Revered as a Bengali icon, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was a Bengali Sanskrit pundit, educator, social reformer, writer and philanthropist. He was one of the greatest intellectuals and activists of the 19th century. Born on 26th September, 1820 to a Kulin Brahmin family at Birsingha in the Midnapore District in Undivided Bengal Vidyasagar brought about some of the most far-reaching reform against malpractices by his own community. Vidyasagar made a difference in a period when few men tried to challenge the decadent traditions of the time.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891) was as one of the pillars of Bengal renaissance who managed to continue the social reforms movement that was started by Raja Rammohan Roy in the early 1800s. Vidyasagar was a well-known writer, intellectual and above all a staunch supporter of humanity. He had an imposing personality and was revered even by the British authorities of his time. He brought about a revolution in the Bengali education system and refined the way Bengali language was written and taught. His book, ‘Borno Porichoy’ (Introduction to the letter), is still used as the introductory text to learn Bengali alphabets. The title ‘Vidyasagar’ (ocean of knowledge) was given to him due to his vast knowledge in several subjects.
- The focus of his social reform was women — and he spent his life’s energies trying to ensure an end to the practice of child marriage and initiate widow remarriage.
- He followed in the great reformist tradition of Raja Ram Mohun Roy (1772-1833), and argued, on the basis of scriptures and old commentaries, in favour of the remarriage of widows in the same way as Roy did for the abolition of Sati.
- Vidyasagar wrote two volumes on the mistreatment of widows, which set the tone for major social reform in the state.
- His earliest effort at social reform, however, came in the second half of 1850 when, in a paper on the evils of child marriage.
- He launched a powerful attack on the practice of marrying off girls aged 10 or even younger, pointing to social, ethical, and hygiene issues, and rejecting the validity of the Dharma Shastras that advocated it.
- He showed that there was no prohibition on widows remarrying in the entire body of ‘Smriti’ literature (the Sutras and the Shastras).
- Vidyasagar is credited with the role of thoroughly remodelling medieval scholastic system prevailing in Sanskrit College and bring about modern insights into the education system.
- The first change that Vidyasagar made when he came back to the Sanskrit College as a Professor was to include English and Bengali as the medium of learning, besides Sanskrit.
- He introduced courses of European History, Philosophy and Science alongside of Vedic scriptures. He encouraged students to pursue these subjects and take away the best from both worlds.
- He also changed the rules of admission for students in Sanskrit College allowing non-Brahmin students to enrol in the prestigious institution.
- He wrote two books ‘Upakramonika’ and ‘Byakaran Koumudi’, interpreting complex notions of Sanskrit grammar in easy legible Bengali language.
- He introduced the concepts of Admission fee and tuition fee for the first time in Calcutta. He set up the Normal School for training teachers enabling uniformity in teaching methods. Through his contacts at the deputy magistrate’s office he would help his students get jobs in government offices.
Campaign against polygamy:
- Alongside the campaign for widow remarriage, he campaigned against polygamy.
- In 1857, a petition for the prohibition of polygamy among Kulin Brahmins was presented to the government with 25,000 signatures, led by the Maharaja of Burdwan.
- The mutiny of the sepoys resulted in the postponement of action on this petition, but in 1866, Vidyasagar inspired another petition, this time with 21,000 signatures.
- In the 1870s, the great rationalist, wrote two brilliant critiques of polygamy, arguing to the government that since polygamy was not sanctioned by the sacred texts, there could be no objection to suppressing it by legislation.
- He was a keen advocate of education for women. He rightly viewed education as the primary way for women to emancipate themselves from all the social oppression they had to face at the time.
- He went door to door, asking family heads to allow their daughters to be enrolled in schools. Across Bengal, he opened 35 women’s schools and succeeded in enrolling 1300 students.
- To support women education, he organized a fund called Nari Shiksha Bhandar.
- He supported Drinkwater Bethune to establish the first permanent girls’ school in India, the Bethune School.
- Vidyasagar spent the last 18 years of his life living among Santhal tribals in present day Jharkhand, where he started what is possibly India’s first school for Santhal girls.
- He expressed his ideas through regular articles he wrote for periodicals and newspapers. He was associated with prestigious journalistic publications like ‘Tattwabodhini Patrika’, ‘Somprakash’, ‘Sarbashubhankari Patrika’ and ‘Hindu Patriot’.
Other literary works:
- Vidyasagar’s Barna Parichay (an introduction to the Bengali alphabet) is still the first book a Bengali child is handed more than 160 years after it was written.
- His contribution to the alphabet, translation of several Sanskrit books, including Kalidas’s Shankuntala, has helped Bengali literature.
- He wrote two books which interpreted complex notions of Sanskrit Grammar in Bengali language viz. Upakaramonika and Byakaran Koumudi.
- He established the Sanskrit Press with an aim to produce printed books at affordable prices so that common people could buy them