Ancient higher-learning institutions

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Mosaic from Pompeii (1st c. BC) depicting Plato's Academy. MANNapoli 124545 plato's academy mosaic enh crop.jpg
Mosaic from Pompeii (1st c. BC) depicting Plato's Academy.

A variety of ancient higher-learning institutions were developed in many cultures to provide institutional frameworks for scholarly activities. These ancient centres were sponsored and overseen by courts; by religious institutions, which sponsored cathedral schools, monastic schools, and madrasas; by scientific institutions, such as museums, hospitals, and observatories; and by individual scholars. They are to be distinguished from the Western-style university, an autonomous organization of scholars that originated in medieval Europe [1] and has been adopted in other regions in modern times (see list of oldest universities in continuous operation). [2]


Europe and the Near East


Aristotle's School, a painting from the 1880s by Gustav Adolph Spangenberg Spangenberg - Schule des Aristoteles.jpg
Aristotle's School, a painting from the 1880s by Gustav Adolph Spangenberg

The Platonic Academy (sometimes referred to as the University of Athens), [3] [4] founded ca. 387 BC in Athens, Greece, by the philosopher Plato, lasted 916 years (until AD 529) with interruptions. [5] It was emulated during the Renaissance by the Florentine Platonic Academy, whose members saw themselves as following Plato's tradition.

Around 335 BC, Plato's successor Aristotle founded the Peripatetic school, the students of which met at the Lyceum gymnasium in Athens. The school ceased in 86 BC during the famine, siege and sacking of Athens by Sulla. [6]

During the Hellenistic period, the Museion in Alexandria (which included the Library of Alexandria) became the leading research institute for science and technology from which many Greek innovations sprang. The engineer Ctesibius (fl. 285–222 BC) may have been its first head. It was suppressed and burned between AD 216 and 272, and the library was destroyed between 272 and 391.

The reputation of these Greek institutions was such that at least four central modern educational terms derive from them: the academy, the lyceum, the gymnasium and the museum.

Christian Europe

The University of Constantinople, founded as an institution of higher learning in 425, educated graduates to take on posts of authority in the imperial service or within the Church. [7] It was reorganized as a corporation of students in 849 by the regent Bardas of emperor Michael III, is considered by some to be the earliest institution of higher learning with some of the characteristics we associate today with a university (research and teaching, auto-administration, academic independence, et cetera). If a university is defined as "an institution of higher learning" then it is preceded by several others, including the Academy that it was founded to compete with and eventually replaced. If the original meaning of the word is considered "a corporation of students" then this could be the first example of such an institution. The Preslav Literary School and Ohrid Literary School were the two major literary schools of the First Bulgarian Empire.

In Western Europe during the Early Middle Ages, bishops sponsored cathedral schools and monasteries sponsored monastic schools, chiefly dedicated to the education of clergy. The earliest evidence of a European episcopal school is that established in Visigothic Spain at the Second Council of Toledo in 527. [8] These early episcopal schools, with a focus on an apprenticeship in religious learning under a scholarly bishop, have been identified in Spain and in about twenty towns in Gaul during the 6th and 7th centuries. [9]

In addition to these episcopal schools, there were monastic schools which educated monks and nuns, as well as future bishops, at a more advanced level. [10] Around the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries, some of them developed into autonomous universities. A notable example is when the University of Paris grew out of the schools associated with the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Monastery of Ste. Geneviève, and the Abbey of St. Victor. [11] [12]


Ancient India

Major Buddhist monasteries ( mahaviharas ), notably those at Pushpagiri, Nalanda, Valabhi, and Taxila, included schools that were some of the primary institutions of higher learning in ancient India. The Pirivena was also developed during this period, which covered lower levels of education too, and was mostly confined to the island of Lanka (now part of Sri Lanka) though its model was replicated throughout South East Asia.


Udayagiri, Odisha Part of Pushpagiri Udayagiri WIKI.JPG
Udayagiri, Odisha Part of Pushpagiri

The school in Pushpagiri was established in the 3rd century AD as present Odisha, India. As of 2007, the ruins of this Mahavihara had not yet been fully excavated. Consequently, much of the Mahavihara's history remains unknown. Of the three Mahavihara campuses, Lalitgiri in the district of Cuttack is the oldest. Iconographic analysis indicates that Lalitgiri had already been established during the Shunga period of the 2nd century BC, making it one of the oldest Buddhist establishments in the world. The Chinese traveller Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang), who visited it in AD 639, as Puphagiri Mahavihara, [13] [14] as well as in medieval Tibetan texts. However, unlike Takshila and Nalanda, the ruins of Pushpagiri were not discovered until 1995, when a lecturer from a local college first stumbled upon the site. [15] [16] The task of excavating Pushpagiri's ruins, stretching over 58 hectares (143 acres) of land, was undertaken by the Odisha Institute of Maritime and South East Asian Studies between 1996 and 2006. It is now being carried out by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). [17] The Nagarjunakonda inscriptions also mention about this learning center. [18] [19]


Nalanda, ancient center of higher learning in Bihar, India from 427 to 1197 Nalanda University India ruins.jpg
Nalanda, ancient center of higher learning in Bihar, India from 427 to 1197

Nalanda was established in the fifth century AD in Bihar, India [22] and survived until circa 1200 AD. It was devoted to Buddhist studies, but it also trained students in fine arts, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, politics and the art of war. [23]

The center had eight separate compounds, ten temples, meditation halls, classrooms, lakes and parks. It had a nine-story library where monks meticulously copied books and documents so that individual scholars could have their own collections. It had dormitories for students, housing 10,000 students in the school’s heyday and providing accommodation for 2,000 professors. [24] Nalanda attracted pupils and scholars from Sri Lanka, Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey, who left accounts of the center. [25]

In 2014 a modern Nalanda University was launched in nearby Rajgir.


Ancient Taxila or Takshashila, in ancient Gandhara, was an early Hindu and Buddhist centre of learning. According to scattered references that were only fixed a millennium later, it may have dated back to at least the fifth century BC. [26] Some scholars date Takshashila's existence back to the sixth century BC. [27] The school consisted of several monasteries without large dormitories or lecture halls where the religious instruction was most likely still provided on an individualistic basis. [26]

Takshashila is described in some detail in later Jātaka tales, written in Sri Lanka around the fifth century AD. [28]

It became a noted centre of learning at least several centuries BC, and continued to attract students until the destruction of the city in the fifth century AD. Takshashila is perhaps best known because of its association with Chanakya. The famous treatise Arthashastra (Sanskrit for The knowledge of Economics) by Chanakya, is said to have been composed in Takshashila itself. Chanakya (or Kautilya), [29] the Maurya Emperor Chandragupta [30] and the Ayurvedic healer Charaka studied at Taxila. [31]

Generally, a student entered Takshashila at the age of sixteen. The Vedas and the Eighteen Arts, which included skills such as archery, hunting, and elephant lore, were taught, in addition to its law school, medical school, and school of military science. [31]


Vikramashila was one of the two most important centres of learning in India during the Pala Empire, along with Nalanda. Vikramashila was established by King Dharmapala (783 to 820) in response to a supposed decline in the quality of scholarship at Nalanda. Atisha, the renowned pandita, is sometimes listed as a notable abbot. It was destroyed by the forces of Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji around 1200. [32]

Vikramashila is known to us mainly through Tibetan sources, especially the writings of Tāranātha, the Tibetan monk historian of the 16th–17th centuries. [33]

Vikramashila was one of the largest Buddhist universities, with more than one hundred teachers and about one thousand students. It produced eminent scholars who were often invited by foreign countries to spread Buddhist learning, culture and religion. The most distinguished and eminent among all was Atisha Dipankara, a founder of the Sarma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. Subjects like philosophy, grammar, metaphysics, Indian logic etc. were taught here, but the most important branch of learning was tantrism.


Further centres include Telhara in Bihar [34] (probably older than Nalanda [35] ), Odantapuri, in Bihar (circa 550 - 1040), Somapura Mahavihara, in Bangladesh (from the Gupta period to the Turkic Muslim conquest), Sharada Peeth, Pakistan, Jagaddala Mahavihara, in Bengal (from the Pala period to the Turkic Muslim conquest), Nagarjunakonda, in Andhra Pradesh, Vikramashila, in Bihar (circa 800-1040), Valabhi, in Gujarat (from the Maitrak period to the Arab raids), Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh (eighth century to modern times), Kanchipuram, in Tamil Nadu, Manyakheta, in Karnataka, Mahavihara, Abhayagiri Vihāra, and Jetavanaramaya, in Sri Lanka.

East Asia

In China, the ancient imperial academy known as Taixue was established by the Han Dynasty. It was intermittently inherited by succeeding Chinese dynasties up until the Qing dynasty, in some of which the name was changed to Guozixue or Guozijian. Peking University (Imperial University of Peking) established in 1898 is regarded as the replacement of Taixue. By 725 AD, Shuyuan or Academies of Classical Learning were private learning institutions established during the medieval Chinese Tang dynasty.

In Japan, Daigakuryo was founded in 671 and Ashikaga Gakko was founded in the 9th century and restored in 1432.

In Korea, Taehak was founded in 372 and Gukhak was established in 682. Seowons were private institutions established during the Joseon dynasty which combined functions of a Confucian shrine and a preparatory school. The Seonggyungwan was founded by in 1398 to offer prayers and memorials to Confucius and his disciples, and to promote the study of the Confucian canon. It was the successor to Gukjagam from the Goryeo Dynasty (992). It was reopened as a private Western-style university in 1946.

Ancient Persia

The Academy of Gondishapur was established in the 3rd century AD under the rule of Sassanid kings and continued its scholarly activities up to four centuries after Islam came to Iran. It was an important medical centre of the 6th and 7th centuries and a prominent example of higher education model in pre-Islam Iran. [36] When the Platonic Academy in Athens was closed in 529, some of its pagan scholars went to Gundishahpur, although they returned within a year to Byzantium.

See also

Related Research Articles

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Nalanda Ancient Buddhist monastery in present-day Bihar, India

Nalanda was an ancient Mahavihara, a large and revered Buddhist monastery, in the ancient kingdom of Magadha in India. The site is located about 95 kilometres (59 mi) southeast of Patna near the city of Bihar Sharif, and was an important centre of learning from the fifth century CE to c. 1200 CE. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Taxila archaeological site of the ancient Indian subcontinent, at Taxila, Punjab, Pakistan

Taxila is an important archaeological site located in the modern city with the same name in Punjab, Pakistan. It lies about 32 km (20 mi) north-west of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, just off the famous Grand Trunk Road.

Pala Empire A Kingdom In North India

The Pala Empire was an imperial power during the Late Classical period on the Indian subcontinent, which originated in the region of Bengal. It is named after its ruling dynasty, whose rulers bore names ending with the suffix of Pala. They were followers of the Mahayana and Tantric schools of Buddhism. The empire was founded with the election of Gopala as the emperor of Gauda in 750 CE. The Pala stronghold was located in Bengal and Bihar, which included the major cities of Vikrampura, Pataliputra, Gauda, Monghyr, Somapura, Ramvati (Varendra), Tamralipta and Jaggadala.

Vikramashila Site of an ancient university in India

Vikramashila was one of the two most important centres of learning in India during the Pala Empire, along with Nalanda. Its location is now the site of Antichak village, Bhagalpur district in Bihar.

Bihar Sharif Sub-metropolitan city in Bihar, India

Bihar Sharif is the headquarters of Nalanda district and the fifth-largest sub-metropolitan area in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. Its name is a combination of two words: Bihar, derived from vihara, also the name of the state; and Sharif, referring to the resting place of the Sufi saint Makhdoom Sharfuddin Ahmed Yahya Maneri. The city is a hub of education and trade in southern Bihar, and the economy centers around agriculture supplemented by tourism, the education sector and household manufacturing. The ruins of the ancient Nalanda Mahavihara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are located near the city.

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Odantapuri was a Buddhist Mahavihara in what is now Bihar, India. It was established by the Pala Emperor Gopala I in the 8th century. It is considered the second oldest of India's Mahaviharas after Nalanda University and was situated in Magadha.

Kahalgaon City in Bihar, India

Kahalgaon is a town and a municipality in Bhagalpur district in the state of Bihar, India. It is located close to the Vikramashila, that was once a famous centre of Buddhist learning across the world, along with Nalanda during the Pala dynasty. The Kahalgaon Super Thermal Power Plant (KhSTPP) is located near the town(3 km).

History of education in the Indian subcontinent

The history of education began with teaching of traditional elements such as Indian religions, Indian mathematics, Indian logic at early Hindu and Buddhist centres of learning such as ancient Takshashila and Nalanda before the common era.

Nalanda was an acclaimed Mahavihara, a large Buddhist monastery in ancient Magadha, India.

Pushpagiri Vihara Budhist site in Odisha, India

Pushpagiri was an ancient Buddhist mahavihara located atop Langudi Hill in Jajpur district of Odisha, India. The complex contains ruins of stupas, rock-cut sculptures and other artifacts.

Somapura Mahavihara Buddhist Monastery

Somapura Mahavihara in Paharpur, Badalgachhi Upazila, Naogaon District, Bangladesh is among the best known Buddhist viharas in the Indian Subcontinent and is one of the most important archaeological sites in the country. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. It dates from a similar time period to the nearby Halud Vihara and to the Sitakot Vihara in Nawabganj Upazila of Dinajpur District.

Jagaddala Mahavihara Archeological site of Bangladesh

Jagaddala Mahavihara was a Buddhist monastery and seat of learning in Varendra, a geographical unit in present north Bengal in Bangladesh. It was founded by the later kings of the Pāla dynasty, probably Ramapala, most likely at a site near the present village of Jagdal in Dhamoirhat Upazila in the north-west Bangladesh on the border with India, near Paharapur. Some texts also spell the name Jaggadala.

Lalitgiri building in India

Lalitagiri is a major Buddhist complex in the Indian state of Odisha comprising major stupas, 'esoteric' Buddha images, and monasteries (viharas), one of the oldest sites in the region. Together with the Ratnagiri and Udayagiri sites, Lalitagiri is part of Puspagiri University located on top of hills of the same names. The three complexes are known as the "Diamond Triangle". Significant finds at this complex include Buddha's relics. Tantric Buddhism was practiced at this site.

Shalban Vihara archaeological site in Mainamati, Comilla, Bangladesh

Shalban vihara is an archaeological site in Mainamati, Comilla, Bangladesh. The ruins are in the middle of the Lalmai hills ridge, and these are of a 7th-century Paharpur-style Buddhist viharas with 115 cells for monks. It operated through the 12th century.

The Takshashila Institution is an independent, networked think tank and public policy school based in India. It focuses on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. The Takshashila Institution is registered as a non-profit trust.

Telhara, Nalanda district village in Bihar, India

Telhara is a village in the Nalanda district of Bihar, India. Renowned Urdu Poet from Bihar, Dr. Kalim Ajiz was born in this village, which is also his final resting place.During communal tension that arose out of division of India just after Independence, the Muslims migrated to other places to earn their livelihood. Dr Kalim Aziz was one among them. Mahatma Gandhi sent his special emissary Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan @Frontier Gandhi to visit the place and make efforts to bring harmony among the rival communities. The people of this place still repent the gory past. The annual Durga Puja festival is observed here with much fanfare and rural folk from far and wide gather here to worship the deity.

Mahavihara great Buddhist monastery

Mahavihara is the Sanskrit and Pali term for a great vihara and is used to describe a monastic complex of viharas.

Nava Nalanda Mahavihara

Nava Nalanda Mahavihara is located in Nalanda, Bihar, India. It was established in 1951 under Rajendra Prasad to revive the ancient seat of learning in Nalanda. It became a Deemed university in 2006.



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