From World’s Education Capital to Depths of Illiteracy – Part III
By Sahana Singh
This final article in our series describes the destruction of key universities and the era of darkness, which descended after aeons of learning. Even as the broken pieces were being put together again, the country came under the damaging educational policies of the British rule from which it has never recovered.
Imagine a group of horsemen riding into the campus of a world-famous university, mowing down students and professors until their bodies lie scattered everywhere. Imagine the same scene repeated at other universities, one after the other. And imagine all this in a time when there were no computers, no digital storage devices and no clouds to save the knowledge accumulated over generations. Mindless violence unleashed on the foremost universities of the time – Nalanda, Vikramshila and Odantapuri by Mohammad Bakhtyar Khilji and his men sent shock waves through Indic lands in the 13th century. The sacredness associated with institutions and persons of learning was violated in a manner never seen in India before.
The attack was chronicled by Minhaj-i-Siraj, principal historian of the Delhi Sultans in Tabaqat-i-Nasiri, who described the slaughter of thousands of “Brahmins” with shaven heads.
“There were a great number of books there; and, when all these books came under the observation of the Musalmans, they summoned a number of Hindus that they might give them information respecting the import of those books; but the whole of the Hindus had been killed.” (A.S.Altekar, 1944)
It is ironic that Bakhtyar Khilji hailed from a tribe in what is known as Afghanistan today, which practised Buddhism for centuries before being overrun by Ghaznavids and converting to Islam. In subsequent years, as Muslim rule spread and consolidated in different parts of India, many more universities were destroyed, such as Jagaddala, Somapura, Valabhi, Kashmir and others. As the news spread, scholars abandoned their colleges even before the Muslim invaders appeared. In Banaras, one of India’s ancient centres of education, when several hundreds of temples were destroyed by Qutubuddin Aibak in the 12th century, many learned Brahmins who taught there fled to southern India along with their families (A.S.Altekar, 1944). Some of the scholars who escaped from Vikramshila and other universities, such as Sakya Sribhadra and Vibhutichandra made their way to Tibet, another hub of higher learning (Mookerjee, 1960). Records maintained by Buddhist monks at Tibet give accounts of the destruction of Indian universities. Translations of Sanskrit texts preserved in Tibet help to give some idea of the books that were found in the libraries of the great Indian universities (Sharma R. N., 2012).
Picture captioned “The end of Buddhist Monks, A.D. 1193” in Hutchinson’s Story of the Nations (Pg 169) shows Bakhtyar Khilji trying to make sense of the manuscripts that fell into his hands. - Wikimedia Commons.