On December 14, 2014 a specialist in archaeology published an article on further excavations of a temple complex at Telhara, Bihar, India. IANS put in online. The hastily reached conclusion after a new successful dig was that here are the remnants of a Buddhist university that well could predate those of Nalanda and Vikramashila, equally in Bihar. The conclusion was reached after archaeologists discovered four terracotta plaques with the inscription “Sri Prathamshivpur Mahavihariyaye Bikshu Sanghas“. This was seen as proof of the “universityness” of the dig at Telhara. The conclusion was reached on the basis of the word Mahavihar… (great vihára). As the Nalanda university too bears the name of Mahávihár(a), “Mahávihár” has come to be recognized as “university”.
Actually a Mahávihára is merely a sizeable monastery. As all big monasteries (mahávihára) offer some kind of schooling and training, it is not a given that each Mahávihára is therefore a university, i.e. an educational facility that offers a range of different subjects to study. This conclusion is too hastily drawn and does not seem to be corroborated by litterature or literary findings on the spot.
If we would lay out the words on the newly dug-up plaques we first have to consider the word “Sri” (sometimes Shri). This word, that stands for something like saintly wise man, does not occur in the dictionaries of classical Sanskrit. It might therefore be somewhat younger than the oldest vedic texts of Hinduism.
Next we have Pratámshivpur. Prathám is a word that appears in the Hindu Upanishads, a collection of texts that follows on the earliest veda. In particular the Swetasvatara Upanishad, belonging to the Krishna-Yajurveda, has the word “prathám” twice, in mantra 1 where it is used to indicate the Great Self, and in mantra 13 where it is used to laud the “perfect yoga”. Hence it is not in the Upanishads that we find the meaning of Pratámshivpur.
The dictionary of classical Sanskrit given “práthama” as “first”, and “foremost”.
“Shiv” is short for the Hindu god Shiva, and the suffix “-pur“, or “-pura” indicates a town, or more broadly, human habitation. Therefore Sri Pratámshivpur means “the foremost town where Sri Shiva is venerated“.
As Bikshu Sanghas (generally one reads bhikshu (Skr.) or bhikkhu (Pali)) is translated as the congregation of monks, the entire line of “Sri Prathamshivpur Mahavihariyaye Bikshu Sanghas” must be translated with “the great monastery (belonging to) the monks congregation at the foremost town where Sri Shiva is venerated“.
The plaques do not speak of university. Of course they don’t, since the classical Sanskrit doesn’t know yet the institutionalized teaching under the supervision of an acárya or group of acárya (teacher). In the old days everything was still fluid. Groups of teachers (acárya) flocked together in temples (vihára in the case of the Buddhists) or ashrams (in the case of the Hindus) and students, adhyáyin in the case of students of the veda, went from one acárya to another until all subjects were mastered.
Again, in order to establish whether the Mahávihára at Sri Pratámshivpur was a “university”, one first needs to dig up texts that either served as teaching material or in which is mention of acárya or students, sekha or sekkho in the case of Buddhists who study the Small Vehicle canon.