Was Takshashila a University?

In the present-day environment, dominated by a spirit of nationalism, commenting on anything that glorifies India’s past invites scrutiny. Indians have suddenly become very conscious of their past heritage. A casual observation or remark that may even obliquely suggest taking away credit from the perceived glory of ancient India may not be taken kindly. That is also the case with the status of Takshashila considered by many to be the first university in the world. But there is also a contrarian view. While accepting the fact that Takshashila contributed immensely to knowledge creation and dissemination many renowned academicians are of the view that it was not a university in the classical sense.

About Takshashila

Takshashila was located about twenty miles to the West of present-day Rawalpindi (now in Pakistan) on the crossroads of the main trade routes of Asia. First human settlements in the region where Takshashila was located took place in the neolithic era. Ruins dating back to 3360 BCE and early Harappan period around 2900 BCE have been discovered during archeological excavation in the area. The city may have grown significantly during the Persian Alchaemenid Empire in the 6th Century BCE. Archaeological findings show that the city covered an area of about six square miles. Emperor Darius conquered Gandhara region that surrounded Takshashila in 516-515 BCE. The region was populated by Persians and many ethnicities hailing from various parts of Alchaemenid Empire and also Greeks. The latter had settled in the region after the invasion by Alexander. Chandragupta Maurya drove away the Greek satraps in 317 BCE and turned Takshashila in to a regional capital of his empire.

Around 700 BCE, Takshashila came to be known as a centre of learning though educational activities may have started there at least a few centuries earlier. The place derives its name from Taksha son of Bharata. The Ramayana narrates how Bharata, after defeating the Gandharvas, founded the two famous cities—Takshashila in the Gandharva for his son Taksha and Pushkalavata for his other son Pushkala.

Initially Takshashila was a renowned centre for Vedic learning and had great influence on ‘Hindu’ culture and Sanskrit language. Later, by about 5th century BCE, it also became a Buddhist centre of learning and facilitated exchanges between people from various cultures. This diversity of cultures and ethnicities may have also contributed toward levels of excellence achieved by it.

Teachers and Students at Takshashila

Shatapatha Brahmana, a Vedic Text, mentions that a philosopher Uddalaka Aruni had travelled to the Gandhara region aroung 7th century BCE. Later Buddhist texts reveal that Aruni and his son Shaktivelu had received their education at Takshashila. Several contemporaries and close followers of Buddha – like King Prasenjit of Kosala; Bandhula, the commander of Prasenjit’s Army; Jivaka the court doctor at Rajgriha and personal physician of Buddha; and Angulimala, a follower of Buddha – had studied at Takshashila. Chandragupta Maurya, who was born near Patna in Magadha and later founded the Mauryan Empire, was taken by Chanakya to Takshashila for his training and education. He was educated there in sciences and arts, including military sciences, that equipped him with the knowledge that a good ruler should possess. He studied at Takshashila for eight years. Despite a long and arduous journey, scholars from distant parts of India like Kashi, Kosal, Mithila, Ujjain, Madhya Desa, Kuru Kingdoms in the North and Magadha travelled to study here.

Learned scholars gathered at Takshashila to discuss, exchange ideas, create new knowledge and to share it with those who sought it. Over a period of time the number of such scholars increased and it became a centre of learning. Gradually, its fame spread and teachers and students gravitated towards it. It is believed that Mahayana branch of Buddhism took shape here. Teachers at Takshashila were considered authorities in their respective domains and it became famous especially for the schools of medicine, law and military science. It excelled in teaching many ancient scriptures, the eighteen shilpas or arts, which included skills such as archery and hunting. Chanakya, a renowned strategist, wrote his famous treatise Arthashastra (knowledge of statecraft, economics and military strategy) while he was at Takshashila. The great ayurvedic healer Charaka initially studied at Takshashila and later even taught here. Panini, the renowned grammarian who codified the rules for classical Sanskrit in his authoritative Ashtadhayayi, was also associated with Takshashila.

Students from all parts of the country travelled to Takshashila to study there. The arduous journey to reach there was considered a sign of motivation and commitment and they were given opportunities to learn. A student’s choice of subjects was not restricted by his caste. For instance, a Brahmin could study archery and a Kshatriya could study the Vedas. Each teacher acted as an institution, enjoying complete autonomy in work, prescribed his own rules for admission, accepted as many students as he could manage and taught courses based on his expertise without conforming to any prescribed syllabus. The teacher specified the duration of a programme of study, decided on the courses to be studied, and laid down rules for performing day to day work. Thereafter, based on levels attained by a student, the teacher decided when the former had completed his studies. Generally, specialisation in various programmes of study took eight years, but, that period could vary depending upon the intellectual capacity of the student, his level of attainment and the amount of energy, commitment and application displayed by him. A student could be asked to discontinue his studies in case his performance was not up to the mark or in case of infringement of code of conduct. There were no examinations at the end of a course of study. A system of continuous assessment was followed and a student could progress from one stage of learning to the next only after the teacher was satisfied that he had mastered the subject of the preceding level. In most cases the schools were located within the teachers’ private houses. The students dined there and also performed household chores. At times, students were advised to quit their studies if they were unable to fit into the social, intellectual and moral atmosphere there. The ruling elite and communities supported the teachers, financially and in kind, and no fee was charged from any student. Interestingly, there was no interference by the rulers or the local communities in the day to day functioning of any teacher.

Takshashila: A University or Centre for Higher Learning?

Over a period of time, Takshashila emerged as a renowned centre for higher learning or, as some believe, a university. There are many scholars who are of the view that it was not a university in the classical sense because it did not have an exclusive campus and its teachers did not have official membership of particular colleges. There were no schools or colleges, as part of an institution of higher learning, dealing with specific disciplines. Moreover, there were no purpose-built lecture halls and residential quarters for students and teachers. It did not have an organisational structure and hierarchy pertaining to management of the university. No single person acted as the head of the university and similarly, there were no departments for various disciplines and, obviously, there were no heads of departments. In fact, each teacher acted independently in matters related to curriculum that included admission, teaching-learning, assessment of students, discipline and the duration of the courses of study.

What is a University? The word university has been derived from Latin word universitas – ‘Whole, Entire’ and the Anglo-French universite – ‘universality; academic community’, thus implying a ‘community of masters and scholars’. In academia, there is a view that the concept of university implies an institution of learning of the highest level, having institutions providing education in diverse fields like liberal arts, theology, law, medicine, engineering, and encouraging multi-disciplinary studies and which are authorised to confer both undergraduate, graduate and research related degrees.

Renowned academician Professor Yashpal defines university as a place where ideas germinate, strike roots and grow tall and sturdy. It is a place where creative minds converge, interact with each other and construct vision of new realities. Established notions of truth are challenged in pursuit of knowledge. Further, there are some essential features of a university. There is a concentration of talented teachers, researchers and students who transcend national borders to satisfy their thirst for knowledge and in the process contribute to the existing knowledge or even create new knowledge. They welcome new ideas and with their intellectual capacity generate new interpretations, concepts and hypotheses. Due to their devotion to learning they are not constrained by shackles of allegiance, constancy and fealty. Such universities respect talent and recruit teachers and students from across the globe to achieve their objectives. Faculty shapes future generations, and therefore, a university must have the capability to attract the best talent to teach. An important feature of a university is its belief that knowledge is common heritage of mankind and, therefore, it should be provided to students at nominal or no cost. It helps nurture students as educated citizens to sustain democratic values.

Takshashila came up almost one millennium before other centres of learning like Nalanda, or elsewhere in the world, were established as universities and the concept of a campus for an educational institution and a formal institutional organisation design had not yet been evolved. However, it fulfilled the main crucial requirement wherein learned scholars formed a community of teachers at Takshashila to discuss, exchange ideas, create new knowledge and to share it with those who sought it. Over a period of time the number of such scholars increased and it became a centre of learning. Contribution of Takshashila to knowledge creation was exceptional. Gradually, its fame spread and teachers and students gravitated towards it. In a way, it had its own ’organisational design’ congruent with ethos of that era. At its zenith, Takshashila surpassed its contemporary centres of learning in India and the world in terms of intellectual capital. It had its own model of ethics and code of conduct. Teachers could not charge fees from students because it was felt that providing education was a noble cause. In fact, the concept of a university with an exclusive campus and hierarchical structure was not in existence at that time. Takshashila was the initial version that further transformed over a period of time, especially during the second half of the first millennium, into the concept of university. It was a precursor to a university. Thus, when the concept of university did not exist at that time why are we so particular in naming it a university? Further, what is there in a name? After all, we have not started calling our Ashrams and Agraharas schools and colleges respectively! Takshashila was a great and renowned centre of leaning. It did not have any contender, either before or for many centuries thereafter, that could match the quality and diversity of education provided by the institutions located there. Let’s be proud of our glorious heritage and try and emulate the dizzying heights it achieved in providing quality education.

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