Talk:Medical Institutions and Universities in ancient India

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia
Revision as of 11:17, 4 June 2018 by Deval Sancheti (Talk | contribs) (Library)

(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)

The Rishi-kula

Cardinal Newman says that a University is an assembly of learned persons. According to this definition, each and every Rsi family was an autonomous university where the atmosphere of learning and scholarship, sacrifice, worship and self-realization prevailed. These unitary Rsi-kulas or educational settlements developed into a form more complex, first as Asrama-kulas conducting their studies in the calm and cool shades of the forest and later on as Gurukulas which were the urban proto-types of the former. Both these rural and urban Kulas were doing the work of universities. The Asrama-kulas being situated in the forests resembled the residential universities while Gurukulas were like the affiliating and partly residential universities.

Such Asramas were situated in the places where nature was bountiful and pleasant. Some of these Asramas have become immortalized in the history of our culture. Naimisaranya is famed in the Purānas. Janasthana stands in the forefront sections of the Ramayana. The Asrama of Kanva Rsi is described in the Mahabharata and immortalized by that prince among Indian poets Kalidasa. This place is looked upon with great reverence and awe by the research scholars even today.

Vyasa, Dhaumya, Agastya, Vasistha, Visvamitra, Jabali, Valmiki, Kanva and other Rsis have attained great renown. Some of these Rsis had ten thousand pupils studying under their direction and these Rsis were addressed by the honored the title of Kulapati. He is verily called as 'Kulapati' who teaches all the four Vedas along with their branches to ten thousand students with free lodging and boarding.

University Education

Admission to these universities was by no means easy. The gales of the university were guarded very scrupulously by erudite scholars who held the entrance examination. Only passing through a stiff test could one gain entrance to this revered temple of learning. The members of the admission committee were aptly called Dwara Panditas who were zealous in maintaining the scholarship by preventing the entrance of mediocres. The final test for graduation or completion of study was equally hard. The examination committees used the Salaka pariksa test in which the candidates were required to explain that page of the text book which happened to be the last 'when picked up by a Salaka or a needle

Buddha Viharas as Universities

As men got entangled more and more in the worldly affairs, the Rsi-kulas were eventually superseded by the Guru-kula. The Gurukula tried to maintain the best tradition of the Rsi-kula as far as it was possible in its new environments. When Buddhism came in the ascendance upon the downfall of Brahmanism, it took up the link and continued to impart education in the Viharas[1] almost on the lines of the Gurukulas in a systematic way. We have adequate information regarding the Buddhistic Viharas.

Remarkable Buddhist Viharas

The method of teachings of the Buddhist Viharas was really admirable. Amongst these educational institutions, the universities of the below mentioned places were quite distinguished.

  1. Taksasila
  2. Kasi
  3. Nalanda
  4. Udattapuri
  5. Jagaddala
  6. Mithila
  7. Navadvipa

Qualities of Buddhist Universities

Taksasila was situated about 20 miles west of modern Rawalpindi. Valabhi was in Saurastra, while the others were in the Gangetic valley. Here thousands of people flocked together to quench their thirst for knowledge. There was a continuous flow of admiring pilgrims for getting the merit of having Darsana[2] of these religio-educational sanctuaries. It was considered a high honor for foreign scholars to get admission into these temples of learning. It was due to the world-wide fame of these educational institutions that men like Fa-Hyan and Huen Tsang came all the way from China, traveled through the whole Aryavarta and left for us priceless accounts of their experiences. The high personages like the mighty chancellors Silabhadra, Dipankara and Atisa made these universities world wide famous due to their unrelenting studiousness.

Proficiency of Different Universities

  • Taksasila had a very famous medical college.
  • The military academy of Taksasila was also famous.
  • Nalanda was noted for it's library.
  • Kasi paid more attention to Vedanta,[3] and Nyaya.
  • Vikram-sila was known for it's Tantra Vidya[4] and magic.
  • Mithila excelled in Navya-nyaya.[5]
  • Navadwipa specialized in Hetuvidya.[6]
  • Each Vihara had valuable stores of books and students visited them frequently to avail it's benefits.



Taxila situated about 20 miles west of Rawalpindi in the North-west provinces was undoubtedly the most important seat of learning in ancient India. It was the capital of the-then important province of Gandhara and its history goes back into hoary antiquity.

Two best Universities of Ancient India

It was the fashion to send princes and the sons of the well-to-do Brahmanas on attaining the age of sixteen to complete their education at Taxila which may be properly described as a University town. The medical school there enjoyed a special reputation but all arts and sciences could be studied under the most eminent professors. These two universities were Kasi or Benares in the east and still more famous Taksasila on the Jhelum river in the west. In the latter university at the time of Buddha or shortly before it, the leading professor of medicine was Atreya. Hence, Atreya accordingly should have flourished at some time in the sixth century B. C


The fame of Gandhara was not on its being a political capital of a province, but on its being the intellectual capital of Aryavarta. In its halcyon days, the place resounded with the chantings of Vedic Mantras by a host of students attracted to it from the nooks and corners of the whole country and even beyond. It was founded by Bharata and named after his son Taksa who was established there as a ruler. Janmejaya's serpent sacrifice was performed at this very place. Not much is known of its early educational activities but by the 7th century B. C. it loomed large as a famous seat of learning.

This famous university not only attracted students from far off places in India like Rajgiha, Mithila, Benares, Ujjain, Kuru, Kosala etc., but from foreign countries also like Babylonia, Misra (Egypt), Phoenicia, Syria, Arabia, China and Greece. It was a university to which a number of Indian institutions were affiliated. It furnished an ideal to foreign countries for molding their universities on its lines. The Alexandrian school which was established in the 4th century B C and which could boast of 14000 students, was probably the result of inspiration derived from Taksasila during Alexanders invasion of India.

Eminence of Taxila

The presence of world-renowned teachers, who were authorities in their subjects, experts and specialists of the various branches of learning was its forte. It was a place where the finishing touch to education was given as graduation from it marked the completion of one's studies.

The catholicity of the curriculum amazes the student of history. Medicine, surgery, allied military arts, astronomy, astrology, divination, accountancy, commerce, agriculture, conveyancing, magic, snake charming, finding hidden treasures and mines, dancing and painting were the main subjects taught besides the Vedas and the eighteen accomplishments. The subjects were taught under the supervision of expert teachers. Each teacher had his own institution having on its role about 500 students.  

The brilliant teachers and the variety of subjects attracted and we can count among the luminaries of this intellectual alma mater of the country. Such famous names as Canakya, Panini, Jivaka, Vyadi, Kumaralabdha, Asvaghosa, Deva, Nagarjuna, Atreya, Brahmadatta, Junaha and a host of others. No doubt it won the popular epithet of the "Queen of learning".

The enrollment of students from distant lands reflects very favorably on the soundness of its educational system. Travel in those days was more than an adventure, it was a hazard. It took months to reach a place where it would now take many hours. It was usual for a person to distribute his property among his heirs and relatives an bid them adieu before starting on a pilgrimage because the hazards and the rigors of travel were such that if a person safely returned from his travels, it was considered to be nothing short of a miracle. And yet parents unhesitatingly sent their sons to Taxila for the acquisition of knowledge at the tender age of 16, the same age limit as is found in modern universities. The course lasted from 5 to 7 years and the students could not return to their homes every four or six months as students of our age can, because the means of communication as we know them today were not existent then.

Taxila was especially noted for its medical school, law school and the school of military science. These schools were very famous and the last named school could boast of having all the princes of India of the time as its students. The arts of healing and war were the specialties of Taxila although it included all other branches of learning. Taxila stood in so high an esteem that pupils from various universities also were drawn to it. There is a story of a student Seta Ketu of Benares, who went to Taksasila for further studies. On his return, he went to a village where a group of 500 ascetics taught him the arts.

References in Indian Literatures

The mention about the origin of Taxila is in the Ramayana. It has been said in Ramayana that, 'As they were all killed, Bharata, the son of Kaikeyi built up two prosperous cities and placed Taksa in Taksasila and Puskala in Puskalavata in the beautiful country of Gandharvas and in the province of Gandhara respectively'. There is a similar kind of references about Taxila in Mahabharata mentioning about the Pandava brothers subjugating it after the attack.

References by Foreigners

Its fame had spread far and wide in foreign countries and we find many glorious tributes to it in the writings of foreigners, ancients and moderns. They are:

  • Pliny calls it a famous city.
  • Strabo declares it to be a large city and adds that the neighboring country was crowded with inhabitants and that it was very fertile.
  • Marnan described it as a large and wealthy city and the most populous between the Indus and Hydaspes.
  • Vincent Smith, in his history, says it to be the the leading seat of Hindu learning where crowds of pupils from all quarters were taught the three Vedas and the eighteen accomplishments.
  • Dr Hoernle says that according to another non-medical line of Indian tradition preserved in the Buddhist Jatakas or Folk-lore, there existed in India in the age of Buddha two great universities or seats of learning in which all sciences including medicine were taught by professors of world-wide renown.

Nalanda University


Nalanda was the largest residential university that India has ever seen. The area covered by it was 1 mile long and 1/2 mile broad. This area had a high wall round the buildings. Well- planned large and small buildings with 8 big halls and 300 lecture rooms is but a modest description of the centre of learning, which was a monastery and university combined into one. The University building was six-storeyed.

Number of Scholars

The population comprised of 10000 pupils and over 1500 lecturers and teachers. Over 1000 scholars of high repute were proud of having the honor to reside in the university. This, together with the executive and menial staff, reached a staggering figure. It undertook to give its students and teachers free lodging, free food and clothing and free tuition and medicine. There was no idea of deriving part of its expenses from the income of fees levied on the students as is done in modern times. Education was free. This was possible due to the liberal grants made by the royal and private philanthropy. The University of Nalanda was royally patronized by Gupta rulers. It is also stated that as many as 100 chairs or pulpits were arranged every day for the lecturers or discourses to be delivered by many different teachers.

Admission was very strict. Only 2 out of every 10 applicants were admitted, thus preserving the very high intellectual standard for which the university was world-renowned. It could boast of students hailing from such far away countries like China, Korea, Tibet, Tokhara, Mongolia, Japan and the Indian Archipelago. Considering the scarce and difficult means of communications of this distant age, this cosmopolitan nature of the students is amazing.

University of Benares

The university at Benares was a later development, moulded on the lines of Taxila by students from Taxila. It flourished from 7th B. C. to 12 A D. We find that the Benares boys were drawn to Taxila but we do not find any references of Taxila boys going to Benares. The most brilliant and outstanding feature of pride of the Benares university of those days was its school of surgery.

Other Small Centers

There were many minor but important centres of learning at that time. One such was the Himalayan school situated at Kanakhal near the modern Haradwar where Kasyapa the author of Kasyapa Samhita was the great teacher. It was primarily famous as a school of Pediatrics. Similarly Videh was also noted as a seat of learning for diseases of the eye.

Complaisance for Admission

The admission was strict but the strictness was with regards to the intellectual level of the students seeking admission. The caste or poverty never formed a barrier, the only exception being that of the Candala. This will be evident when we find that there were youths from Ksatriyas, Brahmins, princes, noblemen, merchants, tailors, fishermen and others among the students. There is a story that a Candala of Ujjainai got admission to the university by resorting to disguise.

Caste not, only did not hamper admission into the university,but it also did not restrict the student in the choice of his subject. This freedom of choice of subjects is evident from instances where we find a Brahmin learning magic and charm, another Brahmin learning the art of hunting, another studying archery and another pursuing practical science. Caste, thus had lost its sting if it ever then had, before the charms of this intellectual capital of Aryavarta.

There was no class distinction in these universities. A perfect democratic spirit pervaded throughout and princes, merchants and poor students, all lived as fellow-students under the same strict discipline. The senior students were given the chance to work as assistant teachers to enhance their grasp of the subject. Shift system was also adopted and day and night classes were held. We have ample proofs to learn that the courses of study were not merely theoretical. The knowledge of both theory and practice was imparted. Many students gave a finishing touch to their practical work by travels in various countries.

Some students were married persons and maintained their own household and attended their studies. Those who could afford were allowed to stay in their own homes. There is the instance of prince Junah of Kasi who was running an independent house for himself while he attended his college at Taxila.

Courses of Study

The full list of the study courses included each and every Vedic literature. The below mentioned comprehensive course of study was taught by the universities according to their needs and resources:

  • The Vedas - prayer books
  • The Brahmanas - sacerdotal texts
  • The Upanisads - spiritual discourses
  • The Sutras - aphorisms
  • The Dharma Sastra - religion
  • The Puranas - ancient history
  • The Arthasastra - political economy
  • The Smrti - law
  • Sanskrit literature
  • History
  • Geography
  • Poetry
  • Drama
  • Arts and science
  • Phonetics
  • Grammar
  • Vocabulary
  • Prosody
  • Rhetoric
  • Philosophy
  • Astronomy
  • Astrology
  • Geometry
  • Trigonometry
  • Arithmetic
  • Algebra
  • Medicine
  • Military science
  • Lands
  • Marine sciences
  • Commerce and industry
  • Religious scriptures


Library of Nalanda

Library was considered to be the most essential constituent of such a university. It was proverbial to say that a monastery without a library was like a castle without armory. Nalanda university had three buildings reserved for library. They were nine-storeyed buildings containing rare and sacred books. The library quarter was known as Dharmaganja, the mart of religion.

Munificent donations, not only from the local Gupta kings, but from Bengal rulers and rulers of Java and Sumatra made it possible for the Kulapatis to supply all the requisite clothes, food, bedding and medicine absolutely free. With requisites obtained, students could concentrate on study with nothing to worry about. It thus became an institute for higher or specialized learning. Its scholars after finishing their education traveled to China, Arabia, Tibet and other places and organised medical work. It was an important subject in the curricula. These sacrificing scholars made it their mission to carry the banner of Indian learning and culture to foreign countries to build up a greater India far beyond the geographical boundaries.

This peaceful cultural conquest, the greatest achievement of the system of education as practiced in the past, helped in creating a holy halo around this great temple of learning and attracted students from all the parts of the world. It thus justified its name of the University by attracting students from the whole world. It was in fact an international university, like the modern Oxford and Cambridge universities. Chinese travelers have left valuable accounts of their travels from which we can get a glimpse of the glory of the country in ancient times.

Nalanda was particularly a research institute for advanced students and was so to say the supreme court of judges of intellectual worth. Any new theory or hypothesis had to obtain its stamp to become current coin. The highest distinction bestowed by the university was the Fellowship or brotherhood of Nalanda. The students of Nalanda were looked upon as models by all the country and were respected everywhere.

All subjects were taught in this university. Medicine was one of the subjects. Logic was compulsory for all and was given great importance. There was an astronomical observatory and a water clock which gave correct time to the whole Magadha. Nalanda's alumni consisted of Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Dinnaga, Sthiramati, Dharmapala, Silabhadra are but a few of the prodigies of which Nalanda was very proud.

In contrast to all this glory or rather due to the perfect harmony with the ideals, mission and practice of this noble work of imparting education and infusing cultures, the dress of the students was the same as that of a Bhiksu. There was no caste distinction and a simple robe comprised the dress of all the students without any distinction with regards to caste or social status. They were all Bhiksus, for the greatest gifts a human being can obtain knowledge, culture, living. This university flourished from 450 A. D. to 12th century A. D.


Fees were levied. 1000 pieces of the then current coin was the fee for the course to be paid at the time of enrollment whereas the students who were not able to pay fees rendered personal service to the teacher in lieu of the fees. On completion of the study, a lump sum or some other gift was given to the teacher as Guru Daksina according to the student's capacity.

The university was largely supported by public contributions. Handsome donations were forthcoming from princes to the university. Besides the students and the staff were often invited and entertained to meals by the public. We find an instance where a school of 500 students was invited for a dinner by a country family. Often a similar entertainment was given by the whole village.

Chinese Pilgrims Accounts

The best accounts of the University are furnished by the two Chinese pilgrims to India. They are:

  1. Yuan Chwang - Yuan Chwang traveled in India for 16 years from 629-645 A D as a student of Buddhism. During his stay he spent five years as a student at the university of Nalanda.
  2. It Sang - It sang spent ten years from 675-685 A. D. as a student of Nalanda University.

As per Yuan Chwang

Yuan Chwang states that foreign students came to Nalanda to put an end to their doubts and then became celebrated. At the entrance examination of the university only about 20 could pass and 80 failed to get admission. The university thus comprised really the picked scholars who could take their part in its academic life of the highest standard as represented in its schools of discussions of which the university was mainly made up. To be a student of Nalanda was thus the highest academic distinction of the day. He supports the claim by stating that the students of Nalanda were looked upon as models. Yuan Chwang states,
"Those who bore the name of Nalanda were all treated with respect wherever they went."


  1. Viharas means religious places.
  2. Darsana means to look at auspicious sight or deity.
  3. It means philosophy.
  4. It means incantation of religious magic.
  5. It means neo-logic.
  6. It means logic.
  • The Caraka Samhita published by Shree Gulabkunverba Ayurvedic Society, Jamnagar, India