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Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar ( Ishshor Chôndro Biddashagor) (1820-1891), born Ishwar Chandra Bandopadhyaya ( , Ishshor Chôndro Bôndopaddhae), was a Bengali polymath and a key figure of the Bengal Renaissance.

Vidyasagar was a philosopher, academic, educator, writer, translator, printer, publisher, entrepreneur, reformer, and philanthropist. His efforts to simplify and modernize Bangla prose were significant. He also rationalized and simplified the Bengali alphabet and type, which had remained unchanged since Charles Wilkins and Panchanan Karmakar had cut the first wooden Bangla type fonts in 1780.

He received the title 'Vidyasagar' (Ocean of learning or Ocean of knowledge) from the Sanskrit College (whence he graduated), due to his excellent performance in studies. In Sanskrit, 'Vidya' means knowledge or learning and 'Sagar' means ocean or sea. This title was mainly given for his vast knowledge in all subjects which was compared to the vastness of the ocean.

Teaching career

In 1841, Vidyasagar took the job of a Sanskrit pandit (professor) at Fort William College in Kolkatamarker (Calcuttamarker). In 1846, he joined the Sanskrit College as Assistant Secretary. A year later, he and a friend of his, Madan Mohan Tarkalankar, set up the Sanskrit Press and Depository, a print shop and a bookstore.

While Vidyasagar was working at the Sanskrit College, some serious differences arose between him and Rasamoy Dutta who was then the Secretary of the College, and so he resigned in 1849. One of the issues was that while Rasamoy Dutta wanted the College to remain a Brahmin preserve, Vidyasagar wanted it to be opened to students from all castes.

Later, Vidyasagar rejoined the College, and introduced many far-reaching changes to the College's syllabus.

Vidyasagar was one of the first persons 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 like Copernicus, Newton, and Herschel. He sought to inculcate a spirit of scientific inquiry into young Bengalis. A staunch anti-Berkeley, he emphasized the importance of studying European Empiricist philosophy (of Francis Bacon) and the inductive logic of John Stuart Mill.

In the face of opposition from the Hindu establishment, Vidyasagar vigorously promoted the idea that regardless of their caste, both men and women should receive the best education.

Reform Concerning Widow Remarriages

Vidyasagar championed the uplift of the status of women in India, particularly in his native Bengalmarker. Unlike some other reformers who sought to set up alternative societies or systems, he sought, however, to transform orthodox Hindu society from within.

With valuable moral support from people like Akshay Kumar Dutta, Vidyasagar introduced the practice of widow remarriages to mainstream Hindu society. In earlier times, remarriages of widows would occur sporadically only among progressive members of the Brahmo Samāj. The prevailing deplorable 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 house. 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 subsequently 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. 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 demi-monde. In 1853 it was estimated that Calcutta had a population of 12,718 prostitutes and public women.

Vidyasagar took the initiative in proposing and pushing through the Widow Remarriage Act XV of 1856 in India.

Alphabet reform and Vidyasagar's other contributions

Vidyasagar reconstructed the Bengali alphabet and reformed Bengali typography into an alphabet (actually abugida) of twelve vowels and forty consonants.

Vidyasagar contributed significantly to Bengali and Sanskrit literature.

Rectitude and courage were the hallmarks of Vidyasagar's character, and he was certainly ahead of his time.

In the final years of life, he chose to spend his days among the Santhals, an old tribe in India.

Shortly after Vidyasagar's death, Rabindranāth Tāgore reverently wrote about him: "One wonders how God, in the process of producing forty million Bengalis, produced a man!"

Vidyasagar Setu (commonly known as the Second Hooghly Bridge), is a bridge over the Hooghly River in West Bengal, India. It links the city of Howrah to its twin city of Kolkata. The bridge is named after Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar.

A fair named Vidyasagar Mela ( Biddashagor Mêla), which is dedicated to spreading education and increasing social awareness, has been held annually in West Bengal since 1994. Since 2001, it has been held simultaneously in Kolkata and Birsingha.

References

  1. Nikhil Sarkar [Sripantho], Bat tala, (Calcutta: Ananda, 1977) p. 66. (This text is in Bengali and is, unfortunately, yet to be translated.)


Further reading

  • Benoy Ghosh, Vidyasagar O Bangali Samaj, Orient Longman, Kolkata
  • Indramitra, Karunasagar Vidyasagar, Ananda Publishers, Kolkata ISBN 81-7215-040-7
  • Asok Sen, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and his Elusive Milestones, Riddhi, Kolkata.
  • Gopal Haldar, Vidyasagar: A Reassessment, People's Publishing House, New Delhi


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