Why Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar still remains relevant in Bengal

Born in 1820 in Midnapur as Iswar Chandra Bandopadhyay, he received the title Vidyasagar for his outstanding academic performance when he graduated from Sanskrit College. (Wikimedia Commons)

NEW DELHI: Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, whose bust was vandalized on Tuesday in Kolkata during a clash between Trinamool Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party cadres, is literally the first stop to literacy for Bengalis.

Vidyasagar’s Barna Parichay (an introduction to the Bengali alphabet) is still the first book a Bengali child is handed more than 160 years after it was written. The grammarist, polymath, scholar, educationist, reformer and doyen of the Bengal Renaissance has been a ready reference for millions of Bengalis to not only encourage their children to study but also to strive for excellence in the face of adversity.

Every child is told the story of how Vidyasagar, born into a poor family, studied by street light because there was no gas lamp at home.

Born in 1820 in Midnapur as Iswar Chandra Bandopadhyay, he received the title Vidyasagar (ocean of knowledge) for his outstanding academic performance when he graduated from Sanskrit College.

A Sanskrit scholar, Vidyasagar also completed a law degree conducted by the Hindu Law Committee, before joining Fort William College as the head of the Sanskrit department in 1841. Subsequently, in 1846, he joined the Sanskrit College (his alma mater) as principal, and went against convention to admit students from lower castes to study Sanskrit.

Vidyasagar’s contribution to elementary through tertiary education in the state is unparalleled. He also took on conservative power centres of the Hindu society to force through reforms that would allow widow remarriage, women’s education and the rights of lower caste Hindus to study Sanskrit. Considered a social reformer on a par with Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Vidyasagar also challenged the widespread practice of child marriage.

“Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s contribution to literature is immense. His contribution to the alphabet, translation of several Sanskrit books, including Kalidas’s Shankuntala, has helped Bengali literature,” said Sanat Kumar Naskar, a professor at University of Calcutta.

Vidyasagar wrote two volumes on the mistreatment of widows, which set the tone for major social reform in the state. “He was an educationist, a reformer and a pundit of grammar. As a promoter of girls’ education, he established around 35 schools,” said Naskar. “He did not belive in god and opposed Hindu orthodoxy. Yet, he did a lot for people.”

A proponent of “do your work yourself”, Vidyasagar is considered a legend ahead of his times—someone who could challenge the staunch Hindu patriarchy to bring in modern reforms.

Vidyasagar spent the last 18 years of his life living among Santhal tribals in present day Jharkhand, where he started what is possibly India’s first school for Santhal girls.

Vidyasagar died in 1891 at the age of 70.

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