[INDOLOGY] Amartya Sen and Nalanda

Jonathan Silk kauzeya at gmail.com
Tue Jul 14 07:15:11 UTC 2015

Thank you Patrick! From the first: "Academics are good at deconstructing
everyone’s privileges but their own."
Never a truer word was spoken!

Although it goes back a few days, may I take this opportunity also briefly
to respond to Andrew's worthwhile question: "Maybe Jonathan can tell us
what struck him as false, fantastic, ignorant, etc., as opposed to

A catalog is not appropriate, and I am well aware that Sen is not an
Indologist (although one might think that it is not very hard to run such a
piece by a friend or colleague who is before one publishes), but:

"As an institution of higher learning, where the entry qualifications were
high, Nalanda was supported by a network of other educational organizations

provided information about Nalanda and also helped to prepare students for
studying there."

"entry qualifications"? If Sen knows this, it is a new discovery. I don't
think anyone knows anything about how 'students' were granted 'admission'
to 'study' at Nalanda. The entire presentation of Nalanda as a 'university'
with 'students' who come to 'study' there is, to my mind, fantastical. This
spirit permeates the piece.

"Special care was taken to demolish the beautiful statues of Buddha and
other Buddhist figures that were spread across the campus."

Setting aside 'campus', I don't think again that there is any evidence for
this, and rather, it seems to me that when monasteries were sacked in North
India the goal was almost entirely economic. The 'beautiful statues' were
often made of precious substances or encrusted with jewels; my guess--but
it is nothing more than that--is that there is at least a whiff of some
idea that one might connect this sack of Nalanda with the destruction of
the Bamiyan Buddhas, which is historically, and typologically, an entirely
unrelated event.

Birgit has already referred much more authoritatively than I could to the
discussion of debate; I have nothing to add.

One more:

"The issue of the spread of knowledge was raised in a conversation in the
seventh century when Xuan Zang completed his studies and

was considering going back to China. The professors at Nalanda asked Xuan
Zang to stay on as a member of the faculty."

The professors? The faculty? Completed his studies? Andrew would perhaps
not characterize this as fantastic, but I think it fundamentally and
entirely misrepresents the very nature of Nalanda, and plops it right down
in the European context to which Sen wishes to equate the Indian

Finally, and unrelated, a random question: is it just because he thinks his
NYRB readers will expect it that Sen refers to Lokesh Chandra as Chandra?
It's one name, LokeshChandra, right?!

I would like to sincerely thank the colleagues who have helped place this
discussion in the wider context, of which I was entirely ignorant, of
contemporary Indian politics. It is an interesting, but depressing, story,
which unfortunately seems to hold serious lessons for those of us in Europe
also dealing with State control over education and resources.


On Tue, Jul 14, 2015 at 7:23 AM, Patrick Olivelle <jpo at uts.cc.utexas.edu>

> Writing from my temporary home in Delhi, those of you interested in the
> Amartya Sen and Nalanda University fiasco, my profitably read these two
> essays. The first is by a friend, Pratap Bhanu Mehta (who taught at
> Harvard). He is a very incisive and insightful public intellectual and
> analyst of Indian politics and society.
> http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/nalanda-is-a-syndrome/99/
> http://thewire.in/2015/07/13/goodbye-sen-welcome-yeo/
> With best wishes from monsoon soaked Delhi,
> Patrick
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J. Silk
Leiden University
Leiden University Institute for Area Studies, LIAS
Matthias de Vrieshof 3, Room 0.05b
2311 BZ Leiden
The Netherlands

copies of my publications may be found at

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