Nalanda University Reincarnated:

Goku’s Alma Mater

Nalanda University, recently refounded in India, has begun accepting students. In its own right this is a good thing because it will provide greater access to higher education both for Indian and global students. It is the history of this institution, however, that should intrigue fans of anime and of Dragon Ball in particular as the university was instrumental in making the story on which it is based.

Founded in the early fifth century by Gupta monarch Śakrāditya, the institution has been destroyed three times by invading forces. First it was the Huns who pillaged the area in the mid-fifth century but rebuilding was swift. Then the second iteration was destroyed by the Gaudas in the early seventh century. The third and final destruction was by invading Turks in 1193. It has lain in ruins since then. But, thanks to the efforts of President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam of India, the Nalanda University Bill was passed in 2010 and the reconstruction efforts began shortly thereafter.

Now, as to the anime connection, a dive into history is needed. Xuanzang was born in Henan Province, China, in about the year 602 and became a Buddhist monk in his youth. His life’s work was finding sacred Buddhist texts across China and Tibet and later he chose to visit India as well after a dream directing him there in 629. To do so, he had to defy the orders of the Taizong Emperor. Along the way, he visited various courts and made notes of his conversations and observations as he proceeded west as far as Samarkand before turning south to India. During his sojourn in what is now Afghanistan, he visited the Bamiyan Buddhas, sadly mostly destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

While in India, he studied at Nalanda University’s third incarnation. His seventeen-year journey (or nineteen-year journey in some sources) and studies along the way are recorded in The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions which he later dictated to a disciple. This record in turn inspired the Chinese novelist Wu Cheng-en to write Journey to the West in the sixteenth century. This novel is considered one of the Four Great Classics of Chinese Literature. Though there are many additional elements taken from Chinese folklore, and the introduction of three protector characters for the monk, it largely reflects the historical record accurately. It includes elements of the comic and the cosmic with equal facility and is still a cultural favorite in China today.

Elements of the story have been incorporated into dozens of anime, manga, and other media over the years. Greater detail on the comparisons can be found elsewhere, but of prime note are the fact that Journey’s Sun Wukong the Monkey King, becomes Son Goku who transforms into a giant ape. Even his race, the Saiyan, is inspired by the Japanese title of the book, Saiyuki.

While it is unlikely the revived Nalanda will attract deities and demigods to its student body, it has inspired several already and we can only hope for more in the future.

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J. Holder Bennett spends his time in the “real” world, whatever that means, as a history professor in North Texas. The rest of the time he focuses on his real love: fandom. For the past fifteen years he’s helped run A-Kon, an anime and manga convention in Dallas, and recently organized the Fandom and Neomedia Studies (FANS) association to bring together fans and academics for the better understanding of their mutual love. He has also done work on historical fiction and collaborated on analyses of science in cinema. Yes, he’s that guy.

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