How History Was Unmade At Nalanda! D N Jha
This response to Arun Shourie by DN JHA is the complete original, of which a shorter version was published in The Indian Express today.
Ruins of Nalanda University
I was amused to read ‘How History was Made up at Nalanda’ by Arun Shourie who has dished out to readers his ignorance masquerading as knowledge – reason enough to have pity on him and sympathy for his readers! Since he has referred to me by name and has charged me with fudging evidence to distort the historical narrative of the destruction of the ancient Nalandamahavihar, I consider it necessary to rebut his allegations and set the record straight instead of ignoring his balderdash.
My presentation at the Indian History Congress in 2006 (and not 2004 as stated by Shourie), to which he refers, was not devoted to the destruction of ancient Nalanda per se – his account misleads readers and pulls wool over their eyes. It was in fact focused on the antagonism between the Brahmins and Buddhists for which I drew on different kinds of evidence including myths and traditions. In this context I cited the tradition recorded in the 18th century Tibetan text, Pag-sam-jon-zang by Sumpa Khan-Po Yece Pal Jor,mentioned by B N S Yadava in his Society and Culture in Northern India in the Twelfth Century (p.346) with due acknowledgement, though in his pettiness, Shourie is quick to discover plagiarism on my part! I may add that “Hindu fanatics” are not my words but Yadav’s which is why they are in quotes. How sad that one has to point this out to a Magsaysay awardee journalist!
In his conceit Shourie is disdainful and dismissive of the Tibetan tradition which, has certain elements of miracle in it, as recorded in the text. Here is the relevant extract from Sumpa’s work cited by Shourie : “While a religious sermon was being delivered in the temple that he [Kakut Siddha] had erected at Nalanda, a few young monks threw washing water at two Tirthika beggars. (The Buddhists used to designate the Hindus by the term Tirthika). The beggars being angry, set fire on the three shrines of Dharmaganja, the Buddhist University of Nalanda, viz.— Ratna Sagara, Ratna Ranjaka including the nine-storeyed temple called Ratnodadhi which contained the library of sacred books” (p.92). Shourie questions how the two beggars could go from building to building to “burn down the entire, huge, scattered complex.” Look at another passage (abridged by me in the following paragraph) from the History of Buddhism in India written by another Tibetan monk and scholar Taranatha in the 17th century:
During the consecration of the temple built by Kakutsiddha at Nalendra [Nalanda] “the young naughty sramanas threw slops at the two tirthika beggars andkept them pressed inside door panels and set ferocious dogs on them”. Angered by this, one of them went on arranging for their livelihood and the other sat in a deep pit and “engaged himself in surya sadhana” [solar worship] , first for nine years and then for three more years and having thus “acquired mantrasiddhi” he “performed a sacrifice and scattered the charmed ashes all around” which “immediately resulted in a miraculously produced fire”, consuming all the eighty four temples and the scriptures some of which, however, were saved by water flowing from an upper floor of the nine storey Ratnodadhi temple. (History of Buddhism in India, English tr. Lama Chimpa & Alka Chattopadhyaya, summary of pp.141-42).
If we look at the two narratives closely, they are similar. The role of the Tirthikas and their miraculous fire causing a conflagration are common to both. Admittedly one does not have to take the miracles literally but it is not justified to ignore their importance as part of traditions which gain in strength over time and become part of collective memory of the community. Nor is it desirable or defensible to disregard the element of long standing antagonism between the Brahmins and Buddhists which may have given rise to the Tibetan tradition and nurtured it till as late as the 18th century or even later. It is in the context of this Buddhist-Tirthika animosity that the account of Sumpa assumes importance; it also makes sense because it jibes with Taranatha’s evidence. Further, neither Sumpa, nor Taranatha, ever came to India. This should mean that the idea of Brahminical hostility to the religion of the Buddha traveled to Tibet fairly early and became part of its Buddhist tradition, and found expression in the 17th-18th century Tibetan writings. Acceptance or rejection of this kind of source-criticism is welcome if it comes from a professional historian and but not from someone who flirts with history as Shourie does.
Of the two Tibetan traditions, the one referred to by me has been given credence not only by Yadava (whom Shourie, in his ignorance, dubs a Marxist!) but a number of other Indian scholars like R K Mookerji (Education in Ancient India), Sukumar Dutt (Buddhist Monks and Monsteries of India), Buddha Prakash (Aspects of Indian History and Civilization), and S C Vidyabhushana who interprets the text to say that it refers to an actual “scuffle between the Buddhsit and Brahmanical mendicants and the latter, being infuriated, propitiated the Sun god for twelve years, performed a fire- sacrifice and threw the living embers and ashes from the sacrificial pit into the Buddhist temples which eventually destroyed the great library at Nalanda called Ratnodadhi” (History of Indian Logic, p516 as cited by D R Patil, The Antiquarian Remains in Bihar, p.327). Scholars named above were all polymaths of unimpeachable academic honesty and integrity. They had nothing to do, even remotely, with Marxism: which is, to Shourie in his bull avatar, a red rag.
Now juxtapose the Tibetan tradition with the contemporary account in the Tabaqat-i-Nasiri of Minhaj-i -Siraj, which Shourie not only misinterprets but also blows out of proportion. Although its testimony has no bearing on my argument about Brahmanical intolerance, a word needs to be said about it so as to expose his “false knowledge”, which as G B Shaw said, is “more dangerous than ignorance.” The famous passage from this text reads exactly as follows:
“He [ Bakhtiyar Khalji] used to carry his depredations into those parts and that country until he organized an attack upon the fortified city of Bihar. Trustworthy persons have related on this wise, that he advanced to the gateway of the fortress of Bihar with two hundred horsemen in defensive armour, and suddenly attacked the place. There were two brothers of Farghanah, men of learning, one Nizamu-ud-Din, the other Samsam-ud-Din (by name) in the service of Muhammad-i-Bakht-yar ; and the author of this book [ Minhaj] met with at Lakhnawati in the year 641 H., and this account is from him. These two wise brothers were soldiers among that band of holy warriors when they reached the gateway of the fortress and began the attack, at which time Muhammad-i-Bakhtiyar, by the force of his intrepidity, threw himself into the postern of the gateway of the place, and they captured the fortress and acquired great booty. The greater number of inhabitants of that place were Brahmans, and the whole of those Brahmans had their heads shaven; and they were all slain. 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 were killed. On becoming acquainted (with the contents of the books), it was found that the whole of that fortress and city was a college, and in the Hindui tongue, they call a college Bihar” (Tabaqat-i-Nasiri, English tr. H G Raverty, pp.551-52).
The above account mentions the fortress of Bihar as the target of Bakhtiyar’s attack. The fortified monastery which Bakhtiyar captured was, “known as Audand-Bihar or Odandapura-vihara” (Odantapuri in Biharsharif then known simply as Bihar). This is the view of many historians but, most importantly, of Jadunath Sarkar, the high priest of communal historiography in India (History of Begal, vol. 2, pp.3-4). Minhaj does not refer to Nalanda at all: he merely speaks of the ransacking of the “fortress of Bihar” (hisar-i-Bihar). But how can Shourie be satisfied unless Bakhtiyar is shown to have sacked Nalanda? Since Bakhtiyar was leading plundering expeditions in the region of Magadha, Shourie thinks that Nalanda must have been destroyed by him – and, magically, he finds ‘evidence’ in an account which does not even speak of the place. Thus an important historical testimony becomes the victim of his anti-Muslim prejudice. In his zeal, he fudges and concocts historical evidence and ignores the fact that Bakhtiyar did not go to Nalanda; it “escaped the main fury of the Muslim conquest because it lay not on the main route from Delhi to Bengal but needed a separate expedition” (A S Altekar in Introduction to Roerich’s Biography of Dharmasvamin). Also, a few years after Bakhtiyar’s sack of Odantapuri, when the Tibetan monk Dharmasvamin visited Nalanda in 1234, he “found some buildings unscathed” in which some pandits and monks resided and received instruction from Mahapandita Rahulshribhadra. In fact, Bakhtiyar seems to have proceeded from Biharshrif to Nadia in Bengal through the hills and jungles of the region of Jharkhand, which, incidentally, finds first mention in an inscription of 1295 AD (Comprehensive History of India, vol IV, pt. I, p.601). I may add that his whole book, Eminent Historians, from which the article under reference is excerpted, abounds in instances of cavalier attitude to historical evidence and peddles a perverse perception of the Indian past.
It is neither possible nor necessary to deny that the Islamic invaders conquered parts of Bihar and Bengal and destroyed the famous universities in the region. But Shourie’s laboured effort to associate Bakhtiyar Khalji with the destruction and burning of the university of Nalanda is a glaring example of the wilful distortion of history. Certainly week-end historians like Shourie and others of his ilk are always free to falsify historical data but this only reveals the lack of any serious historical training.
Shourie had raised a huge controversy by publishing his scandalous and slanderous Eminent Historians in 1998 during the NDA regime and now, after sixteen years, he has issued its second edition. He appears and reappears in the historian’s avatar when the BJP comes to power, tries to please his masters and keeps waiting for crumbs to fall from their table. His view of the past is no different from that of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and their numerous outfits consisting of riffraff and goons who burn books that do not endorse their view, vandalize art objects which they consider blasphemous, present a distorted view of Indian history, and nurture a culture of intolerance. These elements demanded my arrest when my work on beef eating was published, and censured James Laine when his book on Shivaji came out. It is not unlikely that Shourie functions in perfect harmony with them and persons like Dina Nath Batra who targeted A K Ramanujan’s essay emphasizing the diversity of the Ramayana tradition; Wendy Doniger’s writings, which provided an alternative view of Hinduism; Megha Kumar’s work on communalism and sexual violence in Ahmedabad since 1969; and Sekhar Bandopadhyaya’s textbook on modern India which does not eulogize the RSS.
Arun Shourie seems to have inaugurated a fresh round of battle by reproducing in a second edition his faked, falsified and fabricated historical evidence, thus providing grist to the reactionary mill of Batras and their ilk.
D N Jha is Former Professor and Chair, Department of History, University of Delhi. His important publications include Early India and The Myth of the Holy Cow.