Mark Twain, the well-known American author, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer, once said, the grandmother of legend and the great grandmother of tradition”
Thousands of Rishis have been chanting mantras and hymns for millennia, accumulating the potent positive energies in the air. These were passed down by word of mouth from one generation to the next. This tradition was carried on by the Rishi, who was also the Guru who passed on the knowledge to his shishyas, or sons. Shruti is a name for the Vedas. The cycle continued until they were compiled, and the same was heard, recalled, and sung. Before they were assembled, they were Shruti for hundreds of thousands of years. This is why listening to Sanskrit chanting from the Vedas and other scriptures adds positive energy to the environment and invigorates the aura around you. In ancient times, each Rishi who passed on knowledge represented a legitimate Vedic school.
Students in groups resided at the Guru’s ashrams until their education was completed in the later Vedic period and during the Mahabharata era. Larger Gurukulas acted as universities or educational institutions. Temples and mutts became learning centers after that, in addition to Gurukulas and universities.
Preservation of traditional culture, study of the scriptures, character development, personality development, religious obligations, inculcation of the spirit of individual tasks towards family and community, discipline, and self-reliance were all important factors to consider when providing education. Despite the fact that Islamic conquerors destroyed thousands of temples and educational institutions, the concept of temple education decreased to some measure but not completely. The flame of education was stoked. The local Hindu people supported the temples that were formerly run under the patronage of the authorities under Islamic control. Temples served as a nucleus of crucial social, economic, aesthetic, and intellectual purposes, according to Shri Dharampal’s book The Beautiful Tree.
Prepare to be awestruck by the great universities of ancient India listed below, which were far ahead of their time.
1. Takshashila University
Takshashila was a Buddhist learning center in the early days. It is thought to date back to at least the 5th century BC, based on existing evidence. Takshashila thrived for millennia before the Universities of Alexandria and Constantinople were founded! Later in Jātaka tales, about the 5th century AD, Takshashila is depicted in some depth. Also known as Taxila, it was previously recognised as India’s intellectual center and is now located in modern-day Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
Takshashila became a melting pot of cultures as students from all over the world came to study there. At Takshila, many influential Indian scholars wrote their seminal works. During his time as a professor at Takshashila University, Chanakya is thought to have written Arthashastra, an ancient Indian book on economic policy and military strategy. Maharishi Charak also wrote the Charak Samhita, a medical book, there. Panini, a well-known Sanskrit scholar and grammarian, also taught at Takshashila. There, he wrote his best work, Ashtadhyayi (eight chapters). It was a complicated, rule-based grammar book in Sanskrit that has survived to this day in its entirety.
When the Kushanas – a central Asian tribe – invaded Takshashila and governed it until 250 AD, the institution faced difficult times. They didn’t add much to the status of this illustrious institution of higher learning. As a result, Takshashila’s educational system began to deteriorate. The ultimate blow occurred in 500 AD, when Hunas – nomads from northwest China – overtook the region and extinguished the beacon that had once enlightened countless minds.
2. Nalanda University
Nalanda is one of India’s most well-known ancient institutions. From 427 to 1197 CE, Nalanda was a Buddhist learning center in the Indian state of Bihar, roughly 55 miles south-east of Patna. It has also been dubbed “One of the first great universities in recorded history,”. The university attracted experts and students from all over the world, including China, Greece, and Persia. Archeological evidence also suggests that the complex was in communication with the Indonesian Shailendra dynasty, whose kings built a monastery there.
In the early fifth century, Shakraditya of the Gupta dynasty created Nalanda University in modern-day Bihar, which flourished for 600 years until the 12th century. This university’s library was the largest in the ancient world, with thousands of manuscripts on subjects as diverse as grammar, logic, literature, astrology, astronomy, and medicine. Dharmaganja was the name of the library complex, which consisted of three big structures: the Ratnasagar, the Ratnadadhi, and the Ratnaranjaka. The Prajnaparamita Sutra and the Samajguhya were among the most precious manuscripts kept at Ratnadadhi, which stood nine floors tall.
In c. 1200 CE, an army of the Muslim Delhi Sultanate’s Mamluk Dynasty led by Bakhtiyar Khilji are said to have ransacked and destroyed Nalanda. While some historians claim that the Mahavihara continued to function in a makeshift manner for a while longer, it was eventually abandoned and forgotten until the Archaeological Survey of India assessed the site and conducted preliminary excavations in the 19th century. On a 12 hectare (30 acre) area of land, systematic excavations began in 1915, revealing eleven monasteries and six brick temples beautifully organized. The ruins have also yielded a wealth of sculptures, coins, seals, and inscriptions, many of which are on show at the nearby Nalanda Archeological Museum. Nalanda is currently a well-known tourist site on the Buddhist tourism circuit.
3. Pushpagiri University
Puspagiri University was an important center of learning in India till the 11th century. Its ruins may presently be found on the Langudi hills, which are low hills around 90 kilometers from the Mahanadi delta in the Orissa districts of Jajpur and Cuttack. The actual university complex, which was sprawled across three hilltops, had multiple Gupta-style stupas, monasteries, temples, and statues. The Kelua river, a branch of Orissa’s Brahmani river, flows to the northeast of the Langudi hills, providing a lovely backdrop for the institution. The university’s three campuses, Lalitgiri, Ratnagiri, and Udayagiri, are located on top of three adjacent hills. Several images of Emperor Ashoka have recently been discovered here, leading to speculation that the Pushpagiri University was founded by Emperor Ashoka himself.
Excavation work on the Lalitgiri-Ratnagiri-Udayagiri hills has uncovered the remnants of a magnificent brick monastery with ornate carvings, a temple with bow-shaped arches, four monasteries, and a massive stupa. A huge number of gold and silver goods, a stone container, an earthen pot, and relics of the Kushana dynasty and Brahmi script are among the Buddhist treasures uncovered here. A gigantic Buddha image with pursed lips, long ears, and a big forehead is a one-of-a-kind treasure.
Xuanzang, a Chinese traveller, has written a detailed report of Pushpagiri University. Not only local kings, but also rulers from far away locations, backed this university. Prajna, a well-known Buddhist monk from Gandhara, came to study at this historic institution.
However, due to a lack of patronage during the Muslim rule in India, this old university vanished.
4. Valabhi University
Valabhi University was established in the 6th century in Saurashtra (modern-day Gujarat) and lasted 600 years, till the 12th century. The University of Valabhi was a well-known Buddhist learning center that emphasised Hinayana Buddhism between 600 and 1200 CE.This university was described as a major center of study by Chinese explorer Itsing, who visited it in the 7th century. For a time, the college was so good that it was considered a contender to Nalanda in Bihar in terms of education.
This university is reported to have graduated Gunamati and Sthiramati, two well-known Buddhist scholars. This university was renowned for its secular education, and students from all over the country came to study there. Graduates of this university were offered higher executive positions due to the outstanding quality of their education. Valabhi is credited with championing Hinayana Buddhism, yet it was neither exclusive nor insular. Along with Buddhist ideas, Brahmanical sciences were also taught. There are references to Brahmanic students from the Gangetic plains studying at this university. Aside from religious sciences, Nīti (Political Science, Statesmanship), Vārtā (Business, Agriculture), Administration, Theology, Law, Economics, and Accountancy were among the courses offered. Valabhi graduates were frequently hired by kings to assist in the administration of their kingdoms.
The patron kings fell victim to an Arab invasion in 775 CE. The university suffered a brief setback as a result of this. The university’s activities continued unabated after that, since the Maitraka dynasty’s successors continued to support it with generous donations. During and after this time, little information on the university has been found. In the 12th century, the defeat of its patron kings had inevitably led to the slow death of all of its educational operations. In September 2017, the Indian federal government began examining a plan to restore the ancient institution.
5. Vikramshila University
Another famous seat of learning was located in the Indian state of Magadha (now Bihar). Vikramshila and Nalanda were the era’s most powerful knowledge and education duo. King Dharampala created Vikramshila University in the ninth century as a competition to Nalanda University, though it collaborated with it as well. This university’s graduates are claimed to have practically developed Tibet’s culture and civilization. Unlike other historic study centers, Vikramshila exclusively admitted people who wanted to become Buddhist monks. These monks journeyed to far-flung regions to spread Buddhism after completing their study. According to reports, the Vikramshila campus included six different colleges, each of which offered a particular expertise.
The disciplines of Sanskrit grammar, logic, metaphysics, philosophy, Buddhist Tantra, and Ritualism were all quite popular. According to Tibetan pilgrim monks’ tales, it was at Vikramshila that the culture of awarding degrees and honors began. Those who completed their schooling were given the titles of Mahapandit and Pandit based on their merit. The university’s walls were painted with portraits of the outstanding alumni.
In 1203 AD, Vikramshila suffered the same fate as Nalanda.
Both universities’ fates were intertwined in numerous ways. They were both ransacked and burned to the ground by the same Turkic invader, Bakhtiyar Khilji, in addition to being exceptional universities. Both enjoyed great royal patronage at the time, both had amazing libraries, and both were ransacked and burned to the ground by the same Turkic invader, Bakhtiyar Khilji.
6. Odantapuri University
Odantapuri University Ruins, commonly known as Odantpura Vihar or Odantapuri Buddhist Mahavira, are located atop Hiranya Prabat in Bihar sarif. It was founded by Emperor Gopala of the Pala Dynasty in the eighth century and flourished for 400 years till the 12th century. It was essentially one of ancient India’s sixth universities, founded largely to disseminate Buddhist learning and teachings. Apart from that, it is considered the second oldest university in the world, after Nalanda, which was founded in ancient times. We know very little about this site, hence it is a lesser-known essential tourist attraction in Bihar.
The majority of what we know about Odantapuri history comes from writings written by Tibetan and Chinese visitors during that time period. According to Tibetan texts, Odantpuri had 12000 students. Acharya Sri Ganga, who was a student at Vikramshila University and then became a professor at Vikramashila University, later joined Odantapuri University and is recognised as one of the university’s most notable graduates.
For nearly four centuries, it served as a significant learning center for Buddhist teachings. When the infamous Muslim Turkish invader Bhakhtiyar Khilji saw this institution in 1193 AD, he mistook it for a fortress because of its long walls and ordered his forces to destroy it. This was also the time when his soldiers set fire to Nalanda University. His activities proved to be the final nail in the coffin for both the ancient Indian institution and the magnificent university. This caused them to be largely forgotten for over six centuries, until excavations began in the nineteenth century. This is mentioned in ancient Tibetan scriptures as one of the five great universities of its day, along with Vikramashila, Nalanda, Somapura, and Jagaddala Universities, all of which were located in ancient India.
7. Somapura University
Dharmapala of the Pala dynasty founded Somapura Mahavihara in Bengal in the late eighth century, and it flourished for 400 years until the 12th century. The University, which was one of the largest of its kind, was spread out over 27 acres of land, with the main complex covering 21 acres. It was a prominent learning center for Bauddha Dharma (Buddhism), Jina Dharma (Jainism), and Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). Even now, ornate terracotta exhibiting the impact of these three styles can be found on the building’s outer walls. It is one of the largest and most well-known Buddhist temples in India, with a structure that spans more than 20 acres (almost a million square feet) (85,000 sq. meters). It impacted Buddhist architecture as far afield as Cambodia with its clean, harmonious forms and abundance of carved embellishment.
The Somapura Mahavihara was continuously inhabited for a few decades before being abandoned in the 12th century after several attacks and was nearly burned to the ground by the Vanga army in the 11th century. Vipulashrimitra rebuilt the Vihara and constructed a Tara temple around a century later.
The Somapura Mahavihara progressively fell and deteriorated over the next decades, abandoned by the new Muslim rulers of the region, until it reached its current condition of disrepair. The Mahavihara was completely covered in grass after it was abandoned for decades, and it was largely forgotten at that time. The site was first explored in the 1920s, and during the next few decades, more and more was discovered. After independence, work accelerated dramatically, and by the early 1990s, the site had reached its current degree of excavation. The representative collection of artifacts recovered from the area is housed in a tiny site-museum established in 1956-57. The excavated artifacts have also been conserved at Rajshahi’s Varendra Research Museum. Terracotta plaques, representations of various gods and goddesses, ceramics, coins, inscriptions, ornamental bricks, and other minor clay artifacts are among the Museum’s antiquities. Somapura Mahavihara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its historical significance. It is becoming one of Bangladesh’s most popular tourist spots.
8. Telhara University
Telhara is a village in the Indian state of Bihar’s Nalanda district. In ancient India, it was the location of a Buddhist monastery. Telhara could be ‘Tilas-akiya’ or ‘Tiladhak,’ the town Chinese explorer Hiuen Tsang saw and wrote about during his journeys in India in the 7th century AD. It is located around 33 kilometers from the ruins of the famous Nalanda University. So far, only hazy allusions have been found, but recent excavations at the mound imply that Telhara was an ancient institution, maybe even older than Nalanda and Vikramshila.
Telhara University ruins were discovered during the excavation of a 45-foot high mound in January 2014. Archeologists have dated the Telhara University to the Gupta period, between the fourth and eighth centuries, based on prior findings. However, archeologists unearthed bricks that were used to create the ancient university’s foundation during a recent dig at the Telhara site. The bricks are 42x32x6 cm in size and date from the Kushan Empire in the first century AD. This is solid evidence that Telhara University is older than Nalanda University in the fourth century and Vikramshila University in the seventh century.
The Telhara project, which began on December 26, 2009, has uncovered over 1,000 priceless artifacts from 30 trenches, including seals and seals, red sandstone, ancient pottery, bronze and stone statues of Buddha and other Hindu deities, miniature bronze and terracotta stupas, and statues and figurines dating from the Gupta (320-550 AD) and Pala (750-1174 AD) empires. The government plans to build a museum to house the antiques discovered on the site.
One of the descendents of Magadha ruler Bimbisara is claimed to have founded the mahavihara or university. In 1193, the Turkish Muslim army led by Bakhtiyar Khilji set fire to Nalanda University. During the dig, the team discovered a 1.5-foot-thick layer of ash, implying that Khilji also burned Telhara University on his route.
9. Jagaddala University
Jagaddala Mahavihara was a Buddhist monastery and study center in Varendra, which is now part of Bangladesh’s north Bengal region. It was founded by the latter kings of the Pāla dynasty, the most notable of whom is King Ramapala (c. 1077-1120), and it was the Pala Kings’ largest construction project.
Vajrayana Buddhism was Jagaddala’s specialization. At Jagadala, a huge number of manuscripts that would subsequently appear in the Kanjur and Tengjur were created or copied. The Subhitaratnakoa, the earliest dated anthology of Sanskrit verse, was most likely produced by Vidykara at Jaggadala at the end of the 11th century or the start of the 12th century.
When Muslim raids loomed likely in 1204, Sakyarbhadra, the final abbot of Nalanda Mahavihara and a key figure in spreading Buddhism to Tibet, is said to have fled to Tibet from Jagaddala. Sukumar Dutt, a historian, put the date of Jagadala’s final destruction as 1207; in any event, it appears to have been the last mahavihara to be destroyed.
10. Mithila University
Mithila was a pioneer in logic and science. It was so stringent in controlling its information, according to historian John Keay, that students were not allowed to take any books or even copies of lectures outside. They could only take their diplomas or degrees with them. Regardless of the fact that Mithila University is not included in India’s official history, it has been a major center of learning in the country since King Janak’s reign. Mithila University was the epicenter of the Brahmanical educational system. It is said that King Janak used to hold religious gatherings in which Sages and knowledgeable people participated. This university is said to have taught a variety of courses, including literature and fine arts, Vedas, science subjects, Nyaya Shastra, and others. At this university, Nyaya and Tarka Shastra rose to fame.
Gangesha Upadhaya, a great Indian mathematician and philosopher from the 12th century, formed a New Logic school here and wrote out Tattva Chintamani. This university had a rigorous examination system. Only after passing tests at the end of their studies did students receive their degrees.
Mithila University’s monopoly was disrupted by Nadia University, which specialized in logic as well. Vasudeva Sarvabhauma studied at Mithila University in the 15th century, but when he was stopped from transcribing the texts, he committed the entire Tattva Chintamani and the metrical part of Kusumanjali to memory. Then he went to Nadia and wrote down the texts he had memorized, establishing a new logic academy. Mithila was quickly surpassed by Nadia, who produced superior scholars.
Around the 12th century, many of the above universities came to an end. During the Muslim conquest of India by Bakhtiyar Khilji from Turkey in 1193 CE, universities such as Nalanda and Vikramashila were destroyed. Ancient Indian scientific knowledge in Mathematics, Astronomy, Alchemy, and Anatomy perished as a result of the destruction of these learning centers at Nalanda and other locations across northern India. It was a tremendous loss of precious, irreplaceable history and a repository of information and ancient wisdom for future generations.