Ishwar Chandra ‘Vidyasagar’ Bandyopadhyay had his share of fame during his time. He still is a revered name in Bengal (a bridge, a university, a city college after his name apart from many minor references), though not quite known at the national level. We don’t have a holiday declared on his birthday, or much of a noticeable stake of his biography on children’s textbooks nowadays – proving his posthumous heydays as a luminary are fading 125Y after his death. My picture of him remains a 2-pg capsule on him which served to glorify him and motivate tender minds to feel inspired. It met a purpose or two and was prescribed timely. However it was too little in dosage and too childish in quality – either in authenticity or in the objectiveness of portrayal of a human character. When I grew up to an age when I could truly appreciate a man, he was already off my textbooks.
I kind of knew/retained:
He was awarded ‘Vidyasagar’ (‘Ocean of wisdom’) title for his erudition. He was a great scholar in Sanskrit. He authored several books in Sanskrit and Bengali, including ‘Barnaparichay’ (the most authentic and timeless textbook to learn Bengali alphabets till date). He was referred to as ‘Dayar sagar’ (‘Ocean of compassion’) for his kindness, benevolence and charity. He loved his mother so much that he didn’t mind swimming across a fierce river (Damodar) during flood/monsoon when all are means were not available. [Whether this claim was unfounded or true, I wish he could ratify for us.] He fought throughout his life for remarriage of widows, abolishment of child marriage and polygamy, education of women (and in general, for all) and welfare of the poor. He couldn’t resist himself from helping anyone who approached him – Michael Madhusudan Dutt being an eminent example of his numerous beneficiaries. He was one of the foremost social reformers Bengal has ever produced.
I didn’t know: I knew lesser than what I know today. All of a sudden, a small anecdote in a child’s book woke me up for this interesting journey of replenishing myself with more mature contents. Neither I now know as much as I should have nor I’m trying to write about his life in general. I feel he should have been placed in much higher rank of honor. In spite of all my limitations in knowledge and intellect, I can’t help mentioning the most striking events/traits I’m reading about this man. Allow me *NOT* to be as brief as I could. I hope it’d serve myself as a nutshell of him when I must remember him.
- Vidyasagar was an educator cum educationist, an administrator as well as a reformer of education. As an administrator he opened up numerous schools across districts. He broke the walls of literature and went on to enlighten the poor and the underprivileged. He identified women to be the worst affected part of our society, apart from the impoverished mass. Women had to bear the brunt of most of the social evils. He associated himself to the cause of female education as a means to end this curse. Education would lead to independence which in turn could mean emancipation. He founded girls’ schools in different places with this drive. Apart from education, his major social reforms are heavily inclined to the empowerment and welfare of women. His endeavor helped to push the minimum age of a girl’s marriage up to 10.
- Vidyasagar was free from prejudices. This single quality was extremely rare among Hindu Brahmin community of those times. In spite of being trained in orthodox teachings and uttering Sanskrit ‘shlokas’ from childhood, he could find roots of many evils around him by keeping his mind free from his natural bias. He learnt English (and Hindi) at 21Y and caught up fast. Thus he made himself aware of the rest of the world. He tightened the discipline, redefined the syllabus, the texts as well as the education system of the Sanskrit College in all his capacity (as a principal) so that English is compulsory, texts are available in Bengali (he wrote and published many textbooks himself) and materials which were not generic enough to cater different classes of society get omitted. Only a rationalist and revisionist mind could question an accepted structure and propose an answer too.
- Vidyasagar was a staunch follower of a Hindu Brahmin’s lifestyle in his eating, dressing and other daily habits. In his proverbial 3 piece (‘dhoti-chadar-choti’) he spent his entire life. However, he never worshiped or prayed and maintained stoic silence on any questions on religion (literally dodged the question many a time). A Hindu Pandit in 19th century, who wore a thread (‘upabeet’), performed ‘Shraddha’ rituals at funerals, wrote “Sri Sri Harisaranam” above every letter never spoke in favor of any religion. Instead he always referred to humanism to be the highest form of religion. Experts are divided whether he was atheist or agnostic, but are in consensus about his secular views. He was fascinated by the science and civilization facets of the west and wanted the youth of Bengal to get exposed and assimilate those elements into their lives. Their lifestyle, food or manners weren’t of any intrigue to him. He remained a proud nationalist in his core diet, but with a broad heart to imbibe healthy supplements from outside.
- Vidyasagar’s heart used to melt into tears at others’ suffering. He was one of those exceptional class of donors who didn’t mind borrowing money in order to help others. He came from a very modest economic background. His jobs (academic administrator or educator) weren’t a long affair and his press/publishing business wasn’t a mint until the later phase in his life. Through his life, he got denied repayment or help by many of those whom he once saved with money. However he wasn’t exactly blind at his benevolence. He did try to evaluate the need – he didn’t want to donate money to a talentless alcoholic! All his solutions to all the problems that bothered him had a real, material base rather than a spiritual blessing. His life was parsimonious and plain, his income was meant to be given away on charity and welfare of the poor and needy. He decidedly chose humanitarian services as his duty and nothing could deter him till his last breath.
- Vidyasagar wasn’t into freedom fighting. He was 37Y old when the Sepoy Mutiny broke out. This shows that his birth timing wasn’t perfect for becoming a martyr. The freedom movement wave surfaced at a later phase of history. To the section of the British officials who had genuine passion for development of India, Vidyasagar worked as a collaborator. A number of high ranking personnels of the government appreciated his effort and supported his objectives. He was an adviser in different policy making forums. His petition on widow remarriage (he had to scan and interpret ancient Hindu documents in favor of his motive) resulted in a bill being passed. His petitions against Hindu ‘kulin’ (aristocrat) polygamy didn’t get official affiliation due to political reasons. However his writings and campaigns did create a stir among all the classes of Bengal (and beyond). He made these issues a theme of dinner table discussions even at remote corners. He worked under the British to spread education to farther districts outside Calcutta. He recognized the need to learn English to peep into the western civilization. At the same time, he never lost focus from his emphasis on vernacular education.
- When he faced opposition from his British supervisor in his way of opening up new schools, he didn’t give in. He quit a coveted government job with a handsome pay package because his purpose was solely to spread education among more and more common people. VS never compromised on his terms. In his first stint in Sanskrit College, he penned a list of reforms which were rejected by the then secretary. He didn’t think twice before leaving the secured job. He came close to the ‘Brahmo Samaj’ and became the editor of their signature magazine (‘Tattvobodhini’). Soon there was a clash (with Mararshi Debendranath Tagore, father of Rabindranath) as he was expected to promote the monotheism (instead of popular 33 crores Gods) in addition. He quit shortly and maintained his distance till his last day.
- Vidyasagar’s sternness when it comes to his values made him not the easiest personality to be with. He was assaulted, insulted and opposed constantly. Some of his initiatives yielded success through a lot resistance, some only raised attacks and satiric parodies. His reforms evoked reactionary backlash in the orthodox Hindu society which included heavyweights of that era. His petitions were countered strongly. A warrior’s life cannot be a bed of roses. He chose to stay on a road plagued by betrayals, acrimony, soreness and hostility.
I can’t help sharing a few trivia.
- He bore the expenses of the first (and more later) widow remarriage from his pocket. He approved his son’s wedding to a widow.
- He denied his only son from his will and donated everything he had for welfare of the needy. It’s a pleasure reading the nitty-gritty of that meticulous document. It shows how philanthropy can be personified. Post his demise, his son petitioned at the court and won back his pie.
- His only known taste for luxury was getting his impressive collection of books bound in a costly European style. He felt books were to be preserved irrespective of the maintenance cost.
- Disillusioned by people around him including family members, Vidyasagar secluded himself at a Santal hamlet with a broken health. He fell in love with the tribal folks, regained his lost morale and started guiding them on life. Though started as a sojourn in the laps of nature, he ended up spending 18Y of his post fifties in quiet solitude. He opened up schools for them (including one for tribal women) and practiced Homeopathy to treat them, apart from rendering his other usual humanitarian services free of cost. He came back to Calcutta only a few months before his death (I couldn’t figure out what propelled this return). Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar walked to his pyre as a lone, tragic and silent man.
His “invincible manliness and indelible humanity” [RN Tagore] defeated his diminutive physical stature. A humanist at one hand, a cerebral fighter (for a cause) on the other – he had “the wisdom and genius of an ancient sage, the energy of an Englishman and the heart of a Bengali mother” [MM Dutt]. Why he lagged Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda or Subhas Chandra Bose in ranking as a somebody – I can’t say. Given a minute and a half, I would construct a god with his innate qualities.