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Written by Administrator   
Wednesday, 16 December 2009 11:11
 The ‘forgotten’ Buddhist University

Vikramasila Mahavihara was in origin, the later contemporary of Nalanda and established by Dharmapala, a Pala monarch of Bengal. There are various accounts written by eminent Scholars and devout Monks giving reasons for the creation of this huge Buddhist University being built on the banks of the river Ganga right on the border of what is present day Bihar and Bengal. One of the reasons are, that Nalanda no longer had the teachers to cope with the rapidly changing theories of Buddhist philosophies that no longer limited itself to the obsolete Sthiravada and Mahayana theories that with time had lost their credibility and as such its popularity ‘as the best University for the study of theology, philosophy and art ‘was on the wane and many of its donors did not feel it necessary to continue their generosity. The other reason being that constant attacks on the University by Brahmins who burnt its libraries on a couple of occasions and later when India became  the popular base  of Turkish marauders  to constantly attack and loot, left Nalanda Mahavihara in shambles. I do believe that Odantapuri Mahavihara, in Bihar Sharif (less than 20 Kilometers from Nalanda) and also built by the Pala Kings, was looted by the soldiers of the Khilji king, its wealth in the form of ‘golden images’ of Buddhist deities looted and 500 monks slaughtered. Vikramasila was in a far safer area till then and well protected by the forces of the Pala kings – eventually this Buddhist University was also destroyed by the Muslim renegades whose only intention was to create India into an Islamic Country and the Buddhist Viharas were easy targets, as the Monks were non-violent and strictly followed the teachings of the ‘Blessed One,’ who professed nothing but the path of peace.

The Vikramasila Mahavihara was built in the middle of the eight century and continued to flourish till the later end of the 12th century CE. It continued to be the only centre that imparted higher Buddhist studies uninterrupted for nearly four centuries. During the period it flourished Vikramasila was known to the Tibetans; there was a regular intercourse between Vikramasila and the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. There is evidence that the Mahavihara was encircled by a wall which was probably built by one Buddhajnanapratistha. Outside this surrounding wall were 107 temples; while within the enclosure were fifty-eight institutions (samsthas) with 108 professors (panditas). Taranath referred to its six Gates each of which was guarded by a distinguished professor (panditas). These six “gate-keepers” functioned contemporaneously during the reign of Canaka (A.C. 995-83) who, according to Taranath was “not counted among the ‘seven Palas’ because he was not of the Pala family.” These six gate-keepers were: Acarya Ratnakarasanti of the Eastern Gate, Vagisvarakirti of the Western Gate, Naropa of the Northern Gate, Prajnakaramati of the Southern Gate, Ratnavajra of the first Central Gate, and Vasumitra of the second Central Gate. Each one of them was eminent scholars whose works are extant in the Tibetan Tanjur and Kanjur. From the accounts we get from the Tibetan sources, it is evident that the establishment was ‘grand and extensive.’ Scriptural sources say that during the reign of King Ramapala, the head of the Mahavihara was Abhayakaragupta and at that time it accommodated 160 professors and 1,000 resident monks. Later, according to Nag-tsho, the number of monks dwindled to about a hundred, probably during the period of the Muslim raids on this part of the country.

During the reign of King Mahipala, Dipankara was invited to join the Vikramasila monastery as the Principal Acarya, during the period of his tenure, the Vihara prospered; more accommodation for the monks was arranged and new subjects were introduced for study under his guidance there. It is said that to draw a larger number of new bhikkhus to the Vihara, he adopted for them a new method of teaching and a larger curriculum of esoteric (tantric) subjects.

This grand Monastery came into existence during the days of Tantric Buddhism when occult sciences and magic had become favourite subjects of study. Thus consequently Vikramasila became identified with the study and cultivation of Tantric Buddhism and there instructions were imparted also in different branches too – thus the Maha Vihara which gradually transformed into a monastic university is said to have included six colleges and was a centre not only of Tantric studies, but also of Logic and Grammar. With its own manuscripts the University of Vikramasila, in course of time acquired a rich “collection of books””. It contained many rare works on Tantra, Grammar, Metaphysics and Logic for the teaching for which the University became renowned. One of manuscripts copied in the time of Gopala II can be found in the British Museum. The Academic Council of the Vikramasila University was in charge of the libraries which in addition to storing books also undertook the work of copying. It was the Library which took steps to renew the worn out and damaged manuscripts and made liberal provisions of meeting  the constant demand of the other monasteries, particularly of Tibet, for copies of books in its possession. The Tanjur and the Kanjur are proof of the bulk of Tibetan translation of Sanskrit works prepared at Vikramasila not only by Tibetan scholars, but also by Indian scholars as well.  The Great Guru Dipankara Atisa, with the help of a learned monk named Viryasimha, translated a number of his own works.

Historical evidences show that the Vikramasila Mahavihara flourished till it was attacked by the invaders headed by Bhaktiyar Khilji a Commander of the Delhi Sultan Muhammad Ghori. During the bloody raid, all of the resident scholars and teachers, except a few who managed to escape, were slain, and the library was set on fire. The only manuscripts that were saved were those that were taken away by the students who had escaped from the site of the massacre. Thus Vikramasila lost its vast collection of works – many of the manuscripts were completed after years or decades of very hard labour.  No one is sure as to when this Great Mahavihara actually stopped existing. However the only consolation we have is that to a large extent the Books from Vikramasila and other Buddhist Universities still exist in the Tibetan translation that have been preserved in the monasteries of Tibet.

BRITISH RECORDS ON ANTI – CHAK (Bhagalpur) - The British Archaeologists briefly mention in their records of having observed a Buddhist site which began from the foot of the Patharghata hill towards east and south of the site and the area was dotted with stone and brick ruins stretching up to the village Anti-chak and  Oriup. Discoveries of carved pillars, votive stupas, Buddhist images and numerous other carvings had been reported from the site. It has been identified recently with the site of the famous Vikramasila University of the Pala period and can be assigned to 10th – 12th centuries A.D.  (J B H S.XXXIV, p.83 ff.)

Somewhere in the 1970s The Archaeological Survey of India did conduct a partial excavation at the sites and ‘brought to light’ a portion of the Monastery. It is unfortunate that till date the ‘Report’ on the findings has never been published – thus depriving Scholars of any further opportunity to work on this site.

We are presently working on a map and making efforts to procure a copy of the ‘Excavation Report’ from the Archaeological Survey of India. In future we hope to give you further details on the last of the Great Ancient Buddhist Universities.

References: Development of Buddhism, N. Dutta and K.D. Bajpai; Journal of the Buddhist Text Society; Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal; Early Indian Monasteries

The Banks of the River Ganga - not far from Vikramasila Monastery

The Patharghata caves - where monks once meditated

A side view of the main Vikramasila shrine room

Front view of the Shrine Room

A terracotta figure in the miches - going to ruins due to the neglect of the ASI

A 'mandala' of stupas

Another view of the Main Temple
Last Updated on Friday, 08 January 2010 19:36