This morning’s Straits Times has a report on Singapore’s role as a catalyst for the revival of a truly global university and Asian heritage centre near the area where Nalanda University, founded in AD 427, once stood. Located in India’s Northeastern state of Bihar, possibly one of the most backward, Nalanda once housed 10,000 students and over 1500 teachers in its prime.
Historians say it was key to the spread of Buddhism to Sri Lanka, China, Tibet, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma [Myanmar], Cambodia and Laos – a centre for not just Buddhist teachings but also the fine arts, medicine, mathematics and politics. Attracting students from as far away as Korea, Japan, China, Indonesia and Turkey, it was destroyed for the third and final time in the 12th century by Turkish Muslim invaders.
Why Singapore, when Japan is ready to support the entire reconstruction, planned to the tune of US$ 1 Billion? Singapore’s interest was triggered when HE APJ Abdul Kalam, the President of India mentioned his wish to see this university revived during his visit to the country in February 2006. According to the Straits Times, Indian officials believe that to truly achieve success and gain international credibility, the project needs to be a multinational exercise, not just one supported this or that nation. Their efforts are therefore to enlist the support several nations. Japan’s support is unconditional already, as this snippet from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to Tokyo demonstrates,
Recalling the important role of Nalanda in the ancient period as a leading international university contributing to Buddhist and secular studies, the two sides will explore the idea of re-development of Nalanda as a major centre of learning with the establishment of an international university on the basis of regional cooperation.
Now, however, China has expressed interest and support, following President Hu Jintao’s recent visit to India. A joint statement noted almost the same words used above by Japan and India – "basis of regional cooperation". To quote the ST,
Indeed, Beijing has been good on its word, showing no embarressment in acknowledging its cultural debt to India. A lot of Nalanda’s recorded contacts with China are a result of the Chinese royal monk Xuan Zang [Hsien Tsang] 17-year trip to India, where he spent much of his time in Nalanda. His travels to India formed the basis for a 16th century novel by Wu Chen’en called Journey To The West – during the Tang dynasty, "The West" referred to India.
For Singapore, as a hub of multiracial, multi-ethnic South East Asia, where the world world’s major religions meet, Nalanda is seen as an avenue to ponder our common heritage, that too, one based on the commonly held Buddhist tenets of compassion and peace. They believe that the values enshrined by Nalanda would provide a check to any hubris that success, particularly of the giant neighbours, India and China, might breed. Lofty ambitions, but I can see the vision that might be lighting Abdul Kalam’s eye.
The International Herald Tribune has an opinion by Jeffrey E. Garten, former dean of the Yale School of Management, here are his words,
But Nalanda represents much of what Asia could use today — a great global university that reaches deep into the region’s underlying cultural heritage, restores many of the peaceful links among peoples and cultures that once existed, and gives Asia the kind of soft power of influence and attraction that it doesn’t have now. The West has a long tradition of rediscovering its ancient Greek and Roman roots, and is much stronger for that. Asia could and should do the same, using the Nalanda project as a springboard but creating a modern, future-oriented context for a new university.
Today, Nalanda’s opportunity is to exploit what is lacking in so many institutions of higher education. That includes great medical schools that focus on delivering health care to the poor, law schools that emphasize international law, business schools that focus on the billions of people who live on two dollars a day, and schools that focus intensely on global environmental issues. Can Asia pull this off? Financially, it should be easy. China’s foreign exchange reserves just broke all records and reached $1 trillion. And Japan’s mountain of cash isn’t that far behind.
But the bigger issue is imagination and willpower. It is not clear that the Asian nations are prepared to unite behind anything concrete except trade agreements, either for their benefit or the world’s. It appears doubtful that with all their economic prowess, and their large armies, they understand that real power also comes from great ideas and from people who generate them, and that truly great universities are some of their strongest potential assets. I would like to be proved wrong in these judgments. How Asia approaches the resurrection of Nalanda will be a good test.
I, too, would like to see what happens. I find it ironic that Garten makes the same assumption "soft power of influence and attraction that it doesn’t have now" that he himself states earlier in this same article is the mistake the West is making, viz.,
Americans are used to thinking about Asia’s rising powers — China,
India, South Korea — primarily as formidable economic competitors.
Something to think about, and seeing what I see, here in Singapore and the region, one that may be a tad hasty a judgement. This post is long enough without my impassioned rebuttal built in to lengthen it further. This conversation will continue…