Shaping Spaces for Multiple Equalities: Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar,
the Indian Renaissance Man
Shanker Ashish Dutt & Zaara Urouj
Biographical and historical studies have portrayed Ishwarchandra Bandopadhyay as a pre-eminent figure in the Bengal Renaissance. While the context of his education, professional life and socio-educational activism were located in Bengal, the latent inequalities that he challenged were pan-Indian. His passionate campaign for the Hindu Widow Remarriage despite belligerent opposition led to Lord Dalhousie finalising the bill that led to the legislation of the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act in 1856. Hence, he is being recast as an Indian Renaissance Man as his ideas and campaigns impacted the entire subcontinent, then a part of the Empire.
Vidyasagar’s pluralism melded the richness of the Indian knowledge system with the empiricism of the West and therefore he did not uncritically vilify English influences as was a common practice among the orthodox bhadraloks in 19th Century Bengal. Enumerating the positive off-shores influences modified with irony that occasionally carried a considerable weight of social satire, he had stated at a social gathering: “On the whole, I feel that we have received three good things from the English. The literature of Shakespeare, Milton, Bacon, Sir Walter Scott and others that we have got from them – do not under-estimate their value. Second gain – ice. In the searing heat of summer, put one piece of ice in a tumbler of water, and your relief is immense. And the third is sliced bread.... You laugh at what I say? But tell me, did we have anything comparable to sliced bread in our country before? Soak a slice of bread in a bowl of milk and have it, and you will be full, and you will also not fall ill. The third advantage cleverly satirises orthodoxy as bread was largely produced in bakeries run by Christians and Muslims and hence was a prohibited item in Hindu orthodox households. (Chaudhuri, The Telegraph Online 12th July 2020)
Born in an orthodox Hindu Brahmin family, where hierarchy was the social norm, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar built spaces for multiple equalities. With or without him, the Bengal Renaissance would have certainly taken place but his credibility lies in the fact that he dared to transform Hindu society from within and brought out remarkable changes in the thought process of the people not by denying the al-ready existing beliefs but by interpreting them in a new manner. Neither poverty nor the erroneous beliefs of Indian Shastras could stop him from becoming the man he was destined to be: a social reformer and an educationist of rare distinction. An epitome of egalitarian com-passion, modesty and simplicity, he was a man grounded to the earth but blessed with a mind that was open to the pursuit of truth and the stark social realities. At a very early stage in his life, he realised his responsibility towards society and he dedicated his entire life to uplift the disadvantaged communities and helped enable women’s agency at a time when patriarchy was deepening its roots.
Vidyasagar carried forward and indigenised the social and educational reforms begun by The Serampore Quartet comprising William Carey, Joshua Marshman, William Ward and Hannah Marshman who believed in ecumenical pragmatism (Daniel 171), an egalitarian vision and edu-cation as an instrument of equality and justice. They founded schools for the girls in order to impart western education to them (Chatterjee 121). These schools were the first of its kind in Calcutta and the efforts of the Serampore Quartet was instrumental in their development. William Carey prepared books like A Grammar of the Bengalee Language, Iitihaasmala, Kathopokothon, A Dictionary of Bengali Language and the translations of the Bible in Bengali and several other Indian vernaculars as a part of the curriculum. They adopted the Serampore system of native education, encouraging knowledge in history, science, geography and mathematics apart from the general 3 R’s i.e. reading, writing and arithmetic – a blend of the traditional and modern, giving special importance to orthography and grammar of Bengali and English languages.
Vidyasagar was influenced by the outlook and liberal thoughts of Ramkrishna Paramhansa (Ghosh 44). His personality was forged with utmost dedication to his education and later his profession, vast knowledge in eastern and western disciplines, devotion to his parents, morality, mercifulness, kindness, empathy, cooperation, unconservative attitude, a heart filled with regret to the then situation of women and a vision to give Indian educational system a modern perspective. He is well known for his educational and social reforms throughout the world paving the way for introducing the modern education system in India. His linguistic, educational and social activities, which he was committed to from his early life till his death, are remembered by Indians from that time to the present day.
In 1839, he graduated in law examination conducted by the Hindu Law Committee. His education at Sanskrit College saw him amassing considerable knowledge and mastery in a number of shastras or disciplines – kabya (poetry), alonkar (rhetoric), Vedanta (vedic litera-ture and anthology), smriti (philosophy of law), nyaya (logic, science and jurisprudence), and jyotish (astronomy) (Bani, Alam 15). The title of ‘Vidyasagar’, meaning the ‘ocean of knowledge’, was conferred upon him by Michael Madhusudhan Dutt, who later with great affection addressed him as Vid. It is said that he derived strength from the knowledge and used it as a powerful instrument to eradicate the evils prevailing in the society namely child marriage, gender discrimination and other social taboos.
Having worked in the Education Department and having observed the education system very closely, he decided on radical educational reforms. He favoured English and Bengali as mediums of learning alongside Sanskrit and wanted to offer students a wider range of subjects and thus broaden their horizons, to inculcate critical and lateral thinking in examining European and Indian knowledge and practices side by side so they could apply their own judgement in discovering the truth for themselves. He was influenced by Western thoughts and was indeed one of the modern thinkers of his time along with Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Keshab Chandra Sen and others. In addition to his responsibilities as the Principal of Sanskrit College, he travelled around Bengal in the capacity of Inspector of Schools witnessing the pervading darkness, stark realities and superstitions in which people of Bengal lived in the absence of education. He realised that it is only Education that can help in liberation and emancipation of people from the prevailing injustices and inequalities in the society. He opened twenty schools in just 60 days followed by thirty schools exclusively for girls’ education. He also established a normal institution for making competent teachers for these schools. He opened thirty-five schools for girls between 1857 and 1858. The significance is under-pinned by the realisation of the Bengali educated class of “the importance of female education for bringing social reformation and reformers like Roy, Vidyasagar and Radha Kant Deb endorsed education for girls. This was generally linked to caste taboo and superstitions among the Bengalis about sending girls to school. But now the new orientation toward Western ideas and missionaries resulted in the development of native female schools.” (Dutta 32) One of his major contributions was the establishment of Calcutta Metropolitan Institution for higher education which is now known as “Vidyasagar College.” He also was directly involved in the establishment of “Calcutta Female School” with the help of Drinkwater Bethune in 1849. Now it is called “Bethune School.” He has also made his valuable contribution in education through his writings. He wrote many text books, translated books, biographical books and was a continuous writer contributing to different magazines.
He commenced the process of education with his first book of alphabet (Part I and Part II) called Barna Porichoy first published in 1855 which laid the foundation of Bengali prose. Vidyasagar was a source of inspiration for Bengali writers such as Tekchand Thakur, Pyarichand Mitra and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. Indeed, Tagore revered him as 'the father of modern Bengali prose'. He also translated a number of Sanskrit works to Bengali and wrote biographical notes on numerous noteworthy personalities in the history of the world so the young generation could be inspired. His notable literary contributions include Banglaar Itihaas (1848), Jivancharita (1849), Shakuntala (1854), Mahabharata (1860), Seetar Vanavas (1860), Bhrantivilaas (1869), Oti Alpa Hoilo (1873), Aabaar Oti Alpa Hoilo (1873), Brajavilaas (1884) and Ratnopariksha (1886). (http:// bengalonline. sitemarvel.com/vidyasagar.html)
Though Vidyasagar was not financially very sound, he was philanthropic from his student life. He would feed the poor and needy and buy medicines for the sick from the money received through scholar-ships and even borrowed money from others for his altruism. He opened the doors of Sanskrit College to lower caste students that was previously exclusive to only the Brahmins; he nursed sick cholera patients, went to the crematorium to bury unclaimed dead bodies, dined with the untouchables and walked miles in darkness to take urgent messages to people who would benefit from them. This was the beginning of his life as a social reformer. He was deeply affected by the inequalities in the society such as polygamy, ban on widows from remarrying, child marriage, gender inequalities, keeping them away from the light of education and depriving them from property rights. When he tried to call for dialogue to discuss social matters, he was rebuked and his efforts were rejected in the name of dictates of Hindu Shastras. He received threats of physical violence and death from the orthodox and narrow-minded priests but he stood fearless and continued his work with determination and diligence. Conducting extensive research into Hindu scriptures and Puranas he tried to explain that there was nothing evil in a widow’s remarriage and polygamy which was in practice unacceptable as it was an evil. He published two separate volumes on remarriage of widows and another two volumes on polygamy citing from the scriptures and explaining the validity of his arguments (https://biographypoint.comThese include Bidhobabivah (whether widows should remarry) the first exposure (1855), Bidhobabivah – the Second Book (1855), Bahubivah – (whether polygamy should be banned) the first exposure (1871), Bahubivah – the Second Book (1873) and Balyabivah (flaws of child marriage). To prove that his compassion for widows was not empty rhetoric as some might have assumed, he married his own son off to a widow. He compiled a list of 'distinguished' polygamous Calcuttans and another for surrounding districts. It is an infernal statistic that a considerable number of men on those lists married up to 80 times, often under-age girls, and yet were unable to control their boundless thirst for lust. (http://www.deshforum.com/showthread.php?tid=949)
In earlier times, widow remarriages would occur sporadically only among progressive members of the Brahmo Samāj. The prevalent 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 homes. 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 sub-sequently 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. These hapless widows were prohibited (as spiritual sanc-tion) to abstain from consuming meat, fish, onion and garlic. Every day, they had to rise before dawn to conduct their diurnal religious rituals, bathe in icy cold water and wrap a clean white sari around their wet bodies without drying themselves, and pick fresh flowers with dew-drops, to offer prayers to the Gods. By custom, they were the last ones to eat in the household, or went without food observing various religious fasts. They had to dress in plain white cotton saris and re-main with their heads tonsured for the rest of their lives to render them unattractive to other men. (http://swpust2015.blogspot.com/2016/06/ ishwar-chandra-vidyasagar-as-social.html) Some widows would even be evicted from their homes or sent to religious places like Varanasi or Vrindavan, supposedly to pray and purify themselves, but in reality, they frequently ended up as prostitutes, rape victims and unsupported mothers. Unable to tolerate the ill treatment, many of these girls would run away and turn to prostitution to support themselves. 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 and into the demimonde. In 1853, it was estimated that Calcutta had a population of 12,718 prostitutes. (http://www.deshforum.com/showthread.php?tid=949
Vidyasagar took the initiative in proposing and pushing through the Widow Remarriage Act XV of 1856. He fought with the conservative society in the 19th century and influenced the Government to enact the Widow Remarriage Act which was legalized on 26th July, 1856. He also established the Hindu Family Annuity Fund to help widows who could not remarry; he took the initiative to finance many such widow re-marriage weddings, often getting into debts himself. To stop poly-gamy among the Kulin Brahmins and child marriage, the Civil Marriage Act was passed in 1872. His contribution in the uplift of the women by eradicating blind superstitions and tortures in the name of rituals will be always in the heart of the women. (Ghosh 46)
Vidyasagar was one of the earliest in India to realize that modern science was the key to India's future. He translated into Bengali the English biographies of some outstanding scientists such as Copernicus, Newton, and Herschel and sought to inculcate a spirit of scientific inquiry into young Bengalis. A staunch anti-Berkeleyan, he emphasized the importance of studying European Empiricist philo-sophy (of Francis Bacon) and the inductive logic of John Stuart Mill. He said, “Education does not only mean learning, reading, writing, and arithmetic, it should provide a comprehensive knowledge.” (Alam 14)
Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar managed to continue the social reformation movement that was started by Raja Ram Mohan Roy by picking it up from where he left. A staunch believer of humanity, he brought revolution in India especially in the uplift of the women and education system of Bengal. While Raja Ram Mohan Roy represented the new aspirations and the earnest work of the first generation of his country-men in the nineteenth century, Pandit Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar reflected their arduous endeavours in the second (Mitra I). The influx of western knowledge, art and culture as well as advanced moral values enriched the mental horizon of Bengal liberal intelligentsia. Playing a pioneering role in expanding modern education and social mobilisation during the nineteenth century Bengal that spread to the other parts of India, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar not merely confined himself to the role of a sermonizer towards spreading education within the superstitious notions engrossed in the Hindu community through their native language, but also engaged himself in the practical field of social changes that led to the beginning of the modern India. (Alam 12) He believed that there is no other religion and goodness than another person’s welfare.
In the book Makers of Indian Literature, Sarkar says that Ramendra-sundar Trivedi looked upon Vidyasagar as a giant of a man and wrote: “There exist instruments of a kind called microscopes that make small things look big. Physics has indicated [conversely] a big thing may be made to look small, but such a device is hardly ever used…. The people around us, who usually pass as big, suddenly get dwarfed if an account of Vidyasagar’s life is placed by the side of any of them.” (Sarkar 39)
In 1857, the Revolt against the East India Company was to radically alter the administrative and cultural relations between the coloniser and the colonised subject. With organic and structural changes in colonial policies of reform, the bhadralok began to protect and promote their traditional customs. The 38-year-old Vidyasagar left government ser-vice a year later citing exhaustion and increasing disappointment with British policy. Yet he remained active until his death, aiding malaria patients, caring for widows and orphans, and pursuing his work as an author and reformer. Plagued by poor health and disappointment, he retreated in 1873 to Karmatanr in western Bengal, where he built a home and provided homeopathic care to the tribal population. (Hatcher Instagram@Harvard Magazine May June 2014) An epitaph penned by Tagore, etched in marble below a modest bust of Vidyasagar at Karmatanr, reads: “The chief glories of [his] character were neither his compassion nor his learning, but his invincible manliness and imperishable humanity.”
Celebrating historical figures does not mean that we deify them, inviting persons of importance, usually those from the political class, to put marigold garlands on designated dates on their bust to the aplause of onlookers and a photo opportunity for a self-seeking media. It means to walk the talk; to emulate the words and deeds of nobility; to cultivate egalitarian compassion toward the anonymous ‘other’; to resist the human hubris that sanctions the repetitive wrongs of history and to uphold dignity, justice and equality. In emulating Vidyasagar, we can do our bit to express our humanity.
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· Dr. Shanker Ashish Dutt, former Professor & Head, Department of English, Patna University, Patna, has been Chairman, Bihar Sangeet Natak Akademi. Writer and editor, his publications are in areas of Cultural Studies and Libera-tion literature. He has been a U.G.C. British Council and American Centre resource person for English Studies and has lectured and chaired seminars at various eminent institutions. He has also distinguished himself as a theatre actor and director.
· Zaara Urouj is Ph.D. Research Scholar in the Department of English at Patna University, Patna.
Re-Markings Vol. 20 No.1 March 2021. pp. 44-51.
Copyright Nibir K. Ghosh 2021.
· Saurabh Agarwal, a Management graduate, is an Agra-based entrepreneur and freelance writer.
Re-Markings Vol. 20 No.1 March 2021. pp. 119-124
Copyright Nibir K. Ghosh 2021.