Ancient University: Nalanda Mahavihara

Nalanda Mahavihara.jpg

There were two types of education in ancient India, the gurukulas, or Vedic schools, and the viharas, or Buddhist monasteries. The gurukulas mainly focused on primary education, whereas the viharas were institutions of higher education. Mahavihara was the term used for a group of monasteries. Nalanda coordinated the curriculum for all four main mahaviharas: Nalanda, Vikramasila, Odantapuri and Valabhi, for nearly one thousand years, becoming renowned and drawing students from places as far as China and Persia.

Located between the two capitals of the Magadhan Empire—Rajgriha and Patliputra, Nalanda began as a small town in what is now the Indian state of Bihar. The earliest data on objects and structures found at Nalanda are from the Gupta period, which lasted from approximately 300-550 CE. It is believed that the Gupta monarch Shakraditya, or Kumaragupta (415-455CE) founded Nalanda. This is based on the discovery of a coin with his seal on it that was found at the complex. The Gupta Dynasty provided financial support for the blossoming university, and this continued under Kumaragupta’s successors, Buddhagupta, Baladitya, Tathagatagupta and Vajra.

Much of what we know about Nalanda is from the detailed writings of two Chinese monks, Xuanzang and Yijing (or I-tsing), who traveled to Nalanda during the 7th century CE and stayed for 2 and 14 years, respectively. When Xuanzang returned to China, he carried 657 Buddhist texts, 74 of which he subsequently translated. When Yijing returned to China in 695, he brought 400 Sanskrit texts, which were translated.

Surrounded by fertile farmland and relatively near to more densely populated city centers, conditions were favorable for Nalanda’s growth. The local communities provided foodstuff for, traded with and supplied novices to the large institution.  Scholars believe that Nalanda was home to 10,000 monks, 1500 of whom were teachers. Others believe the number of residents was closer to 4,000.

The curriculum at Nalanda was a skillful marriage of secular and religious knowledge, a blend of the theoretical and the practical. It included language and grammar, arts, medicine, logic and philosophy, as well as exhaustive study of the works of the eighteen sects of Mahayana Buddhism, Mahasastra, Atharvaveda, Vinaya texts and Sutras, and even metal-casting and astronomy. Part of Nalanda’s mission was to bring Buddhism to the world, so in order for graduates to defend the Buddhist worldview against other views, they must first understand other viewpoints and systems. Nalanda was famed for its learned professors, or upajjhaya.

One of the things that set Nalanda apart from other schools of the time was that it took international students from countries like Korea, Japan, China, Tibet and other parts of Asia. Famous characters from Buddhist history like Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Vasubandhu, and Asanga, were reported to have studied there.


  1. The Ancient Nālandā Mahāvihāra: The Beginning of Institutional Education
  2. Dutt, Sukumar. Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India: Their History and Their Contribution to Indian Culture

Cultural Life at Nalanda University

Nalanda was the original mahavihara. Vihara refers to a seat of religious and academic learning; adding the prefix maha- signifies a collection of such seats. Nalanda was located in Bihar, which derives its name from vihara. (1) The viharas have their origin during the life of the Buddha. They were also called sangharama, which literally translates to “the resting place of the community of monks.” The Buddha himself said that “to give viharas to the sangha, where in safety and peace, to meditate and think at ease, the Buddha calls the best of gifts.” (2)

Nalanda was, from the beginning, oriented toward study of Buddhist scripture and observation of Buddhist ritual ceremony. These practices were institutionalized as part of the daily schedule. However, the cultural life of the university shifted according to the interaction of Buddhism with Brahmanism, the two most prominent spiritual perspectives of ancient India. As Brahmanical influence grew over time, the simple Buddhist rituals evolved into more complex ceremonies including “image worship, enormous offerings, tantra-mantra, etc.” (2)(p.101)

Academic and religious studies were intimately intermingled. The very architecture of the mahavihara consisted of 14 temples and 13 monasteries all facing one another, so that there need be no delay between waking and worship, study and worship, eating and worship, sleeping and worship.

Here is an image of the excavated site of Nalanda

Here is an image of the excavated site of Nalanda

The Chinese observers from whom we have most of our subjective knowledge of Nalanda report that there were specific ceremonies for receiving visitors “such as teachers, pupils, disciples, strangers [and] friends”. They also note that occasions such as “the installation of a new image, selection of a new teacher, victory even in a religious discussion and so on could lead to happy moments in the campus life followed by many rituals.” This reveals a deeply devotional, celebratory atmosphere, which is interesting to this writer given the way modern American Buddhism has been mostly stripped of its devotional aspects.

Kumar (2) reports that life at Nalanda was “highly disciplined, strict, moral and spiritual” and while “there was no place for loutishness and violence,” the place was nonetheless “full of love and mercy.” In this way, Nalanda succeeded in offering an education with broad appeal, at least when compared to the highly ritualized and thus more exclusive Brahmanic schools.

The primary greatness of Nalanda is evidenced by its ability to train its students to speak accurately and convincingly on a wide range of topics. In order to properly propagate Buddhism, it was necessary for aspirants to be well-versed in other philosophical systems, so that they might be prepared to argue effectively on Buddhism’s behalf. Scholars from Nalanda were world renowned for their mastery in debate, and many went on to perform important tasks in translation as well.

To this day, the name Nalanda continues to be associated with higher education and translation of important texts. Naropa University, the first and only Buddhist university in the United States, named one of their three Boulder, Colorado-based campuses Nalanda. The founder of Naropa, one Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, also founded The Nalanda Translation Committee in 1975 with the mission “to create fresh and authentic translations of Tibetan practice texts.” (3)





  4. The Ancient Nālandā Mahāvihāra: The Beginning of Institutional Education

  5. Studies in Medicine at Sri Nalanda Mahavihara: An Introduction

  6. Ancient Universities in India