy in their work, teachers had the freedom to teach who and what they liked, without conforming to a centralized syllabus or doctrine. With each master teacher able to form his own institution, a variety of paradigms and perspectives could be heard. In exchange for their knowledge, the teachers were exempted from taxes, and they were given generous sums of money during various sacrifices and rituals throughout the year.
Charaka, the famous ancient Ayurvedic physician was an alumnus of TakshaShila. He simplified an older Ayurvedic work called Agnivesha Samhita into the Charaka Samhita and also incorporated his research into the region’s flora and fauna. He is ascribed the famous quote “A physician who fails to enter the body of a patient with the lamp of knowledge and understanding can never treat diseases.” Jivaka, the great physician to Gautama Buddha and an expert in pulse reading studied Ayurveda in TakshaShila University for seven years. He specialized in panchakarma, marma and surgery. He cured the Buddha’s nadi vran, worked with the great classic beauty Amrapali to retain her youthful countenance via many amazing operations on her using marma points and surgical procedures, and invented a cure for filariasis. Panini, the famous Sanskrit grammarian and author of Ashtadhyayi, to whom Professor Noam Chomsky attributes the origin of linguistics, was also a product of TakshaShila. Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Maurya Empire, was another famous alumnus of TakshaShila. Chanakya (a.k.a. Kautilya, Vishnugupta), the prime minister of the Mauryan Empire and mentor to Chandragupta Maurya (and the third most famous management consultant in India after Krishna and Shakuni) is believed to have composed the Arthashastra (which consists of 15 books) while studying at TakshaShila circa 300 BCE. This work was deemed by social and economic historian Max Weber as one of the greatest political statecraft books of the ancient world, covering the topics of economic policies, state intelligence systems, administrative skills, military strategy, political duties and statecraft. TakshaShila University’s famous researchers and teachers also include Vishnu Sharma, the author of the great book that teaches the art of political science in the form of simple beautiful stories called the Pancha Tantra, Jotipala, commander-in-chief of Banaras, with great proficiency in archery and military science and Prasenajit, the enlightened ruler of Kosala.