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Universities in ancient India

Ancient India had many universities to which people from all over the world came to learn. Some of these universities may be well known to you. But in this post we will discuss about all the famous and not so famous universities of Ancient India where people from far off places came to study.

The root of most of these universities lies in the ancient Gurukul system of India. As the student strength of these gurukuls grew either due to prestige of the Acharya or some other factors like location, etc. Slowly, they turned into universities. These universities served as centers for advanced learning.

Some of these institutions of higher learning and education in ancient India were:

Takshashila or Taxila

Source: www.aicte-india.org

Takshashila, was one of the earliest known university in the world. Takshashila is perhaps best known because of its association with Chanakya. The famous treatise Arthashastra by Chanakya, is said to have been composed in
Takshashila itself.

There is some disagreement about whether Takshashila can be considered a university. While some consider Taxila to be an early university or center of higher education, others do not consider it a university in the modern
sense, in contrast to the later Nalanda University.

The institution is very significant in Buddhist tradition as well because it is believed that the Mahayana sect of Buddhism took shape there.

Alumni

  • The revered Sanskrit scholar and grammarian Panini taught at Takshashila. He produced his best work called Ashtadhyayi (eight chapters) there. It was a complex, rule-based grammar book of Sanskrit that survives in its entirety to this day.
  • Charaka, who was a famous physician taught there. He wrote Charaka Samhita here.
  • Chanakya(or Kautilya) who wrote Arthashastra while teaching here. He also helped Chandragupta in consolidating whole of India under one rule.
  • Jivaka Komarabhacca, who was a great surgeon
  • Vishnu Sharma, who was a great author
  • Maurya emperor Chandragupta

Nalanda

Source: www.aicte-india.org

Nalanda was an ancient center of higher learning in Bihar, India widely believed to be founded in 427 by Kumargupta who belonged to Gupta dynasty, he was a son of chandragupta II and functioned till 1197. It was a Buddhist center for learning, but it also trained students in fine arts, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, politics and the art of war.

The center had eight separate compounds, 10 temples, meditation halls, classrooms, lakes and
parks. It had a nine-story library where monks meticulously copied books and documents so
that individual scholars could have their own collections.

Hsuan Tsang, the famous pilgrim from China came here and studied and taught for 5 years. Nalanda University at that time had over 10,000 students and 3,000 teachers. For some 700 years, between the 5th and 12th Centuries, Nalanda was the center of scholarship and Buddhist studies in the ancient world. Nalanda University attracted pupils and scholars from Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey.

At the beginning of the 12th Century, the Muslim invader Bakhtiyar Khalji sacked the university and set its great library on fire and gutted over 9 million manuscripts.

Heiun Tsang had studied Yoga shastra under the highest authority of the time – Silabhadra. He also studied Nyaya, Hetuvidya, Shabdavidya, and the Sanskrit grammar of Panini.

Nalanda mainly flourished under the patronage of the Gupta Empire as well as emperors such as Harsha and later, the rulers of the Pala Empire.

Alumni of Nalanda University

  • Nagarjuna
  • Aryadeva
  • Dharmapala
  • Silabhadra
  • Santarakshita
  • Kamalaseela
  • Bhaviveka
  • Dignaga
  • Dharmakeerty
  • Heiun Tsang

Ancient Mithila University

Born out of philosophical conferences held by Videha King Janaka, the king of Mithila, father of Sita.

Raja Janaka, being a scholar himself, used to hold philosophical conferences of rishis. One of the most famous conference finds mentions of Yagyavlkya and Gargi Vachaknai debate which Yagyavlkya won.

Mithila specialized in logic and scientific subjects. The monopoly of Mithila University was broken by the Nadia University, which also specialized in logic.

Alumni of Mithila University

  • Gangesha Upadhyaya founded navya-nyaya and wrote tattava chintamani.
  • Vasudeva Sarvabhauma

Nadia Academy

The story goes that Vasudeva Sarvabhauma in the 15th century, studied at Mithila University but when he was prevented from copying the texts, he committed to memory, the whole of Tattva Chintamani and the metrical part of Kusumanjali. 

Then, in Nadia, he wrote down the texts he had memorized and founded a new academy of logic. Nadia soon overtook Mithila by producing better scholars.

Ujjaini University

One university that simply stands out for its academic output in astronomy and mathematics is Ujjaini (also called Ujjain), which was equipped with an elaborate observatory and stood on the zero meridians of longitude of those times.

Brahmagupta was among the most celebrated astronomers of Ujjaini university who continued the tradition of Varahamihira and made significant contributions to mathematics. 

He worked on trigonometrical formulae, quadratic equations, area of a cyclic quadrilateral, arithmetic progression, and improved Aryabhata’s sine tables. 

In his treatise Brahmasphutasiddhanta, he was the first to treat zero as a number in its own right, rather than as simply a placeholder digit. Brahmagupta’s works reached the court of Khalifa al-Mansur in Baghdad and played a pathbreaking role in making the Arabs conversant with Indian astronomy and mathematics. 

Later, this knowledge was transmitted to Europe. The tradition of Brahmagupta was continued by Bhaskara II, also called Bhaskaracharya who became the head of the astronomical observatory at Ujjaini. 

He wrote the famous Siddhantasiromani and Lilavati. J. J. O’Connor and E. F. Robertson are quoted to have said in their paper for the School of Mathematics and Statistics that Bhaskaracharya “reached an understanding of the number systems and solving equations, which was not to be achieved in Europe for several centuries.” 

He was hailed as the first mathematician to write a work with full and systematic use of the decimal number system.

Bhaskaracharya is also considered the founder of differential calculus, who applied it centuries before Newton and Leibniz. He too had a profound impact on Islamic mathematicians just like the earlier acharyas of Ujjaini.

Valabhi University, Gujarat (Maitrak to Arab raids)

Valabhi was the capital of the Maitraka empire. It is located in Vallabhipur, Bhavnagar district of present day Gujarat. It was the schools for Hinayana Buddhism.

The other main subjects taught at the university were Statesmanship, Economics, Book-keeping, Business and Agriculture.

By the middle of the 7th century, Vallabhi had become famous for teaching Buddhist philosophy and Vedic sciences.

Sharda Peeth University, Kashmir

Sharda Peeth was among the most prominent temple universities in the Indian subcontinent. Known in particular for its library, stories recount scholars travelling long distances to access its texts. It has played a key role in the development and popularization of the Sharada script in North India.

Library at Sharada Peeth

Sharada Peeth library was considered the best world over, was also valued by scholars across the Indian subcontinent for its library, and stories detail long journeys they would take to consult it.

  • In the 11th century, the Vaishnava saint Swami Ramanuja traveled from Srirangam to Sharada Peeth to refer to the Brahma Sutras, before commencing work on writing his commentary on the Brahma sutras, the Sri Bhasya.
  • 17th-century birch bark manuscript of Pāṇini’s grammar treatise from Sharada Peeth

Important Students

  • Kumarajiva
  • Thonmi Sambhota
  • Rinchen Zangpo
  • The Kashmiri historian Kalhana Pandit
  • Adi Shankara

Jagaddala University

The Jaggadala Vihara in Varendrabhumi (now Bangladesh) was also an important centre of learning in the early 11th century. It was established by the king Kampala

According to Tibetan works, it was at Jagaddala where many sacred Sanskrit texts were translated into the Tibetan language.

Telhara

Telhara finds mentions in the writings of Hiuen Tsang and i-Tsing.

Kanthalloor Shala

Kanthalloor shala was a temple university situated in Thiruvananthapuram. Cholas were the patrons of this university. It was known as the Nalanda of South. The Kanthalloor Shala was once a famous center of knowledge and due to the quality of education provided by this ancient university, it attracted scholars from other parts of India and Sri Lanka.

In Kuvalayamala written by a Jain monk from Rajasthan mentions the variety of subjects being taught – Vedas, grammar and philosophy (Buddhist, Jain, Hindu philosophies, Ajivika, materialistic Charvaka as well as Lokayata philosophies), martial arts, music and painting.

What set Kanthalloor apart from other ancient Indian universities of that era was the diversity in the subjects it offered. At Kanthalloor, students were taught subjects such as Vedas, Astrology, Chemistry, Goldsmithy, Medicine, Music and even Atheism and Magic which until then were considered taboo in other universities.

Nagarjuna Vidyapeeth

It was named after famous Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna Vidyapeeth was situated in South India on the banks of the Krishna river.

Its library housed on the top floor of the five story building had an enormous collection of the Buddhist philosophy, science and medicine.

The enormity of the collection is borne out by the fact that it not only had works on the Buddhist literature, but also on several branches of scientific knowledge, such as, Botany, Geography, Mineralogy and Medicine.

It was a great attraction for scholars from other ancient Indian universities and from other countries, like, China, Burma, and Ceylon.

Pushpagiri Vihara, Odisha

Pushpagiri finds mention in the writings of Xuanzang. He mentions Pushpagiri as an important was an ancient Buddhist mahavihara or monastic complex. Pushpagiri was mentioned in the writings of the Chinese traveller Xuanzang and some other ancient sources.

The visit of Xuanzang indicates that Pushpagiri was an important Buddhist site in ancient India. Along with Nalanda, Vikramashila, Odantapuri, Takshashila and Vallabhi, it is believed to be a major ancient center of learning. It flourished between 3rd and 11th centuries CE.

Odantapuri, Bihar (550 – 1040)

Odantapuri (also called Odantapura or Uddandapura) was a prominent Buddhist Mahavihara in what is now Bihar, India. It is considered the second oldest of India’s Mahaviharas after Nalanda University and was situated in Magadha.

Vikramasila

Vikramashila was one of the two most important centres of learning in India during the Pala Empire, along with Nalanda. Its location is now the site of Antichak village, Bhagalpur district in Bihar.

Vikramshila University was built by King Dharampala in the 8th century, again as a rival of Nalanda, but it also collaborated with it. The alumni of this university are said to have practically built the culture and civilization of Tibet. 

Vikramashila was established by the Pala emperor Dharmapala (783 to 820 AD) in response to a supposed decline in the quality of scholarship at Nalanda. Atiśa, the renowned pandita, is sometimes listed as a notable abbot.

Unlike other ancient places of learning, Vikramshila opened its gates to only those who wished to become Buddhist monks. After attaining their education, these monks traveled to far-off lands to spread Buddhism.

It is stated that Vikramshila campus had six different colleges with each one imparting a different specialization. Subjects such as Sanskrit grammar, Logic, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Buddist Tantra and Ritualism were in vogue.

As per the accounts of Tibetan pilgrim monks, it was at Vikramshila where the culture of awarding degrees and recognition first started.

The titles of Mahapandit and Pandit were accorded as per merit to those who completed their education. The extraordinary alums had their portraits painted on the walls of the university.

Morena golden triangle university

Other honorable mentions:

  • Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh (8th century – modern times)
  • Somapura Mahavihara, Bangladesh
  • Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu
  • Bikrampur Vihara, Bangladesh
  • Manyakheta, Karnataka
  • Ratnagiri, Orissa
  • Sunethradevi Pirivena, Sri Lanka (1415 – )
  • Nagarjunakonda, Andhra Pradesh
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