Skip to main content

Greatest of 19th century liberals to whom a Brahmin, a Sudra, a Muslim were all alike

By Rit Nanda*

“The reason for the special distinction that we find in Bengal is that many great men were born there during the last century. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was the greatest among them all. He was not an ocean of learning alone; he was an ocean of compassion, of generosity, as well as of many other virtues. He was a Hindu and a Brahmin too. But to him a Brahmin, a Sudra Hindu and a Muslim were all alike”. – Mahatma Gandhi in ‘Indian Opinion’, 1905
On September 26, 1820, this visionary was born in Birsingha village of present-day West Medinipur district in West Bengal. Two hundred years later, his legacy lives on, not just in his name, but in the things we take for granted today. His liberal, reformist and progressive ideology brought about in the face of conservative opposition and his struggles teach us to never quit in the fight for progress.
Many of the challenges he faced then are similar to the challenges we face today. He saw the need for a renaissance in our society, not to bow to conservative impulses of preserving status quo, and instead move forward in reform to make our country better and combat injustices.

Education, reform, rationalism

Vidyasagar was responsible for codification of the Bengali language with ‘Bornoporichoy’. It is read even today as the first book a person picks up to learn the Bengali script and language. Without him, much of the literature of Bengali, from Rabindranath Tagore to Satyajit Ray, to name just two, would have been impossible. But his contribution to education was not limited to just the Bengali language.
He moved away from religious education towards evidence based learning. He was the primary proponent who pushed for introduction of science, mathematics and social sciences in the school curriculum. He did not limit himself to just schooling for the children either and introduced adult learning centres, so that the entire citizenry could become enlightened.
He was also instrumental in bringing modern journalism and press to this country. He started his own press for printing books. He realised that to reach the masses, the press would be his weapon: it would disseminate information through the print media as well as act as his source of income which he needed for other social endeavours.
In journalism, he observed that Bengali news media was more interested in obscenities and foul language than actual objective political coverage, and to many present readers that might present a sense of déjà vu. Therefore, he conceptualised a weekly newspaper, which was published every Monday, aptly named ‘Somprakash’ which took clear and courageous political stances and criticised British colonial policy, the exploitation by indigo planters, landowners and industrialists to name a few.

Women’s empowerment

There are few people in India’s history, if any, who have done more for women empowerment than Vidyasagar. His most famous achievement in that regard was the legalisation of widow remarriage. He campaigned for it using extracts from ‘Parasara Samhita’ to show how it had been corrupted to stop widow remarriage and published his arguments in pamphlets in 1855.
His advocacy, against an opposition led by Radhakanta Deb (whose petition garnered 30,000 signatures – nearly quadruple that of Vidyasagar’s), led to passage of the act in 1856. His own son married an adolescent widow as the way of an example.
He, however, was less successful, in that moment, in passing an Act against ‘Kulin Pratha’ that allowed polygamy for Kulin Brahmins, with young women below the age of puberty often married off to dying husbands. But his advocacy then sparked the gradual wane of this tradition, which was formally codified later in law after Indian independence.He stood vehemently against child marriage as well.
He also advocated relentlessly for girls’ education and went great lengths to convince families to send their girls to school. He initiated the ‘Nari Siksha Bhandar’; a fund to enrol girls in schools. He designed curriculum for girls, including vocational training so that they could become self-reliant. On 7 May 1849,Vidyasagar, with support from Anglo-Indian lawyer John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune, established the first permanent girls’ school in India — Bethune School.

Uplifting deprived sections

A discussion about Vidyasagar as a social reformer cannot be complete without talking about his efforts to uplift the deprived sections of the society. He vehemently opposed preferential treatment based on caste and quit Sanskrit College, his alma-mater, as it refused to admit to people of castes other than Brahmins. He re-joined it later and fought against the hierarchy that still was not in-sync with his idea that men and women, irrespective of caste should have access to education.
He spent last 18 years of his life in a hamlet of Karmatar, a tribal area where he established a girls’ school and a night school for adults at his house, named ‘Nandan Kanan’. He advocated against child marriage and for widow remarriage amongst the tribal Santal people there and made uplifting them the ultimate mission of his life.
There are few in history who have done more for empowering women than Vidyasagar. His most famous achievement was legalising of widow remarriage
He was reported to have declared his preference for the company of ‘my uncivilised Santals to your sort of respectfully dressed men of Aryan descent’; and shortly before his death he spoke of the Santals dying around in hunger while he himself was being so well fed.
He also opened a community kitchen in his home village of Birsingha during the famine of 1867 and paid for it using his own income as he did for the Hindu Family Annuity Fund to help widows who could not remarry. He financed many such widow re-marriage weddings, often getting into debts himself.

In the face of conservatism

His entire life was a struggle to reform the society and advocate for those left behind: whether it be women, or deprived castes, or tribal folk or the general scourge of illiteracy on Indian society. He saw his main tool as education and wielded it against ignorance. Many people stood against him and were often the majority, such as the aforementioned Radhakanta Deb and the Dharmo Sabha, and even sought to blame him for the First Independence War of 1857.
The challenges today are also similar, even though the times may be different. Liberals are still in minority and are accused of hurting sentiments of religion and tradition in the name of progress. Those standing against liberalism are still in majority as they always have been and as they were during Vidyasagar’s time, but that did not make the liberalism of Vidyasagar wrong. Today, even conservatives will not accept ‘Kulin Pratha’ and accept the girls need to be educated and that widows need not be ostracised.
He did not succeed in his own time in convincing the majority, but he never failed; rather the society failed him. And that is what the liberals of today can learn from him too: it is not important to be in the majority, it is important to be right and rest assured that posterity will reward them and condemn those who stood athwart.
---
*MSc energy, trade & finance, City University, London; procurement, logistics and human resource supervisor and consultant

Comments

Prajna Paramita said…
Excellent tribute.
Unknown said…
Here is the truth about Vidyasagr:
Vidyasagar and Mass education : A critique on his Bi-centennial Birth Anniversary
https://countercurrents.org/2020/09/vidyasagar-and-mass-education-a-critique-on-his-bi-centennial-birth-anniversary/

TRENDING

India reaches 8th of 10 stage genocide: US Muslim advocacy group raises 'alert'

By Hena Zuberi* India has reached the 8th stage of genocide with the persecution of the Muslim community. Stating this, Professor Greg Stanton, who heads Genocide Watch, declared a Genocide Emergency Alert for India today at Justice For All online briefing.

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

Mayawati's 'success' depends on how BSP taps new crop of young Amdekarite leaders

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat*  Whatever be the election results in Uttar Pradesh on March 10, it is extremely important to understand: that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and its leader Mayawati have the potential to rise like a Phoenix any time.

Believe this: US' 95% of Covid cases are Omicron, India's 2%, model Gujarat's 0.43%

By Rajiv Shah  Scanning through news stories on Omicron, the new Covonavirus variant said to have been found in South Africa, I came across an interested in story, published in the New York-based network, CBS News. According to this story, published a couple of days ago, “The Omicron variant made up around 95.4% of new Covid-19 cases in the US last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.”

Holding militant rallies across Punjab, farmers 'forced' Prime Minister to retreat to Delhi

By Harsh Thakor*  The farmers' spirit, elevated and reverberated at a boiling point in Ferozpur like a spark turning into a prairie fire, appears to be behind Prime Minister Narinder Modi having being compelled to retreat to Delhi due to a virtually boycotted pandal. Demonstrations held just ahead of Modi's visit, especially in Firozpur, seemed to have already created tremors in the belly of the ruling party.

Barbaric, inhuman attack on Odisha villagers to implement JSW project: NGO networks

Counterview Desk  A “solidarity statement" issued by three top civil society networks, Friends of the Earth India (FoE India), Delhi Solidarity Group (DSG) and the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), has asked the Odisha chief minister to ensure that the “inhumane barbaric attack on the villagers of Dhinkia, Odisha” in order to implement a corporate project.

Democratic leaders silently greeting Modi's 'increasingly autocratic' rule: HRW

Counterview Desk The Human Rights Watch (HRW)’s new “World Report 2022: Events of 2021”, claiming to “investigate abuses, expose facts widely, and pressure those with power to respect rights and secure justice”, has identified India as one of the countries where “autocracy is ascendant and democracy on the decline” because of emergence of leaders with autocratic tendencies.

India's actual Covid death rate about 2500 per million, third highest in world: Study

By Rajiv Shah  There is now well-researched proof, if it can be called that, indicating that the Government of India may have fudged data to show lower Covid death rate. A new paper, published in “Science”, has said that while officially the Government of India’s Covid-related death estimates as of January 1, 2022 – 345 per million population – are one-seventh of the US death rate, the actual analysis of crude death rate in India suggests, this may be a gross underestimation. 

Not-so-Catholic priest expels parishioner from church: 'Woman improperly dressed'

By Rosamma Thomas*  On Sunday, January 9, 2022, Fr Emmanuel, parish priest of the Lady of Guadalupe Church at Murikumphuzha, Pala, Kerala, sent his sacristan Joseph to ask a middle-aged woman to please wait a little after the morning mass – the priest would like to meet her. The woman waited, and the priest called her to his office room. “You know we are Malayalees,” he said, and asked her whether she knew what would follow. “No, please tell me,” she said. “You know women cover their heads in church, and dress politely,” he said. The woman, who had just returned to Kerala a few months prior after living elsewhere, had been getting her house repaired and had not yet unpacked all her clothes.

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".