Friday, 29 March 2013

The best and the brightest - Part I

From the Friday Times (Pakistan) by Salma Mahmud

At the very heart of the old Punjab, thousands of years ago, lay a dreamland beyond compare. It had a veritable fairytale setting, with a unique location and inhabitants. It stood upon a series of hills, shaded by forests immersed in melodious birdsong, perfumed by exotic scents, with the soft buzzing of honeybees, the apis cerana, 30 million years old, creating a soporific mood. It eventually became the capital of the mighty Gandhara kingdom, the land of flowers, with breathtaking stupas, monasteries and sculptures of Indo-Greek origin spread all over the landscape. Its worship of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of beauty and love, is evident from some of its later sculptural remains, but Takshashila was an early site for Naga worship, as well as for the worship of Surya, the supreme solar deity in Hinduism, the Supreme Light, also referred to as Mitra or Friend, whom Pingala the mathematican worshipped. In fact, one of the aspects of Surya is Pingala:

'His bright rays bear him up aloft, the God who knoweth all that lives,

Surya, that all may look on him.

The constellations pass away like thieves, together with their beams,

Before the all-beholding Sun...

Swift and beautiful art thou, O Surya'

Rigveda, Book I, Hymn 50
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Remains at the site of the Double-Headed Eagle shrine at Taxila
Remains at the site of the Double-Headed Eagle shrine at Taxila
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The Double-Headed Eagle shrine was built by King Gondopharnes, the first Indo-Parthian ruler, in 30 AD

But fairy tales often have terrifying layers in their depths. Takshashila, the world's first university, home to great intellectual endeavour, also produced certain villainies which sat ill on its generally calm exterior. And then among the flora and fauna of its idyllic surroundings we read of sacred serpents softly slithering along its forest paths, 'earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth', while ferocious lions and crocodiles, tigers and wild elephants wandered through its environs, sometimes attacking faculty members who are recalled even today as harbingers of excellence.

It is tempting to imagine villainous Komodo dragons plunging into the waters of the Indian Ocean, swimming valiantly from the Indonesian islands towards the subcontinent and reaching Potohar through secret shaded riverine ways, but I am informed very definitely that such a scenario could not possibly exist. However, giant monitor lizards certainly have inhabited the area for millenia, and they could easily manoeuvre their way along to the vernal woods of Takshashila. They, along with their larger cousins to whose genus they belong, are good swimmers.
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The period of the Takshakas is earlier than that of the mature Indus civilization of Mohenjodaro
The period of the Takshakas is earlier than that of the mature Indus civilization of Mohenjodaro
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As far as snakes were concerned, the oldest rulers of Takshashila were the Takshakas, whose modern descendants were the Taka tribe, worhipping Takila or serpents. The period of the Takshakas is earlier than that of the mature Indus civilization of Mohenjodaro. Nagpanchami is celebrated on the fifth day of the moonlit fortnight during July/August, and snakes are worshipped on this particular day, Lord Subramanyu being the Lord of Snakes. The thousand-headed Sheeshnag who symbolises Eternity is the couch of Lord Vishnu, where he reclines during the time between the dissolution of one universe and the creation of another, and thus Hindus believe in the immortality of snakes. And don't forget that 2013 is the Year of the Snake.

Snake worship at Takshashila

We are priviliged as Punjabis to be heirs to one of the most complex and colourful cultures of all time. Takshashila stands there, spread out over a series of hills beneath which lie buried centuries of knowledge and history. One of the many meanings for its name is City of Cut Stones, and it was created out of stones that were images of enchantment. From this very fine bluish-grey schist material were carved the Double-Headed Eagle shrine built by King Gondopharnes, the first Indo-Parthian ruler, in 30 AD, and the Fasting Buddha among hundreds of others, so enticing in their glory that the eye cannot rest on them for very long. Incidentally, The Fasting Buddha in the Lahore Museum belongs to the Gandhara region, not to Takshashila itself, but Takshashila was the capital, and this particular piece of sculpture epitomises the grandeur and beauty of that era.
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The Battle of Kurukshetra
The Battle of Kurukshetra
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This Double-Headed Eagle shrine is of Scythian origin, imbued with Bactrian Greek influences, which were brought to the area by Alexander the Great's armies. The sublime Fasting Buddha that reduces the viewer to tears with its mystic beauty is also from the 2nd - 3rd century, the date of Bactrian Greek rule in India. It was excavated in 1902 from Sikri village in the Jamalgarhi area near Mardan and brought to the Lahore Museum. The base on which it stands reveals Persian-Zoroastrian influences, and the sculpture is so exquisite that Japanese visitors to the museum regularly do darshan in front of it. (It is insured for millions of dollars.)

The specialness of this land goes back to the Neolithic burial mound of Saraikala in the New Stone Age. Then we see the ramparts of Sirkap in the 2nd century BC, and from thence to the city of Sirukh in the 1st century AD, finally disintegrating in the 5th century AD, never to rise again.

It is believed that the epic Mahabharata was first recited here

As a city Takshashila may date back far earlier than the 6th century BC. It is said to be named after Taksha who ruled a kingdom called Taksha Khanda. The Kuru king Parikshat, grandson of the great hero Arjun, was enthroned here. It is traditionally believed that the epic Mahabharata, consisting of 100,000 couplets as well as long prose passages, was first recited here by the great sage Vaishampayana at the behest of the legendary poet Rishi Vyasa, who may have composed this great work here. Tradition says the poem was recited at a grand snake sacrifice in the presence of King Janemajaya, the great grandson of Arjun, and it began thus:

'Wrathful sons of Dhrita-Rashtra, born of Kuru's royal race,

Righteous sons of noble Pandu, god-born men of godlike grace...'

And so the grand battle at Kurukshetra was joined...

Up to 10,000 students studied here at one time

When the Mahabharata was first recited there must have been paatshalas or centres of learning at Takshashila, but from the 6th century BC onwards the university was a fully functioning institution. Consider the ambience of this ancient world's MIT if you will, where upto 10,000 students studied at one time. They came from all parts of India as well as Mesopotamia, the Far East and China. For several hundred years, Greek teachers were part of this distinguished faculty and were treated with great respect by their colleagues.

The wooded hills and groves of Potohar, the budding blossoms, the chirping of birds and the sparkling streams must have lent an ideal backdrop to the intensive studies that were conducted here under the supervision of brilliant teachers. Richly endowed monasteries and stupas containing immense wealth dotted the landscape, and after the Vedic period and until the 2nd century AD it remained a focal point of Buddhist scholarship.
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The magnificent view stretching out metaphorically towards Central Asia, the beautiful architecture as embodied by the great stupa of Dharmarajika established by Ashoka the Great in the 3rd century BC, surrounded by a series of small chapels, and containing relics of the Lord Buddha - all are evidence of Takshashila's grandeur. What could be more conducive to fruitful thought and meditation than such surroundings for those students who were fortunate enough to be accepted by the faculty after gruelling interviews?

At the height of its power, Takshashila stood at the crossroads of three major trade and cultural routes. These were Emperor Chandragupta's Uttarpatha, linking Pataliputra with the main areas of northern India; the Northwest routes through Bactria, Kapisa and Pushkavalati; and the Indus route from Kashmir and Central Asia via Srinagar, Mansehra and Haripur towards the Silk Road in the north and the Indian Ocean in the south. These grand links tied one city to enormous vistas of space and time.

The courses of study at Takshashila are worth a detailed look. They comprised over 64 different fields such as the vedas, grammar, philosophy, ayurveda, agriculture, surgery, politics, archery, warfare, hunting, elephant lore, astronomy, commerce, futurology: a search for grand patterns of social change, music, dance and sculpture, and of course Greek. Some curious subjects included espionage, magic, the art of discovering hidden treasure, the reading of encrypted messages, and bringing the dead back to life. There was also a spell for understanding the cries of animals.

The Persian occupation resulted in the replacement of the ancient Brahmi script by Kharoshti

The range of subjects shows the rigours of this system, which trained young men to emerge from their cloisters into the outside world. They entered the university at the age of sixteen or thereabouts, and after eight years of intensive study they became fully rounded and sophisticated young adults, able to assume their roles in life and perform these to the best of their abilities, whether they were to become rulers, administrators, academicians, thinkers, or businessmen and entrepeneurs. One single class of a hundred princes was known to study archery. The university's schools of Law and Military Science were as renowned as its school for medical studies.
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From the 3rd century BC onwards, India was home to a variety of fighting styles, including the knowledge of swordfighting, as the martial arts were one of the eighteen branches of applied knowledge at that time. Indian epics contain accounts of combat, both armed and bare-handed, as in the Mahabharata there is a prolongued battle between Arjuna and Karna, the two greatest warriors of this epic, using bows, swords, trees, rocks and fists. Karna fired snakes as arrows at Arjuna during this fight:

'Pouring from their poisonous tongues

Liquid fire like lighning bright,

Countless winged serpents

In the blue vault took their flight...'

Wrestling, chariot-racing, horse-riding, boxing and of course archery were a part of the military training imparted here, and a number of the fighting styles remained closely connected to yoga, dance and the performing arts. This gives some indication of the totally integrated holistic world of the students at Takshashila. (It is worth noting here that before becoming the Buddha, Prince Siddhartha Gautama himself was a champion of swordplay, wrestling and archery.)
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Takshashila stood at the crossroads of three major trade and cultural routes
Takshashila stood at the crossroads of three major trade and cultural routes
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The list of great teachers and students at Takshashila is mind-boggling, starting with the great grammarian Panini and his mathematician brother Pingala, who were preceded by experts and scholars whose names are now lost in the mists of antiquity. Along with these two brothers we learn of Jivaka, the physician of the Buddha himself, son of a courtesan who threw him away after his birth onto a garbage dump from where he was rescued by Prince Abhaya, son of Bimbisara King of Magadha, and brought up as the prince's adopted son. Jivaka studied medicine at Takshashila, whose museum today displays a chair used by surgeons for performing operations. Chaitinya the great teacher learned his medical skills here so that he was able to deliver King Bindusara through the world's first recorded Caesarian operation.

Then there was Atrya the sage, as well as Pasenadi of the royal family of Kosala who became a close companion of the Lord Buddha. Also there was Patanjali, the compiler of the Yoga Sutras, an important collection of Yoga practice. Last but not least, in fact foremost, was the brilliant Kautilya, the economist and political scientist par excellence who helped his protege Chandragupta Maurya in forming the first true empire in India, spreading over vast territories in the North.

The city was invaded first by the Persians, who brought Zoroastrian influences with them. (And hence Kautilya is said to have had leanings towards this system of belief.) After Alexander's invasion came the Greeks, and this affected the curriculum of the university. The Persian occupation resulted in the replacement of the ancient Brahmi script by Kharoshti, which was an adaptation of the Akhaemenian script, the court script of the Persian emperors, to the needs of the Sanskrit language. Following this, the Indo-Bactrian kings were inheritors of a rich Greek civilisation, and their rule extended for over a century and a half in Takshashila. This must have made a definite impression on its educational system, as Greek was taught here. To acquire this foreign language would facilitate students in being appointed to government service under Greek administration. Among the arts taught at the university must have been training in Greek processes of coinage and sculpture. Perhaps Greek dramas were performed in the courts of some of the princes who held sway there. Were Euripides and Sophocles witnessed by local Greek men of influence? Did Oedipus's terrible cry echo through the hills and groves of Potohar as he blinded himself in despair?

'O light-now let me look my last on you! I stand revealed...'

(Greek was the language of the conqueror, and so a working knowledge of it must have been essential for several classes of Indian society.)

Takshashila did not possess any college or university in the modern sense of the term. It was a centre of education as Dr. A.S. Altekar, Professor at Benares Hindu University describes it, with many renowned teachers to whom students came from far and wide. Each teacher, assisted by his advanced students, formed his own institution or study group. He could admit as many students as he wished to his course of study. There were no degrees or diplomas. Most students lived with their teachers, but the wealthier ones had their own private establishments, such as prince Junha, son of the king of Kashi, which was a thriving kingdom during the Buddhist era but was also a centre of Brahminism.

We should observe the manner in which students were inducted into this unique centre of learning. It was in the form of an act of worship, indicating the profound respect for knowledge held in the hearts of students and faculty alike... a classic guru-shishak ritual.

We should witness Tale 252 of the Jataka series of cautionary Buddhist tales, in which we are told of how the King of Benares sent his son Brahmadutta to faraway Takshashila to imbibe learning from a great guru. When you consider the distance between Benares and Potohar, you can gauge the value placed upon acquiring knowledge in those times. Here princes learned to quell their pride and arrogance, endured heat and cold and became acquainted with the ways of the world.

Young Brahmadutta was a mere sixteen years old when his father summoned him to his side and gave him a pair of one-soled sandals, a sunshade made of leaves, and "a thousand pieces of money", presumably silver coinage, and said to him, "My son, get you to Takshashila and study there." The one-soled sandals implied that the prince was expected to make the long journey on foot, protected by a fragile sunshade, facing the roars of fierce lions and tigers and the trumpeting of wild elephants along the way, not to mention the deadly hissing of poisonous snakes, since Chandragupta Maurya's Uttarpatha, the early Grand Trunk Road had not yet been developed. However, he was presumably part of a group of travellers, while other princes traveled with their own personal escort. Brahmadutta arrived at Takshashila alone, waited for his guru to finish his lecture, took off his shoes, closed his sunshade and greeted his guru with the utmost respect. As a paying pupil he was treated like the eldest son of the house, and was taught "on every light and fortunate day."

Non-paying students attended on their guru by day and were instructed at night. All students, regardless of which class of society they belonged to, had to gather firewood every day from the nearby forest.

As time passed, the prince did not attain sufficient moral stability and displayed disobedience towards his guru, for which he received physical chastisement. Inwardly he vowed to kill his teacher when he had the chance. Once he became king he sent a message to his guru to visit him at Benares, and his teacher understood his intention, for he had seen the bloodshot glare and rage in the pupil's eyes when he had punished him for indisciplined behaviour.

The guru was verbally threatened with death when he arrived at Benares, and he replied thus:

"The gently born who uses blows ungentleness to quell-

This is right discipline, not wrath; the wise all know it well."

He then calmly explained to the king that had he not been chastised as a student, he would have deteriorated morally. Brahmadutta then recognised his guru's greatness and offered him his kingdom as penance, and later made him his royal priest and treated him like a father. Thus were even the most powerful of pupils treated at Takshashila, for they were expected to revere learning and self-discipline above all else.

Conversely, there is the story of a Brahman boy from Benares, Jotipala, who was sent at the expense of the king (not of course Brahmadutta), to be educated in archery at Takshashila. When Jotipala had finished his training he was honoured for his exemplary skill and aptitude by being presented with his guru's own sword, a bow and arrow, a coat of mail, and a diamond. The guru then asked Jotipala to take his place at the head of five hundred pupils to be trained in the military arts, as he felt himself to be too old and wished to retire. Jotipala was eventually appointed Commander-in-Chief to the holy city of Benares.

As far as women were concerned there are records of many Buddhist nuns receiving their education here, but basically it was a male-dominated institution. There are, however, records of women teachers, as well as women students of Vedic Saakhaas and the Rigveda as described by Panini. Patanjali indicates that women were admitted to military training (he mentions female spear bearers). The Amazonian bodyguard of armed women which the Greek diplomat Megasthenes noticed in Chandragupta Maurya's palace came from the forests where the king was supposed to have grown up. These had nothing to do with Taxila, but the tradition of warrior women existed in no uncertain terms during those times.

These are brief glimpses into the vibrant life of a grand educational community that moulded the intellectual life of the whole of India.

[To be continued...]

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