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Nalanda Grapples With Making Pali Relevant 2500 Years Later

NNM Entrance

By Kalinga Seneviratne

This article is the 27th in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate

NALANDA, India (IDN) – It is believed that more than 2500 years ago Gauthama Buddha chose to preach in Pali rather than Sanskrit because the latter was the language of the elite while Pali was spoken by the masses. Today nobody speaks Pali in India, but, the Buddhist scriptures that were originally written in Pali are still used to educate monks as well as in Buddhist chantings.

When the Nalanda education tradition was revived in 1951 with the Indian government setting up the Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (NNM), Pali was given the prime focus in its teachings program. But today, the university is struggling to be relevant especially after Pali was abolished three years ago as part of the curriculum for the Indian Civil Service examination.

“There were no institutions in India in 1951 that taught Pali,” Dr Rana Purushottam, a Pali professor at NNM told Lotus News. “Pali is very important to the study of Buddhist scriptures and for the Theravada Buddhist tradition. During Muslim and British rule all Pali scripts disappeared from India.”

After Nalanda was destroyed by the invading Turkic Muslim invaders led by Bhaktiyar Khilji in the 12th century and its library – a great treasure of eastern wisdom – was burnt to the ground, its existence was almost wiped out from Indian memory, until NNM was established by the first post-independent President of India  Rajendra Prasad in 1951.

Fortunately, the ancient Pali scripts have been preserved in Sri Lanka and other Theravada Buddhist countries and after NNM was set up, they have translated and published these in Devanagari (ancient Indian script used to write Sanskrit) and also into Hindi language, with the help of Pali scholars from Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

“Pali is an academic language not the common language of the people today,” says Dr Purushottam. “Importance of teaching Pali today is to properly understand Buddhist scriptures to research Buddhist texts and interpret it in your own language. We see ourselves as the custodians of Pali tradition.”

Before coming to NNM to study Pali, Venerable Kemachar, a Buddhist monk from Assam often had to recite sutras in Pali for his devotees. “(Now) when I do (these) ceremonies for Upasakas (devotees) I can explain the meaning of the sutras to them when they ask for it,” he told Lots News. “It is very helpful for me what I’m studying here.”

NNM will be completing the 7th volume of the Pali-Hindi dictionary soon and a Pali-English dictionary is in the pipeline. Though the Pali Text Society in London has translated Pali texts to English, Dr Purushottam argues that it is a western interpretation and what NNM will do is an Asian work of interpreting the text.

NNM is located just across a river from the ancient ruins of Nalanda University visited by millions of tourists. Today there are over 550 students studying at the university with only 159 from the local area. Most students come from outside including a large number of monks from Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, as well as Tibetans.

Professor Baidyanath Labh, Vice Chancellor of NNM  says that his university is not an institution that solely trains monks. “We are not training monks the traditional way, for monastic life. There are other institutions for that,” he pointed out in an interview with Lotus News. “They meditate and practice their own norms and rituals but it is their private affairs.”

The university is funded by the Ministry of Culture, which has set up a division for Buddhist and Tibetan Institutions and under that established “Deemed Universities” in India. Nalanda is one specializing in Pali and Buddhist studies. Others are in Saranath (near the site of the Buddha’s first sermon) for Tibetan Buddhist studies, in Leh in Ladakh and in Arunachal Pradesh.

A “Deemed University” is allowed to give out degrees. NNM has Masters and Phd programs as well in addition to Bachelor’s and Diplomas. It has got the same seal of the ancient university.

Yet, NNM is not an institution that is inflexibly traditional. It is interpreting this traditional knowledge for the contemporary society. With Vipassana Bhavana (mindfulness) attracting global attention, in the Pali and Buddhist Studies syllabus Vipassana is also taught in relation to neuroscience, psychology and psychotherapy. They also teach Abhidhamma from a point of view of Buddhist psychology.

“When we say Abidhamma it is said that this is Buddhist psychology, when we talk about mind, serenity of mind, peace of mind. There are 121 different stages of mindly states. In India it is said, no other literature has paid so much attention to the condition of mind as Buddhist psychology has done,” explains Dr L.K Jha, a Buddhist Studies professor at NNM.

Thus, NNM is trying to reinvent its Pali courses to directly link it to areas known as “Engaged Buddhism” where knowledge from Pali texts could be applied to community development including in the community health sector. Phd students have been encouraged to do this in their field research.

The launch of the Nalanda International University by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs a decade ago at the East Asia Summit has created some confusion here as many of NNM staff are quick to point out that the ancient Nalanda University was revived in 1951.

The attraction of Nalanda is to relearn the ancient knowledge, says a former top student of NNM. “In Nava Nalanda Mahavihara we would like to read because the University is based on the oldest University .The oldest Mahavihara was the most important and famous centre of higher Buddhist education in India,” Jitendra Maurya, a former student and Pali Gold Medalist of NNM told Lotus News, who added that there are many learned Pali scholars here who gave him expert knowledge on the Buddhists texts.

Head of NNMs’s Department of Philosophy, Prof Buddhader Bhattacharya, says that they are trying to debunk the idea that when discussion on science ends that on philosophy begins. In the ancient Nalanda there has been a system called “vadha parampara” where before a student passes out he has to take part in a dialogue to prove that he has learned through the medium of dialogue. “We are trying to revive that (and) started the Nalanda dialogue,” he adds.

It’s being done by trying to create “a common platform of a scientist and a philosopher,” he explains. Bio scientists, physicists, and philologists come to Nalanda and deliberate for 3-4 days in panel discussion oriented special lectures. A philosopher provides his perspective of a theme and the scientist responds with his perception. In panel discussions both scientists and philosophers talk on a particular subject.

These 3-4 day Nalanda Dialogues have been going on since 2005 and the 13th Nalanda dialogue took place from January 21-23 this year.

“The knowledge disseminated here is very important,” argues Venerable Pannavasa, a student from Bangladesh. “All Buddhist countries need to support this university by sending students here. We need to follow the Nalanda tradition. It is very contemporary”. 

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May they attain Nibbana