Vidyasagar Glow Of Bengal Renaissance
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was a great social reformer, writer, educator, and entrepreneur who worked endlessly to transform society. His contribution towards education and changing the status of women in India was remarkable. Ishwar Chandra strongly protested polygamy, child-marriage and favoured widow remarriage and women's education in India. Because of his contribution towards such issues, the Widow Remarriage Act was passed in 1856, making the marriage of widows legal. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar worked towards providing education to women. He opened and ran many schools for girls at his own expense. He was also known as "Daya-r Sagar" or "Karunar Sagar" (literally, "ocean of kindness") because of his charitable nature and generosity.
Since childhood, Ishwar Chandra was keen to get more and more knowledge. As his family was not well off, he used to study under the street lights at night. Because of his vast knowledge on different subjects, the title Vidyasagar was given to him by the people of his village. Vidyasagar means an ocean of learning ("vidya" - learning, "sagar" - ocean). He became a Sanskrit pundit and acquired an extremely high proficiency in this subject. Till his retirement, he worked as a Sanskrit professor in Sanskrit College, Calcutta. While he was the principal of the college, the college became a place of reform. Not only this, Vidyasagar was a great writer and also known as the father of modern Bengali language. Many Bengali alphabets were revised by him. He also wrote a book on grammar rules of Sanskrit that is used till date.
Vidyasagar was a rebel. He never was the one to flow with the tide and accept social norms without question. Instead of a reformer it would perhaps be wiser to consider him as a revolutionary. During his youth polygamy among the Brahmins was common. Many girl children were married off to old Brahmins because it would supposedly ensure the girls and their parents a special place in heaven. Even Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar's father a 'kulin' Brahmin married several times. Vidyasagar was strongly opposed to this horrendous custom of Kulin Brahmin polygamy, which allowed elderly men even on their deathbeds, to marry teenage or prepubescent girls. Many times, these 'brides' would be left behind at their paternal places without a second glance especially if they were subsequently widowed. Subjected to semi-starvation and a hard life many of them would flee and become prostitutes. Vidyasagar sought to change this as well. And his idea of widow marriage was a revolutionary concept at the time.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, along with many other active reformers, opened schools for girls. This was because, for him, educational reform was much more important than any other reform. He believed that the status of women and all kinds of injustice and inequalities that they face could be changed only through education. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar worked endlessly to provide equal education to all men and women irrespective of their caste, religion and gender. He allowed people from lower castes in his Sanskrit college that was meant only for upper caste men. Vidyasagar worked to uplift the status of women in India, especially in his native Bengal. He was a social reformer and wanted to change the orthodox Hindu society from within. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar introduced the practice of widow remarriage and worked against polygamy. During his lifetime, Vidyasagar had written many books and thus enriched the Bengali education system to a great extent. Till date, the books written by him are read by all.
The Bengali Renaissance, a subject of heated debate among scholars and intellectuals, has been described sometimes as an intellectual reawakening, a flurry of cultural and artistic activities, a cognitive enlightenment, or as a middle-class revolution. There is no ubiquitous definition of what constitutes a renaissance, and therefore debates abound on whether what happened in Bengal in the late nineteenth century could actually be called one. But what is certain is that during the time, a number of creative figures, starting from Raja Ram Mohan Roy and till Rabindranath Tagore, did bring about a paradigm shift in the cultural and intellectual pursuits of Bengal and ultimately India. Of these illustrious figures, Ishwar Chandra holds a unique place - as a polymath, a philanthropist and a social reformer.
The contributions of Ishwar Chandra cannot be separated from his time. Subrata Dasgupta, in his book The Bengal Renaissance, writes that the "creative mentality of the Bengal Renaissance was dominated by two cognitive constructs: a cross-cultural mentality, and universalism." The author explains that at the time, in the context of the studies by the British orientalists on India's past, and exposure to western education, this mentality developed. We see during the 'renaissance' Ram Mohan Roy's contribution in the creation of the Brahmo Samaj, his efforts to eradicate the practice of sati in India. Michael Madhusudan Dutta would come to revolutionise Bangla literature with his sonnets and blank verse, while Jagadish Chandra Bose and Mahendra Lal Sircar would stand to disprove irrefutably the British view that Indians were incapable of scientific pursuits. Bankim Chandra and Rabindranath would pave the way for literature with their distinct contributions.
Vidyasagar has become an indelible part of Bengali history, so much so, that he has become now an almost legendary figure. Much of what is heard of him today in popular culture has taken on epic proportions. We know him as a scholar of indubitable genius, and as a proponent for women's rights. But, his contributions are sometimes shadowed by anecdotes, true or not: that, coming from a poor family, he studied under street lights at night, or how he taught himself to count from looking at mile posts on the road. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was an extremely humble personality and many a time it was this part of his nature that had inspired others.
(Dr. Forqan is former Deputy Director General, Bangladesh Ansar & VDP, and Editor, Publisher
"The Monthly Bisswayan".