Rangesh Sridhar
An Eminent Historian – his line and his fraud?


In his spirited response  to Dr. Arun Shourie on Nalanda, Dr.D.N.Jha has made the following broad, important points –

1)         His talk in 2006 was not exclusively about Nalanda. It was on the history of animosity between Buddhists and Hindus in which context he’d referred to the Tibetan tradition on Nalanda.

2)         The two Tibetan traditions on Nalanda corroborate each other and cannot be brushed aside even if they’d magical elements in them.

3)         The Tibetan traditions were accepted as credible not just by Marxists but also by highly acclaimed non-Marxist scholars

4)         Dr.Shourie was wrong in identifying the Vihara, which the Tabaqir-i-Nasiri records as having been destroyed by Bhaktiyar-i-Muhammad, with Nalanda. The scholarly consensus is that the Vihara in question is the one referred to in historical chronicles as Odantapuri or Uddandapura (modern Bihar Sharif). There’s, thus, no reason to believe that Bhaktiyar-i-Muhammad burned down Nalanda.

In this article I examine these points and also enquire 1) if Dr.Jha’s conclusions were made with consideration to a holistic appraisal of the facts and 2) if he’s accurately represented the positions of those he’s cited in his article

The two Tibetan traditions

Dr.Jha states that his original speech at the congress was focused on antagonism between Brahmins and Buddhists for which he drew on various sources including myths and traditions. It’s in this context that he referred to a Tibetan tradition that states that Nalanda was burned down by Brahminical mendicants. The tradition in question is from the 18th Century book Pag-Sam Jon-Zang by the Lama Sum-Pa.

Dr.Jha suggests that the idea of longstanding Brahminical animosity towards Buddhists was recorded as myths and legends and transmitted through generations in Tibet. He further states that the tradition cannot be ignored as it “jibes in” with a similar tradition recorded in the legendary 17th Century Lama Taranatha’s monumental book “A History of Buddhism in India”.

Myths, legends and local traditions often carry within them kernels of truths that can be useful to historians. But, they must be subjected to rigorous validation before they can be used to make inferences about historical events. In our present case, that validation is all the more necessary for the “magic ridden “tradition is being stated to be credible not just for its own sake but to serve as a valid historical example of Hindu Buddhist animosity. We shall now inquire if the tradition is a valid one.

An analysis of the chronology of Buddhism in India as given in the works of both Taranatha and Sum-pa would place the “Burning of Nalanda by Tirthika mendicants” (assuming it’s a real event) before the period of the logician Dignaga who belonged to the 6th century. Thus, the magical events described by the Tibetan traditions are at least a thousand years removed from the times in which Taranatha and Sum-Pa lived.

That means, the only two mentions we find in the annals of history about the burning of Nalanda by Tirthikas is from two sources which are a millennia removed from the events that they’re describing.  There’s no other source, nearer in time to the alleged event, which records it.

The two prominent 7th Century Chinese travelers Xuangzang & Yi Jing – who, unlike Taranatha & Sum-Pa, had visited and stayed at Nalanda – do not mention the names of any library, let alone its destruction. It must be pointed out that Xuangzang spent years studying and teaching at Nalanda and would have arrived at the place after the period of the alleged “burning”. Thus, there is no third source, contemporary or near contemporary, which affirms the very later Tibetan traditions.

Dr.Jha states that Sum-Pa’s account gains importance as it tallies with Taranatha’s. There’s a problem here. The two sources can be said to corroborate each other only if they’re truly independent.  The fact that both the sources are from Tibet and the traditions narrated in the two sources are very similar in detail, it won’t be terribly out of place to infer that both the books have drawn this tradition from a common source.

This inference gains more strength considering that Lama Taranatha was one of the greatest monks of his period and lived only decades before Sum-Pa. Hence, it won’t be unreasonable to hypothesize that Sum-Pa collected the tradition regarding Nalanda from Taranatha himself. Thus, either the traditions narrated in the two sources have a common third source or one of them has inspired the other. In either case, these two traditions cannot be said to be independent and cannot corroborate each other.

The two Tibetan legends, thus, cannot be considered valid sources of historical information, more so when they’re used to establish long standing animosity between Hindus and Buddhists.

Nalanda’s Decline

Dr.Jha is correct in pointing out that the Vihara mentioned in the Tabaqir-i-Nasiri as having been destroyed by Muhammad-I-Bhaktiyar is the Odantapuri Mahavihara and not Nalanda.  But, that’s not sufficient to assert that Muhammad-I-Bhaktiyar couldn’t have attacked Nalanda for the latter is at a distance of just 11 Km from the site of Odantapuri. That would beg the question – why wasn’t Nalanda mentioned in the contemporary Muslim chronicle?

Many modern scholars opine that the decline of Nalanda started much earlier than the Khilji invasion. One of the more prominent reasons for this decline is attributed to the emergence of Odantapuri and Vikramashila under the Palas. The Palas – who were devout Buddhists – had set up a capital at Odantapuri and established the Mahavihara which grew in stature and size owing to its proximity to political power and the liberal patronage it received from the imperial Palas. It is reasonable to suggest that there was a drain of talent and numbers to Odantapuri and Vikramashila from Nalanda.

One of the last inscriptions from the Nalanda site dates to the mid-11th century, a century before its final destruction. Thus, it does appear that Nalanda had ceased to be the great Mahavihara that it once used to be and was certainly not as big as Vikramashila and Odantapuri on the eve of the invasion. This, if true, would explain the silence of Muslim writers on the sack of Nalanda by the invaders.

Dharmaswamin and the Demise of Nalanda

What then brought about the ultimate end of the institution? An answer to this question would’ve remained in the realm of speculation but for the existence of the records left by a 13th century Tibetan Monk who’d lived and studied in Nalanda in its very last years.

Dharmaswamin belonged to an illustrious lineage of Lot bas –traditional translators – and was well versed in Sanskrit and the Buddhist lore. He was in India between 1234 and 1236 and had studied at Nalanda with its last great abbot Rahula Sri Bhadra. A Biography of the monk by his disciple Upasaka Chos-dar narrates the Monk’s peregrinations through Bihar in the period after its conquest by the Khiljis. He provides firsthand account of the fear that had gripped the whole place because of the terror unleashed by roving bands of “Turushka Soldiery”.

He records that by the time he came to Nalanda, it had already been sacked by the invaders though some of the buildings stood unscathed.  Education at the university had continued under Sribhadra who was tutoring 70 disciples with generous patronage from a rich lay Brahmana Jayadeva.

We further learn from him that a Muslim military camp had been established in Odantapuri, whose Mahavihara was completely destroyed. Dharmaswamin further states that the university’s patron Jayadeva was imprisoned by the Muslim authorities and was accused of supporting the modest Nalanda monk establishment. Jayadeva, according to the accounts, manages to sneak out a message to the abbot about an impending attack on the monastery by the Turushka army. The University was eventually abandoned and Nalanda is scarcely known after this.

 “Hindu Buddhist animosity”, The Tibetan Legends & the Chronicles of Dharmaswamin

The Taranatha version of the legend has the Buddhist King Buddhapaksha and two Brahmanas Shanku and Brhaspati rebuild the temples destroyed by the fire. The story is incomplete without this information. Thus, even the magical legend, taken as a whole, cannot count as an example of Hindu-Buddhist animosity.

Dharmaswamin’s account gives a good insight into Hindu-Buddhist relations in India in the twilight of the Buddhist faith in India. The picture that one can glean from it is that, though there was religious competition between the faiths in terms of whose sadhakas were more accomplished in siddhis  and such things, there weren’t great social tensions between the Buddhists and non-Buddhists.

Dharmaswamin specifically mentions that the monks of the Sangha were given alms by the Non- Buddhists and revered by them. We also learn that education in Nalanda continued even after the Islamic onslaught due to the munificence of a rich Brahmana Jayadeva.  Dharmaswamin also mentions  that the Raja of Tirhut, Rama Simha, a devout Hindu himself, asked for the former to become his preceptor. The general portrayal in his account doesn’t suggest any great social tension between the two groups.

It isn’t contended here that there have never been conflicts between the various sects before the arrival of Islam; or even that these conflicts haven’t been recorded.  Through these examples all that is intended to be highlighted is the status of inter-faith relations between Hindus and Buddhists in the 12th century as recorded in a contemporary source. This task becomes all the more imperative given the concerted attempts by historians of a certain persuasion to portray the twilight years of Buddhism in India was ridden with mutual animosity and antagonism between the Buddhist and Hindu faiths

A few distortions

Dr.Jha claims that the Tibetan legends have been given “Credence” by non-Marxist scholars of unimpeachable integrity. He names R.K.Mukherjee, Sukumar Dutt, Buddha Prakash & S.C.Vidyabhushana as the scholars who’ve treated the Tibetan legends as credible.

Of the four authors cited above, I was able to access

  • Radha Kumud Mookerjee (Education in Ancient India)
  • Sukumar Dutt (Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India
  • S C VIdyabhushana (History of Indian Logic)

Of these three, Dr R.K.Mukherjee alone seems to treat the Tibetan legends as credible. He does so to infer that the Nalanda campus had a library. He doesn’t interpret the legends an example of Hindu Buddhist animosity

Dr. Sukumar Dutt, in his book, seeks reasons for the fire whose effects are evident in the remains at Nalanda. While discussing various possibilities, he also mentions the Tibetan legend.

He says “the only part of the campus that perished entirely in the conflagration, IF we can rely upon the Tibetan legends, is the Dharmaganja where the library  …”

Clearly, Dr.Dutt has qualified his usage of the Tibetan legend with an IF. Moreover, further ahead in the chapter, he states that the date of the events is unknown and that no mention of these libraries is available in the Chinese records. Thus, it can hardly be claimed that Dr.Dutt was giving any credence to the Tibetan legend.

Dr.Jha singles out S.C.Vidyabhushana as someone who interpreted the text to say that it refers to an ACTUAL scuffle between Brahminical mendicants and Buddhists.  Now, kindly look at the inset below:-

Dr,Jha has put the part about Brahmin Buddhist scuffle in inverted commas and has attributed the same to Dr.Vidyabhushana. The impression one gets is that this is an extract from Vidyabhushana’ s History of Indian Logic as cited by D.R.Patil in his book Antiquarian Remains in Bihar. A careful reading of the cited pages in the two cited books clarifies two things

1. Dr Vidyabhushana’s book made no judgement on the veracity of the Tibetan legends. It merely recounts the legend in the context of Nalanda. Vidyabhushana’s book was on Indian Logic and historical events were treated only incidentally. That’s perhaps the reason for the legend being mentioned in appendix section on Nalanda. Vidyabhushana makes no interpretation at all about the text, much less an interpretation which projected the texts as referring to an ACTUAL scuffle between Brahminical mendicants and Buddhists

2. The portion “scuffle between….Ratnodadhi”, in the inset above, attributed to Vidyabhushana are not to be found in his book. This has been taken from D.R.Patil’s Antiquarian Remains in India. It’s Patil who states that the Tibetan tradition actually refers to a scuffle. It is to be noted that he didn’t say the tradition referred to an ACTUAL scuffle. In the very same paragraph, he states that it’s difficult to say how far this story tells a historical fact.

Following is a snapshot from D.R.Patil’s  Antiquarian Remains in India

Thus, it’s now clear that Dr.Jha was wrong in attributing an interpretation to Vidyabhushana – about the legends referring to an actual scuffle –which he himself never made!