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Revisiting the Legacy of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar 

Ishwar Chandra Bandopadhyay was born in a small village near Midnapore, Bengal; in 1820. He was one of the most prominent faces of the Bengal Renaissance which was a cultural, artistic, social, and intellectual movement. It spanned from the early 18th century to the 20th century. It revolutionized education, which was erstwhile, a monopoly of the elite. The Bengal Renaissance also marked a series of reforms across the society and numerous social evils were eliminated. Other eminent people in this phase include Rabindranath Tagore and Raja Ram Mohan Roy. 

Ishwar Chandra was a celebrated figure in the Bengali community. The first book he wrote was Borno Porichoy (introduction to the letter) in 1855. Even in the 21st century,  considered to be the most influential primer of Bengal. He converted the Bengali alphabet into an easily printable form which led to the simplification of reading and writing and made education more accessible. Children in preschool are taught using Borno Porichoy to date. Bengalis believe that it forms a strong foundation in acquiring language. 

He was given the title of ‘Vidyasagar’(ocean of knowledge) because he was well-versed in numerous subjects- English, Sanskrit, Bengali, Law, Philosophy and History. He translated ancient texts such as Ramayana and Mahabharata into comprehensible Bengali, to diversify literary taste. He joined Fort William College as a teacher. He would join Sanskrit College later. He was strongly against the archaic system of education which was hopelessly elitist. Consequently, he was met with opposition from the administration of the Sanskrit College. Soon enough, he would bring radical changes to the institution. 

He allowed lower-caste students to enroll and changed the mode of education from Sanskrit to English and Bengali. He published two works- ‘Samaskrita Byakaraner Upokromonika’ and ‘Byakaron Koumudi.’ Complex Sanskrit grammar was explained in legible, vernacular Bengali. He also started a Sanskrit publication. Books in Sanskrit were sold at cheap prices. 

Besides educational reforms, he was passionate about the upliftment of women. He worked tirelessly to elevate their status in society. He rallied behind John Elliot Bethune in establishing the first all-girls school- Bethune School, 1849. He believed that educating women was the most effective way to make them aware of their rights. It would also enable them to object to the social oppression they were subjected to. He opened 35 women’s colleges across Bengal. 

He followed the footsteps of Raja Ram Mohan Roy in taking up the cause of women. He wrote several articles on the evils of early marriage. Vidyasagar wrote a pamphlet on widow remarriage. He introduced new arguments in favor of the same and proved that Vedic scriptures sanctioned widow remarriage. The pamphlet sparked controversy, only to further strengthen his resolve. He played an incredibly important role in legislating the Hindu Widow Remarriage Act of 1856. The initiative of the same had been taken by J. P. Grant, a British member of the Legislative Council. 

He also wrote in prestigious, progressive publications like the Tattvabodhini Patrika about widows and their rights. He was consistently committed to his values and even married his own son to a widow. He also launched several petitions against polygamy.

An educator, scholar, and social reformer, he was often called Daya Sagar for his philanthropic nature. Countless colleges and teacher training institutes in India are named after him. He is a gem who will always be remembered. His efforts were also lauded by Rabindranath Tagore-

"One wonders how God, in the process of producing forty million Bengalis, produced a man!"


Pratha Editorial Team


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