About BIHAR:
INDIA'S NORTHEASTERN STATE


River Map of Bihar

The northern Indian state of Bihar is a land flowing with waters from the sacred Ganges and other river tributaries, all surging down from the Himalayan mountains to the north.  Bihar derives its name from   Vihara, a word that originally meant "a secluded place in which to walk," referring to simple dwellings or refuges used by wandering monks during the rainy season (see below for more).  Later, vihara became the Sanskrit and Pali term for a Buddhist monastery, many of which were found in great abundance in the region that would eventually claim the name "Bihar."

Bihar is a fabled land of myth, lore, and spirituality. Buddhism originated here, for it was in Bodh Gaya, near Bihar's southern border, where the Buddha attained enlightment under the Bodhi tree (a pipal-fig, worshipped as far back as the pre-Aryan Indus Valley civilization).

Jainism, whose ancient concept of nonviolence -- ahimsa -- would later inspire Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., also originated here. It was in Bihar between 1917-1919 that Mahatma Gandhi began his nonviolent, civil disobedience movement against British rule in India. Gandhi's movement along with many others eventually freed India from British rule (see below for more).


Bihar's location in NE India
Quick Reference Facts:
 [Edited from Wikipedia]
Geography: the river Ganges, which flows through the middle of Bihar from west to east, divides the Bihar plain into two parts. Forests make up only 6.8% of Bihar's geographical area. This is India's 12th largest state.

Population:  Bihar is India's third most populous state (105 million as of 2011). Nearly 85% of the population lives in rural areas. Nearly 58% of Biharis are below 25 years age, the highest number in India.

Languages: Hindi (among Hindus) and Urdu (among Moslems) are the official languages but most people speak Bihari languages such as Magahi, Bhojpuri, Maithili, and various local dialects.

Religions: Mostly Hinduism, but a large minority follows Islam, and smaller minorities follow Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Bahá'í, and Christianity.

Literacy: According to the 2009 census, the state's total literacy rate was 63.82% (75.7% for males and 55.1% for females)


Main stupa of Sariputta in the ruins of  Nalanda University,
Established in 450 CE
Bihar, India
Brief Early History of Education in Bihar:
[Abbreviated and edited from Wikipedia]:
In the early decades of Buddhism, wandering monks dedicated to asceticism had no fixed abode. During the rainy season they stayed in simple wooden shelters or thatched bamboo huts. However, as it was considered an act of merit not only to feed a monk but also to shelter him, viharas (monasteries) soon sprang up, built by wealthy devotees. By the second century BCE, there was a standard plan for a vihara. It could be either structural, which was more common in the south of India, or rock-cut like the chaitya-grihas of the Deccan. It consisted of a walled quadrangular court, flanked by small cells. The front wall was pierced by a door, the side facing it in later periods often incorporated a shrine for the image of the Buddha. The cells were fitted with rock-cut platforms for beds and pillows. The unwanted rock was excavated, leaving the carved cave structure.

These viharas were often located near settlements, close enough for begging alms but with enough seclusion so as not to disturb the monks' meditation. Trade-routes, frequented by generous traders, were also ideal locations. As donations grew, so did the economic strength of the viharas. From the first century CE onwards, many began including an educational dimension due to increasing requests from the populace to be introduced to Mahayana Buddhism. Some, such as Nalanda (see photo above), became extremely important institutions, evolving into major Buddhist universities with thousands of students.

From the 5th century AD to the end of the 12th century, epigraphic, literary, and archaeological evidence testify to the existence of many Buddhist viharas in Bihar and Bengal (West Bengal and Bangladesh). These monasteries were generally designed in the old traditional Kushana pattern, a square block formed by four rows of cells along the four sides of an inner courtyard. They were usually built of stone or brick. As the monastic organization developed, they became elaborate brick structures with many adjuncts. Often they consisted of several stories and along the inner courtyard there usually ran a veranda supported on pillars. In some of them a stupa or shrine with a dais appeared. Within the shrine stood the icon of Buddha, Bodhisattva or Buddhist female deities. More or less the same plan was followed in building monastic establishments in Bihar and Bengal during the Gupta and Pala Empire period. In course of time monasteries became important centres of learning. Five were especially important (Vikramashila, the premier university of the era; Nalanda, past its prime but still illustrious, Somapura, Odantapura, and Jaggadala). These five formed an interlinked, coordinated network and it was common for great scholars to move easily from position to position among them.


City of Patna on the River Ganges
19th century
Artist: Thomas Daniell
Victoria and Albert Museum
Brief Historical Overview of Bihar:
[Re-arranged and edited from Wikipedia; note: footnotes, throughout, have been removed but can be found on Wikipedia;
also see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Bihar]
Bihar was an early center of culture in ancient and classical India. In 325 BCE, India's first and greatest empire, the Maurya empire, had its capital in Bihar at Patliputra (modern Patna -- see above for 19th century English painting). Converted to Buddhism in 297 BCE and ruling from 268-232 BCE, the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, born in Patliputra (Patna), is considered one of the greatest rulers in the history of India and the world. [Note: he is especially famous for being the first to send out missionaries to spread Buddhism to non-Indians. What the West's Emperor Constantine would do for Christianity, the East's Emperor Ashoka did for Buddhism a few centuries earlier. In both cases, after these emperors became converts, their new, struggling religions experienced rapid growth.] Bihar remained an important place of power, culture, and education during the next one thousand years.

The Gupta Empire, which originated in 240 CE, is referred to as the Golden Age of India in science, mathematics, astronomy, commerce, religion, and Indian philosophy. As with the Maurya empire, the Gupta capital was Pataliputra (present day Patna). The peace and prosperity created under the leadership of the Guptas enabled the pursuit of scientific and artistic endeavors as well as a powerful global economy. Historians place the Gupta dynasty alongside the Roman Empire and the Han and Tang dynasties as models of classical civilization.

As already noted, universities and other centers of learning were also established early in Bihar. Nalanda and Vikramshila were established in the 5th and 8th century CE respectively. These are counted among the oldest, truly international universities, where people from all over the known world came to study.

Some writers argue that the period between 400 CE and 1000 CE saw gains by Hinduism at the expense of Buddhism. Yet Hindu kings gave many grants to Buddhist monks for building their learning centers (viharas).  Further, both Hinduism and Buddhism shared significant concepts from the Upanishads and other sacred texts written between the eighth and fourth centuries BCE.  According to indologist A.L. Basham, author of The Wonder That Was India:

“The age in which true history appeared in India was one of great intellectual and spiritual ferment. Mystics and sophists of all kinds roamed through the Ganges Valley, all advocating some form of mental discipline and asceticism as a means to salvation; but the age of the Buddha, when many of the best minds were abandoning their homes and professions for a life of asceticism, was also a time of advance in commerce and politics. It produced not only philosophers and ascetics, but also merchant princes and men of action.”
In the 12th century, Buddhism was swept away by an invasion under Muhammad Bin Bakhtiar Khilji, during which many of the viharas and the famed universities of Nalanda and Vikramshila were destroyed, and thousands of Buddhist monks were massacred. In the mid to late 16th century, Akbar, the Mughal emperor, annexed Bihar and Bengal to his empire. After that, Bihar, no longer the seat of empire, sank into an anonymous provincial existence.

Following the Battle of Buxar in 1764, the British East India Company obtained rights to administer and collect revenue or tax for Bihar, Bengal and Orissa. The region's rich resources of fertile land, water, and skilled labour soon attracted many foreign entrepreneurs, especially Dutch and English. Babu Kunwar Singh of Jagdishpur and his army, as well as countless other warriors from Bihar, contributed to the India's First War of Independence (1857), also called the Sepoy Mutiny. Resurgence in the history of Bihar came during the struggle for India's independence.


Mohandas K. Gandhi in 1918, when he led the Kheda Satyagraha against unjust taxation.
Wikipedia's source: Brown, Judith. Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope,
Yale University Press, New Haven, 1989, p. 116.
Mahatma Gandhi:
[Re-arranged and edited from Wikipedia]:
It was from the district of Champaran in Bihar that Mahatma Gandhi launched his pioneering civil disobedience movement, the Champaran Satyagraha. This came about after Pandit Raj Kumar Shukla took Mahatma Gandhi to Champaran and drew his attention to the exploitation of peasants by European indigo planters.

In Champaran, tens of thousands of landless serfs, indentured laborers, and poor farmers were forced to grow indigo and other cash crops instead of the food crops necessary for their survival. These crops were bought from them at a very low price. Unable to protest, suppressed by the ruthless militias of their mostly British landlords, the peasants were mired in abject poverty. Their villages were kept filthy and unhygienic; alcoholism, untouchability and purdah were rampant. In the midst of this, a devastating famine struck the region, at which point the British saw fit to levy an oppressive tax. Without food or money, the situation grew progressively intolerable until the peasants finally revolted against indigo cultivation in 1914 and again in 1916.

When Raj Kumar Shukla made Gandhi aware of this situation, Gandhi took action. Unlike many civic groups whose solution was to send petitions and write editorials, Gandhi proposed a unique tactic: satyagraha - a strictly non-violent form of mass civil disobedience, but nevertheless a real revolt that the oppressed peoples of India were eager to undertake.

Gandhi's proposal received immediate support from many Bihari nationalists. Gandhi, however, insisted that none of the protestors propagate the concept of Swaraj, or Independence. He argued that this was not about political freedom, but a revolt against tyranny amidst a terrible humanitarian disaster. While accepting participants and help from other parts of India, Gandhi demanded that no other district or province revolt against the Government, and that the Indian National Congress not get involved apart from issuing resolutions of support. These measures were to prevent giving any excuse to the British to escalate their suppressive measures and to brand the revolts as treason.

Gandhi established an ashram in Champaran, organizing scores of veteran supporters and volunteers. He organized a detailed study and survey of the villages, describing atrocities and terrible episodes of suffering, including the general state of degenerate living.  Building on the confidence of villagers, he began leading the clean-up of villages, building of schools and hospitals and encouraging the village leadership to undo purdah, untouchability and the suppression of women. He was joined by many young nationalists from all over India.

Ironically, his main success came when he was arrested, charged with creating unrest, and ordered to leave the province. Hundreds of thousands of people protested and rallied outside the jail, police stations and courts, demanding his release, which eventually the British unwillingly did. Gandhi then led organized protests and strikes against the landlords, who with the guidance of the British government, signed an agreement granting more compensation and control over farming for the impoverished farmers of the region, and canceling revenue hikes and collection until the famine ended. It was during this agitation, that Gandhi was addressed by the people as Bapu (Father) and Mahatma (Great Soul).


Young Gandhi in 1876, at age 7
Wikipedia's source: Brown, Judith. Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope,
Yale University Press, New Haven, 1989, p.38


2012
Dwariko Sundrani, a founding director of the Bodhi Tree Educational Foundation,
is Mahatma Gandhi's last living student.

Now, nearly a century after the Champaran Satyagraha, Gandhi's compassion, wisdom, respect for the poor, and common sense in solving difficult issues are the roots of the Gandhian education being provided by the Bodhi Tree Foundation for the children of today's Bihar.

Bodhi Tree teacher with children
Bodhgaya, 2012
Bodhi Tree Educational Foundation
Bihar Today:
[Abbreviated and edited from Wikipedia]:
Despite her glorious past, Bihar currently lags behind other Indian states in terms of human and economic development. Among the reasons given by economists and social scientists are these: the Permanent Settlement of 1793 by the British East India Company, which fractured Bihar's social and economic stability; longtime skewed policies of the central government (such as the freight equalization policy); and the central government's general apathy towards Bihar.

The current state government has however made significant strides in improving governance. This has led to some improvement through increased investment in infrastructure, better health care facilities, greater emphasis on education, and an abatement in crime and corruption. Indian and global business and economic leaders feel that Bihar now has a good opportunity to sustain its growth and thus have shown interest in investing in the state. Between 2003 and 2008, the inflow of foreign tourists saw a near-sixfold rise from 61,000 to 346,000.

There is still prejudice, however.  Much as in the USA, where there is a tendency to look down upon such Deep South states as Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and others, so too Bihar is viewed as inferior by other states in India. Bihari migrant workers, for example, face on-going violence and prejudice in many parts of India, such as Maharashtra, Punjab and Assam.

The establishment-oriented press further contributes to Bihar's anti-establishment image by portraying the state as prone to undisciplined anarchy. In 2004, for example, The Economist magazine wrote that "Bihar [has] become a byword for the worst of India, of widespread and inescapable poverty, of corrupt politicians indistinguishable from the mafia-dons they patronize, of a caste-ridden social order that has retained the worst feudal cruelties." In 2005, the World Bank stated that issues faced by Bihar were "enormous" because of "persistent poverty, complex social stratification, unsatisfactory infrastructure, and weak governance."

This is changing, however.  In the 2010 state elections, Bihar's government, led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, got thunderous support from the public and won 206 seats out of 243. Even Kumar's political opponents credit him with excellent pro-public governance centered around economic development, nurturing a more balanced society, and curbing corruption by confiscating the properties of corrupt officials and opening schools in them. In implementing these and other fresh ideas, Bihar is increasingly being held in high esteem across India. Even Bihar's recent election, which saw for the first time in India the highest number of female voters, is proudly held up as a model for improving governance and exercising democratic rights.


Village Teacher in a Bodhi Tree school in 2012
Bodhi Tree Educational Foundation

More on Education in Bihar:
[Greatly abbreviated and edited from Wikipedia]:
Historically, Bihar was a major center of learning, home to such Buddhist universities as Nalanda (established in 450 CE), Odantapura (established in 550CE), and Vikramshila (established in 783 CE). That tradition of learning was lost during the medieval period when marauding Muslim armies destroyed the universities. Bihar saw a revival of its educational system during the later part of British rule with the establishment of  Patna University in 1917. Other centers of higher learning opened by the British include Patna College (established in 1839), Bihar School of Engineering (established in 1900; now known as National Institute of Technology, Patna), Prince of Wales Medical College (1925; now Patna Medical College and Hospital), and Science College, Patna (1928).

After independence, Bihar lost ground. Modern Bihar continues to have an inadequate educational infrastructure, which creates a huge mismatch between supply and demand, compounded by a growing population and the increased aspirations of the people. This craving for higher education has led to a massive migration of students to other parts of India.

Although Bihar's educational system remains unsatisfactory, her leaders are committed to further progress.  At the time of independence, female literacy in Bihar was only 4.22%.  It is now at 53.3% and Bihar is determined to improve on this.  A hopeful sign emerged recently from a survey by Pratham, which rated the absorption of knowledge by Bihar children as better than those in other states.  This holds great promise for the future of these children.


Bodhi Tree Students in 2012
Bodhi Tree Educational Foundation

9 July 2012: as a longtime member of the Bodhi Tree Educational Foundation's Board of Directors, it has been a pleasure to be asked to create a number of webpages on Regional and Buddhist topics related to the Foundation. Here is our Site Map with links to the pages I have so far created.  I hope you will enjoy them.
Warm wishes,
Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.
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