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30 September, 2019 10:45:15 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 30 September, 2019 11:39:43 AM

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Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar : The great reformer

Vidyasagar was strongly opposed to this horrendous custom of Kulin Brahmin polygamy, which allowed elderly men even on their deathbeds, to marry teenage or prepubescent girls
Syed Mehdi Momin
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar : The great reformer

In the 19th century Bengal brilliant students passing from the Sanskrit College were given honorifics like Vidyabhushan, Vidyalankar (ornament of knowledge) Vidyaratna (gem of knowledge) Vidyasagar (sea of knowledge). Several graduates got the title of Vidyasagar before Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and some after him.

However the title, over the years has become synonynymous with the great writer, educationist and social reformer. So much so that people often forget his family title. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, née, Bandopaddhaya was born in a reputable Brahmin family on September 26, 1820. His father was Thakurdas Bandopaddhaya and mother Bhagabati Debi. Recently his 199th birthday was observed in a rather low-key manner. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar certainly deserves better.
The great man was the pioneer in modern Bengali literature. Before him the “elite writers” preferred Sanskrit as their medium. Ishwar Chandra was the one who introduced punctuation marks in Bengali. Today it is difficult too think that well less than two centuries back there no punctuation mark in Bengali.  Not only that he was the one who fixed the number of Bengali alphabets and divided them in vowels and consonants. His translation of William Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors gained huge appreciation. His Borno Porichoy is considered a classic. Other books by him include Betaaal Panchabinsati, Bangala-r Itihaas, Jeebancharit, Bodhadoy, Upakramanika, Shakuntala and Bidhaba Bibaha Bishayak Prostab.

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was a brilliant student. He passed every exam with flying colours. He came from a very poor family and had to find a way to support himself financially as a tutor for kids in a wealthy household.  Vidyasagar was a rebel. He never was the one to flow with the tide and accept social norms without question. Instead of a reformer it would perhaps be wiser to consider him as a revolutionary. During his youth polygamy among the Brahmins was common. Many girl children were married off to old Brahmins because it would supposedly ensure the girls and their parents a special place in heaven. Even Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s father a ‘kulin’ Brahmin married several times. Vidyasagar was strongly opposed to this horrendous custom of Kulin Brahmin polygamy, which allowed elderly men even on their deathbeds, to marry teenage or prepubescent girls. Many times, these 'brides' would be left behind at their paternal places without a second glance especially if they were subsequently widowed. Subjected to semi-starvation and a hard life many of them would flee and become prostitutes. Vidyasagar sought to change this as well. And his idea of widow marriage was a revolutionary concept at the time.

In 1854, he began writing against the practice for Tattvabodhini Patrika, a progressive journal. From the ancient Parashara Dharma Saṃhitā, a code of laws he quoted “Women are at liberty to marry again, if their husband be not heard of, die, return from the world, prove to be impotent or be an outcast.” In 1855 he filed a petition before the government of the day, seeking legislation that would allow widow remarriage. Naturally enough he suffered a lot of backlash came from powerful conservative groups within Hindu society. In fact, the government received more than 30,000 signatures challenging Ishwar Chandra’s petition. However, his sustained efforts, alongside fellow social reformers finally resulted in the passing of the Widow Remarriage Act on 26 July 1856. “No marriage contracted between Hindus shall be invalid, and the issue of no such marriage shall be illegitimate, by reason of the woman having been previously married or betrothed to another person who was dead at the time of such marriage, any custom and any interpretation of Hindu Law to the contrary notwithstanding,” read the law.

Vidyasagar practiced what he preached. He brought home a widow as his daughter-in-law. Rabindranath Tagore said that unlike the average Bengali who exhibited a lot of faith but not the will to turn it into action, or the fact that contemporary Bengali's took pride in emulating their English superiors, Vidyasagar, was the living antonym of all these traits.

With limited means, he continued his education at the Sanskrit College of Kolkata, where he studied for 12 years. He then earned a law degree and went on to join Fort William College as the head of their Sanskrit Department. After five years, in 1846, Vidyasagar joined the Sanskrit College as principal. In a remarkable move, he opened up admissions to students from other castes, besides Brahmin and Vaidya.

Vidyasagar categorically stated that he had “no objection to the admission of Shudras to the Sanskrit College. The great man had a heart of gold.  When poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutta, fell into debts due to his reckless lifestyle during his stay in Versailles, France, he appealed for help to Vidyasagar, who strived hard to ensure that sums owed to Michael from his property at home were remitted to him and sent him a large sum of money to France.

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar felt very sorry and compassionate whenever he saw poor and weak people were in distress. Though he was quite blunt in his mannerisms, he had a soft corner in his heart which belied his gruff appearance.  The man was also known for his charity and philanthropy as "Daya-r Sagar" or "Karunar Sagar" – ocean of kindness, for his immense generosity. While a student at Sanskrit College, he would spend part of his scholarship proceeds and cook various confections to feed the poor and buy medicines for the sick.

After his death the Nandan Kanan, the abode of Vidyasagar, was sold by his son to Mallick family of Kolkata. Before Nandan Kanan could be dismantled Bengali Association Bihar on 29 March 1974   purchased it by money collected by house to house contribution of one rupee each. The Girls School has been restarted, named after Vidyasagar. The Free Homeopathic Clinic is serving local population. The house of Vidyasagar has been maintained in the original shape. The most prized property is the 141 year old ‘Palanquin’ used by Vidyasagar himself.

Vidyasagar had great integrity and self-respect. When the British principal of the Hindu College greeted him with his feet up on a desk, Vidyasagar greeted his British colleague at the Sanskrit College the same way. He had learnt his “refined manners”, he said, “from that gentleman himself.

Let us finish this article with another anecdote which shows the humility of the great reformer. A rich gentleman once got down from a train at a small station and was looking for a coolie to carry his luggage.

As there was no coolie available at such a small station at that time, he was a bit annoyed. Seeing his condition, a simple and ordinary looking man came to him and presented himself as a porter. Only later could he know that the person who offered to carry his luggage was none other than Vidyasagar.

The writer is Senior Assistant Editor, of The Independent

 

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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