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Study says the Kumbh Mela is the Greatest Show on Earth




The Kumbh Mela, one of the largest religious gatherings in the world, to be held at Sangam in Allahabad early next year has been described as the “greatest show on Earth” in a four-year study.

Up to 100 million people will gather on the shores of the Ganges to celebrate the Hindu festival commencing on 14th January 2013.

For four years the team of British and Indian researchers have been studying the event, seeking to understand how people treat each other, how they experience the crowd and what impact the crowd has on their everyday lives.

They will present their findings at a special event at Allahabad University on 24th January 2013. The study described the Kumbh Mela as an incredible event and the “greatest show on Earth”.

The Kumbh Mela attracts worldwide attention as a remarkable spectacle: millions of pilgrims bathing in the Ganges, parades of gurus on thrones, flanked by naked Naga Sadhus smeared in ash.

This research, led by Nick Hopkins at the University ofDundee, Prof Stephen Reicher at the University of St Andrews, and Prof Narayanan Srinivasan at the University ofAllahabad shows it to be remarkable in other ways as well.

How is it that a vast city of strangers emerges from nothing every year, and yet it functions harmoniously? How is it that people thrive in an environment that is densely crowded, intensely noisy and often insanitary?

The event in Allahabad will provide the answers to these and other questions about the Mela. It will also provide insights that are relevant, not only to the Mela, but go to the heart of processes that make human social life possible, which create (or undermine) social cohesion and which shape our sense of well being.

“Sometimes we look at the Mela as an exotic event and focus on how different the pilgrims are from us. Our work shows how the pilgrim experience has lessons for all of us about how to create a good community and to ensure that people thrive in the community,” Hopkins said.

“By all the tenets of conventional wisdom, the Mela shouldn’t work. It is crowded, noisy and unsanitary. One might expect people to be stressed, quarrelsome and conflictual. Yet the event is harmonious and people are serene. Studying the Mela has forced us to reconsider many basic beliefs about how people function in society,” Reicher said.

Narayanan said, “This has been the largest ever social science collaboration between the UK and India and possibly the most successful. The event in Allahabad will be very exciting. It will reveal findings that are sure to surprise people. It will change their understanding of crowds and communities.”

League Culture Desk
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Determining the Age of the Saraswat Community

Saraswats, who once lived on the riverbed of Sarasvati, have a history equivalent to that of Rigveda.



Who are Saraswats?

In India, there are at least five Brahmin communities who claim themselves as ‘Saraswat Brahmins’, including Gaud Saraswat Brahmins, Chitrapur Saraswats, Rajapur/Bhalavalikar Saraswat Brahmins, Kashmiri Saraswats, Punjabi Saraswats, Sindh Saraswats, Kutch Saraswats and Rajasthan Saraswats.

This community, as a whole, has produced eminent personalities including Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr TMA Pai, Nandan Nilekani, Girish Karnad, Sachin Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar, Deepika Padukone, Shyam Benegal, and Guru Dutt.

Though being miles apart from each other for ages all Saraswat legends claim of their ancestors having once lived on the banks of now extinct river Saraswati.

Today, however, there is no doubt that Saraswats are among the oldest living communities in India – still preserving their own indigenous culture which essentially hails from the Rigveda – that which is believed to have been written by their forefathers during their stint on banks of river Saraswati.

Their Relationship with Saraswati River:

Even to this day many Saraswat’s in their daily Sandhyavandana rite swears their allegiance to Rigveda. This apart, several of Saraswat’ rituals are conducted by reciting the hymns from the texts from Rigveda; firmly establishing links between Saraswats, Saraswati River and Rigveda.

According to two distinguished historians and Vedic Scholars, Dr NS Rajaram and Dr David Frawley for Vedic Aryans the holiest river was “not Ganga but Saraswati” because, they say,

“In Rigveda Ganga is mentioned only once while Saraswati is lauded no less than fifty times.”

There is at least one whole hymn devoted to Saraswati River. In a famous hymn, Saunaka Gritasamdathe seer of the second Mandala lauds the Saraswati as ambitame, naditame, devitame Saraswati:

Sarasvati, the best of mothers, the best of rivers, the best of Goddess.

To follow the very descriptions given in the Vedic literature, Saraswati was the greatest river that then used to flow to the west of the Yamuna but to the east of the Sutlej.

According to the seventh Mandala of the Rigveda attributed to the famous Rishi (Sage) Vasistha, the Saraswati was a mighty stream that flowed from the “mountain to the sea” sustaining the lives of Vedic people:

Pure in her stream, from the mountain to the sea, filled with bounteous abundance for the worlds, nourishing with her flow the children of Nahusa.

Interestingly, this very reference ‘from mountain to sea’ gives us a valuable pointer to Saraswati’ geography. But today we have no river called Sarasvati flowing in this country or elsewhere. The question then is: whatever became of it?

Thanks to archaeology and satellite photography we now know that Saraswati gradually became weaker and finally dried up completely around 1900 or 2000 BCE or even a little bit earlier.

According to several recent findings Vedic Saraswati once used to flow mainly through the channel of what is now an insignificant flow called the Ghaggar close to Indus thus making part of what we now know Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro civilizations. Even Satellite photos have shown that the Ghaggar was once a great river. Paul-Henri Francfort who recently surveyed the area calls it the “immense Ghaggar system”.

Intensive research carried by Dr Frawley and Dr Rajaram has completely debunked the Aryan-Invasion theory. They have also strongly established that the so-called Indus Valley or the Harappa civilization (of which Saraswati River is a part) did not consist of just a few urban settlements. It was a part of a vast civilization that stretched from the borders of Iran to East UP, with some sites as far south of Godavari River; as far as its duration is concerned, it represents a continuous evolution dating back to 7000 BCE in terms of the sites and more are being found all the time. So we can see that this great civilization spanned over 5000 years!

Saraswati’s Extinction:

Regarding the ending of this great civilization, thanks again to recent archaeological and ecological findings, we now know how that end came about. By putting together those pieces of evidence on the basis of archaeological and satellite studies it was most certainly due to the gradual depletion of water resources in North India that culminated in a calamitous drought in the 2200 BCE to 1900 BCE period.

Fig. 1: Map showing the flow of Saraswati from ‘mountain to sea’

Fig. 2: Area covered by Indus-Saraswati civilization and its overlap with the area covered by early Vedic Civilization.

This was, also, a global phenomenon that affected civilization across an immense belt from southern Europe to India. The Akkadian (Sumerian) civilization of Mesopotamia was practically wiped out around 2200 BCE, while in Egypt, the so-called Old-Empire collapsed. In India itself, the mature Harappa civilization of which Saraswati was an integral part came to an abrupt end and there were severe dislocations. As SR Rao observed:

In circa 1900 BCE most of the mature Harappa sites were wiped out forcing the inhabitants to seek new lands for settlement. They seem to have left in a great hurry and in small groups, seeking shelter initially on the eastern flank of the Sutlej and the Ghaggar and gradually moving towards the Yamuna. The refugees from Mohenjo-Daro and southern sites in Sind fled to Saurashtra and later occupied the interior of the Peninsula.

That this was not restricted to India is clear from a recently concluded major French-American study in Mesopotamia. The report of the study notes:

At 2000 BCE, a marked increase in aridity and wind circulation, subsequent to a volcanic eruption, induced considerable degradation in land-use conditions… this abrupt climatic change evidently caused abandonment of Tell Leilan, regional desertion, and the collapse of Akkadian empire based in southern Mesopotamia. A synchronous collapse in adjacent regions suggests that the impact of the abrupt climatic change was extensive.

Whether a volcanic eruption was sufficient to trigger a drought so destructive may still be open to doubt; but whatever caused the draught, its effect now seems established beyond all doubts. The authors summarize their momentous findings as follows:

The abrupt climatic change that generated Habur hiatus I and the associated Akkadian-Gutti-Ur III collapse are synchronous with climate change and collapse phenomenon documented in the Aegean, Egypt, Palestine, and the Indus. The reoccupation of the Habur plains [in the northern Mesopotamia] in the 19thcentury BC and the sudden emergence of centralized Amorite control… was evidently facilitated by the amelioration of climatic conditions…

These very recent reports make it clear that the ending of Harappan civilization was a part of a worldwide climate change phenomenon that affected all ancient civilizations.

Fig 3: The course of Vedic Saraswati from “mountain to sea”

Fig 4: The source of Saraswati – Glacier at Garhwal

Determining the Age of Saraswat Community:

There is no doubt that Saraswats were the people who played a pivotal role in the authoring of Rigveda. Thus the age of the Rigveda can easily be regarded as the age of the early Saraswats.

Thanks to our understanding of ancient metallurgy, we can now say that Rigveda must be older than 3500 BCE.

Kunal, a recently discovered Saraswati site in Haryana has yielded silver ornaments. This shows that their metallurgy must have been quite advanced; for unlike gold, silver never appears in pure form and has to be extracted by separating it from other metals like copper. The archaeological research dates Kunal to be much earlier than 3000 BCE.

The presence of silver ornaments at Kunal shows that it is much later than the society described in the Rigveda. This is because Rigveda does not know silver. The oldest Sanskrit word for silver is Rajata Hiranyam – literally ‘white gold’ – and it is mentioned for the first time in Yajurveda.

This evidently disapproves the currently ascribed date of Rigveda as 1200 BCE as Kunal is evidently the last phase of the Saraswati civilization. Interestingly though there are proofs to suggest a date marking the end of the Saraswati civilization there is no evidence to suggest its exact beginnings.

Thus Dr Rajaram has suggested that:

All we have to do is look hard and deep along the Sarasvati and other Vedic rivers. Such sites are likely to date to 3500 BCE or earlier. These, when found, are likely to be from the Age of Rigveda. The key identifying factor will be the relatively primitive metallurgy of their artifacts.


Today, though we have archaeology telling us that: there was extensive trade between the Harappans, Egyptians and Sumerians besides presenting existence of science and mathematics much advanced to that age, our understanding of the Harappa Mohenjo-Daro or better put Sindu-Saraswati civilization is incomplete.

Though we have evidence to suggest the existence of now-extinct Saraswati we are yet to find evidence to suggest the beginning of the civilization. However, with the available information we can fairly conclude that:

  1. Saraswats, who once lived on the riverbed of Sarasvati, have a history equivalent to that of Rigveda.
  2. The riverbed of an extinct river found by American and French satellites near Harappan excavation are of Saraswati as the very description of the riverbed matches with that of Saraswati mentioned in Rig Veda.
  3. The Kunal excavations discovered on the riverbed of Sarasvati belong to the Yajurveda period dating earlier than 3000 BCE. And because Rigveda was written much earlier than Yajurveda the current idea of Rigveda being authored around 1300 BCE is false.
  4. Given this, we can firmly conclude that Sarasvati civilization of which Saraswats were one an integral part has a history of at least five thousand years.

Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the personal opinions of the author. League of India does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

Reprinted with permission from

U. Mahesh Prabhu
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Udupi Mahesh Prabhu is a media, management and political consultant. He’s co-founder and director of Vedic Management Center. He’s also a fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland, London (UK) and Member of the International Federation of Journalists (USA).

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Roots of Indian Science: Part C – Ancient Indian Universities

Universities and institutions of higher learning existed in India much before in any other country in the world.




Universities and institutions of higher learning existed in India much before in any other country of the world. In view of the flourishing education and general prosperity prevailing in India, it became a target for invaders who attacked scholars, destroyed institutions, demolished buildings, looted gold, silver, precious stones as well as valuables texts and writings.

The destruction of the universities at Nalanda, as well as of many temples and monasteries throughout India which housed centres of learning, is considered by many historians to be mainly responsible for the sudden demise of ancient Indian scientific thought in mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, and anatomy. When rest of the world started advancing in science in the 17th century, India was on the back foot having lost everything including the scholars and treatises that contained a vast treasure of knowledge.

The period when Nalanda University ceased to exist was around the same time some of the great universities of the western world came into being. Only the universities of Al-Azhar in Cairo, Bologna in Italy and Oxford in England existed before the destruction of Nalanda took place [1].


There were only three universities that existed in the world before the destruction of Nalanda
University (1193AD) in Bihar, India [2]. Many such universities existed in India imparting higher education. Majority of them were Buddhist monasteries or Hindu temples where higher education in medicine, administration, art, craft and technology was given.

Students not only from India, far away places in India but also from neighbouring countries such as China, Magnolia, Persia used to visit these universities, temples, and monasteries to get an education.

All such educational institutions were destroyed by invaders who also killed the monks, acharyas as well as the students. But inspite of such invasions, people from abroad used to visit India for higher education. 2

Takshashila in the north-west region of India (800-500BC), Pushpagiri in Odisha (200BC-1000AD), Nalanda in central India (500BC-1200AD), Varanasi in north India (400BC-1200AD), Kanchipuram in south India (200BC onwards), Odantapuri in Bihar (550–1040AD), Somapura in Bangladesh (700-1100AD), Sharada Peeth, now in Pakistan (700-1200AD), Jagaddala in West Bengal (100-1200AD), Nagarjunakonda in Andhra Pradesh (200AD), Vikramashila in Bihar (800-1040AD), Valabhi in Gujarat (300AD), and Manyakheta in Karnataka (800-1000AD) were some of the places of higher learning in ancient India. Some of these are discussed in this article.

Takshashila (800-500BC):

In the north-west region of India, Takshashila kingdom comprised the present day Punjab, Pakistan, Afghanistan and parts of Central Asia. Bharata, the younger brother of Lord Rama, conquered Gandhara and established the kingdom of Takshashila. He named this kingdom after his first son, Taksha.

The present-day Peshawar in Pakistan was named after his second son Pushkal. Takshashila is called Taxila in Ptolemy’s Geography. In the Historia Trium Regum (History of the Three Kings) written by John of Hildesheim around 1375AD, the city is called Egrisilla[2].

Takshashila also finds a mention in Mahabharata – citing Dhaumya, as the Acharya of Takshashila. It was at Takshashila, that the sage Vaishampayana rendered the first recorded narration of the Mahabharata to Janmajeya.

Takshashila also finds a reference in the Buddhist work Jataka, written in Sri Lanka around the 5th century AD. The Jataka literature mentions Takshashila as the capital of the kingdom of Gandhara as a great centre of learning.

Takshashila also finds a reference in the Chinese monk Faxian’s (also called Fa-Hien) book who visited Takshashila in 405BC. Another Chinese monk Xuanzang (also called Hieun Tsang) also wrote about his visit to Takshashila in 630AD and again in 643AD. By this time the city appears to have been overrun by the Huns and was already in ruins.

Takshashila: A Centre for Higher Learning:

Takshashila became a well-known centre of higher learning (including the religious teachings of Hinduism) several centuries before the advent of Christ and continued to attract students from around the world until the destruction of the city in the 5th century AD.

In its heyday, Takshashila exerted a sort of “intellectual suzerainty” over other centres of learning in India, and its primary concern was not elementary education, but higher learning. Generally, students entered Takshashila at the age of sixteen.

The Vedas, the ancient and the most sacred Hindu scriptures, and the Eighteen Shilpas or arts, which included skills such as archery, hunting, and elephant lore, were taught, in addition to law, medicine, and military science.

Students came to Takshashila from far-off places such as Kashi, Kosala and Magadha, in spite of the long and arduous journey they had to undertake, mainly to study under learned teachers in Takshshila who were recognized as authorities in their respective subjects.

Education in Takshashila:

Takshashila is regarded as one of the earliest universities in the world. The teachers who taught there may not have had a formal membership of the colleges where they taught. The university did not seem to have specially built lecture halls and residential quarters in Takshashila. There was no external control by authorities like the king or local leaders on the scholastic pursuits at Takshashila. Teachers enjoyed complete academic autonomy in work, regarding a number of students, subjects taught, and the course contents without conforming to any centralized syllabus. The academic session was terminated when the teacher was satisfied with the students’ level of understanding of the subject. In general, specialization in a subject took around eight years, though this period could be made longer or shorter depending on the mental abilities and dedication of the students in question.

In most cases, the “schools” were located in the teachers’ own houses, and at times students were advised to discontinue their studies if they were unable to fit into the social, intellectual and moral milieu prevailing in the campus.

Financial support came from the society at large as well as from rich merchants and wealthy parents. Though the number of students studying under a single guru sometimes numbered in hundreds, teachers did not deny education even if a student was poor; free boarding and lodging were provided and all students had to do household work. Students who paid tuition fees, like princes, were taught during the daytime whereas those who could not afford to pay were taught at night.

Guru Dakshina was usually expected on the completion of a student’s studies, but it was essentially a token of respect and gratitude- – usually a turban, a pair of sandals, or an umbrella. In case of poor students who were unable to afford even such inexpensive articles, they could approach the king who would oblige them and provide help in this regard. Not providing a poor student a means to afford Guru Dakshina to his teacher was considered the greatest slur on the king’s reputation.

Examinations were treated as superfluous and not considered an essential requirement to complete one’s studies. The method of teaching was quite intensive; unless one unit was mastered completely, the student was not allowed to proceed to the next.

No convocations were held upon completion, and no formal “degrees” were awarded since it was believed that attaining knowledge was in itself a reward. Using knowledge for earning a living or for any
selfish end was considered sacrilegious.

Students arriving at Takshashila were usually those who had completed their primary education at home (until the age of eight), and also their secondary education in some ashram (between the ages of eight and twelve).

The purpose of their coming to Takshashila was mainly to gain advanced knowledge in specific disciplines. Both theoretical and practical aspects of the subjects were taught and particular care was taken to ensure that students achieved competence in subjects like medicine, where improper education could spell disaster for the patients who would be treated by the students on completion of their course.

The list of subjects taught at Takshashila underwent many additions over the years, with even Greek being included after the Alexandrian conquests. Foreign savants were accorded as much importance as the local teachers.

Some Eminent Students and Teachers of Takshashila:

Takshashila had great influence on the Hindu culture in general and Sanskrit language in particular. It is perhaps best known because of its association with Chanakya, also known as Kautilya, the strategist who guided Chandragupta Maurya and assisted him in the founding of the Mauryan empire.

The Arthashastra (Sanskrit word for the knowledge of economics) of Chanakya, is said to have been composed in Takshashila.

The Ayurvedic physician Charaka and Atreya also studied at Takshshila. Charaka also taught at Takshashila in the later period.

The well known ancient grammarian Panini who formulated the rules that defined classical Sanskrit was also part of the academic community at Takshashila.

The institution is very significant in the Buddhist tradition since it is believed that the Mahayana branch of Buddhism took shape there. Jivaka, the royal physician of the Magadha emperor Bimbisara who once treated Gautam Buddha as well as Prasenajit, the enlightened ruler of Kosala, are some of the important personalities mentioned in Pali texts who studied at Takshashila.

The British archaeologist Sir John Marshall (1876-1958) conducted excavations in Takshashila extending over a period of twenty years.

Students from Babylonia, Greece, Syria, Arabia, Phoenicia and China came to study in Takshashila. Under sixty eight different streams of knowledge, a wide range of subjects was taught by experienced teachers.

The subjects included Vedas, Language, Grammar, Philosophy, Medicine, Surgery, Archery, Politics, Warfare, Astronomy, Astrology, Accounts, Commerce, Futurology, Documentation, Occult, Music, Dance, etc.

The minimum entrance age was 16 years and at any given time there were about 10,500 students.

When Alexander’s armies came to Punjab in the fourth century BC, Takshashila had already developed a reputation as an important seat of learning. On his return, Alexander took many scholars with him from Takshshila to Greece.

Destruction of Takshashila University:

Ruins of world’s first university Takshashila (Picture: Ruines-de-Taxila, The Red List)

Being close to the north-west frontier of India, Takshashila had to bear the brunt of attacks and invasions from the north and the west. Thus the Persians, Greeks, Parthians, Shakas and Kushanas laid their destructive marks on this institution. The final blow, however, came from the Huns (who were also destroyers of the Roman Empire) who in c.450 AD razed the institution to ground. When the Chinese traveller Huen T’sang (AD 603 and 664) visited Takshashila, the town had lost all its grandeur as well as the international character [3].

The colonial narrative traces the destruction of Takshashila in 499 AD, by the Huns (Western historians called them White Huns, Romans called them Ephtalites; Arabs called them the Haytal; Chinese called them Ye Tha). Western historians have ascribed the demise of Takshashila to the White Huns, a Central Asian, nomadic tribe, roaming between Tibet to Tashkent and practising polyandry [4].

Varanasi (600BC-1200AD):

In ancient India, Varanasi was a great centre of education not only for Hindus but also for Buddhists and Jains. Students were taught Vedas, Upanishads and Philosophy and the religious thoughts in the ashrams or study centres that existed in the nearby forests.

Varanasi grew as an important industrial centre, famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, perfumes, ivory products, and sculpture. It was a centre of silk weaving and craft, making it a technological centre of ancient India. Varanasi was the capital of the Kingdom of Kashi.

Gautam Buddha (567BC), is believed to have founded Buddhism here around 528 BC when he gave his first discourse (sermon) “Turning the Wheel of Law” after he attained enlightenment at nearby Sarnath. Thereafter it became a religious, educational, cultural and artistic centre in north India.

Kashi drew many learned scholars from around the world.

The celebrated Chinese traveller Hsüan Tsang was one of them, who visited India around AD 635 [5] and recorded in his writings that the city was a centre of religious and artistic activities, and that it extended for about 5 kilometres along the western bank of the Ganges.

The religious importance of the city continued to grow in the 8th century when Adi Shankara
established the worship of Shiva as an official sect of Varanasi. Varanasi was connected by a road starting from Takshashila and ending at Pataliputra during the Mauryan Empire.

The most important contributions to Varanasi were made by the Great Mauryan Emperor Ashoka
of 3rd century BCE. The lion pillar carved during his time, which is now the National emblem of the Republic of India, is an example of the craftsmanship of people of Varanasi.

Sushruta, the first Indian surgeon, taught at Varanasi and also composed his Sushruta Samhita, the famous Sanskrit text on surgery, in Varanasi.

The great Sanskrit grammarian Panini visited Varanasi and taught his wards.

Destruction of Varanasi:

Turkish Muslim rule under Qutb-ud-din Aibak (1194), Feroz Shah (1351), and Sikander Lodi (1496) saw the destruction of many temples in Varanasi. The invaders also looted gold, silver, and precious stones from Varanasi. Despite the adverse circumstances, Varanasi remained as the centre of activity for intellectuals and theologians and continued to grow as a religious centre.

Pushpagiri University (300BC-1100AD):

Pushpagiri University was established in ancient Kalinga kingdom (modern-day Odisha) and was spread across Cuttack and Jajpur districts. It was established in the 3rd century and flourished for the next 800 years till the 11th century. The university campus was spread across three adjoining hills – Lalitgiri, Ratnagiri and Udayagiri. This was one of the most prominent centres for higher education in ancient India along with the universities of Takshashila, Nalanda and Vikramashila.

The Chinese traveller Huien Tsang visited this university in 639 AD. Lalitgiri is said to have been commissioned by early 2nd century BCE itself and is the oldest Buddhist centres in the world. Recently a few images of Emperor Ashoka have been discovered here based on which it has been suggested that the Pushpagiri University was established by Emperor Ashoka himself.

However, unlike Takshashila and Nalanda, the ruins of Pushpagiri University were not discovered until 1995, when a teacher from a local college stumbled upon the site. The task of excavating Pushpagiri’s ruins, stretching over 143 acres of land, was undertaken by the Odisha Institute of Maritime and South East Asian Studies between 1996 and 2006.

It is now being carried out by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The Nagarjunakonda inscriptions also mention about this centre of learning [6].

A portion of the Mahavihara Ratnagiri (Picture: Creative Commons)

Vikramashila University (800AD-1200AD):

Ruins of Vikramshila University (Photo: HitXP)

Vikramashila University was established by Dharmapala of Pala dynasty during the late 8th century and flourished for about 400 years till the 12th century. It was located in the Bhagalpur district of present-day Bihar. It was in academic competition with Nalanda University, with over 100 teachers and 1000 students enrolled in the university. The university was well-known for its specialized training on the subject of Tantra (Tantrism).

One of the prominent graduates of this university was Atiśa Dipankara, founder of the Sharma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism who also revived the Buddhism in Tibet [7].

Vikramashila University, along with other major centres of Buddhism in India, was destroyed by Bakhtiyar Khilji during fighting with the Sena dynasty around 1200 AD [8]. Vikramashila is known mainly through Tibetan sources, especially the writings of Tāranātha, the Tibetan monk-historian of the 16th-17th centuries. Subjects like philosophy, grammar, metaphysics, Indian logic etc. were taught here, but the most important branch of learning was Tantrism.

Valabhi University (600AD-1200AD):

Valabhi University was another Buddhist centre of higher education in ancient India, established in Saurashtra of modern Gujarat around the 6th century and it flourished for another 600 years till the 12th century. A number of inscriptions of King Maitraka belonging to 5th-8th century mention this university.

Chinese traveller Itsing, who visited this university during the 7th century, described it as a great ccentre of learning. Gunamati and Sthiramati, the two famous Buddhist scholars are said to have graduated from this university which was popular for its training in secular subjects and students from all over the country came to study in the university. Because of its high-quality education, graduates of this university were offered higher executive positions [7].

The total strength of students and monks in the university was around 6000. Hindu students from far off places (e.g. Gangetic plains) also came to study at Vallbha. In addition to Buddhist philosophy, medicine, administration, and economics were taught at this university.

It had a rich collection of books in its library which were donated by wealthy citizens of Gujarat. These find mention in the “Kathasaritsagara” written by Somadeva.

Odantapuri University (800AD-1200AD):

Odantapuri University was established by Dharmapala of Pala dynasty during the late 8th century in Magadha (which is in the present day Bihar) and flourished for 400 years till the 12th century. The famous Acharya Sri Ganga who was a teacher at the Vikramashila University was a graduate of this Odantapuri University.

According to the ancient Tibetan records, there were about 12,000 students studying at this university.

Ancient Tibetan texts mention this as one among the five great universities of its time, the other four being Vikramashila, Nalanda, Somapura and Jagaddala Universities – all located in India [7].

In the Tibetan history of the Kalachakra Tantra written by the Sakya master Jamgon Amye Zhab (1597–1659), it is mentioned that Odantapuri was administered by ‘Sendhapas’.

The university perished at the hands of the Muslim invaders (Bakhtyar Khilji). Sakya Sri Bhadra, the last Buddhist teacher of Odantapuri fled to Jagaddala Vihara (in the northern region of ancient Bengal, now situated in Naogaon District of Rajshahi division) for pursuing his studies witnessed the ruins of the Buddhist monasteries. It is said that the Muslim invaders mistook the university buildings with their high walls for fortresses. They mistakenly thought that the Buddhist monks were ‘shaven headed Brahmins’. Most of the early students and teachers of the Odantapuri and Nalanda were from Bengal region [10].

Somapura University (800AD-1200AD):

Somapura Mahavihara University was established by Dharmapala of Pala dynasty during the late 8th century in Bengal and flourished for about 400 years till the 12th century. The university was spread over 27 acres of land, of which the main complex occupied 21 acres, was one of the largest of its kind. It was a major centre of learning for Bauddha Dharma (Buddhism), Jina Dharma (Jainism) and Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). Even today one can find ornamental terracotta on its outer walls depicting the influence of these three traditions [7].

Ruins of Somapura University (Picture: HitXP)

Nalanda University (500-1200AD):

The University of Nalanda was established during the reign of the king Śakrāditya [9]. Both Xuanzang and Prajñavarman cite him as the founder, as does a seal discovered at the site. Nalanda University was the first great university in the recorded history and one of the world’s first residential university as it had dormitories for students. It is also one of the most famous universities. In its heyday, it accommodated over 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers.

The university campus was considered an architectural masterpiece and was marked by a lofty wall and one gate. Nalanda had eight separate compounds and ten temples, along with many meditation halls and classrooms. The campus had several lakes and parks. The library was located in a nine-storeyed building where meticulous copies of various texts were produced.

The remnants of the library of Nalanda University which is reported to have burned for three months after the invaders set fire to it, ransacked and destroyed the monasteries and drove away the monks from the site

Xuanzang, a Chinese pilgrim and scholar from Tang Dynasty, studied, taught and spent nearly 15 years at Nalanda University. He has left a detailed account of the university in the 7th century. Yijing has also left information about other kingdoms located on the route between China and the Nālandā University. He was responsible for the translation of a large number of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Chinese [9].The university complex was built with red bricks and its ruins are spread over an area of 14 hectares. At its peak, the university attracted scholars and students from as far away as Tibet, China, Greece, and Persia. Nalanda was ransacked and destroyed by the Turkish Muslim army under Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1193AD. The library of Nalanda University was so vast that it is reported to have burned for three months after the invaders set fire to it, ransacked and destroyed the monasteries, and drove away the monks from the site and killed many of them.

In 2006, Singapore, China, India, Japan, and other nations, have announced a proposal to restore and revive the ancient site as Nalanda International University.

Library at Nalanda University:

The library at Nalanda University was a vast complex, called the Dharmaganja or Piety Mart. It was housed in three large buildings: the Ratnasagara, the Ratnadadhi, and the Ratnaranjaka. The Ratnadadhi, meaning the Ocean of Gems, was a nine-storeyed building and housed the most sacred manuscripts including the Prajnaparamita Sutra and the Samajguhya. The towers were supposedly immense, bejewelled and gilded to reflect the rays of the Sun.

According to the Bhaskara Samhita, an ancient text on organizational practices, the library was to be built in a “finely built stone building” and each manuscript would have been placed on iron shelves or stacks and covered with cloth and tied up. Furthermore, according to the text, the librarian in- charge was not only responsible for maintaining the materials but also for guiding readers in their studies. The exact number of volumes in the library is not known but it is estimated to be hundreds of thousands. The library not only collected religious manuscripts but also had texts on subjects such as grammar, logic, literature, astrology, astronomy, and medicine.

Remains of Nalanda University Library

It is clear that Nalanda University library classified books possibly based on a text classification scheme developed by the great Sanskrit linguist Panini. Buddhist texts were most likely divided into three classes based on the Tripitaka’s three main divisions: the Vinaya, Sutra, and the Abhidhamma. Like most other Indian libraries of the ancient and medieval period, Nalanda would have used a basic catalogue to help readers find materials with ease. This bibliography, or Anukramanikas, would have listed the books by hymns, authors, the form of sutras, rishi’s name, and the hymnal meter.

Destruction and Demise of Nalanda University:

Towards the southeast of Patna, the capital city of Bihar state in India, is a village called the ‘Bada Gaon’, in the vicinity of which are located the ruins of Nalanda University [11]. According to the historical records, Nalanda University was destroyed three times.

The Revival of Nalanda University:

Nalanda University is being revived as an international centre of learning that is coming up in Bihar, with the cooperation of Australia, China, Cambodia, Singapore, Brunei, New Zealand, Laos and Myanmar.

The campus is planned to come up about 12 km from the ruins of ancient Nalanda University campus in Rajgir, about 100 km away from Patna. The University is an initiative of the Indian government and 18 other East Asian countries.

The 446-acre campus of the residential university with eight-km boundary wall s will have all modern amenities on the same line as the ancient Nalanda University and is expected to be completed by 2020 [12].

Jagaddala Mahavihara (1100-1200AD):

Śakyaśrībhadra, a Kashmiri Buddhist scholar, who was the last abbot of Nalanda Mahavihara and instrumental in transmitting Buddhism to Tibet, is said to have fled to Tibet in 1204AD from Jagaddala when Muslim invasion seemed imminent. Historian Sukumar Dutt tentatively placed the final destruction of Jagadala to 1207AD; in any case, it seems to have been the last Mahavihara to have been overrun by invaders [13].

Nagarjunakonda (Established in 200AD):

Nagarjunakonda [14] is a historical Buddhist town, now an island located near Nagarjuna Sagar in Guntur district, in the state of Andhra Pradesh. It is 150 km south-east of the capital city Hyderabad and is one of India’s richest Buddhist sites, known in the ancient times as Sri Parvata. It now lies almost entirely under the Nagarjunasagar dam reservoir. It is named after Nagarjuna, an ardent follower of Mahayana Buddhism, who lived in the 2nd century AD and is believed to have been responsible for propagating Buddhism in the area.

The site was once the location of many Buddhist universities and monasteries, attracting students from as far as China, Gandhara, Bengal and Sri Lanka. The Buddhist archaeological sites in the area got submerged under the Nagarjunasagar dam reservoir and had to be later dug up and shifted to higher land on a nearby hill which had become like an island due to the construction of the dam.

Kanchipuram (Established 200BC):

The history of Kanchi can be traced back to several centuries BCE. The place finds a mention in Patanjali’s Mahabhashya, written in the 2nd century BC. Manimekalai, a famous Tamil classic, and Perumpanattu Padai, a great Tamil poetry book, vividly describe Kanchipuram city, as it existed at the beginning of the Christian era. Pathupattu, one of the Sangam texts, mentions that the king Thondaiman Ilandirayan ruled this town around 2500 years ago. Kanchipuram is traditionally a centre of religious education for Hindu, Jain and Buddhist faiths. The Buddhist monasteries acted as the nucleus of the Buddhist educational system. With the gradual resurrection of Hinduism during the reign of Mahendra Varman I, the Hindu educational system gained prominence with Sanskrit emerging as the official language.

Kanchi was a major seat of Tamil learning as well as an important place of pilgrimage for Buddhists, Jains and Hindus. Kalidasa has described it to be the best among the cities (Nagareshu Kanchi), just as jati (jasmine) is the sweetest amongst the flowers, Rambha the most beautiful amongst women and Grihasthashrama the most ideal amongst the four ashramas of human life. One of the kings of Kanchi, Mahendravarman-I, was a great scholar and musician, a man of great intellect and also a great playwright.

Under the Pallavas, Kanchipuram flourished as a centre of Hindu and Buddhist learning. King Narasimhavarman II built the city’s important Hindu temples, the Kanchi Kailasanathar Temple, the Varadharaja Perumal Temple and the Iravatanesvara Temple.

Xuanzang, a Chinese traveller who visited Kanchipuram in 640AD, recorded that the city was 6 miles in circumference and that its people were known for their bravery, piety, love for justice, and veneration for learning [15] He further recorded that Gautam Buddha had also visited the place. As regards learning, Kanchi ranked second in glory only to Banaras. Once the seat of learning and religious fervour, its downfall started with the Mughal invasions followed by three centuries of colonial rule under the British.

Manyakheta (814AD-968AD):

Manyakheta (Mānyakheṭa, Prakrit Mannakhea, modern Malkhed) [16] is located 40 km southeast to the district headquarters Gulbarga and 18 km west to the taluk headquarters Sedam. From 814 AD to 968 AD, Manyakheta rose to prominence when the capital of Rashtrakutas was moved from Mayurkhandi in Bidar district to Mānyakheṭa during the rule of Amoghavarsha I (Nrupatunga Amoghavarsha), who ruled for 64 years and wrote Kavirajamarga, the first classic Kannada work. Amoghavarsha I, along with the
mathematician Mahaveeracharya, and intellectuals Ajitasenacharya, Gunabhadracharya and Jinasenacharya, helped to spread Jainism. After the fall of the Rāshṭrakūṭas, it remained the capital of their successors, the Kalyani Chalukyas or Western Chalukyas till about 1050 CE.

According to Dhanapāla’s Pāiyalacchi, the city was ransacked by the Paramāra king Harṣa Sīyaka in CE 972–73, the year he completed that work. The well-known mathematics text Ganita Saara Sangraha was written here by Mahaviracharya.


Ancient Indian universities were located at the places of worships where people from all regions and faiths could receive higher education. The Buddhist monasteries, Hindu temples and Jain Basadi (Jain temple) were places where higher education was offered in India till the end of 12th century.

The primary concern of ancient Indian universities was higher learning, rather than imparting primary education. Students used to join these universities at the age of 16 and continued their studies for the next 8-10 years. The duration of the academic session was not fixed but lasted till the teacher was satisfied with students’ level of understanding of a given subject.

Teachers enjoyed the complete academic freedom to the extent that they could even decide their own syllabus, rather than teaching a prescribed syllabus. The method of teaching was, however, quite intensive; unless one mastered the subject well, one was not allowed to proceed to the next level.

Examinations were not considered as an essential requirement to complete one’s studies. No convocations were held upon completion of the course and formal “degrees” were not awarded, since it was believed that the basic purpose of education was to attain knowledge and not earn any degree.

Under different streams of knowledge, a wide range of subjects was taught by well qualified and experienced teachers. Further, knowledge was considered sacrosanct and was not meant for earning a living or for any other selfish motive.

Financial support for such universities came from the state as well as society at large. However, there was no role of any external agencies in deciding academic matters of the universities.

In view of the flourishing education and general prosperity prevailing in India, it became a target for invaders who attacked scholars, destroyed institutions as well as valuables texts and writings. As India could not defend ourselves in protecting the universities from the invaders, we paid a heavy price by losing our knowledge bank, viz. writings by our eminent teachers and scholars.

Some new initiatives that have been started in India recently in the field of university education may, however, restore some of its ancient glory in the field of education.


[1] Revived Nalanda University to start functioning by February end, India Today,
Online Patna, January 5, 2014
[3] Takshashila: The world’s first known university,
[4] Destruction of Takshashila – a defining moment
[5] The History of Varanasi (Banaras)
[6] Ancient higher-learning institutions
[7] Ancient Universities of India apart from Takshashila and Nalanda,
[8] Vikramaśīla University
[9] Nalanda University –
[11] Jayanth V Narlikar, The scientific edge, The Indian scientist Vedic to modern times, Penguin
Books, 2003, Page-32
[12] Revived Nalanda University to start functioning by February-end
[13] Jagaddala –
[14] Nagarjunakonda, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[15] Kanchipuram –
[16] Manyakheta, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the personal opinions of the authors. League of India does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

This article was first published in the journal ‘Laboratory Experiments‘, published by Kamaljeeth Instrumentation and Service Unit, Bengaluru, India.

Jeethendra Kumar P K
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A PhD in physics, Dr Jeethendra Kumar P K worked as a physics lecturer at Mangalore University for eight years. He is the founder of a physics instrument manufacturing company (1990) and Lab Experiments journal (2001), Bengaluru, India.

Prabhakar Sharma
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Dr Prabhakar Sharma, Scientist (Retd.), is Ex-Head of the Academic Servies, Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad, India.

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Why Varna is Not Caste

Varna system is an ecological and yogic vision of social unity and not the divisive idea of caste by birth.



The Four Varna System reflects a deep ecological and yogic vision of social and universal unity very different from the divisive idea of caste by birth.


The Four Varna system of ancient India was originally based upon the idea of an organic social order that remains relevant today. What is called caste today should not be confused with it.

The Vedas arose five thousand years ago when human society was rooted in nature. The Vedic Rishis deeply contemplated the processes of nature and the universal consciousness behind it. Out of this basis, they devised Yoga, Vedanta, Ayurveda and the foundations of Indian or Bharatiya civilization.

This Vedic view of life required developing a model of society in harmony with nature, in which humanity’s cultural and spiritual potentials could both unfold. Like other Vedic disciplines, the Vedic approach to the social order was many-sided and multileveled, yet rooted in an underlying unity.

It did not propose one artificial rule or formula for everyone but aimed to reflect the intricacy, harmony and abundance of all life. It did not seek to impose social unity from above via authority, dogma or institution, but sought to develop it in an organic manner, according to our natural cooperative ventures with one another.

The Basis of the Four Varnas:

Out of this Vedic contemplation of nature, the Vedic idea of a social order arose as the Four Varna system. The term Varna refers to qualities and inclinations called gunas in a later thought. The Four Varna system is first clearly explained in the famous Purusha Sukta of the Rigveda X.90.12, perhaps humanity’s oldest book. The hymn describes the entire universe in the form of a human being, a Cosmic Person called the “Purusha”.

The human social order is based upon it:

  • Brahman or intellectual/spiritual class – deriving from the head of the Cosmic Purusha
  • Kshatriya or warrior/princely class – from his arms
  • Vaishya or merchant class – from his thighs
  • Shudras or service class – from his feet

These four Varnas represent the qualities of energy that all people naturally possess. They are not separate or conflicting occupations, but part of the same unitary social fabric.

There is in this original Vedic model no outcaste, Dalit or untouchable. Each Varna constitutes a necessary part of the whole and all are mutually interdependent. Each is a manifestation of the same Divine consciousness working in humanity.

In the Vedic view, human society should follow the same organic order as the human body, which mirrors the greater organic order of the universe. Like the human body, human society should be one in nature but diversified in function. Just as the human body is one organism with different limbs and organs with specialized activities necessary for the health and survival of the whole; so too, human society should have a similar differentiation, with various professions working together for the good of all.

This original Vedic concept of “Varna Dharma” reflects an ecological model of society that is universal. Those who look at Varna in terms of caste oppression have not examined its origins but only look at later distortions, in which the true Vedic spirit was compromised.

The Vedic social order was meant to instil an intrinsic feeling of unity in each individual with the greater society, and human society with the greater universe.

The Varna system was based upon a transcendent ideal of human unity in the Divine, not an effort to give power and domination to one section of society.

Varna As Our Human Capacity:

This Vedic model tells us that each human being has the capacities of all four Varnas or human types; just as we all share the same type of human body and its different limbs. 

Each person is potentially a Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. We all perform these four roles to some degree. Each person functions as a guide to some people, a protector of others, a provider for others, and does service for yet others. But some degree of specialization also occurs, with individuals often assuming a preponderance of one of these roles for most of their adult lives.

This organic concept of the social order is not one of superiority, much less domination, but reflects a deep appreciation of the interdependence and mutual interaction out of which life operates.

It is not possible to have a society in which each individual can perform all necessary social roles, any more than it is possible to have a body in which each limb can perform all bodily functions. Evolution in society depends upon the differentiation of roles and professions that arise out of the four basic Varnas. Stability in society depends upon recognizing a common human potential behind all social roles and interactions.

To some extent, all human societies reflect this fourfold order. Every society has its head in the form of intellectual and religious leaders. It has its arms or police and military classes. It has its legs or merchant class. It has its feet or those in service occupations. Older societies worldwide, including Europe up through the nineteenth century, had similar social orders of priests, aristocracy, merchants and common people, remnants of which can be found in many countries today.

The Hindu Varna System’s Unique Spiritual and Yogic Orientation:

Yet the Vedic view looks beyond all outer social concerns in its examination of human life. The Purusha Sukta begins and ends with a lauding of the Cosmic Person, with the human social order as a secondary topic. It states: “The Purusha is the entire universe, what has been and what will be.” (Purusha evedam sarvam yad bhutam yaccha bhavyam, Rigveda X.90.2). All beings constitute only one-quarter of the Purusha, with three-quarters remaining immortal in the realm of light beyond (Rigveda X.90.3). All human beings are manifestations of the same Cosmic Being, which is present in every person, regardless of status of birth. This is the Upanishadic recognition of the Universal Self, Atman or Purusha – the Pure Consciousness that both pervades the entire universe and dwells in the hearts of every creature.

The Hindu Varna system has a unique yogic orientation beyond outward class divisions.

The Vedic goal of life is the realization of Cosmic Consciousness within the individual, for which the practice of Yoga and meditation is prescribed – which includes detachment from the outer goals of life. Varna is meant to aid in the individual process of Self-realization and not become an end-in-itself. To reach that Universal Self one must give up identification with any social group.

The goal of a Vedic life, achieved through the practice of Yoga and meditation, requires going beyond worldly desires to a state of inner freedom (Moksha) and union with the Cosmic Person or Purusha. This Hindu social goal of Moksha is very different from western social orders that exist for the fulfilment of worldly desires, emphasizing social, political and material gains. It is also different from the ordinary religious goal of going to heaven, which is based upon a continuity of the ego and human identity, not a realization of the Universal Self within us.

The capitalist model that dominates the world today is such a desire-based materialistic social order that is ignorant of our deeper consciousness. While capitalism provides outer freedom, it follows an external view of reality that blinds us to our inner nature, and gets us caught in the pursuit of enjoyment that inevitably ends in sorrow and death.

Determining Varna:

The biggest problem for all social orders is determining the place and aptitude of each individual within it. For the Vedic Varna system, there is the additional complication of determining the spiritual or yogic aptitude, not just outer skills.

The bane of the social order all over the world is that social status has been usually determined by birth to the neglect of all other factors. This has resulted in oppression of individuals and groups simply because of their family of birth, regardless of their actual capacities or merits. This status by birth gained prominence in India long ago, distorting the original Varna system, and causing people to forget its organic and spiritual basis. Our birth family indicates the important karmic foundation of our lives, but it is a place that we start from, not necessarily where we should end up.

One’s family of birth can be an important factor for determining the profession a person naturally belongs to. Obviously, it is more likely that a good musician will arise from a family of musicians, where he can be trained from early childhood, rather than from a non-musical family. Yet many exceptions to this rule exist and birth is often misleading, and by itself not sufficient to determine individual capacity. The child of a great musician may not be good at music at all.

How then do we recognize an individual’s true place in the social order?

This requires a proper policy of education and testing, and providing the necessary learning space for each individual to flower, with a degree of healthy competition. Creating a society that honors the aptitude of each individual, but also follows a higher rule of Dharma and the development of consciousness above material impulses, entails a great deal of effort, attention and dedication. It necessitates recognizing great gurus and yogic teachings that can guide our lives beyond mere social, economic and political concerns.

Limitations of Caste in India Today and the Way Forward:

Those who belong to the four Varnas in India today may not practice their traditional Varna Dharma. Like everywhere in the world, the business class predominates and social status is largely based upon wealth.

We should not look at India’s current caste makeup as representing the original four Varna system, or its current caste problems as caused by the ancient Varna order. The problems of India’s caste system are the same as those of social inequality everywhere in the world, rooted in ego, money and power, not in the yogic values and dharmic practices.

India’s caste system today consists of various clans and extended families (Jatis), whose members may follow diverse occupations. There are untouchables and outcastes, who still suffer a great deal of oppressive caste discrimination. Caste conflicts today are not limited between Brahmins and lower castes, but occur among many different classes and clans vying for prominence. While the social support that extended family groups provide can be helpful, it becomes harmful, when it stereotypes individuals by family affiliations and creates a rigid clan or regional identities that undermine national unity.

To go forward as a country, India should respect the ecological and yogic core of the Varna system, but reject its later distortions, including caste by birth, with human unity and Divine unity, not mere family status and distinction, acting as the foundation of the social order.

We must remember that our consciousness is the same Self or Atman in all. It is only our outer functions and activities that vary. We must learn to honour that Self in all the Varnas. Otherwise, we remain trapped in ego-consciousness and do not understand the deeper teachings.

An enlightened reformulation of the Varna system will produce a new social order different from both what we see in India and from the current western social model. The basis of this new dharmic society must be Karma Yoga – action based upon selfless service and a sense of the unity of all humanity and the entire cosmos. It must allow the individual to flower in his or her true capacity and encourage entrepreneurship at all levels, but with a sense of responsibility for the whole of life. Developing such a new dharmic social order requires deep exploration, profound research, new thinking and innovative insight.

Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the personal opinions of the author. League of India does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

Reprinted with permission from

David Frawley
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Padma Bhushan Dr David Frawley a.k.a Acharya Vamadeva Shastri is the director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies and the author of more than 30 books on Yoga and Vedic traditions.

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