Recently I listened to a BBC radio program in which Melvyn Bragg interviewed Jessica Frazier (Lecture in Religious Studies, University of Kent), Naomi Appleton (University of Edinburgh) and Richard Gombrich (Buddhist scholar formerly of Oxford) on king Asoka. The program starts with Frazier waxing lyrical about the glories of the pre-Mauryan world, claiming that there were Buddhist universities including at Taxila, and giving details about the careers of Asoka and his grandfather Chandragupta. Bragg then turns to Appleton who says correctly that we know very little about Asoka’s life but then goes on to give a detailed account of it. Listening to all this I could hardly believe my ears that this was two academics talking, because most of what they said is completely nonsense. Then Bragg turned to Gombrich who said exactly that, that the only thing we know for certain about Asoka comes from his edicts and that all the “stuff” that had just been presented is legend dating from centuries after his time. Frazier and Appleton laughed awkwardly.
However, a point from this program I wish to take up today is the one Jessica Frazier made about Taxila. She claimed, as literally hundreds of publications including academic ones have done, that there was a great university at Taxila or that “Taxila was the world’s first university.” Since the late 19th century more and more details about this supposed university has been accumulating. In B. Prakash’s book on the subject book he even gave a curriculum from the university; “archery, hunting, elephant lore, political economy, law and other arts, humanities and sciences…” In the Wikipedia entry on Taxila, notes 22, 48 to 55, it gives information about some of the luminaries supposedly associated with the university. All of this is either legend from centuries after the people mentioned, or originates from 20th century unfounded speculation. A. H. Dani’s excellent monograph The Historical City of Taxila (1986) published by UNSCO, cautiously says that Taxila was a centre for Brahmanical learning, pointedly not using the magic word “university”.
The reality is that we know almost nothing about Taxila other than what can be gleaned from brief mentions in ancient texts (usually only the name) numismatics, and archaeological findings during the 20th century. Interestingly, the most detailed information we have about the city of Taxila come from Greek and Latin accounts of Alexander the Great's visit written by Arrian, Curtius Rufus, Diodorus Siculus, etc, none of which mention a university. The Chinese pilgrims Faxian and Xuanzang both visited Taxila but mention no university either, or even a tradition of learning. Richard Gombrich put it well in his respones to Frazier’s claim: “I don’t know how they managed with universities when they had no writing.”
So when, where or by whom did this spurious claim that there was a university at Taxila originate? I don’t know, but it seems to have become currant in the late 19th century, probably after the publication of the Cowell et el. translation of the Jatakas. In many of these stories princes and others are said to have gone to Taxila to study. It usually says that they went at the age of 16, that they learned the three Vedas by heart (e.g Ja.I,259), and sometimes from “a world renowned teacher” (e.g Ja.I,317). One Jataka mentions study of the eighteen branches of knowledge (Ja.I,356). That’s it! Nothing else! No other details at all. Although the Jatakas in their present form post-date the suttas and vinaya, many of the stories they tell are pre-Buddhist. They look back to a distant, partly mythological past.
It would seem therefore that in the centuries before Buddhism Taxila was a centre for Brahmanical learning. In keeping of what we know of the Vedic education, young Brahmin students would probably have lived in the gurus home where they would be taught the Vedas, Vedic rituals and associated knowledge; prosody, grammar legends, perhaps astrology, etc. It is likely that the more learned gurus earned reputations that attracted a good number of students. But there is a big difference between this small-scale, private, traditional learning, home schooling if you like, and a university. It also seems likely that by the time of the Buddha Taxila had faded as a centre for Vedic learning. The very name Taxila (Pali Takkasila) is not mentioned by the Buddha or indeed anywhere in the Sutta Pitaka, other than in the Jatakas. But memory of it lived on, in the Jatakas, the Puranas, the Mahabharata, etc. where the name, and little beyond it, evoked the idea of excellence in religious knowledge. The only institutions approximating what we now understand as a university were those Buddhist ones that grew up in medieval Bihar and Bengal, the first being Nalanda founded around the late 4th century CE. As for Taxila university, it was nothing more than a university of the air, hot air.
You can listen to the BBC program about Asoka here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0511tm1 but it’s not very good. The picture is of the ruins of one of the Buddhist monasteries at Taxila.