An Ancient Glory Rises

Centuries before Oxford University even opened its doors, a school in northeast India attracted thousands of the brightest minds from China, Persia and Turkey. Deeply influenced by Buddhist teachings, it was known as Nalanda—the "giver of knowledge"—and its vast campus included temples, meditation halls, gardens and a library filled with rare manuscripts. In keeping with a Buddhist tradition of openness to new ideas, the students studied theology along with medicine, astronomy and the arts. And while Europe was mired in the Dark Ages, these young scholars were encouraged to take part in vigorous discussions and to advance the intellectual debates of the day.

Over the decades, Nalanda declined in prominence. In the 12th century it was destroyed by Turkish-Muslim marauders who all but pushed Buddhism out of India. But now, centuries later, political leaders from throughout Asia have joined forces with Nobel-laureate economist Amartya Sen, the Dalai Lama and other notables to rebuild this once great institution. Over the next five years, they plan to spend $1 billion to establish a new Nalanda on a 200-hectare site not far from the old university. They will hire 450 teachers, including four dozen from abroad, and plan initially to enroll 1,150 students from throughout the world. The school's backers are hoping research will begin as early as next year.

The attempt to rebuild a world-class university in this remote corner of India reflects in part an effort to restore Asia's reputation as an intellectual heavyweight. But it is also driven by a recognition that Buddhism is prospering in India. Seven years ago, there were just 8 million Buddhists there out of a population of 1 billion, making it the country's fifth largest religion. Today there are more than 35 million Indian Buddhists, and demographers say the number is growing quickly, particularly among the poor.

Like the old Nalanda, Sen says, this new university will have a Buddhist outlook: "It is worth recollecting that 'Buddha' means 'enlightened'," he says. But he says it will also mimic the old Nalanda by encouraging students to go beyond the study of religion and classics into more-contemporary pursuits, including the arts, sciences and business. Students of all religions will be invited to attend.

Yet challenges abound, including alleged corruption and inefficiency in Bihar, the state where Nalanda is located. Mismanagement of the nearby Mahabodhi Temple, where Buddha attained enlightenment 2,500 years ago, has turned a hallowed site into a haven for thugs and unscrupulous monks (see related story). Critics say this kind of government apathy is a bad sign for Nalanda's prospects, though no one will go on the record for fear of reprisal. Meantime, many important details of the school have yet to be worked out, including whether to charge tuition. (The old Nalanda was free.)

Still, the idea of re-establishing this once pre-eminent university has some powerful momentum behind it. The governments of China, India, Japan and Singapore have all pledged to contribute the initial funds. Foreign ministers from Singapore and Japan have backed the project, hosting meetings for a board of overseers who are fleshing out programs of study and developing a budget and organizational structure for the new institution. Chinese and Indian government ministers plan to hold similar meetings later this year, and former Indian president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam has agreed to oversee the operations of the school.

Adding some theological heft to the project is the Dalai Lama, himself an accomplished Buddhist teacher of what he's called the "Nalanda tradition of wisdom." He has agreed to donate rare Tibetan-language translations of key Buddhist texts that had been destroyed at Nalanda centuries ago—suggesting the new university will be not only the giver of knowledge but a restorer as well.

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