Why is Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar Remembered

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Till his bust was vandalized on May 16th, during the recent West Bengal elections, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was unknown and almost forgotten! Even after the vandalization, it got political about whose legacy was he, forgetting that he belonged to the undivided India.

Who was Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar?

He was the second runner in the social reform relay race that started with Raja Ram Mohan Roy. See the timeline below –

1772 to 1833 - Raja Ram Mohan Roy; 

1820 to 1891 - Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar; 

1861 to 1941 - Rabindranath Tagore

While today it can be argued that Raja Ram Mohan Roy is responsible for converting Sanskrit schools to English medium ones that was a terrible thing to do, but the many things that he did by way of social reform outweighs that mistake. Ram Mohan Roy was a polymath who setup the Brahmo Samaj and brought the law abolishing sati. That sati is not an age old Hindu practice is understood now, but during his times it was a social ill - a widow having to immolate herself on her husband's pyre was inhuman.

That the practise came in response to the barbaric rapes by the Muslim invaders, was forgotten and it applied to all Hindu women whose husbands died before them.

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was moved by the plight of a young widow and started his campaign for widow re-marriage. It’s almost as if he picked up the baton of social reform from where Raja Ram Mohan Roy had left it. If Sati got abolished, there were widows who couldn't marry again - there was nothing against widow re-marriage in the scriptures but it was a social taboo. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar managed to get the Hindu Widow’s Remarriage Act passed in 1856.

The weavers of Santipore celebrated by weaving a sari which contained along its borders the first line of a newly composed song which went on to say ‘May Vidyasagar live long’. He didn't stop at just getting the act passed but conducted 25 widow remarriages between 1855 and 1860 at his own expense!

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar not only made widow re-marriage into an act but he also setup several schools for girls, spoke out against polygamy and worked towards stopping child marriage. Especially girl children being married off to much older men who would die soon after the marriage. These girls then ended up as prostitutes.

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar earned the name "Vidyasagar" (Ocean of knowledge) by participating in a competition that tested the knowledge of Sanskrit in 1839. He was a polymath and spoke many languages. He wrote a book that is still used to teach Bengali alphabets.

He was a tremendously compassionate man, stopped drinking milk for years apparently, because the calves were being deprived of it. He also would not go in a horse drawn carriage because it would cause discomfort to the horses. What a humane man...

“It was Vidyasagar who rescued the Bengali style from the pedantry of the Pandits and the vulgarity of the realists. He may be called the ‘father of literary Bengali prose’. His style was graceful and dignified, but still a little too heavy, and not very suitable for novels.” 1

“Formation of the Hindu Balika Vidyalaya in Calcutta in 1849 was due to the efforts of Hon J.E. Drinkwater Bethune and Pandit Isvar Chandra Vidyasagar, one of the greatest educationalists and social reformers of modern India, marked a turning point in the history of female education in our country.” 1

“He opened atleast 35 girl’s schools in Bengal between November 1857 and May 1858.” 1

No wonder Rabindranath Tagore said on his passing - "One wonders how God, in the process of producing forty million Bengalis, produced a man!”

Author is an Executive Coach, Co-founder www.Shikshadaan.com and blogs at www.90rollsroyces.com

References

1 The History and Culture of Indian People by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan.

Also read

1 Ten lesser known facts about respected Vidyasagar

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