The lost idea of Nalanda

In the last few years, the reputation of Nalanda University has suffered irreparable damage due to arbitrary appointments and dismissals

Nalanda University, founded in
427 CE, is now a UNESCO heritage site (file photo)
Nalanda University, founded in 427 CE, is now a UNESCO heritage site (file photo)

Pranav Chaudhary

“Nalanda is not just a name; it is an identity, an honour, a value, a mantra. It is pride, it is a saga. Nalanda is a proclamation of the truth that while books may burn in the flames, the flames cannot extinguish the knowledge,” waxed prime minister Narendra Modi while inaugurating the campus of the Nalanda University in Rajgir on 19 June 2024.

He also boasted that the new campus is a ‘Net Zero’ campus based on ‘net zero energy, emissions, water and net zero waste’. He posted a large number of photographs of himself walking around the ruins of what was once a great centre of learning.

Founded in 427 CE, around 500 years before Oxford University, Nalanda is often described as the world’s first residential university, which attracted 10,000 students from across Eastern and Central Asia. They gathered to learn medicine, logic, mathematics and — above all — Buddhist principles from some of the era’s most revered scholars.

Aryabhata, considered the father of Indian mathematics, is speculated to have headed the university in 6th century CE. (Aryabhata is believed to have been the first to come up the concept of the zero, which simplified mathematical computations and helped algebra and calculus.) Astronomy and ayurveda also flourished in the university besides Buddhist philosophy. The ruins, excavated in the 19th century, are now a UNESCO heritage site.

PM Modi and Bihar chief minister Nitish
Kumar inaugurating the campus in Rajgir, 19 June 2024 (file photo)
PM Modi and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar inaugurating the campus in Rajgir, 19 June 2024 (file photo)

When the idea of reviving Nalanda as a modern university was mooted during 2006–07, it was enthusiastically supported by the then prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh. A group of mentors was set up with Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen.

Sen was appointed chancellor in 2012 for a three-year period but before his term ended, he opted out of a second term, on the grounds that the Modi government was not just hostile to him but was treating the university ‘horribly’.

Media reports at the time, orchestrated by the government in New Delhi, vilified the Nobel Laureate and blamed him for exceeding his brief, for making arbitrary appointments, receiving half a million rupees every month as ‘salary’ and appointing undeserving academics as faculty. He was also accused of not living on campus. The vilification did not stop even after he left. In 2019, Bharti Jain, an editor in the Times of India repeated the same allegations on Twitter, all of which had been proved false.

In reality, Sen received neither salary nor honorarium from the university or the government. He provided his guidance on an honorary basis. In any case, chancellors were not expected to reside on campus. (The present chancellor, Arvind Panagaria, does not live on campus either.)

Five days after Narendra Modi inaugurated the campus this month, Sen still remains the villain. Swarajya, the pro-RSS and BJP magazine, has published a report blaming Sen for ‘almost’ crippling the project before he was allegedly ‘thrown out’ by Modi. In 2015, the government had conceded that a mere Rs 47 crore had been released of a budget of Rs 2,767 crore sanctioned in 2012. The ‘Net Zero’ campus inaugurated by PM Modi is estimated to have cost Rs 1,700 crore.

The sad truth is that Nalanda University today is a pale shadow of what was initially envisaged. Ranked 18th among the 24 universities in Bihar, Sen, it seems, remains a convenient scapegoat for the mess.

Nalanda University’s first and last convocation was held in 2016. As Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar acknowledged on 19 June, the university currently has only 400 students. (Sunaina Singh, vice chancellor since 2017, had claimed last year that there were one thousand students from 30 nationalities.) The real numbers do not figure even on the website. Neither does the website provide the academic background of faculty members, as is the norm.

Short-term recruitment of faculty members on a temporary, contractual or ad-hoc basis has discouraged qualified faculty from joining the university. Having failed to attract or retain distinguished scholars from India and abroad, Nalanda University has introduced several short-term diploma and certificate courses.

As a research university, Nalanda was primarily meant to provide postgraduate education and conduct advanced research, pointed out historian Murari Jha. ‘By handing out diplomas and certificates, Nalanda has become indistinguishable from the predatory institutions that are mushrooming across the country,’ he wrote.

A parliamentary committee report in 2019 discovered that, after 2016, contributions by participating countries dried up to ‘net zero’.


Dr Pankaj Mohan, professor emeritus at the Australian National University, Canberra, had joined Nalanda in 2015 and was the interim vice chancellor of Nalanda University till Sunaina Singh was appointed full-time VC in 2017.

Mohan, who had a tenured position at a central postgraduate university in Korea, was excited by the vision of reviving the idea of Nalanda in his home state. Today he is sad about the way many of his colleagues were hounded out. He remembers the vicious trolling after Narendra Modi stormed to power in 2014.

Dr Gopa Sabharwal, the founding vice chancellor, was vilified even more than Prof Sen, Dr Mohan recalls, adding that he had great respect for her “because of her internationally recognised scholarship, sophistication of judgment, honesty and human warmth. She had obtained her PhD degree at the Delhi School of Economics under Professor André Beteille, one of the foremost sociologists.... She took only one-third of the salary that the VC of Nalanda University was entitled to receive.”  

In 2014, Nalanda University admitted students in two schools: the School of Ecology and Environment Studies and the School of Historical Studies. In 2016, the School of Buddhist Studies was established. Two new schools that the Governing Board intended to establish in the subsequent academic year were the School of Public Health and the School of Languages, Linguistics and Literature.

Two Sinologist members of the Governing Board, Professor Tansen Sen from New York University and Professor Wang Bangwei from Peking University shouldered the responsibility of preparing a formal proposal on the Xuanzang Centre for Asian Studies.

The international standing of Amartya Sen and George Yeo ensured that donations from various sources were received between 2014 and 2016. Sen himself contributed 30,000 USD towards scholarships for Indian students.

“After Prof. Sen quit,” Dr Mohan recalls, “Nalanda didn’t receive any foreign donations, except 12,000 US dollars from one of my Korean friends.” And, thanks to Gopa Sabharwal, Nalanda received the rare gift of manuscripts and hundreds of books from the personal library of Dr Rajendra Prasad.

In the last few years, the reputation of Nalanda University has suffered irreparable damage due to arbitrary appointments and dismissals. By 2016, when George Yeo, the former foreign minister of Singapore and the second chancellor also quit, complaining of governmental interference, Nitish Kumar was disappointed enough to say, “The NDA government should not tamper with the essence of the idea of Nalanda”.

In 2024, the Bihar chief minister, having thrown in his lot with the NDA government, has clearly given up on the idea of Nalanda.

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