Raja Rammohan Roy had founded the social reforms movement in the early 1800s which was carried on by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891). A well-known writer, philosopher, and champion of humanity, Vidyasagar was a well-known writer and intellectual. In his time, he enjoyed both a formidable personality and was venerated even by British authorities. In Bengali education, he introduced a revolution and refined Bengali language instruction. Bengali alphabets are still taught from his book, Borno Porichoy (Introduction to the letter). Due to his vast knowledge of several subjects, he was given the title ‘Vidyasagar’ (ocean of knowledge). While writing about Ishwar Chandra, Michael Madhusudan Dutta said: “An ancient sage with the wisdom of an Englishman and a Bengali mother with the energy of a native.”.
Early Life and Education
The Bengali writer, Ishwar Chandra Bandopadhyaya, was born on September 26, 1820, in Birsingha village in the Midnapore district. He had a very religious father and mother, Thakurdas Bandyopadhyay and Bhagavati Devi. After learning the basics of Sanskrit at his village pathshaala, he sailed to Calcutta with his father in 1826. There are several myths about his brilliance as a student and dedication. According to legend, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, who traveled from Gujarat to Calcutta, learned English numerals by reading the mile-stones labels. He later took up a teaching position in a school in Jorasanko to support his family’s finances. In 1839, he won a competition testing his knowledge of Sanskrit by earning the title ‘Vidyasagar.’ This means Ocean of Knowledge. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar earned his law degree the same year. Vidyasagar married Dinamani Devi at the age of fourteen, and the couple had a son named Naraya Chandra.
At the age of 21, Ishwar Chandra joined the Fort William College as the Head Pandit in the Sanskrit department. As a brilliant mind, he soon became proficient in both English and Hindi. Vidyasagar left Fort William College in 1946 and joined the Sanskrit College as an assistant secretary. He got into a serious altercation over administrative changes with the College Secretary, Rasomoy Dutta, just after a year. In 1851, he became Principal of Sanskrit College. The following year, he was appointed special inspector of schools with additional responsibilities, and he travelled to remote villages in Bengal to oversee the quality of education.
- Vidyasagar is credited with the role of thoroughly remodelling medieval scholastic system prevailing in Sanskrit College and bring about modern insights into the education system.
- He introduced courses of European History, Philosophy and Science alongside of Vedic scriptures.
- He wrote two books ‘Upakramonika’ and ‘Byakaran Koumudi’, interpreting complex notions of Sanskrit grammar in easy legible Bengali language.
- For the first time, he introduced tuition fees and admission fees in Calcutta.
- To ensure uniformity in teaching methods, he established the Normal School for teacher training.
- He exercised his power and lobbied hard for opening of school for girls and even outlined suitable curriculum that not only did educate them, but also enabled them to be self-reliant through vocations like needlework. He went door to door, requesting heads of families to allow their daughters to be enrolled in schools. He opened 35 schools for women throughout Bengal and was successful in enrolling 1300 students.
- He maintained his support to John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune to establish the first permanent girls’ school in India, the Bethune School, on May 7, 1849.
- He was associated with prestigious journalistic publications like ‘Tattwabodhini Patrika’, ‘Somprakash’, ‘Sarbashubhankari Patrika’ and ‘Hindu Patriot’.
- His lasting legacy remains with ‘Borno Porichoy’, an elementary level book for learning Bengali alphabets, where he reconstructed Bengali alphabets and reformed it into typography of 12 vowels and 40 consonants.
- In his challenge to Brahminical authorities, he proved that Vedic scriptures sanction widow remarriage. After he took his arguments to the British Authorities, his pleas were heard when the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act, 1856, or Act XV, 1856, was decreed on July 26, 1856.
Character and Altruism
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar had contradictory character traits. He was an obstinate man who followed his own path. Taking decisions based on his own judgment, he was never influenced by others’ arguments or insistence. A man of exceptional character, he didn’t tolerate jibes at his own self-respect any longer. His ability to argue with high ranking British officials often forced them to recognize their discriminatory practices.
Conversely, he was an empathic person who understood the plight of others. Whenever he saw someone in pain, he was easily moved to tears and was always the first person to offer help to colleagues and friends in need. His selfless altruism earned him the epithet ‘Daya Sagar’ (ocean of generosity) from Michael Madhusudan.
In 1891, Vidyasagar was 70 years old when he died. He was a great scholar, academician, and reformer. In his obituary, Rabindranath Tagore said, “One wonders how God, in the process of producing forty million Bengalis, produced a man.”