Born On: September 26, 1820
Born In: Midnapore, West Bengal, India
Died On: July 29, 1891
Occupation: Reformist, Writer, Academic, Entrepreneur
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the name that the world identifies with the rise of the state of Bengal in India, was, undoubtedly, one of the most learned men that the world has ever witnessed. It was with his vast store of knowledge that Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar brought about a revolution in Bengal at a time when the state was completely in a dilapidated condition. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was indeed one of the most important members in the team of reformists, who introduced the concept of Renaissance in Bengal. While his compassion was reflected in the support that he provided to the women in the Bengali society, his education found place in Bengali language and literature. Though known by his birth name of Ishwar Chandra Bandopadhyaya, it was not long before he was felicitated with the title 'Vidyasagar', which translates to 'ocean of knowledge' in English. Ishwar Chandra can best be described as a polymath (a person who is well versed in a variety of subjects) of the 19th century Bengal society.
Ishwar Chandra Bandopadhyaya was born on the September 26, 1820 at Birsingha village in the Midnapore district of Bengal. His father was a very poor man and therefore, this aspect also got reflected in the educational life of Ishwar Chandra. Thakurdas Bandopadhyaya tried his best to educate his son at a local village school but soon realized that Ishwar Chandra deserved much more when the 8 years old child began pronouncing the English numbers by identifying a missing milestone, in spite of the fact that he was not even taught the English digits at the village school. There are stories which say that Ishwar Chandra Bandopadhyaya amassed his knowledge reading through books sitting under the street lamps during the night as his parents were too poor to afford a gas lamp in their home.
Needless to say, Ishwar Chandra passed his elementary years at school with brilliant marks, after which his father took him to Calcutta, where Ishwar Chandra continued to perform with elan, earning scholarships after scholarships to suffice the cost of his education. He also took to teaching during his student years to earn the extra amount of money that would be necessary to fend for himself and his family. By 1839, when he was only 19 years of age, Ishwar Chandra had successfully completed his law studies and it was two years later in the year 1841 that he withdrew from his part time position at the Jorasanko College to enroll as a permanent teacher of Sanskrit at the Fort William College. Ishwar Chandra was selected as the head of the Sanskrit department here. During those times, a professor was known as pundit. He had also received the title of Vidyasagar from his alma mater Calcutta Sanskrit College by this time, thus his name Pt. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar.
Career In Education
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar remained a Sanskrit pundit at the Fort William College for a period of five years, receiving as much accolades as a teacher as he had received as a student. After five years, in 1846, Ishwar Chandra joined the Calcutta Sanskrit College, from where he had completed his graduation, as its Assistant Secretary. However, his tenure in the said position was not very pleasant, as it was fraught with controversies and altercations. Though the entire team of the Calcutta Sanskrit College loved and respected him, they did not approve of many reforms that Ishwar Chandra introduced in the functioning of the college. The educational reforms suggested by Ishwar Chandra put him at loggerheads with the Sanskrit College secretary Rasomay Dutta.
The chief point of conflict was the fact Vidyasagar wanted the college doors open to students of all castes, whereas Rasomay Dutta preferred only Brahmin students inside the college campus. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar stood for education irrespective of caste and sex. The result was that Ishwar Chandra quit his position of the Assistant Secretary after a period of three years, choosing instead to return to teaching Sanskrit in 1849. Ishwar Chandra eventually progressed to become the principal of the Calcutta Sanskrit College in 1851, a position which he again quit due to his deteriorating relationship with Rasomay Dutta. It is said that the objection put on his works by Rasomay Dutta hurt Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar so much that he left the Calcutta Sanskrit College to go back to the Fort William College, this time as the head clerk of the institution.
Though the name of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar is synonymous with the development and progress of Bengal, it is not only this state that he worked for. Ishwar Chandra was a great thinker who took steps to improve the education system all over India. He was chiefly concerned with the education of girls and women in the society, as it was his idea that only learning could help to make them independent and instill confidence in them in a society that was predominantly male dominated. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar set up schools for girls in Bombay at a time when only a handful of lucky girls were allowed the luxury of schooling that too at home. Most homes across India were of the opinion that schools were not the right place for girls, who are only meant to stay indoors and complete household chores.
It was the mastermind of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar which brought other 19th century reformists like Raja Ram Mohan Roy together for the cause of female education in India. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar's most notable contribution to the field of education is probably the reconstruction of the Bengali alphabet dividing the letters into 12 vowels and forty consonants. Much of the modern Bengali and Sanskrit typography used today is a result of the research conducted by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. During his lifetime, he contributed greatly to Bengali and Sanskrit literature.
As A Philanthropist
Among his several occupations, philanthropy was definitely one of them. It is said that Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was very stern and astute by nature. But there was also a soft streak in him which manifested itself whenever Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar encountered a poor and needy person. Having spent his childhood years in abject poverty, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar had a deep understanding of what it was like to spend time in footpaths without a roof above and without proper clothes and food. His philanthropy included cooking payasam, a special type of Bengali sweet, for beggars on the street even when he was earning a paltry scholarship and had to share the money for the well being of his family and himself.
Later when Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar started earning a permanent amount as salary from his teaching at the Fort William and Sanskrit Colleges, he distributed his money not only among his family members, but also to the servants serving his family, the needy families residing in his village Birsingha and towards the school and medical facilities available back at home. However, it was not only money that was a sign of his philanthropic heart. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar made it a point to provide free medical facilities to the ailing people on the streets. Cholera was one of the most rampant diseases during that time. The philanthropist in him extended a helping hand to all patients. Vidyasagar also made education a compulsory and free affair opening school and college doors for all.
As a Reformist
As mentioned earlier, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar sought to change the orthodox Hindu society. He worked for the upliftment of the status of women. Vidyasagar was of the opinion that men and women should enjoy equal opportunities in every field. The 19th century Bengal society did not encourage girl education and neither did it support widow remarriage. After championing the cause for the education of girls, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar worked towards legalizing a second marriage for young widows. Apart from this, he also voiced against the inhumane torture that women who lost their husbands were subject to in the name of rituals. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar fought hard along with other reformists like Akshay Kumar Dutta to start the practice of widow remarriage in Bengal. It was he who proposed the Widow Remarriage Act XV in the year 1856.
Death & Legacy
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar passed away on July 29. 1891. His loss was deeply mourned by all the great stalwarts in 19th century Bengal. Till today, one cannot forget the contribution made by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar towards the intellectual and social upliftment of the Bengal society, making him one of the most important proponents of the Bengal Renaissance. Vidyasagar's book on Bengali alphabets, "Barnoporichoy" remains a school beginner's compulsory syllabus till date. The great man's name has been immortalized with the construction of the Vidyasagar Setu, a bridge which connects the cities of Kolkata and Howrah. Kolkata and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar's native village Birsingha also host the annual Vidyasagar Mela to pay tribute to the educationist and reformist by spreading his words through social and academic causes.
1820: Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar is born on September 26.
1839: Cleared his law examination.
1841: Became the head of the Sanskrit department in Fort William College.
1846: Joined Calcutta Sanskrit College as Assistant Secretary.
1849: Became a Sanskrit professor at Sanskrit College.
1851: Became principal of Sanskrit College.
1856: Proposed the Widow Remarriage Act XV.
1891: Breathed his last on July 29.