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Endowments, Patronage & Dana in Early Buddhist Mahavihara Tradition by Dr. Anand Singh

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The Mahāvihāra tradition took organizational shape in the Gupta age when constellation of monasteries combined under single umbrella in Nālandā. It introduced new values in monastic life prelude to transformation of conventional character of monasteries changing the orientation of Buddhist learning from ‘study for faith’ to ‘study for knowledge’1 A Mahāvihāra had a place for chief or abbot though ancient Vinaya rules make no provision for it.2 The vihāras now ceased to be propaganda centres which produced experts in canonical doctrine for benefit of the religion. They had been enlarging one aspect of monastic life that was rooted in their ancient tradition of monk scholarship and this process is marked by a re-orientation of monastic learning which withered its cloistered inbuilt character and turned into a learning that was a liberal and many folded.3 In these Mahāvihāras, a reorientation took place in the old traditional monk culture which led to disintegrating the basic ideals of original monkish culture. This liberalized culture was the Indian Buddhist culture of the early medieval age.4 Sukumar Dutt says-

‘The traditional learning of the monasteries had been its beginning a cloistered pursuit-learning in canonical lore for the benefit and use of monkhood. But it was progressively liberalized-extended and enlarged in its scope and contents and made available not to monk alone, but to all seekers after knowledge. It was a new development of monastic life and activity and one involved in the complex of conditions and circumstances Buddhism had passed since the beginning of the Gupta era in its long and historic process of decline.’5

Many reasons could be cited for origin and rise of this tradition. First with the emergence of Mahayana’s culmination in early CE centuries the distinction of Buddhism as a non-Brāhamanical faith started diminishing. It broadened continuous bond and outward similarity inform of rituals, pattern of worship and metaphysics between Brāhamanism and Mahāyanist Buddhism.6 This pattern was fully established in the age of the imperial Guptas (CE 275-600). The majority of early Gupta kings professed Brāhamanism with Garuda, the mount of Vishr)u as their royal emblem. Sometime they actively patronized Buddhism and its monasteries as evident from their epigraphic records. This liberal outlook hastened the assimilative process especially between Brāhamanism and Buddhism especially Mahāyāna and the process was complete up to early medieval age when it reached its zenith with acceptance of the Buddha as a Vishr)u.7 The Mahāvihāras functioned as studia generalia meant for liberal learning to scholars from all the religions and discipline but the monastic character was not fully lost. These Mahāvihāras produced eminent scholars of Mahāyānas well as Vajrayāna who redeemed Buddhism not only in Indian sub-Continent but also in Tibet, China and south-east Asia. I-tsing says-

‘The priests learn besides all the Vinaya works, and investigates the Sutras and Sastras as well. They oppose the heretics as they would derive beasts (deer) in the middle of plain, and explain away disputations as boiling water melt frost. In this manner they became famous throughout Jambudvipa, received respects above gods and men, and serving under the Buddha, and promoting his doctrine, they lead all the people to Nirvana. Of such persons in every generation only one or two appear. They are to be likened to the sun and moon, or are to be regarded as dragon and elephant. Such were Nagarjuna, Deva, Aśvaghosa of an early age; Vasubandhu, Asanga, Sarigabhadra, Bhavaviveka in the middle age; and Jina, Dharmapāla, Dharmakirtī, Śilabhadra, Simhachandra, Sthiramati, Gunamati, Prajnagupta, Gunaprastha, Jinaprabha (or Paramaprabha) of late years. None of these great teacher was lacking in any kind of qualities secular or sacred. The men free from covetousness, and practicing self content lived matchless lives. Men of such characters have scarcely been found among the heretics or other people.’8

Nālandā was the first Buddhist establishment of Mahāvihāra type. It attracted monk scholars from India and abroad for higher studies. The Mahāvihāra of Nālandā acquired fame in the Gupta age and its glory finally ended in the 12 century CE. The Chinese pilgrims give list of kings who built vihāras and donated land for its maintenance. Huein tsang says that Śakraditya built sarhgharama at Nālandā. His son Budhgupta built another sarhgharama to its north. Tathagatgupta constructed a monastery east from it and in the post Gupta age Baladitya built a sarhgharama on north-east side.9 The Pālas ushered in a new era in Mahāvihāra tradition by foundation of Odantapurī, Vikramaśila, Somapura, Jagaddala and Ratnagiri. The Tibetan sources of Tāranāth, Bu-ston and Dhammasvamī gave vivid account of these Mahāvihāras, their teachers and their scholarship. The Pālas patronized these Mahāvihāras in a very special fashion with each Pāla king tried to establish their own Mahavihāra and continued to patronized the Mahāvihāras established by their predecessors.10


While examining the nature of endowments and patronage of these Mahāvihāras, it has been found that in dāna of traditional nissaya requisites the role of lay followers were minimized and state became main patron. However it was not abandoned altogether but such a vast establishments with thousands of teachers, novice monks and staff required organized administration and revenue generation. The king donated land to these monasteries to utilize their revenue for day to day requirements of the monks in the monasteries. Huein-tsang informs that revenue of 100 villages was endowed to serve the requirements of novice monks and teachers.11 I-tsing says Nālandā had its own administrative setup which governed some 200 villages free from taxation.12 Similar references have been found for Odantapuri13, Vikramasila14 and Somapuri Mahāvihāras.15 Due to emergence of land as main economic commodity in early medieval age, kings of different ages patronized these Mahāvihāras by donating villages. The donation records of Nālandā i.e. inscriptions of the kings, and monastic, royal, official, and Jānapada seals suggest that sacred complex of state-monastery-peasant was formed. The kings patronized these monasteries by issuing the grants of villages which were implemented by their respective offices. The offices of Adhikarana, Vishay-Adhikarana, Kumaramaty-Adhikarana, Nay-Adhikarana, Dharma-Adhikarana etc. have been mentioned in inscriptions of Nālandā .16 These offices implemented the revenue grants issued by the respective kings to the concerned monastery/monasteries. The monasteries maintained affiliation with these villages by corresponding with their seal impressions. The numerous seals with Dharmachakra symbol and legend Śri- Nālandā - Mahavihariy-ārya-bhikshu-sarighasya also mentions names of the villages.17 The villages maintained their relations by posting their representatives at Mahāvihāra. In the legend of the Jānapada seals the name of the village to which the seals belongs is given first either in locative singular or compounded with the term Jānapada which follows it (Purika-grama-jānpadasya).18 An economic hierarchy was established to fulfill the ecclesiastical needs of sacred complex of Nālandā . This hierarchy can be examined with the help of inscriptions and seals.

1.-The inscriptions and Royal Seals
2.- Official Seals
3.- Monastic Seals
4.-Jānapada Seals

The Inscriptions and Royal Seals: A number of inscriptions referring the donations or votive in nature have found during excavation of Nālandā . One of the earliest inscriptions found in the Nālandā complex near monastery no. one belongs to Samudragupta (CE 350-375). This inscription was issued from his victorious camp at Nirpura on the second day of Magha in his fifth regnal year. It mentions gift of village Chandrapushkaraka/Pushkaraka grāma.19 This is supposed to be first inscription dealing with grant of village to Nālandā monastery The Nālandā copper plate inscription of Nālandā of Dharmapāladeva informs grant of village in the Gayā vishaya of Nagara bhukti. The name of the village and grantee have not been deciphered so for. The revenue of the village seems to be meant for monks of Nālandā Mahāvihāra.20 The Nālandā copper plate inscription of Devapāladeva was issued in his 39 regnal year on 21st day of the Kartika month. This inscription is one of the most illustrious in the history of Nālandā mentioning friendly relation between the Pāla ruler and the Śailendra king Bālaputradeva. Devapāladeva was requested to build monastery at Nālandā and for bhikshus of chattuddissarhgha, copying of Buddhist texts and upkeep of the vihāra in the future, five villages should be granted. The Pāla ruler granted five villages, Nandivanaka, Manivataka, Natika, Hastgrama, and Palamaka for Nālandā Mahāvihāra.21 The twenty six Gupta seals have been discovered.22 The seals of Budhagupta, Narshimhagupta, Kumargupta III, Vainyagupta etc are of special relevance. These seals give only genealogical in character. The Nālandā seal of Kumargupta-III contains pieces of string or cloth which originally passed through it and were fastened to the document to which seal was attached.23 A copper plate inscription of Vainyagupta found at Gunaighar in thr district Tippera of Bangladesh records a gift of land from victory camp at Kripura which was made at instance of his feudatory Maharaj Rudradatta.24 The seal fastened at it resembles Nālandā seal of Vainyagupta suggesting that Nālandā seal was also used for village donation. The most of these seals give personal information of the Gupta kings and their genealogical hierarchy but the cause to issue has not been mentioned. The inscription of Samudragupta indicates that such type of village grants may have been made by his successor but paucity of direct evidence questions such motives. The seals of Harshavardhana and Bhaskarvarmana also have been found in Nālandā .25 The donations of villages are not mentioned on these seals but Huein tsang informs that Harsha remitted the revenue of about 100 villages for the endowment of Buddhist monks at Nālandā.26


Official Seals: The name of different offices inscribed on official seals indicates elaborate system of revenue administration related to Nālandā Mahāvihāra. The offices like Adhikarana, Vishaya Adhikarana, Nay-Adhkarana etc. have been mentioned with the name of the villages and their territorial divisions. The most of the seals belong to early medieval age between seventh to tenth centuries of common era.27 Sastri says that the words like Brāhmananam, Traividyasya, Chaturvaidyasya inscribed on seals do not corroborate to individuals but functionaries relate to the Mahāvihāra. These terms are used for experts in various disciplines like Traividya means expert in tivijja, Brāhaman and Chaturvaidya may be for experts in Brahamanical knowledge.28 The term agrahara may have been used for the grants specifically meant for the scholars of the Vedas and Brāhamnical texts not for all scholar monks of chattuddisasarhgha. One strange phenomenon is that no seal of any guild organization of Sresthin, Sārthavāha etc. have been found though Rajvaisyas have been mentioned.29 It shows that representation of donations and grants of guilds and other mercantile community did not have substantial value or amount and kings patronage was in abundant.

Monastic Seals: The seals of the Nālandā Mahāvihāra approximately 775 excluding fragments have been found in different monasteries. The majority these 690 seals have been found in monastery number nine suggesting it as record room or administrative head office. These seals are identical in which upper portion is occupied by Dharmachakra symbol and in the lower portion following legend has been engraved, Sri- Nālandā - Mahavihariye-arya-bhikshu-sarighasya. These seals bears two characteristics, the majority bears legend containing the name of the monastery and the assembly of the monks and others also have the name of the village connected with the monastery.30 The seals referring the names of the villages directly mention the patronage and grant of the village to a monastery of particular sect or monks of four quarters or for other purposes. One fragmented seal of Sakraditya mentions monks of all four quarters (chaturddisey-arya-mahabhikshu sarighasya).31 Some records mentions specific sects or monasteries. One seal of Baladitya of Nālandā represents bhikshus of gandhakuti built by Baladitya in Nālandā (Śri Nālandā -Echa Baladitya- gandhakudya varika- bhikshunam)32 and some to monasteries incharge of distribution of civara etc.(chivarkajya panaya bhikshu sarighasya).33

Jānapada Seals: The seals with legend Jānapada found from Nālandā are possibly corporate seals informing about the corporate office of a particular village in the Mahāvihāra The legend of the seals like Śri- Nālandā -Pratibaddha Arigami grāma-vihārastha janapadsya 34 and Śri Nālandā-pratibaddha Mamnayika-grāma jānapadsya35 show that Jānapada was an office distinct from the inhabitants of the village mentioned in the legends. The term pratibaddha means that Jānapada was attached to vihāra. The names of the villages to which Jānapadas belong have been mentioned in the legends of the seals found from the Mahāvihāra. Sastri says that there may be two Jānapadas one being subordinate to other like in Jakkurika.36


Some Jānapada seals and its villages37

S.No. Jānapada Seals Village/Jānapada
1 S.1, 374 (Pl.IV,g) Purikā
2 S.9, R.92 Vārakīya
3 S.9, R.92 Brāhamani
4 S.9, R.92 Udradvara-sthane
5 S.9, R.159 (Pl.IV,h) Valladiha
6 S.9, R.16 (Pl.IV,i) Mamnayika

The Jānapadas were probably responsible to pay the assigned revenue of the villages and maintain administrative relations with the Mahāvihāras. The mode of payment is not clearly known. Hwui-Li records that it was in kind- ‘The king of the country respects and honours the priests and has remitted the revenue of about 100 villages for the endowment of the convent. Two hundred householders of these villages, day by day, contribute several hundred piculs (1 picul=133lbs) of ordinary rice, and several hundred cattis (1 catty = 160 lbs) in weight of butter and milk.’38


By this method the monasteries came to own lands, villages, pasturage and cattle for the survival of the resident monks. The Mahāvihāras with their own property of various kinds were able not only to attain self sufficiency, but were also in position to extend their power and influence in their respective areas.39 The monks could not own property and property was owned on collective basis by the sarhgha. A share of the produce was to be reserved for the servants of the monastery and others including their families by whom land was tilled. The produce of the land was to be divided into six parts of which one was taken by the sarhgha. The monastery should provide bulls for tilling of the land but had no other responsibility. Sometimes share in production was to be modified according to the season and crop production.40

The remains of Mahāvihāras, their inscriptions and sculpture bear witness to kings as a conspicuous category of donors on a very large scale. The Mahāvihāra tradition led some very significant change in the functioning of vihāras and in the domain of land grants and their management in middle and lower Ganga valley. It also encouraged radical changes in land ownership, land revenue and its administration. The land grants was possibly a conscious policy adopted by the Gupta rulers to maintain the free flow of revenue to the Mahāvihāras and to penetrate their administration the rural areas with some sort of religious sanctions in core of their empire. Such economic transactions led conscious reciprocation between state and peasants by means of monasteries. In ancient land of Magadha broader question is still left that it helped in the peasantization of the forest and marshy lands as in case of other parts of India or not. The Vardhans, the Maukharies and the Pālas continued the policy of the early Guptas. The Nālandā and other Mahavihāras as a centres of Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna helped to consolidate the policies adopted by these kings.. Srimali says that: ‘Mahāyāna glorified dāna mahima (glories of gift making), bhumi (land) amd keshtra (domain) in a calculated and conscious manner. In contrast to the arhant of the Hinayāna sect, where sole objective was merely nibbāna of the self, the Bodhisattva of Mahayana was an Avalokiteśvara who worked for happiness and salvation of the entire suffering humanity. The underlying assumption of the concept of the Bodhisattva is that he becomes the Buddha in a specific period and at a specific place. The theologians ascribed a regional base to that world and designated it as a Buddhakshetra.’41 However it cannot be denied that main motive of the kings was to promote the Mahāvihāras as a great centres of learning. The Nālandā inscription of Devapala desires it as a great centre of learning both by preaching (dharma-Prajriāpāramit-ādi-sakala-dharma-ratna-sthāniya) and by writing (dharma-ratna- lekhana).


  • Beal, Samuel. The Life of Hiuen-tsiang, New Delhi, 2008 (reprint)

Journals & Epigraphic Materials


1 Dutt, Sukumar. Buddhist Monks & Monasteries of India, 2000:319
2 Dutt, Sukumar, Early Buddhist Monachism, 1996:143-144
3 Dutt, Sukumar, op. cit. 2000:322-323
4 Ibid. 2000:318
5 Ibid. 2000:319
6 Ibid. 2000:196, 321(Bu-ston mentions this liberal thing by citing Sutralankara- ‘In order to vanquish and to help others and to obtain knowledge for himself, the good monk is earnestly applied to study, science of logic (Hetuvidya) and of grammar and literature in order to vanquish one’s adversaries (in controversy), the science of medicine (Cikitsavidya) and Arts (Silpakarmavidya, for administrating help to others and that of metaphysics (Adhyatamavidya) to acquire knowledge of himself.) Obermiller, Blue Annals part.I, 44)’
7 Ibid. 2000:196-197
8 Takakusu, 1998:181 (Kasyapa says that dragon and elephant are not separate identities but understood as Dragon- Elephant. In India the best quality of elephants are known as dragon (naga) elephant. Takakusu, J. 181)
9 Sastri, Hirananda Nalanda & it Epigraphic Material, p.14. ASI, New Delhi, 1999 ( Nālandā as a Buddhist monastic settlement first time developed in the age of the Buddha. Huein tsang informs that Nālandā was purchased by 500 merchants for 10 kotis of gold pieces and gifted to the Buddha who preached the Dhamma here at Pavarikambavana for three months. Its one satellite area Sarichak was famous for birth of great monk Sariputta and another great monk Mahamoggalayana was also born in Nālandā . Beal, Samuel. Records of the Western World, Vol.II, p.175-177)
10 Dutt, Sukumar, op. cit. 2000:350-351
11 Beal, Samuel. The Life of Hiuen-tsiang, 2008:112-113
12 Takakusu, J. I-tsing, A Record of the Buddhist Religion as Practiced in India and the Malay Archipelago,1998:175-179
13 Dutt, Sukumar, op. cit. 2000:354-355
14 Ibid. pp.358-365
15 Ibid. pp.371-375
16 Sastri, Hirananda, 1999:34
17 Ibid. pp.36-37
18 Ibid. 32, 45, S.1,374 (pl. IV,g)
19 Epigraphia Indica, Vol.XXV, p.50 (The inscription was issued by Gopaswamin, the Mahasenapati and Akshapataladhikrita(chief commander & chief of records) on instruction of Samudragupta. Noroyal seal was attached to it. Hiranand Sastri identified Nripura as a mauza 1.5 miles away from Nālandā comprising four talukas, Nripur, Chak-nripur, Jalalpur and Tajubigha. The name of Vishaya (district) in the inscription is not clear. The gift village has not been identified yet. Probably it was situated near a pokhara (tank) and so my derive the name Chandrapokhara. Sastri, Hirananda. 1999:77-78)
20 Ibid. XXIII, pp.291f
21 Indian Antiquary, Vol.XXI, pp.257-258 (Hirananda Sastri identified the five villages as Nandivanaka and Manivataka in the Ajapura naya possibly represented by Naunwen (Nandivanaka), Manianwan (Manivataka), AJaipur (Ajaypura) village in the Ajai Hisse Chaharam mauja of Bihar. Natika in the Pilipinka have been identified as modern Nai Pokhar village and Pilkhi mauja respectively. Sastri Hirananda, 1999:95, Identification of rest of villages are still not known)
22 Satri, Hirananda. op.cit. 1999:64
23 Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, Vol.III, p.356
24 Indian Historical Quarterly, Vol.VI (03), 1930:45-60
25 Ibid. 1999:67-70
26 Beal,Samuel op. cit. 2008:112-113
27 Ibid. 1999:33
28 Ibid.33-34
29 Ibid.34
30 Ibid. 1999:36-37
31 Nālandā Museum, S.1,848, Pl. II, e
32 Ibid. S.1,675, Pl. III, a)
33 Ibid.S.9, R.15, Pl. III, d
34 Nālandā Museum. S.9, R.144
35 Nālandā Museum, S.9, R.16 (K.P. Jaiysawal says that Jānapada was a corporate body, in Hindu Polity)
36 Sastri, Hirananda, op. cit. 1999:33
37 Ibid. pp.32,45
38 Beal, Samuel. op. cit. pp.112-113
39 Niyogi, Puspa. Endowment in Favour of Early Buddhist Monasteries in Bengal & Bihar, pp.164, Journal of History, 1973
40 Takakusu, J. op. cit. p.61
41 Srimali, K.M. Religions in Complex Societies, in Religions in Indian History, p.54 ed. Irfan Habib, Tulika Publications, New Delhi, 2007


Author: Dr. Anand Singh