Higher education in India preceded all such institutions in Europe, including the University of Bologna (1088), the University of Paris (c.1150), and the University of Oxford (1167). The “Nalanda tradition” died out of India centuries ago, being destroyed by Turkish forces led by Bakhtiyar Khalji at the beginning of the thirteenth century. But this academic emphasis on understanding the mind and consciousness was not confined to one Indian university.
According to Tibetan sources, five great mahaviharas stood out during the Pala dynasty (750–1174): Vikramashila, the premier university of the era; Nalanda, past its prime but still illustrious, Somapura Mahavihara, Odantapuri, and Jagaddala. The five monasteries formed a network; all of them were under state supervision, and there existed a system of co-ordination among them. It seems from the evidence that the different seats of Buddhist learning that functioned in eastern India under the Pala were regarded together as an interlinked group of institutions, and it was common for scholars to enrich their understanding by traveling between monasteries, thus receiving theoretical and contemplative training under various masters teaching in these different institutions of higher learning.
One ideal of this training was to become a pandit who has mastered the five primary fields of knowledge. A second ideal was to become a siddha who has gained profound insight into the nature of the mind and tapped into its deepest potentials by means of rigorous, sustained contemplative practice. And a third ideal was to become a bodhisattva who embraces the altruistic vow to achieve perfect spiritual awakening in order to be of greatest possible benefit to the world.
According to their own accounts, many of the pandits, siddhas, and bodhisattvas of ancient India and later in Tibet gained clear, intersubjectively validated insights into fundamental aspects of the mind and consciousness—the very aspects that remain mysteries to modern science.