Ishwar Chandra was born to Thakurdas Bandyopadhyay and Bhagavati Devi at Birsingha village, in the Ghatal subdivision of Paschim Midnapore in West Bengal, India, on 26 September 1820.Thakurdas was employed in a shop in Burrabazar and had a meagre income of approximately eight rupees per month. The childhood days of Ishwar were hence spent in abject poverty. He joined a local school at the age of five. After a year he fell ill with chronic fever and inflammation of the spleen. When he didn’t recover even after six months, his maternal grandfather took him for Ayurvedic treatment. He recovered completely within three months and subsequently returned to Birsingha. Thereafter he continued his studies in the same school till the age of eight.
After his grandfather’s demise, Thakurdas decided to take Ishwar to Calcutta for further studies. They set forth on foot from Birsingha. Interestingly, he learned English numbers by following the mile-stones labels on his way to Calcutta.
In Calcutta, Ishwar started living in Bhagabat Charan’s house in Burrabazar, where Thakurdas had already been staying for some years. Ishwar felt at ease amidst Bhagabat’s large family and settled down comfortably in no time. Bhagabat’s youngest daughter Raimoni’s motherly and affectionate feelings towards Ishwar touched him deeply and had a strong influence on his later revolutionary work towards the upliftment of women’s status in India.
His quest for knowledge was so intense that he used to study on street light as it was not possible for him to afford a gas lamp at home. He cleared all the examinations with excellence and in quick succession. He was rewarded with a number of scholarships for his academic performance. To support himself and the family Ishwar Chandra also took a part-time job of teaching at Jorashanko.
In the year 1839, Ishwar Chandra successfully cleared his Law examination. In 1841, at the age of twenty one, Ishwar Chandra joined the Fort William College as a head of the Sanskrit department.
After five years, in 1846, Vidyasagar left Fort William College and join the Sanskrit College as ‘Assistant Secretary’. In the first year of service, Ishwar Chandra recommended a number of changes to the existing education system. This report resulted into a serious altercation between Ishwar Chandra and College Secretary Rasomoy Dutta. In 1849, he again joined Sanskrit College, as a professor of literature. In 1851, Iswar Chandra became the principal of Sanskrit College. In 1855, he was made special inspector of schools with additional charges. But following the matter of Rasomoy Dutta, Vidyasagar resigned from Sanskrit College and rejoined Fort William College,as a head clerk.
Vidyasagar in Calcutta and many other reformers in Bombay set up schools for girls. Vidyasagar was associated with other reformers, who founded schools for girls like Ramgopal Ghosh,Madan Mohan Tarkalankar, Dakshinaranjan Mukherjee, John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune and others. When the first schools were opened in the mid nineteenth century, many people were afraid of them. They feared that schools would take away girls from home and prevent them from doing their domestic duties. Moreover, girls would have to travel through public places in order to reach school. They thought that girls should stay away from public spaces. Therefore, most educated women were taught at home by their liberal fathers or husbands.
- Vidyasagar House, in Kolkata.
In 1841, Vidyasagar took the job of a Sanskrit pandit (professor) at Fort William College in Kolkata (Calcutta). In 1846, he joined the Sanskrit College as Assistant Secretary. A year later, he and a friend of his, Madan Mohan Tarkalankar, set up the Sanskrit Press and Depository, a print shop and a bookstore.
While Vidyasagar was working at the Sanskrit College, some serious differences arose between him and Rasamoy Dutta who was then the Secretary of the College, and so he resigned in 1849. One of the issues was that while Rasamoy Dutta wanted the College to remain a Brahmin preserve, Vidyasagar wanted it to be opened to students from all castes.
Later, Vidyasagar rejoined the College, and introduced many far-reaching changes to the College’s syllabus.
In the face of opposition from the Hindu establishment, Vidyasagar vigorously promoted the idea that regardless of their caste, both men and women should receive the best education. His remarkable clarity of vision is instanced by his brilliant plea for teaching of science, mathematics and the philosophies of John Locke and David Hume, to replace most of ancient Hindu philosophy.
His own books, written for primary school children, reveal a strong emphasis on enlightened materialism, with scant mention of God and religious verities – a fact that posits him as a pioneer of the Indian Renaissance.
A compassionate reformist
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was very compassionate towards poor and weak people in distress. Though he was very outspoken and blunt in his mannerisms, yet Vidyasagar had a heart of Gold. He was also known for his charity and philanthropy as “Daya-r sagar” or “Karunar Sagar” – ocean of kindness, for his immense generosity. He always reflected and responded to distress calls of the poor, sufferings of the sick and injustice to humanity. While being a student at Sanskrit College, he would spend part of his scholarship proceeds and cook paayesh (rice pudding) to feed the poor and buy medicines for the sick.
Later on, when he started earning, he paid fixed sums of monthly allowances to each member of his joint family, to family servants, to needy neighbours, to villagers who needed help and to his village surgery and school. This he continued without break even when he was unemployed and had to borrow substantially from time to time.
Vidyasagar did not believe that money was enough to ease the sufferings of humanity. He opened the doors of the Sanskrit College to lower caste students (previously it was exclusive to the Brahmins), nursed sick cholera patients, went to crematoriums to bury unclaimed dead bodies, dined with the untouchables and walked miles as a messenger-man to take urgent messages to people who would benefit from them.
When the eminent Indian Poet of the 19th century, Michael Madhusudan Dutta, fell hopelessly into debts due to his reckless lifestyle during his stay in Versailles, France, he appealed for help to Vidyasagar, who laboured to ensure that sums owed to Michael from his property at home were remitted to him and sent him a large sum of money to France.
Vidyasagar championed the uplift of the status of women in India, particularly in his native Bengal. Unlike some other reformers who sought to set up alternative societies or systems, he sought, however, to transform orthodox Hindu society “from within”.
With valuable moral support from people like Akshay Kumar Dutta, Vidyasagar introduced the practice of widow remarriages to mainstream Hindu society. In earlier times, remarriages of widows would occur sporadically only among progressive members of the Brahmo Samāj. The prevailing deplorable custom of Kulin Brahmin polygamy allowed elderly men — sometimes on their deathbeds — to marry teenage or even prepubescent girls, supposedly to spare their parents the shame of having an unmarried girl attain puberty in their house.
After such marriages, these girls would usually be left behind in their parental homes, where they might be cruelly subjected to orthodox rituals, especially if they were subsequently widowed. These included a semi starvation diet, rigid and dangerous daily rituals of purity and cleanliness, hard domestic labour, and close restriction on their freedom to leave the house or be seen by strangers. Unable to tolerate the ill treatment, many of these girls would run away and turn to prostitution. Ironically, the economic prosperity and lavish lifestyles of the city made it possible for many of them to have quite successful careers once they had stepped out of the sanction of society. In 1853 it was estimated that Calcutta had a population of 12,718 prostitutes.
Vidyasagar took the initiative in proposing and pushing through the Widow Remarriage Act XV of 1856 in India. He also demonstrated that the system of polygamy without restriction was not sanctioned by the ancient Hindu Shastras.
Bengali alphabet and language reconstruction
Vidyasagar reconstructed the Bengali alphabet and reformed Bengali typography into an alphabet of twelve vowels and forty consonants. Vidyasagar contributed significantly toBengali and Sanskrit literature.
Books authored by Vidyasagar
- Betaal Panchabinsati (1847)
- Bangala-r Itihaas (1848)
- Jeebancharit (1850)
- Bodhadoy (1851)
- Upakramanika (1851)
- Shakuntala (1855)
- Bidhaba Bibaha Bishayak Prostab (1855)
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