By Sumitra Padmanabhan
Pandit Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar was a man of action and at the same time an embodiment of the ideal of Prajna (intellect) and Karuna (kindness). His strength of character became proverbial even during his lifetime. He was also a great social reformer and was primarily responsible for the Widow Re-marriage Act-XV of 1856. He also laid the foundation of modern Bengali prose and revolutionized the concept of education in his home State. He realized that if women are educated, children cannot be illiterate—a revolutionary idea in India in the early 19th century. Rabindranath Tagore said that he salutes Vidyasagar for his strength of character combined with his humane and kind heart. Ishwar Chandra was highly paid as a principal, but when he died, there was hardly any personal asset in his name. This simple man donated all the money he did not require for his daily use. The first remarriage of a young Hindu widow was arranged and supervised by Ishwarchandra in 1856.
HE WAS NO PREACHER.HE WAS A DOER. HE DID WHAT HE THOUGHT WAS THE RIGHT THING TO DO. BUT NEVER SAID ‘DO AS I SAY’, LIKE RELIGIOUS LEADERS, VARIOUS SWAMIS AND GURUS WHO PREACH BUT DO NOT PRACTICE. EVEN VIVEKANANDA WAS NO EXCEPTION. HE THOUGHT WIDOW REMARRIAGE WAS SINFUL AND POPULARISED ANIMAL-SACRIFICE IN TEMPLES PATERONISED BY HIM.
SO, WE SHOULD RECOGNISE THE REAL PATH-BREAKING MODERN MIND, AND NOT BE CARRIED AWAY BY LOOKS AND BIG TALK.
Ishwar Chandra Bandopadhay was an eminent scholar and social reformer of 19th century Bengal. He came from a family of modest means. He went to the village school where everything was taught in Bengali. When he was still a lad, his father took him to Calcutta to learn more Sanskrit. A family friend advised the father to send the boy to a school where he could learn English because a knowledge of English used to get one a well-paying job. It enabled Ishwar Chandra to get a law degree.
Picture of SANSKRIT COLLEGE
Meanwhile, he mastered Sanskrit and a host of other subjects. Vidyasagar became a lecturer at Fort William College (established in 1800) when he was in his early twenties.
He taught brilliantly, and proposed to improve the curriculum there. Such boldness did not suit his senior (fellow Hindu) professor. Unpleasantness ensued; Vidyasagar resigned as lecturer, and took on a clerical job. Later on, he joined the famous Sanskrit College, and soon became its principal.
He argued against superstitions and Caste system prevailing with all its strength in 19th century Bengal, and ate freely with the so-called ‘untouchables’. He opened the doors of this exclusive college to non-Brahmins. This had never been done before in a Sanskrit school. Vidyasagar dedicated himself to innovations in education.
He pleaded for English as medium of instruction. And yet, Vidyasagar did not ignore his own beautiful Bangla. He introduced students to the curviform alphabet of his language with a simple book (Borno Porichoy) which is as popular today as when it was first published 150 years ago (in 1855). His simple and elegant writings have served as a model for later Bengali prose.
Even though his name contained ‘Ishwar’ he was non-religious, did not follow the Hindu rituals and customs practiced by the Brahmins of his time. He never preached, nor did he become a religious leader—which India always had in abundance. He showed with his own life – that there are other more important things that needed to be done, than to be a pure, pious, practicing Brahmin (upper-caste Indians, who ruled the roost in those days).
Today’s Bengal as well as India has almost forgotten this hero. To bring the ‘Widow Remarriage Act’ as early as in 1856 was an immensely difficult task. It needed great perseverance and tenacity to fight the religious big-guns of those days. He did it. He did it quietly without pompous show but with a silent strength of character, He was a true successor of Rammohan Roy (born 48 years earlier). We can also compare him with Gandhi (born 49 years later) for his obstinate sense of purpose, among other things.
It is high time we Indians know our real heroes. Vidyasagar never became a poster-boy for Bengalis—probably because of his simple looks and un-assuming attitude. Neither did he have the divine beauty of Tagore with his high stature, elegant robe and white beard, nor did he sport saffron turban, special outfit and posture suitable for the calendar.
Indians and Bengalis alike are prone to hero-worshipping. A good calendar/poster image creates demigods – red, saffron, fizzy hair –all add up to creating a prominent image—good enough to worship.[ Of course Anna Hazare’s popularity was a welcome change].
Our call to all Indians, particularly Bengalis and more precisely all secular humanists is to celebrate 26th September, Vidyasagar’s 191st birthday as a very special day. His name should be pronounced in the same breath with that of Raja Rammohan Roy and Rabindranath Tagore. We should know the real makers of modern India, and should not be enamored by self-proclaimed gurus who can only confuse us with their image and religious or semi-religious flavor.
A REAL HERO IS THE ONE WHO ACTS AND DOES NOT PREACH.
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