A Renaissance polymath
On Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s 200th birth anniversary, Sandip Banerjee writes about the man who combined education with social order
Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar stands large in the realm of the Renaissance that captivated the Indian social order of the early 19th century. The Renaissance that saw its advent with the emergence of another illustrious Bengali, namely, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, gained momentum with Vidyasagar. Vidyasagar was perhaps the first social reformist who combined education with social order. Vidyasagar had many roles to play; educationist, author, social reformer and a crusader for women rights. Along with all these, Vidyasagar was a liberal humanist, whose thoughts might have had influences of the West. In an era of moral and intellectual darkness, he kindled the flames of humanism that embodied the Indian spirit.
Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar had a wonderful insight into the psycho-social developments in the Indian society of the mid-19th century India. He found his country tormented politically by the British rule which not only captured the political sovereignty of the mass but was also marching towards tearing the moral fabric of society. The problems of illiteracy, superstitious beliefs and the debilitating situation of the women were like bleeding ulcers in the Indian society. The introduction of English education, as laid down by Lord Macaulay, primarily intended to create a European mind within an Indian body. Vidyasagar was prompt to assess the situation and readily framed his mind to take up the cudgel against the problems of literacy, and social atrocities practised in the name of Hindu religion.
As a social reformist, Vidyasagar identified education as the main issue for the socio-intellectual crisis. He could readily fathom the depth of the social crisis and considered education to be the panacea for all the social amiss going on during his time. In 1854, he wrote a memorandum to the Council of Education, arguing for a vernacular medium of education for reaching masses. By doing so, he was merely continuing the Anglicist versus Orientalist debate of the 1840s. The year 1854 saw Wood's Despatch that incorporated Vidyasagar's agenda in the recommendation of a three-tier system with primary education for masses. His efforts to open up education for non-Brahmin students in Sanskrit College justifies his propensity to magnify the scope for education. His endeavour to educate masses in the vernacular opened up the avenue for the development of colloquial Bengali prose. His works like 'Barna Parichay' attempted to simplify the Bengali language and make it more widespread. His other literary works in the Bengali language provided the mass with a taste of literature hitherto unknown.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was an amalgam of Eastern and Western ideas. He was in favour of western education and as a student of Sanskrit college, had even signed a petition for inclusion of English education in the curriculum. He was versed in the works of authors like Shakespeare, Scott and Milton. The writings of Herbert Spenser and John Stuart Mill were in his cognizance. But above all this, he was deeply rooted in Indian learning and culture. The contemporary psycho-political developments in Europe might have impressed him but Vidyasagar's humanism and his reforming zeal, particularly his compassion for the suffering humanity were innate. In this way, he emerged as a great philanthropist, who took notes from Western civilisation to redress the problems of his own society. The great poet and Vidyasagar's personal friend, Michael Madhusudhan Dutta pays an appropriate tribute in saying that Vidyasagar had "the genius and wisdom of an ancient Indian sage, the energy of an Englishman and the heart of a Bengali mother".
As a social reformist, Vidyasagar used his sound scholasticism when he approached widow marriage. His advocacy for the act of widow remarriage was primarily based on extracts from Parasara Samhita and reasoned out his arguments by publishing pamphlets in 1855. His method and application for social awareness sang in tune with the Company administrators who were willing to reform the Indian society in a manner of utilitarian liberalism. Despite serious resistance from the orthodox Bengali band led by none else than Radhakanta Deb and even after a counter-petition consisting of 30,000 signatories, the Widow Remarriage Act was passed successfully in 1856. Vidyasagar also raised his voice against the 'Kulin' practice but did not score success. Somehow dejected with the hypocrisy of urban people, Vidyasagar spent the last 18 years of his life amongst tribals, at a place called Karmatand (now located in Jharkhand), where he uplifted the social structure of that place by opening up formal schools for tribal girls and adult-education centre for tribal men.
Vidyasagar did not have a scope like John Stuart Mill whose liberalism had the legacy of various socio-intellectual movements in Europe. On the contrary, he had to deal with a society where the social determinants were the Brahmins and the wealthy aristocrats. Hence, Vidyasagar's oriental liberalism had to persuade the priestly class. His task was even more difficult for he was trying to engineer reforms for the colonised natives by the help of the colonial master. Historians like Sumit Sarkar have found Vidyasagar displaying western influence in his philosophy and method of social reforms. On one hand, Vidyasagar champions the cause of women and on the other hand, he uses the medium of public relations to vindicate his argument. Such was his magnanimity that people of various walks of life came to him in distress, with full faith and devotion. He grew up to be a social institution during his lifetime only.
It is undeniable that Vidyasagar transcended his time and society. His ideas manifested a thinker who not only felt for the depressed women class of his society but was equally active in bringing social justice to them. It would not be a wild stretch of the imagination to surmise that Vidyasagar was keen to improve conditions of female education because he could envisage education to be the means of economic freedom for the deprived lot of the women class. It is also noteworthy that Vidyasagar was not just eager to improve literacy among women; he wanted formal education for them and hence his unwavering support to John Drinkwater Bethune in the foundation of the Hindu Balika Vidyalaya in 1849. This was a milestone in the domain of women education as soon after, a number of girls schools were opened in various districts of Bengal. Vidyasagar also went on to establish a free Anglo-Sanskrit college in Birsimha, his native village. It was mostly due to his efforts that Metropolitan Institution, later named after him, developed as an institution for higher studies with exclusively Indian teaching staff.
It is indeed an insurmountable task to gauge the personality and achievements of this individual whose towery presence has been felt through ages and who stands inseparable from any exercise of Bengali language. Today, when we are ridden by the problems of moral degeneration, parochial social outlook and almost a kind of self-obliterative attitude towards our own culture and philosophy, luminaries like Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar appear like a lodestar in a society tossed in the tempest of conflicting and confusing disposition. He, perhaps, assumes more relevance today, in his birth bicentennial year. He is to be remembered not just for his empathy or catholicity but also for his honesty, integrity and iron-will; all the qualities that we lack so convincingly today. It is not without reason that Rabindranath Tagore said about Vidyasagar, "one wonders how God, in the process of producing forty million Bengalis produced a man".
(The author is Headmaster, Ariadaha Sree Vidyaniketan High School, Kolkata. The views expressed are strictly personal)