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Vidyasagar, Ishwar Chandra


Vidyasagar, Ishwar Chandra (1820-1891) Sanskrit scholar, writer, educationist, humanist pundit, social reformer and philanthropist, was born on 26 September 1820 in a poor brahman family in a village in Medinipur. His father Thakur Das Bandhyay was a clerk at a shop in Kolkata.

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar

Ishwar was sent to a village pathshala (primary) at the age of five, but three years later, in December 1828, he was brought to Kolkata, where he briefly attended a pathshala, and later was admitted to Sanskrit college in June 1829. An exceptionally brilliant student, he earned the title of Vidyasagar (an ocean of learning) by 1839, but continued studying there for two more years until December 1841. At the end of his studies, which included grammar, literature, rhetoric, Vedanta, jurisprudence, logic, astronomy, Hindu law and English, he was awarded a certificate of proficiency in these subjects.'

Soon after leaving Sanskrit College in December 1841, Vidyasagar started his teaching career as the head pundit in Bangla at fort william college.  As a Sanskrit pundit, was looking for a job at sanskrit college, which he eventually got in April 1846 - the post of Assistant Secretary. He took his job seriously and wanted to improve the syllabus of the College, but faced obstacles from the conservative secretary, Rasamay Datta. Frustrated, he resigned his post in July 1847. In December 1850, he again joined Sanskrit College, this time, as its professor of Sanskrit literature, and, in the following month, became its Principal.

As Principal, he brought about a range of significant changes in affairs of the college. Previously only Brahman and Vaidya students were qualified to enrol in the college, but he opened its doors to all Hindus; introduced nominal tuition fees; changed weekly holiday from each 1st and 8th days of the moon (which varied according to the lunar calendar) to Sundays; and persuaded the government to accept the degree given by the College to be sufficient for competing for the post of deputy magistrate of the time. Ishwar Chandra revised the syllabus radically, and instead of teaching grammar and mathematics (including algebra) through Sanskrit alone, he began teaching these subjects through Bangla and English as well; and strengthened the English Department. He also made English a compulsory subject in view of the contemporary reality. While he also emphasised mare efficient teaching of Bangla, the teaching of philosophy received even a wider attention. He considered Sankhya and vedanta philosophy to be unacceptable, and, also, refused to include Berkeleyan or similar Western philosophy in the syllabus; in its place he suggested teaching Bacon's philosophy and JS Mill's logic.

Following the implementation of the Education Charter of Charles Wood (1854), which recommended expansion of education to rural areas, Vidyasagar was given, in addition to his work as the Principal of the College, the responsibility of the assistant inspector of schools in May 1855. He almost immediately started opening Bangla schools in four districts of Nadia, Bardhaman, Hugli and Medinipur; and, within a couple of years, set up altogether twenty schools. He also established a 'normal school' for the training of teachers for these schools and founded a school in his own village, almost entirely with his own money.'

Alongside opening these Bangla model schools, the government also decided to establish some girls' schools, even though it was uncertain as to whether it would be possible to do so in the face of strong opposition from conservative society which considered female education a taboo. Vidyasagar, an ardent supporter of female education, was given the responsibility of launching these schools; and he persuaded local people to establish such a school in Bardhaman in May 1857; and later, between November 1857 and May 1858, he opened the doors of thirty-four more girls' schools. However, he was unable to continue his work, as differences emerged between him and the director of public instructions. Vidyasagar resigned his post both from Sanskrit College.

One of his important contributions to education was the establishment of the Calcutta Metropolitan Institution. It was first started in 1859 as an English training school for students from the rich Hindu families, but lost its vigour by 1861. He took over the responsibility of running it and named it Hindu Metropolitan Institution in 1864. With the approval of Calcutta University, it started preparing candidates for Entrance Examination and showed instant success. In early 1872, it was recognised by the University as an intermediate college, and in 1879 as a degree college.

Apart from modernising and reforming Sanskrit College; and establishing vernacular and girls' schools, his most important contribution to education was the textbooks he wrote and published. Until he published his pioneering work Barnaparichay (An Introduction to Alphabet, 1851), there was no such model reader for the beginners. The quality of this book was so good that it served as the universal textbook for the beginners for the following half a century. Similarly successful were his readers Badhoday (1851), Kathamala (1856), Charitabali (1856) and Jibancharit (1859) - all readers for young pupils. Like Barnaparichay, there was no Sanskrit grammar written in Bangla until he published his Samskrita Byakaraner Upakramanika (An Introduction to Sanskrit Grammar) in 1851. His Byakaran-kaumudi (1853-1863) was another monumental work on grammar.

A close look at the textbooks he wrote makes it evident that not only did he want to teach students the skills of reading and writing, but he also wanted the reader to acquire moral values and a liberal outlook. In his Charitmala (Biographies), for example, he did not write biographical sketches of ancient and medieval saints of India, but wrote about sixteen great men of Europe. In Jibancharit (Biographies), he again wrote short biographies of such scientists as Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Herschel; and such scholars as William Jones. In Nitibodh (Understanding Ethics), he chose to write not on institutionalised religions or rituals, but on the virtues that every human being should acquire. In Kathamala, he compiled fables that would contain a moral at the end; and in the three volumes of Akhyanmavjari (A Compilation of Anecdotes) he compiled popular stories from Europe and America (four from Arabia and Persia), and gave titles such as Devotion to Mother, Devotion to Father, Love for Brother, Devotion to the Teacher, Hospitality, Helping Others and Prize for Honesty; thus, he tried not only to teach moral values, but also to encourage his readers to look beyond their country. As his textbooks ran dozens of editions and were prescribed every school in Bengal, he was at once able to set a standard of language, including spelling, and elevate the moral standard of his readers.

Indeed, he reformed and developed Bangla prose not just by his textbooks, but also by his other writings. Until he published his Vetalpavchavingshati in 1847, the Bangla prose style, created by the pundits of Fort William College or by Rammohun Roy, was archaic, artificial and barely adequate for communicating information, but it fell far short of what can be termed as literary prose - a prose style suited to writing literature. Before him, Bangla prose had the vocabulary for communicating information, but little beauty, and lacked smoothness and lucidity. Vidyasagar discovered collocation, modified the sentence structure and established the correlation between the subject and the verb, and the verb and the object. He, thus, created a style hitherto unknown in Bangla prose. He also discovered the relation between breath-pause and meaning-pause and made a synthesis of them, and helped the reader find these poses by using punctuation marks, particularly commas, at the right place. Previously, only akshay kumar datta had used English punctuation marks; in Bangla, there were just full-stops and double full-stops prior to him.

However, Vidyasagar did not write in one single style; for example, the style he followed in his textbooks was, of course, different from the one he used in his literary works, and the style seen in his anonymous writings was yet another - one of sarcasm and wit.

According to some contemporary writers, Vidyasagar was little more than a translator and textbook writer. However, on a closer analysis of his works, one would probably differ with them. In his very first literary work, vetalpanchvingshati (1847), Vidyasagar amply proved that he was just retelling the stories of Vetal, rather than translating them. He improvised and made them suitable for the modern reader leaving the vulgarity of the original; and thus, created his own version of Vetal. His Shakuntala (1854), again, was far from the original by Kalidasa. His Shakuntala and her two companions appear to be Bengali, as does his Sita in Sitar Banabas (1860). Even when he translated Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, he adapted it for the Bengali readers and retold it in the form of a narrative. Moreover, his language style, including his wit and humour, makes both these books seem original. Unlike Sanskrit most scholars of his time, who were mostly traditional in their social outlook and religious beliefs, Vidyasagar was an agent of change and liberalism. He realised that without modernising traditional mores and reforming from within the family, society could never advance.

Vidyasagar was saddened by the distress of child widows who were at that time treated inhumanly, and started writing in favour of their remarriage. His first article on this subject appeared in Bengal Spectator (April 1842) when he had just come out of Sanskrit College. In order to raise social consciousness towards the deplorable condition of widows, particularly child widows, he published his first book in January 1855 and the second in October that year. Later, he also wrote a couple of books on the subject anonymously attacking those Sanskrit pundits who objected to his ideas.

Alongside justifying remarriage of widows by putting forward arguments from ancient shastras, he started a movement for legalising widow remarriage for which he organised a signature campaign and sent a petition to the government on 4 October 1855 asking it to pass it into a law. Later, twenty-two other petitions followed, some from other parts of India, and had more than five thousand signatures against child marriage. On the contrary, conservative Hindus sent in twenty-eight petitions bearing more than fifty-five thousand signatures, urging the government not to pass such a law and thereby interfere with the religion and culture of the natives. Even though the balance was in favour of the conservatives, the government passed an act legalising widow remarriage in July 1857. In spite of this moral victory for the liberals, the Act had only a limited success. In the face of strong opposition and even violence, Vidyasagar remarried the first widow in December that year to one of his colleagues at Sanskrit College.'

Boosted with his success in legalising widow remarriage, Vidyasagar petitioned to the government for the abolition of Kulin polygamy and, later, early marriage. However, the Sepoy Mutiny (1857) had made government cautious about hurting the sentiment of the common people. Thus, no Act was passed abolishing either Kulin polygamy or child marriage, but he is still remembered for his liberal outlook.

If Rammohun Roy played the role of the first humanist pundit in Bengal by translating, reinterpreting and publishing old shastras, and thus started the process of the Bengal Renaissance, Vidyasagar was the second. Whereas the former did it mainly for his campaign against sati, the latter did it for the remarriage of child widows, stopping polygamy, introducing female education and for improving the condition of the down-trodden in society, particularly women. Moreover, he translated from the Mahabharata, Ramayana and from Kalidas into Bangla not to return to ancient India, but to improve the literary tastes of the emerging educated class. The literature he translated was mostly that of gods and goddesses, such as Rama and Sita, but he transformed these characters into adorable modern human beings.

He turned into a living legend for his personality and character. At a time when everyone in society was expected to follow the trodden path and never to challenge traditional values and morals, he established a unique example of individuality and independence. Not only did he want to go his own way, but he also had the moral courage to practice it. When he organised the movement for remarriage of child widows, he ignored the hostility and threats from traditional Hindus, and nothing could detour him from his determination. While other supporters of widow remarriage lost their enthusiasm within a year or so, and broke their promise to fund it, as a lonely soldier he went on fighting the conservatives and arranging marriages of widows. He had the courage to marry his only son to a widow, and then, for something else, even to disown him. Although there were many rich people in Bengal at that time and he was just a member of the educated middle class, he earned the name as the greatest philanthropist of his day and became a role-model to everyone, including his enemies. Vidyasagar died a lonely man on 29 July 1891. [Ghulam Murshid]

Bibliography Gopal Haldar, Vidyasagar Rachana Sangraha, 3 Volumes, Pashchim Banga Niraksharata Durikaran Samity, Kolkata, 1972; BN Bandyopadhyay, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, 5th ed, Bangiya Sahitya Parishat, Kolkata, 1955; B Ghosh, Vidyasagar O Bangali Samaj, Reprint, Orient Longman, Kolkata, 1993; A Tripathi, Vidyasagar: A Traditional Modernizer, Reprint, Punashcha, Kolkata, 1998.