My Childhood Connection with Nalanda and Its Uncompromising Tradition of Intellectual Freedom


Maung Zarni – TRANSCEND Media Service

14 Mar 2023 – Nalanda: The university that changed the world, an essay by Sugato Mukherjee (23 Feb 2023), published as a part of the ‘BBC Travel series looking into how a destination has made a significant impact on the entire planet’, was a rather fascinating read, with fresh information – like the invention of Zero, the world as we know as a representation or reflection of mind, maths, medicine and astronomy, logic (Reason) and philosophy.

In this era of decolonization (of both social and institutional relations and popular Consciousness, most importantly, in the vast world of formerly Europe-colonized societies), the wealth of information this ‘little’ essay offers, and a tiny window it flings open for readers is long overdue and very much welcome.

The Pursuit of Knowledge and Human Understanding based on ‘Reason’ and what is termed ‘empiricism’ took place outside the Greco-Romanic World, typically presumed to be the philosophical cradle of Western Civilization and the European Enlightenment.

To belabour the obvious, centres of intellectual enlightenment move around the globe, and centuries before the standard view that Scientific/Empirical Knowledge is the exclusive domain of what has come to be known as The West.

From Harvard’s star psychologist Steven Pinker and Oxford’s evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins to Cambridge’s deceased anthropologist Ernest Gellner, advanced human understanding takes place within what they falsely believe in the Secular West with its Reason and Rationality.

In his Minute on Education (dated 2nd February 1835), the Oxford-educated historian and a Scotsman who served on the Council of India, wrote his rather conceited, but profoundly ignorant view on the knowledge systems outside the Franco-English language world. After insisting that French and English were keys to unlock what he considered real/empirical knowledge of the world – as opposed to myths and mystical views about ancient deities in the worlds of Arabic, Sanskrit and Egyptian traditions, the Hon’ble Macaulay proceeded to write:

‘I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed, both here and at home, with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education (italics added).’

[See Minute on Education (1835) by Thomas Babington Macaulay (, 1835.]

At the close of the 19th century, a principal of Balliol College was quoted, in the university’s alumni magazine published in 2008, as saying, ‘I know knowledge. If I know not (something), that is not knowledge.’

So when Richard Dawkins, Professor for Public Understanding of Science at New College, Oxford, sent his deeply racist and arrogant tweet that reads ‘All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though’, Dawkins is merely echoing the foundational thought of Euro-Supremacy. Ironically, Dawkinsian Euro-Supremacy emerged after the Middles Ages during which peoples in Europe were slaughtering one another as their favourite pastimes, to paraphrase Noam Chomsky’s pointed observation about the Old Europe.

[See ‘Richard Dawkins’ tweets on Islam are as rational as the rants of an extremist Muslim cleric’ Nesrine Malik The Guardian, 8 August 2013.]

In the elite scholarly discourses peddled in prestigious university circles, it is the Greek (and the Romans) that were the intellectual founders of ‘Western Civilization’ and Givers of Logic, Philosophy, Law, and all that that is considered worth learning as a matter of discipline. Think of the countless number of high priests of western university tradition who have made a meal of expounding on Plato’s Republic and Socrates’ dialogues.

Gellner for one got carried away, when he in effect attempted to make the case for Reason as if it were the exclusive property that was found in the advanced civilizations – you guessed it! – of Europe. On Freedoms and Democracy, you have Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford and proud adviser to US Presidents (such as George W. Bush) and UK Prime Ministers (such as the late Lady Thatcher) who cannot conceal his view that both freedoms and democracy are exclusively European.

Against this pathetic backdrop of the quintessentially Eurocentric Ignorance dressed up as the Established Wisdom of the grey eminences of Oxbridge and the Ivy League, Nalanda stands out as an empirical challenge.

Nalanda (427 CE-1197 CE) the renowned ancient monastic university is only one of the best known amongst several major centres of Buddhist learning. Vikramashila, again in present-day Bihar, and Takshashila or Taxila in Pakistan are among the cluster of old centres of higher learning. These were important pillars of the Buddhist world of ideas and intellectual practices – including modes of sifting and winnowing of fact from fiction, knowledge from hearsay, knowledge of Self and the external World – not simply the faith-based devotional places.

On a personal level, a child in the predominantly Buddhist heartland of Burma, I took an interest in Plato and Socrates, whatever limited Burmese translations of their work, however half-baked my understanding of their work may have been. But I was made aware of an equally important intellectual tradition and modes of Knowing (or Epistemologies, if you like), which serve as the theoretical bedrock of ‘the Burmese Mind’, ancient India of Buddhism and Buddhist scholar-practitioners.

Admittedly, there are genocidal Buddhists, including scripturally versed Saffron-robed monks in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand. But they fall outside the intellectual tradition which seeks to advance not only Understanding but also Being. The Dalai Lama’s valid criticism of Western schooling as the education exclusively of the mind not the heart applies to these Buddhist scholars who miss the central tenet of Buddhist intellectual advancement. Knowledge is about not simply Knowing Self and the world, but transforming both.

When you have Buddhist monks who can recite the mantra of Loving Kindness but do not have the wisdom nor the heart developed or advanced enough to apply their scriptural expertise on Metta Sutra to Muslims, minorities, women, the LGBTQ and, broadly, Others, then we have ‘Buddhists’ turning their lands of Enlightenment into genocidal slaughterhouses and killing fields. This was evidenced in Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka in their war of subjugation against the Tamil Hindu minority. And more recently, in my native Myanmar, the Rohingya genocide of 2017.

Towards that end of the pursuit of Knowledge as vehicle for the dual purpose of Understanding and Transforming Self and the World, the Buddhist intellectual tradition established a very clearly articulated principle of Intellectual Freedom – for rejection and acceptance of Truth Claims.

The best known articulation of this principle of free inquiry is encapsulated in the answer which the founder Buddha the Enlightened offered, when he was confronted with a group– known as Kalamas or residents of the town called Kesaputta, who openly expressed doubt and uncertainty on his teachings.

‘Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, “The monk is our teacher”. Kalamas, when you yourselves know: “These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness”, enter on and abide in them.’

This was something I grew up with – Buddhist paradigm as radical empiricism, something that requires independent thinking. As my late father told me, with some concealed pride, when I became a known dissident against Myanmar’s military dictatorship, ‘Son, you always talked back since you were a young boy.’ Thinking for oneself, and ‘talking back’ are habits cultivated through the intellectual tradition that dates back to the time of Kalama – 2,600 years ago.

So, reading Mukherjee’s concise but well-researched essay triggers a rush of memories not only of my childhood stories told by the elders in our extended Buddhist family of three-generations but more immediately a visit to Nalanda I made about six years.

I spent three years at Oxford University on its margins as a visiting scholar from 2006-09. One of the things that struck me about Oxford was how magnificent the general architecture of its 30-plus colleges is. I have also been to a large number of famed campuses of universities, ancient and modern, in Europe, N. America and Asia.

When I stepped into the demarcated compound of Nalanda University – much of the original structures remain unexcavated – I felt a familiar sense of awe every time I feel at any great modern university. In addition to Oxbridge, I have seen Bologna (built in AD 1088). I have seen the Sorbonne. I have seen the Thomas Jefferson-designed University of Virginia – and many other comparable institutions.

But the impression I felt walking among the ruins of Nalanda far surpassed these latter-day institutions of higher learning. The sheer numbers of what must have been magnificent lecture halls, meditation sites (where one meditates to gain insights into Self and the World/Principles of Impermanence), the residential rooms (with charred beams from the arson by invading troops that destroyed the great university), the geometric symmetrically arranged open spaces that dot the ruins, and so on would leave a lasting favourable impression of the great residential university.

And above all, the intellectual freedom that was Nalanda’s foundational stone– as articulated in Kalama Sutra – stands in sharp contrast to the intellectual censorship which culminated in the Inquisition of the Church, and the Church-controlled European centres of learning at Bologna, the Sorbonne, and Oxford, just to name a few. The breach of intellectual freedom that had put Harvard University Kennedy School of Government in the widely reported denial of a senior visiting fellowship to Human Rights Watch director Ken Roth – because he calls Israel or The Jewish State apartheid – speaks volumes about how in the year 2023 the spirit and principle of Free Inquiry remain an issue.

Buddhist intellectual tradition institutionalized Freedom of Inquiry and Debate 2,600 years ago. Nalanda was an institutional embodiment of this principle.

It is a shame that the worthwhile intellectual project, with Amartya Sen as its founding chair, to revive this 2,600-years old tradition of Free Inquiry – at the new Nalanda University has gone aground as Prime Minister Modi attempted to bend it for his Hindu fundamentalist ends.

A Buddhist humanist from Burma (Myanmar), Maung Zarni is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, former Visiting Lecturer with Harvard Medical School, specializing in racism and violence in Burma and Sri Lanka, and Non-resident Scholar in Genocide Studies with Documentation Center – Cambodia. Zarni s the co-founder of FORSEA, a grass-roots organization of Southeast Asian human rights defenders, coordinator for Strategic Affairs for Free Rohingya Coalition, and an adviser to the European Centre for the Study of Extremism, Cambridge. Zarni holds a PhD (U Wisconsin at Madison) and a MA (U California), and has held various teaching, research and visiting fellowships at the universities in Asia, Europe and USA including Oxford, LSE, UCL Institute of Education, National-Louis, Malaya, and Brunei. He is the recipient of the “Cultivation of Harmony” award from the Parliament of the World’s Religions (2015). His analyses have appeared in leading newspapers including the New York Times, The Guardian and the Times. Among his academic publications on Rohingya genocide are The Slow-Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingyas (Pacific Rim Law and Policy Journal), An Evolution of Rohingya Persecution in Myanmar: From Strategic Embrace to Genocide, (Middle East Institute, American University), and Myanmar’s State-directed Persecution of Rohingyas and Other Muslims (Brown World Affairs Journal). He co-authored, with Natalie Brinham, Essays on Myanmar Genocide.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 27 Mar 2023.

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One Response to “My Childhood Connection with Nalanda and Its Uncompromising Tradition of Intellectual Freedom”

  1. Marilyn Langlois says:

    Thank you, Zarni, for sharing your personal connection to Nalanda and the ancient Buddhist intellectual traditions of truly open inquiry from the mind and the heart! We need more of that!!