Restoring Nalanda: A Lecture with Amartya Sen

Nalanda University in Bihar, India

NEW YORK, September 22, 2011 — "The modern world, to be sure, has a great deal to offer from which people in the past would have liked to have learned and would have been thrilled to learn, but the past too had some great examples of intellectual great truth that can both inspire and inform us today."

Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen offered this conclusion near the end of a 45-minute lecture at Asia Society on his efforts to revive the oldest university in the world, Nalanda, located in Bihar, India.

A topic close to Sen's heart from an early age, Nalanda dates back to the fifth or sixth century and was already 600 years old when the first European university — in Bologna, Italy — was established.

Evidence exists that other institutions of higher education were already established in Asia, such as the ancient university of Taxila in Pakistan, but Nalanda was the first university to educate in matters other than religion, which at that time and place was predominantly Buddhism. "Takshilla never tried to become a higher center of education the way Nalanda succeeded" in doing, Sen said.

Sen related the history of Nalanda from its founding and growth to its destruction during the Turkish Muslim invasion in 1193. That rich history aided the spread of knowledge in such areas as mathematics and astronomy throughout Asia, and indeed all around the world.

As one example, Sen described the linguistic development of the modern mathematic terms "sine"’ and "cosine": Sine is the Latin translation for the Arabic word jiba, which was translated from the Sanskrit jya-ardha, a word that was formulated at the time of Nalanda’s existence.

Equally intriguing, as Sen explained, is the influence Nalanda had on Chinese academics, as it was the only university outside China to attract well-known Chinese scholars and intellects. In the ancient world, China and India birthed generations of innovators and pioneers who constructed the foundation of certain subjects "imperative" in the modern world, like math.

Today, as these countries become two of the most important players in the international playing field, Sen said, it is more important than ever to remember their history of higher learning, and the collaboration and respect that prevailed not only between them but across much of modern-day Asia. Reviving Nalanda, Sen claimed, is a "pan-Asian initiative."

Sen hopes the Nalanda project will honor the "long history of higher education in India that is hardly recognized," in addition to becoming a center for aspiring academics all over Asia. "I think it will be quite an exciting thing not only for India, but for Asia and the rest of the world."

Reported by Amaani Hamid