Medical Institutions and Universities in Ancient India
Cardinal Newman says that a University is an assembly of learned persons. According to this definition, each and every Ṛṣi family was an autonomous university where the atmosphere of learning, scholarship, sacrifice, worship and self-realization prevailed. These unitary Ṛṣi-kulas or educational settlements developed into a form more complex, first as āśrama-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 āśrama-kulas being situated in the forests resembled the residential universities while Gurukulas were like the affiliating and partly residential universities.
Sages like Vyāsa, Dhaumya, Agastya, Vaśiśṭha, Viśvāmitra, Jābāli, Vālmiki, Kanva and other Ṛṣis had attained great renown. Some of these Ṛṣis taught ten thousand pupils and these Ṛṣis were honored and addressed by the the title of "Kulapati". "Kulapati" was entitled to a person who taught all the four Vedas along with their branches to ten thousand students, with provision of free lodging and boarding.
Such āśramas were situated in the places where nature was bountiful and pleasant. Some of these āśramas have become immortalized in the history of our culture. Naimiśaraṇya is famed in the Purāṇas. Janasthāna stands in the forefront sections of the Rāmāyaṇa. The āśrama of Kanva Ṛṣi is described in the Mahābhārata and immortalized by that prince among Indian poets Kālidāsa. This place is looked upon with great reverence and awe by the research scholars even today.
Admission to the universities was not easy. Entrance into the university was a very discreet process supervised very scrupulously by erudite scholars who held the entrance examination. Students had to pass through an exigent test to gain entrance to these revered temples of learning. The members of the admission committee were aptly called Dwāra Panditas who were zealous in maintaining the scholarship by preventing the entrance of mediocre students. The final test for graduation or completion of study was equally hard. The examination committees used the "Śalākā parikśā" test in which the candidates were required to explain that page of the text book which happened to have a Śalākā or a needle kept by ācārya on it.
Proficiency of Different Universities
- Takṣaśilā had a very famous medical college. The military academy of Takṣaśilā was also famous.
- Nālandā university was famous for it's library.
- Kāśi paid more attention to Vedānta, and Nyāya.
- Vikram-śilā was known for it's Tantra Vidyā and magic.
- Mithilā excelled in Navya-nyāya.
- Navadwipa specialized in Hetuvidyā.
- Each Vihāra had valuable stores of books and students visited them frequently to avail it's benefits.
Buddha Vihāras as Universities
As the structure of society became more and more complex, residents were entangled in the worldly affairs, hence the Ṛṣi-kulas were eventually superseded by the Guru-kulas. The Gurukula tried to maintain the best tradition of the Ṛṣi-kula as far as it was possible in its new environment. When Buddhism came in the ascendance upon the downfall of Brāhmanism, it took up the link and continued to impart education in the Vihāras almost following the same methods of the Gurukulas in a systematic way. There is adequate information regarding the Buddhistic Vihāras.
Remarkable Buddhist Vihāras
The method of teachings of the Buddhist Vihāras was really admirable. Amongst these educational institutions, the universities of the below mentioned places were quite distinguished.
Qualities of Buddhist Universities
Takṣaśilā 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 attain knowledge. There was a continuous flow of admiring pilgrims for getting the merit of having Darśana of these religio-educational sanctuaries. It was considered a high honor for foreign scholars to get admission into these institutions 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 Āryavarta and left for us priceless accounts of their experiences. The high personages like the mighty chancellors Śilabhadra, Dipankara and Atisa made these universities world wide famous due to their unrelenting studiousness.
Two best Universities of Ancient India
India was famous for two best universities in the world; one was Takṣaśilā university in the west on the Jhelum river and other was Nālandā university in Central Bihar. It was a fashion to send princes and the sons of the well-to-do Brāhmanas on attaining the age of sixteen to complete their education at Takṣaśilā which was described as a University town. The medical school of Takṣaśilā had a special reputation, while arts and sciences also could be studied under the most eminent professors. Even the universities in Kāśi or Benares in the east were well-known. In the Takṣaśilā university, at the time of Buddha or shortly before it, Ātreya was the leading professor of medicine. Hence, Atreya had flourished in the sixth century B. C
Takṣaśilā University, situated about 20 miles west of Rawalpindi in the North-west provinces, was the most important seat of learning in ancient India. It was known as the capital of the-then important province of Gāndhāra and its history goes back into classical antiquity.
Gāndhāra was renounced for being the intellectual capital of Āryavarta. The place resounded with the chantings of Vedic Mantras by students. This attracted people globally. It was founded by Bharata and named after his son Takṣa, who was an established ruler. Janmejaya's serpent sacrifice was performed at Gāndhāra. In 7th century B. C., it was a famous seat of learning.
This university not only attracted students from far off places in India like Rajgṛha, Mithilā, Benares, Ujjain, Kuru, Kosala etc., but also from foreign countries like Babylonia, Misra (Egypt), Phoenicia, Syria, Arabia, China and Greece. It was a university to which a number of Indian institutions were affiliated. It was like an exemplary ideal to foreign countries for molding their universities. The Alexandrian school, established in 4th century B. C. had 14,000 students. It was established as a result of inspiration derived from Takṣaśilā during Alexander's invasion of India.
Reputation of Takṣaśilā
Takṣaśilā had the presence of world-renowned teachers and specialists in many different branches of arts and sciences. They were the authorities in their subjects, who gave a finishing touch to education. Graduation from Takṣaśilā marked the completion of one's studies.
The catholicity of the curriculum amazes the student because 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 eighteen accomplishments. The subjects were taught under the supervision of expert teachers. Each teacher had his own institution having of an approximate of about 500 students.
The brilliant teachers and the variety of subjects attracted the luminaries of intellectual Alma mater of the country. Some famous names among them are Cāṇakya, Pāṇini, Jivaka, Vyadi, Kumāralabdha, Aśvaghoṣa, Deva, Nāgarjuna, Ātreya, Brahmadatta, Junaha and a host of others. Takṣaśilā won the popular epithet of the "Queen of learning".
The educational system of Takṣaśilā was very sound and world renounced. Students from distant lands wanted to enroll in this famous university. Travel in those days was not like an adventure but it was more of a hazard. It took months to reach a place where it would now take just hours. It was usual for a person to distribute his property among his heirs and relatives and 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 a miracle. Yet parents unhesitatingly sent their sons to Takṣaśilā for the acquisition of knowledge at young age of 16. The courses lasted from 5 to 7 years and the students could not return to their homes until graduation was completed, as the means of communication did not exist.
Takṣaśilā was especially noted for its medical school, law school and the school of military science. These schools were very famous and mostly all the princes of India of that time were its students. The arts of healing and war were the specialties of Takṣaśilā, although it included all other branches of learning. Takṣaśilā was very famous and had high esteem, hence the pupils from various universities wanted to get admission for their studies. There is a story of a student Seta Ketu of Benares, who went to Takṣaśilā for further studies. On his return, he went to a village where a group of 500 ascetics taught him the arts.
References On Takṣaśilā in Indian Literatures
Rāmāyaṇa mentions the origin of Takṣaśilā. It has been written in Rāmāyaṇa that, 'As they were all killed, Bharata, the son of Kaikeyi, built up two prosperous cities and placed Takṣa in Takṣaśilā and Puṣkala in Puṣkalāvata in the beautiful country of Gāndharvas and in the province of Gāndhāra respectively'. There is a similar kind of reference about Takṣaśilā in Mahābhārata mentioning about the Pāndava brothers subjugating it, after the attack.
References by Foreigners
Takṣaśilā's fame had spread far and wide in foreign countries, hence 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 Hindus, 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 Jātakas 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.
Nālandā was the largest residential university of ancient India. The area covered by it, surrounded with high walls, was 1 mile long and 1/2 mile broad. Well-planned large and small buildings with 8 big halls and 300 lecture rooms was a modest center of learning. It was monastery and university combined into one. The University building had six-stories.
Number of Scholars
Nālandā University had a population of 10000 pupils and over 1500 lecturers and teachers. Over 1000 scholars of high repute had the honor to reside in the university. This, together with the executive and menial staff, reached a staggering figure. The university gave its students and teachers free lodging, free food and clothing and free tuition and medicine. There was no idea of deriving any of its expenses from the income of fees levied on the students as is the practice in modern times. Education was free. This was possible due to the liberal grants made by the royal and private philanthropy. The University of Nālandā was royally patronized by Gupta rulers. It is also stated that almost 100 chairs or pulpits were arranged every day for the lecturers for the discourses to be delivered by many different teachers on different subjects.
Admissions were very strict and competitive. To preserve high intellectual standard for which the university was world-renowned, only 2 out of every 10 applicants were admitted. In-spite of scarce means of communications, students came from cosmopolitan areas as well as around the world such as China, Korea, Tibet, Tokhara, Mongolia, Japan and the Indian Archipelago.
Library of Nālandā
Library was considered to be the most essential constituent of a university. It was proverbial to say that a monastery without a library was like a castle without armory. Nālandā 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. Scholars of these institutions, after finishing their education traveled to China, Arabia, Tibet and other places and organized 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 and the greatest achievement of the system of education as practiced in the past, helped in creating a holy halo around these learning temples 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.
Nālandā was particularly a research institute for advanced students and was the supreme court of judges of intellectual worth. Any new theory or hypothesis had to obtain its approval to become current coin. The highest distinction bestowed by the university was the Fellowship or brotherhood of Nālandā. The students of Nālandā were looked upon as models by the whole country and were respected everywhere.
All the 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. Nālandā's alumni consisted of Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Dinnaga, Sthiramati, Dharmapala, Śilabhadra are the proud prodigies of Nālandā.
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 Bhikśu. 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 Bhikśus seeking the greatest gifts a human being can obtain that is knowledge, culture and living. This university flourished from 450 A. D. to 12th century A. D.
University of Benares
The university at Benares was a later development, molded on the lines by students from Takṣaśilā. It flourished from 7th B. C. to 12 A. D. Students from Benares university were drawn to Takṣaśilā but there were no references for students from Takṣaśilā attending Benares university. Benares university had brilliant and outstanding school of surgery.
Other Small Centers
Himalayan school was an important center of learning, situated at Kanakhal near Haridwar where Kaśyapa, was the great teacher, the author of Kaśyapa Samhitā. It was primarily famous as a school of Pediatrics. Similarly Videh was also famous for the eye diseases.
The admission process was strict and very competitive for each student. All caste, rich and poor students were admitted on merit levels, except Cāṇḍāla caste. Youths from Kṣatriyas, Brāhmins, princes, noblemen, merchants, tailors, fishermen and others were given admissions.
Students who were admitted into the university, had freedom to choose their subjects. This was evident from the instances where a Brāhmin could learn magic and charm, another Brāhmin learnt the art of hunting, another one could study archery and another could pursue practical science. Caste, was not a barrier at this intellectual capital of Āryavarta. 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. There was a unique arrangement for day and night classes. The courses of study were theoretical as well as practical. The knowledge of both theory and practice was imparted.
Many students gave a finishing touch to their practical work by travelling and acquiring knowledge from various countries. Some students were married and maintained their own household and attended their studies. Those who could afford were allowed to stay in their own homes. There was an example of the prince Junah of Kāśi who was running an independent house for himself while he attended his college at Takṣaśilā.
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 students needs and resources:
- The Vedas - Prayer books
- The Brāhmaṇas - Sacerdotal texts
- The Upaniṣads - Spiritual discourses
- The Sutras - aphorisms
- The Dharma Śāstra - Religion
- The Purāṇas - Ancient history
- The Arthaśastra - Political economy
- The Smṛti - Law
- Sanskrit literature
- Arts and science
- Military science
- Marine sciences
- Commerce and industry
- Religious scriptures
Fees were levied from the students. 1000 pieces of coins 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 Dakṣiṇā 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 indian Universities are furnished by the two Chinese pilgrims to India. They are:
- Yuan Chwang - Yuan Chwang traveled in India for 16 years from 629-645 A D as a student of Buddhist sect. During his stay he spent five years as a student at the Nālandā University.
- It Sang - It sang spent ten years from 675-685 A. D. as a student of Nālandā University.
As per Yuan Chwang
Yuan Chwang stated that foreign students came to Nālandā and then became celebrated. As the entrance examination of the university was tough, only about 20 percent could get admission. The university maintained high standards of academics excellence. To be a student of Nālandā was thus the highest academic distinction. Yuan Chwang supports the claim by stating that the students of Nālandā were looked upon as models. He states,
"Those who bore the name of Nālandā were all treated with respect wherever they went."
- It means philosophy.
- It means incantation of religious magic.
- It means neo-logic.
- It means logic.
- Vihāras means religious places.
- Darśana means to look at auspicious sight or deity.
- Cāṇḍāla is a sanskrit word for someone who deals with disposal of corpses.
- The Caraka Samhita published by Shree Gulabkunverba Ayurvedic Society, Jamnagar, India