The education system in ancient India was highly developed and sophisticated. Universities such as Takshashila and Nalanda were renowned centers of learning and attracted students from all over the world. These universities offered a wide range of subjects, including medicine, mathematics, astronomy, religion, and philosophy, and were staffed by highly educated scholars.
The education system was based on a Guru-shishya tradition, where students lived with their teachers and learned through discussion, debate, and practical application. The ancient Indian education system emphasized the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and placed a strong emphasis on ethical and moral values.
10 Ancient Universities of India
Ancient educational institutions in India attracted numerous famous scholars, scientists, and teachers who taught thousands of students from various regions. Today’s discussion will focus on India’s remarkable educational heritage and its historic universities, the ruins of which still depict its former grandeur and enchanting atmosphere.
1. Nalanda university, Bihar
The Nalanda university, also known as Nalanda Mahavihara, was a Buddhist monastery located in Bihar, India, which also served as a center for teaching and learning. It is estimated to have operated between the 5th century and 12th century, with more than 600 years of flourishment.
Nalanda was one of the largest educational institutions during its time, attracting prominent Buddhist philosophers from various countries and numerous pilgrims. Today, the ruins of Nalanda are a popular tourist destination and historical monument in the Indian state of Bihar.
Nalanda reached its peak of prominence during the Gupta dynasty, under the rule of Bakhtiyar Khilji. The Pala dynasty king Dharmapala, who succeeded the Gupta dynasty, continued to support the operation of Nalanda.
Chinese traveler and Buddhist scholar Xuanzang of the 7th century documented the university. According to his account, it had 1000 professors, 10,000 students, nine-story buildings, 6 temples, 7 monasteries, and a library that stored 9 million books.
Nalanda was also where the fundamental principles of Mahayana Buddhism were developed, which later became the foundation for most schools of Buddhism in the Far East.
2. Takshashila university, Gandhara, now Pakistan
Some academics claim that the Ancient Takshashila University was possibly the world’s first university, although the concept of a university as we know it today did not exist at that time. The structure of the Takshashila university still exists today as an archaeological site in the Punjab region of modern-day Pakistan.
It is mentioned in various historical texts and is believed to have operated for several centuries, from 700 BC to the 6th century. Over 10,000 students from present-day India, China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and other Southeast Asian countries studied there.
Along with their students, ancient teachers delved into topics like the universe and existence. Students learned about medicine, art, astronomy, natural science, trade, magic, snake spells, and more.
The famous Brahmin Chanakya (also known as Kautilya) was a graduate and professor at this ancient university. The linguist Panini also studied at Takshashila and compiled the first normative grammar of Sanskrit, the Eight Book, which contains 3959 sutras (rules). The site of the former university was declared a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site in 1980.
3. Vikramshila University, Bhagalpur, Bihar
The true details about the famous Vikramshila university were revealed in the 1980s during the Vikramshila project when Dr. B.S. Verma made the astonishing discovery of its ruins. According to his findings, the university was located in the present-day village of Antichak, Kahalagaon, in the Bhagalpur district.
The university was established by monk Kamapala, with support from Pala king Dharmapala. Other Pala rulers, such as Yasapala, also continued to support the university’s operations and maintenance.
Tantric Buddhism was highly sought after at the university. Its most famous scholar was Atisha Dipankara Snijnana, who was widely known as a Buddhist preacher in Tibet and greatly revered by Tibetans. The university met the same fate as Nalanda University, being destroyed by Bakhtiyar Khilji. The remains still exist today and are a major tourist destination in Bihar.
4. Vallabhi University, Gujarat
Vallabhi University was established by King Bhattarka of the Maitraka dynasty in modern-day Gujarat. It was renowned for teaching Hinayana Buddhism and received generous support from Maitrak rulers who aimed to promote and strengthen Buddhist education at the university.
By the 7th century, Vallabhi had become as well-known and prosperous as Nalanda University and was visited by the Chinese Buddhist scholar and traveler, Xuanzang. According to him, the university was a popular destination for international students who studied a range of subjects, including comparative religion, Hindu philosophy, Buddhist philosophy, politics, law, agriculture, and economics.
The university operated from 475 to 1200 AD, but its downfall came at the hands of repeated Arab attacks which defeated the Maitrak dynasty and ultimately led to the university’s destruction.
5. Odantapuri University, Bihar
Odantapuri University was established in Magadha, modern-day Bihar, located six miles from Nalanda. It was founded by the first Pala ruler Gopala in the 7th century and was known for its education in religion and Buddhism. It was attended by about 12,000 students and was taught by renowned professors like Acharya Shri Ganga, a former student of the university.
However, like other ancient universities, it was destroyed by Turkish invader Bakhtiyar Khilji, who mistook its high walls for fortresses and saw the monks as idolatrous Brahmins who were wiser and more knowledgeable than his own scholars and princes.
6. Mithila University, Janakpur
Although it is not widely recognized, Mithila University was a crucial center of education during King Janak’s reign. It was a hub of the Brahmanical educational system, where King Janak is said to have hosted religious gatherings attended by sages and learned individuals. The university offered a diverse curriculum, including literature, fine arts, Vedas, science, Nyaya Shastra, and more, with Nyaya and Tarka Shastra being the main focus.
In the 12th century, Gangesha Upadhaya, a famous Indian mathematician and scholar, founded a logic school at the university. He even composed the work Tattva Chintamani. The university had a rigorous examination system, with students only earning degrees after passing tests upon completion of their studies.
7. Pushpagiri University, Odisha
Located in Kalinga (modern-day Cuttack and Jajpur, Odisha), Pushpagiri University was founded in the final years of BCE, around the same time as Nalanda University. Some believe that it was founded by Emperor Ashoka. The University was spread across three adjacent hills – Lalitgiri, Ratnagiri, and Udayagiri – and offered a variety of subjects, drawing students from around the world.
Chinese traveler Xuanzang provided a detailed account of Pushpagiri University, which received support from local and far-off rulers, and even a well-known Buddhist monk Prajna from Gandhara came to study. Unfortunately, the University fell into decline during the Muslim rule, due to a lack of support.
8. Sharada Peeth Temple University, Kashmir
This temple-based university in ancient India was a renowned center of learning located in Kashmir, which is now part of Pakistan and is considered one of the 51 Shakti Peethas, where the right hand of Sati is said to have fallen.
Many famous scholars studied at this temple university, including historian Kalhana, philosopher Adi Shankara, Buddhist scholar Kumarajiva, Tibetan translator Vairotsana, and Tibetan scholar Thonmi Sambhota. The exact date of its establishment is uncertain, but it is estimated to be over 2,500 years old and possibly even several thousand years old.
9. Somapura University, Bangladesh
Somapura University was a significant center of learning in ancient India, comparable in size to Nalanda University. It was founded in the late 8th century by Pala king Dharmapala and attracted students from distant regions. The curriculum covered subjects related to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, and the architecture reflected these three traditions. It flourished for over 400 years until the 12th century, when it was destroyed by Muslim invaders.
10. Jagaddala University, North Bengal
Jagaddala University, founded by Pala king Rampala in the early 11th century in the Varendra region, North Bengal (currently in Bangladesh) was considered one of the five great ancient Indian universities, alongside Nalanda, Vikramshila, Sompura, and Odantapuri. The university offered a wide range of subjects, including Sanskrit, and attracted students from distant places to study Vajrayana Buddhism. Buddhist scholar Vidyakara compiled the Sanskrit verse anthology “Subhasita Ratna Dosa” at the university, and many sacred Tibetan texts were also written there.
Rise and Fall of these Ancient Universities
The rise and fall of ancient universities in India can be traced back to the golden era of Indian education and culture, during which institutions like Takshashila, Nalanda, and Vallabhi flourished as centers of learning and enlightenment. These universities attracted students and scholars from far and wide and became renowned for their high standards of education and their contributions to fields such as science, philosophy, and religion.
However, over time, the universities faced various challenges and obstacles, such as invasions by foreign powers, political unrest, and financial difficulties. As a result, many of the universities gradually declined, and eventually disappeared from the cultural and intellectual landscape of India. The exact reasons for their decline vary, but a combination of factors such as resource depletion, destruction by invading armies, and the shift of cultural and economic power from India to other regions of the world likely contributed to their downfall.
These are just a few examples of how ancient India was renowned for its education, particularly with the growth of Buddhism. Monks established these institutions to engage in educational and spiritual pursuits. Despite the decline of ancient universities in India, their legacy continues to inspire generations of students and scholars, and their contributions to human knowledge and civilization are still recognized and celebrated today.