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Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar: Dropped His Caste Name, Pushed For Widow Remarriage, Founded Schools For Girls

While Vidyasagar's statue may have been smashed by alleged BJP supporters during Amit Shah's rally, his ideas continue to stand tall.

The recent attack of BJP workers, during Amit Shah’s rally in Kolkata on 14 May, inside Vidyasagar College and the smashing of the bust of renowned man of the Bengal Renaissance Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar has renewed interest in the noted philosopher, education reformer, womens’ activist and opponent of caste system.

The report of the shameful act was splashed across the front page of The Telegraph and other leading dailies in Bengal.

Several lores have mixed into the almost mythical man whose social contribution includes anti-caste activism, women’s reforms and strengthening the Bengali education system.

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was born on September 26, 1820 in West Bengal. An eager learner, it is said that he would study under a streetlight, as his poor parents could not afford gas light.

Another legend claims that Vidyasagar learned English numerals by following the milestones on his way to Kolkata.

In 1839, he cleared his law examination and in 1841, at just 21 years of age, joined Fort William College as the head of the Sanskrit department. In the same year, he participated in a competition to test one’s knowledge in Sanskrit. There, he earned the title of ‘Vidyasagar’, which translates to ‘ocean of knowledge’. He then dropped his caste surname, Bandopadhyaya.

A women’s rights crusader

Vidyasagar went a step ahead of Raja Rammohan Roy who had worked for the abolition of Sati. Vidyasagar propelled the discourse behind the legalisation of the practice of widow remarriage. In his book Vidhwa Vivah, he presented a case for the reform, using a verse from the classical Hindu text Parashara Samhita and interpreting it as a scriptural sanction for the practice, thereby, directly challenging Manusmriti. Objecting the social norm of women being compelled to spend their lives as ascetics or in celibacy, he had once asked if widows were ‘made of stone’.

His efforts were a major factor behind the enactment of the Widow Remarriage Act XV of 1856.

However, legal sanction does not always come with immediate social acceptance. Remarried couples were intimidated, ostracised, disinherited, while the press ridiculed the practice. Elaborate police protection was necessary for the weddings in Calcutta and Rajahmundhry in the Madras Presidency.

Vidyasagar also worked for women’s right to education. He strongly believed that everyone, irrespective of their caste or gender, had the right to education. Hence, he founded several schools for girls in the early 19th century and opened up the Sanskrit College for people from the so-called lower castes.

Barnaparichay (Introduction to the alphabet) 

Vidyasagar revolutionised Bengal’s education system by refining and standardising the Bengali alphabets and hence the language as a whole.

He made the language uniform by removing some letters, adding others, confirming how many there must be and what the exact shape and sound of each letter would be. The resultant book, named Borno Porichoy (Introduction to the alphabet), is still being used in schools today.

Upon Vidyasagar’s death on July 29, 1891, Rabindranath Tagore had said, “One wonders how God, in the process of producing forty million Bengalis, produced a man!”

Social Media has hit back against the smashing of the revolutionary’s bust:

अब आप न्यूज़ सेंट्रल 24x7 को हिंदी में पढ़ सकते हैं।यहाँ क्लिक करें