Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar

VidyasagarThe country, whose male population is unkind unreligious and unaware of the distinction between the good and the evil and don't care about justice and fairness and where abiding the rituals is the chief preoccupation of religion, should not give birth to girls!

[His god-like kindness expressed in the 2nd volume of publication on Remarriage of Widows.]

The materialistic world of the West looks down on India as a poor nation. That assessment is and remains empirically valid, no doubt, even at the end of the twentieth century.

But a society, nation or country that is ever endowed with a great man with a personality, grace and kind soul like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar can be impoverished but hardly poor! Popularly known as Vidyasagar (meaning 'sea of knowledge'), Ishwar Chandra himself was the seat of learning. A gift of God his life was a glittering gem of morality, an exposition of the bliss of modest living, a blue sky of compassion, an everest of unfaltering dedication, a fountain of inspiration, a river of love and indeed an ocean of kindness.

Watch closely how this man lived his life, how he shared his time between his family, his friends, his community and his nation, how he spent his endless energy for awakening awareness of his countrymen and for the emancipation of his nation, how he gave away every comfort of life for the sake of others and your heart will warm up to the message of this man's life. And your life will never be the same again! His graceful gift of love and affection will enrich your existence and humble your thoughts for ever.

Born on Monday the 26th of September 1820 (12 Aswin BY1227) in a village called Veerasingha of the then Hoogley (now part of Midnapore) district of West Bengal Vidysagar spent his childhood in extreme poverty. But poverty did not touch his soul, nor could it deter him from his chosen path of achieving his life's goals.

Ishwar1 commenced primary education at the village pathshaala - an indigenous Indian school where language, grammar, arithmatic and other shastras were taught to younsters. In the pathshaala he was a fond student of Pundit Kalikanta Chatterjee2 for his dedication to learning, modest manners, supreme honesty and great respect. Following his grandfather's death, he accompanied his father to Calcutta. At the time his father was employed as accounts receivable clerk with a metal goods importers store at Barobazar. Ishwar joined a pathshaala in neigbouring Jorashanko. His father's wish was for him to be educated as a Sanskrit scholar so that he would go back to his village and start a Chuspahathi (a Sanskrit school) thus maintaining the family tradition in teaching Sanskrit. But one family relative - Madhusudan Bachaspati who was then studying at the Sanscrit College - convinced his father to send Ishwar to that college arguing that this course of education will allow the youngman to gain access to both Sanskrit and English streams of education.

It is not clear as to what role Ishwar played in this decision but with the possibility of enhanced job opportunities in the future his father relented. Within a short while Ishwar was admitted to the Sanscrit College in grammar class III. As it turned out, this decision was a small turning point in the life of one man, but a giant leap in the history of Bengal.

Young Ishwar applied himself to learning with full discipline, diligence and perseverence - often in the most arduous of circumstances3. He passed successive annual examinations with exemplary brilliance. His meritorious performance in every field of study rewarded him with prizes and scholarships which were a welcome relief in his impoverished financial condition. It is here he came in close contact with half a dozen Sanskrit scholars who would a leave an indelible mark on the young impressionable mind of Ishwar.

In 1839 he graduated in law examination conducted by the Hindu Law Committee. His well rounded education at Sanscrit College saw him amassing considerable knowledge and mastery in a number of shastras or disciplines - kabya (poetry), alonkar (rhetorics), vedanta (vedic literature and anthology), smriti (philosophy of law), nyaya (logic, science and jurisprudence), and jyotish (astronomy). It is here at a tender age the title Vidyasagar was endowed to him. He lived up to that expectation and offered to his society far more than that ... In a thousand years that would follow, Bengali people and indeed the world at large, would not be able to rid itself of the debt owed to this man.

On 29th December in 1841 Vidyasagar joined Fort William College (FWC) as a Principal Lecturer (or Pundit). G. T. Marshall who was the Secretary of the College at the time acted as the catalyst for gaining this prestigious position for him at the age of 21. Marshall had been thoroughly impressed by Ishwar's scholastic achievements! After a five year stint with the FWC Vidyasagar joined the Sanscrit College as Assistant Secretary. In the first year of service with Sanscrit College, he brought out a report to the authorities outlining and recommending a number of changes to the curricula and the education system. This report attracted criticisms from the College Secretary Rashamoy Dutta (who was jealous of his youthful and energetic Assistant) but it generated keen interest of authorites and a tremendous amount of favourable comments and praises from the Education department - particularly from G. T. Marshall. Because of irreconcilable differences with Dutta on this subject - Vidyasagar resigned and took up the temporary head clerical position at FWC (again on Marshall's advice FWC employed him so he is not lost to the Education system) until a teaching position could be made available.

Ishwar Chandra's principles, determination and courage were unparallel in every detail. He never deviated from his goals in the face of all advarsities. He knew not how to compromise on any matter of substance neither in fear nor for favour. Fear was not in his dictionary. He resigned from the college, after the skirmish with Dutta. His well wishers tried in vain to prevent him saying "what will you do? how will you survive?". His reply was "I will sell vegetables, open a grocery shop, I will find something to survive on".

Another example was cited by Tagore4. When Vidyasagar went to visit the Principal of the Hindu College, he was offended by Mr Kerr's rude manners as the latter sat in his chair in a posture resting his booted feet on the desk in a complete disregard for showing any courtesy to his native visitor. Mr. Kerr was reported to have been very displeased when this same courtesy was reciprocated to him on his visit to Sanscrit College at a later date. Tit for tat!

In 1950 Vidyasagar came back to Sanscrit College as Lecturer in Literature. Satisfied with his hard work and his substantive contribution to the betterment of the education system, his remuneration was doubled. Soon afterwards he was appointed Principal of Sanscrit College.

His well documented protestations against Education department officials of the day testify to the degree of intensity with which he pursued the course of education reform. He favoured English and Bengali as a medium of learning alongside Sanskrit and wanted to offer to students a wider range of subjects and thus broaden their horizons in examining European and Indian concepts and practices side by side so they could apply their own judgement in discovering the truth for themselves. He was not afraid of discarding erroneous beliefs of Indian shastras and in preferring European science in its place where appropriate. By the same token he did not accept everything that Europe had to offer. His mind was open and was open only to discovering the truth and reality. In these matters his determination was unmistakable and his resolve unshakable. Here is a sample paragraph of one of his letters to F. J. Mouat, Secretary to the Council of Education5:

Leave me to teach Sanskrit for the leading purpose of thoroughly mastering the Vernacular and let me superadd to it the acquisition of sound knowledge through the medium of English and you may rest assured that before a few years are over I shall be enabled if supported and encouraged by the Council to furnish with you a body of young men who will be better qualified by their writings and teachings to disseminate widely among the people sound information than it has hitherto been possible to accomplish through the instrumentality of the Educated clever of any of your Colleges whether English or oriental. To enable me to carry out this great, this darling object of my wishes I must (excuse the strong word) to a considerable extent be left unfettered, so far as I can approve of Dr. Ballantyne's abtracts and treatises such for instance as his excellent Edition of the Novum Organan in English. I will avail myself of them most readily and cheerfully. But if compelled to adopt all his compilations without any reference to my own humble judgement as to their utility and value or to their adaptation to the peculiar wants of the Institution over which I have the honour to preside, my occupation is gone - such a system would break in upon and interrupt my own plan of instruction and in spite of my sense of duty as a servant of the Council the responsibility which I now keenly feel will be assuredly weakened if not destroyed.
In addition to his responsibilities as the Principal of Sanscrit College, he travelled around Bengal in the capacity of Inspector of Schools. This latter role gave him the opportunity to witness the pervading darkness and superstitions in which people of Bengal lived in the absence of education. This caused him great distress. He hurriedly established 20 Model schools in only two months. He also realised that unless women of the land could be educated it was impossible to emancipate and liberate them from the terrible burden of inequalities and injustice imposed on them by the cruel society of the day. He worked day and night and opened thirty girls schools.

In 1854 FWC was closed and a Board of Exeminers was created instead. Vidyasagar was an active member of that Board. He resigned from Sanscrit College after a disagreement with the young new head of the Education department in 1958. It was not in his blood to work under a regime that did not pay full respect to his unquestionable ability to manage the affairs of his institution independently and without any undue outside interference.

There is not a single living Bengali soul on this planet today who has not heard of Vidyasagar or has not commenced the process of education with his first book of alphabet (Part I and Part II) called Varna Porichoy first published in 1855. His pioneering works - in Bengali education, in laying the base foundation stone of Bengali prose (even though his writing style was considered at the time as conservative since it was aligned closely with Sanskrit lexicon and grammatical traditions) and in translation of the Sanskrit masterpieces to Bengali - shall remain as the fitting monument of human endeavour in the quest for and spread of knowledge.

Vidyasagar's heart was gold - full of mercy and kindness! It always cried out in distress of the poor, in sufferings of the sick and for injustice to humanity. Even when he was a student at Sanscrit College, he would spend part of his scholarship proceeds and cooked mishtanno (rice pudding) to feed the poor and buy medicine for the sick. Later on, he paid fixed sums of monthly allowances to each member of his joint family, to family servants, to needy neighbours, to villagers who needed help and to the village surgery and school. This he continued without break even when he was unemployed and had to borrow substantially from time to time. Once he borrowed Rs.7,500 from Maharani Swarnamayee. In his will he kept all those regular names as beneficiary who received his monthly allowance and he added more names to that list. Then he had also added a blanket category 'who needed help'.

Vidyasagar did not believe that his responsibility to the suffering humanity ended with his financial donation. He opened the doors of Sanscrit College to lower caste students (previously it was exclusive to the Brahmins), nursed sick cholera patients, went to crematorium to bury unclaimed deadbodies, dined with the untouchables, walked miles in darkness to take urgent messages to people who would benefit from them. The list goes on! Even a thousand Nobel prizes wouldn't go close to recognise this man's contribution to the suffering humanity, such gold was Vidyasagar's heart!

Vidyasagar was a social reformer. His soft heart melted at the pain and suffering imposed by the society, often in the name of religion, on Indian women. Polygamy, ban on widows from remarrying, child marriage, inequalities, keeping them away from the light of education, depriving them from property rights etc. All of this distressed him immensely. Pleading the case for the remarriage of widows he lamented:
Oh poor India! think the woman whose husband dies immediately turns into a stone; she does not have sorrow anymore, cannot feel pain any more and all her senses of passions and sensualities diasappear without trace suddenly! But you well know that such notions are based on false pretences as evidence to the contrary abounds. Just think how these erroneous notions are poisoning this world. How sad! The country, whose male population is unkind, unreligious and unaware of the distinction between the good and the evil and don't care about justice and fairness and where abiding the rituals is the chief preoccupation of religion, should not give birth to girls!
He took up his pen, called discussion meetings, ran seminars and saw Government officials. All of these efforts were directed to wipe out the evil traditions of the nation. But his call fell on deaf ears. On every instance, dictates from Hindu shastras were forwarded by the clergy as an excuse! So Vidyasagar set out to prove them wrong!

He conducted extensive reseach into Hindu scriptures and puranas and tried to explain that there was nothing against widows marrying a second time and why polygamy was an evil and hence unacceptable. He published two separate volumes on remarriage of widows and another two volumes on polygamy citing quotes from scriptures and explaning the validity of his arguments.

To prove that his compassion for widows was not empty rhetoric as some might have assumed, he married his own son off to a widow. He compiled a list of 'distinguished' polygamous Calcuttans and another for surrounding districts. It is unthinkable that a considerable number on those lists married up to 80 times often under-age girls and yet were unable to control their boundless thirst for lust.

For his stand he was virulently attacked by conservative vested interest groups and the shastrakars (cleric) of the day. He often received threats of physical violence and death. But nothing stopped Vidyasagar from what he set out to do! His iron-will prevailed in the end. On 26th July 1856 widow marriage was legalised by the then Government.

Although Vidyasagar cannot be judged as one of the best pure literary figures of Bengal, for he mostly devoted his time writing reformist literature and text books, his pioneering work in Bengali prose certainly deserves the very best of appreciation. His simplification of idiomatic expressions and clarification of the writing style provided the sound base on which latter Bengali writers like Tekchand Thakur, Pyarichand Mitra and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee built their literary superstructures. Indeed, Tagore revered him as 'the father of modern Bengali prose'. Vidysagar's other contribution in this area was to translate the best of Sanskrit works to Bengali so that the ordinary person, who were not sufficiently versed with that language, could appreciate the immortal contribution by literary greats of India. He wrote biographical notes on numerous noteworthy personalities in the history of the world so the the young generation could be inspired by the great examples of their edurance, hard work, honesty, patience, perseverence, courage, determination and, above all, philosophy of life.

Betal Panchavinsati (The Bytal-Pancheesee - the twenty-five tales of the Demon) published in 1847 - a translation from the Sanskrit Kathasaritsagara, is probably the most popular work of Vidysagar. In its Preface he wrote:
The Bytal Pancheesee is a collection of legendary stories relating to that clelebrated character in Hindu Annals, Raja Vikramaditya. The work contains no traces of art or genius in its composition, but on the contrary exhibits those clumsy attempts at the wonderful, sometimes bordering on childishness, which are so general in legends of a dark age. It is, however, very popular among the great mass of the people of this country and expresses accurately their ideas and feelings on many subjects".
Other notable literary contributions by him include Banglaar Itihaas (1848), Jivancharita (1849), Shakuntala (1854), Mahabharata (1860), Seetar Vanavas (1860), Bhrantivilaas (1869), Oti Alpa Hoilo (1873), Aabaar Oti Alpa Hoilo (1873), Brajavilaas (1884) and Ratnopariksha (1886). But the most far-reaching and controversial of his social reform monologues are:
  • Bidhobabivah (whether widows should remarry) the first exposure (1855)
  • Bidhobabivah - the Second Book (1855)
  • Bahubivah - (whether polygamy should be banned) the first exposure (1871)
  • Bahubivah - the Second Book (1873)
  • Balyabivah (flaws of child marriage) - publication date not known
  • Its not his literary prowess, but his act of kindness, his fierce determination and courage, his education and social reform programmes made Vidyasagar immortal. Tagore was hard pressed to find a comparable personality in the West and according to him, the closest that he found who could come to resemble him was Samuel Johnson.7

    He lived as a modest man but his work of charity was that of a king. Even his friend Lieutenant Governor Halliday could not get him to dress up properly when he used to visit him. He preferred plain dress made from home spun cotton - as his mother used to make his dresses when she was alive.

    Vidyasagar was a lonely tall tree in the bush around him8. He was not happy and his health deteriorated badly in the latter part of his life. Disaffected with petty-mindedness and confronted with selfish behaviour he severed connection with his family and lived with a tribal people in the last years of his life. He died on 29th July 1891 (13th Shrabon BY 1298).


    Much of the materials for this article was sourced from the Vidyasagar Rachanabali, Complete Works of Vidyasagar, Kamini Prakashalaya, Calcutta BY 1399


    1. Vidyasagar spelt his name Eshwar. It is not quite clear why Ishwar is so popularly used in the public domain. We elected to use the latter for reasons of indexing consistency.

    2. In a short biographaphical publication Vidyasagar Charita Ishwar Chandra wrote "I was Guru's most favourite disciple. I vividly remember that, off all students, I was his most affectionate. I respected and revered him greatly..."

    3. "This youngman would go to bed at 10pm. He would ask his father to wake him up at 12am. As the midnight bells rang at the Armenian Church clock tower, his father would call him to wake up and he would study for the rest of the night... But then there was the household work. He had his father and brothers at home. There were no servants. He would cook twice a day. In the morning he would bathe in the Ganges and on his way back home would do the day's shopping at Kashinathbabu's Bazar. Then he would clean fish, dice vegetables, grind spices for cooking. Once the meal was ready the family of four would eat together. Finally, after washing of the dishes, Ishwar would have time to rest. Often he studied as he cooked or walked to school."

    The above is a translation of what Tagore proudly wrote about Vidyasagar in a paper he read in the Annual Vidyasagar Memorial ceremony held at Emerald Theatre on 13th Shrabon BY 1302 (July 1895) - refer to Vidyasagarcharita in Charitrapuja, Rabindra Rachanabali vol 4, p.489.

    It is widely ackonwledged that often Vidyasagar spent hours on end under the streetlights of Calcutta to complete his study and homework. This obviated the need for buying alternative source of light.

    4. ibid p. 490.

    5. This letter was an informal communication to Cpatain Mouat on 5th October 1853. Vidyasagar sent this in a 'hurry' before he went on holiday and wrote "If required I shall be happy to send in an official and consequently a more formal letter on the subject after the termination of the holiday."

    6. Remarriage of Widow vol. 2, Vidyasagar Rachanabali p. 839.

    7. English lexicographer, critic, poet and essayist (1709-84) who was immortalised by his excellent biographer Boswell.

    8. Tagore, op. cit.