Social and Religious Reform movements in Bengal and Other Areas: Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar
- Ishwar Chandra is considered as one of the pillars of Bengal renaissance. Born on 26 September 1820 in the Paschim Midnapore District of West Bengal to impoverished Brahmin parents, he managed to continue the reforms movement that was started by Raja Rammohan Roy. He was a far-sighted social reformer, philosopher, philanthropist, and educationalist with a modern vision.
- During the period from 1829 to 1841, Ishwar Chandra studied Vedanta, Vyakaran, Literature, Rhetoric’s, Smriti and Ethics in Sanskrit College. And in 1839 the title ‘Vidyasagar’ was conferred on him for his unusual talent.
- In 1841, at the age of twenty one years, Ishwar Chandra joined the Fort William College as a head of the Sanskrit department.
- After five years, in 1946, Vidyasagar left Fort William College and join the Sanskrit College as ‘Assistant Secretary’. In the first year of service, Ishwar Chandra recommended a number of changes to the existing education system. This report resulted into a serious altercation between Ishwar Chandra and College Secretary Rasomoy Dutta. Following this, Vidyasagar resigned from Sanskrit College and rejoined Fort William College.
- He authored several books such as Bornoporichoy, Betal Panchabinsati, Upakramanika, kotha mala, Banglar Itihas, Sitar Bonobas, etc. His first books ‘Betal Panchabingsati’ saw the light of the day in 1847. In 1851 Vidyasagar became a professor and later on the Principal of the Sanskrit College.
- He brought a revolution in the education system of Bengal. In his book, “Barno-Porichoy” (Introduction to the letter), Vidyasagar refined the Bengali language and made it accessible to the common strata of the society. Vidyasagar invented Bengali prose through translation as well as own writings. Sakuntala is a facile prose translation of Kalidas.
- Poet Michael Madhusudan Dutta while writing about Ishwar Chandra said: “The genius and wisdom of an ancient sage, the energy of an Englishman and the heart of a Bengali mother“.
- Iswar Chandra firmly believed that the regeneration of India was possible only through education. In matters of education Iswar Chandra aimed at extending the benefits of learning to common people. He stressed upon instruction through vernacular language. He also put emphasis on writing text books in vernacular language.
- Further, in order to liberate the minds of young learners from ‘unsophisticated scholarship’ Iswar Chandra urged upon them the study of Western science and philosophy.
- He also opened the doors of the colleges and other educational institutions to lower caste students, which was earlier reserved only for the Brahmins. For his immense generosity and kind-heartedness, people started addressing him as “Daya Sagar” (ocean of kindness).
- Having spent his early life in village Iswar Chandra could realize the sorrowful condition of the womenfolk. He rightly believed that the emancipation of women was not possible as long as they remained ignorant. Iswar Chandra, therefore, took upon himself the task of promoting the cause of female education.
- Noticing the British Government’s indifference towards female education Iswar Chandra himself started a few model schools for girls.
- He also collaborated with Drinkwater Bethune in establishing the Hindu Female School (at present known as Bethune School and College) in 1849.
- Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar initiated the concept of widow remarriage and raised concern for the abolition of child-marriage and polygamy. He demonstrated that the system of polygamy without restriction was not sanctioned by the ancient Hindu Shastras.
- Vidyasagar championed the uplift of the status of women with a lifelong crusade against polygamy and a campaign for widow-remarriage. He sought, however, to transform orthodox Hindu society from within. With support from people like Akshay Kumar Dutta, Vidyasagar introduced the practice of widow remarriages to mainstream Hindu society. He took the initiative in proposing and pushing The Hindu Widow Remarriage Act XV of 1856 in India during Governor-General Lord Canning.
- The Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act of 1856, enacted in response to the campaign of Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, legalized the remarriage of Hindu widows in all jurisdictions of India under East India Company rule. It provided legal safeguards against loss of certain forms of inheritance for a remarrying Hindu widow, though, under the Act, the widow forsook any inheritance due her from her deceased husband. Especially targeted in the act were Hindu child widows whose husbands had died before consummation of marriage.
- Vidyasagar, however, was not successful in getting child-marriage legally prohibited.
- Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar passed away on 29 July, 1891 at the age of 70 years. After his death Rabindranath Tagore said, “One wonders how God, in the process of producing forty million Bengalis, produced a man!“