An apocryphal story goes that an enthusiastic Palestinian student who came to study Hindu Philosophy at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) returned home a few months later because he was convinced he had greater access to Hindu scriptures and literature in libraries in the Middle East than the place he once considered the ‘Mecca of Hindu learning’. A BHU professor, who was full of hope when Narendra Modi became Prime Minister and narrated this ‘story’ to me, attributes what he calls the “disappointing scenario of a great institution” to “excessive red tape and routine” that has rendered the running of various departments at BHU, which turns 100 on 4 February 2016, entirely “stagnant”.
Professor Bhola N Dwivedi, a professor of physics at IIT (BHU)—a highly accomplished, well-travelled scholar who has published numerous papers in peer-reviewed journals and science magazines worldwide—notes with a touch of irony, “Bricks and walls don’t make an institution.” For someone who has written extensively about the values that BHU founder Madan Mohan Malaviya stood for, he should know. The gorgeous buildings that line the sprawling campus at Varanasi, considered the holiest of holy cities for Hindus, were meant to exude an aura that Western universities were known for. “The upkeep is not up to the mark,” says Visual Arts Professor Suresh K Nair, who contends that gardeners are the ones who retain that ambience of the Hindu university that Malaviya envisioned as a ‘temple of learning’. Mahamana, as Malaviya is referred to in this part of the country, wanted Frank Lishman, the architect who designed the building, to keep that in mind—that the buildings should resemble massive Hindu temples. But then he also had in mind a global curriculum that would attract students from across the world. It is therefore no coincidence that the texts for religious classes were co-written by an Anglo-Irish woman, Annie Besant, and Bhagwan Das, an Indian scholar, to enable what writer Leah Renold, called the ‘remarkable confluence’ of British and Indian ideas at a time when the British Empire was at its peak and Indian nationalism in its early stages of becoming a mass movement. The overriding task of Malaviya was not only to merge Western education and Hindu religious traditions, but also to have the best of faculty on a campus set in the oldest living city, points out Dwivedi, who returned to BHU from the US on his father’s advice in the early 1980s. “My intention then was to help make BHU into an international centre of excellence in academics,” he says, rather ruefully.