“There is not a man of my age in Northern India” said Swami Vivekananda to Sister Nivedita “on whom his shadow has not fallen”. Michael Madhusudan Dutta described him as having ‘the genius and wisdom of an ancient Indian sage, the energy of an Englishman and the heart of a Bengali mother’. Both Swami Vivekananda and Madhusudan Dutta were referring to the impact of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s personality on his contemporaries during most part of the nineteenth century.The period during which Ishwar Chandra was born was a sort of a convulsive period in Indian history which saw many revolutionary changes in ideas, thought and in the entire outlook on life. Broadly, three trends, namely, western infatuation, reformism and staunch orthodoxy were in evidence. Vidyasagar faced the uncertainty of that convulsive period with his characteristic practical approach with a middle path making a synthesis which united both the eastern and western cultures. He set an example by practising what he preached. A great Sanskrit teacher himself, Vidyasagar was oriental in scholarship and dress but thoroughly western in his outlook.
Ishwar Chandra was born on September 26, 1820, in Virsingha in Midnapore District, Calcutta, as the eldest son of Thakur Das Banerjee. His noble ancestors were Sanskrit Pundits who used to earn their living by running Sanskrit Pathashalas. However, Ishwar Chandra’s father broke the family tradition and moved to Calcutta in 1828 in search of a job. At that time Ishwar Chandra was just eight years old. It was a long trek of about 60 miles to Calcutta and the journey had to be undertaken on foot in hazardous terrain. Ishwar Chandra joined the Sanskrit College, Calcutta and studied for twelve long years and passed out of the college in 1841 qualifying in Sanskrit grammar, literature, rhetoric (Alankara Shastra), Vedanta, Smruti and astronomy. He also did well in elementary English. In appreciation of his brilliant academic performance, the Sanskrit College conferred on him the title ‘Vidyasagar’ which means ‘an ocean of learning’ — a title which earned him a countrywide currency and which was appended in the certificate given to him. But Ishwar Chandra never made use of this title in any of his writings. He signed simply as : ‘Ishwar Chandra Sharma’.
His first appointment was in 1841 when he joined the Bengali Department of the Fort Williams College as a Pundit. In 1844, the Sanskrit College, Calcutta, needed a teacher to teach Sanskrit grammar and the job was offered to Vidyasagar. At that time Vidyasagar was already earning Rs.50 per month and in the new assignment he would get Rs.90. But Vidyasagar thought that his friend Tarkavachaspathi was a better grammar teacher and that he would fit in the bill much better. He, therefore, decided to offer the job to his friend. He walked some distance to find his friend and told him about the offer. When Tarkavachaspathi heard the news, he was stunned. He exclaimed “Vidyasagar, you are not a man but a God in the form of a man”.
Vidyasagar later joined the Sanskrit College, Calcutta, in April 1846. He served the College for twelve years and resigned from the post of its Principal in 1858. During his stay in the College and particularly for eight years between 1850 and 1858, he took a lot of interest in social and educational reforms. He was almost the first to emphasize the need of knowledge of English along with Oriental studies. He wrote a book on Sanskrit grammar in Bengali in a novel method to make the approach to Sanskrit grammar quite easy and understandable. He removed all restrictions on admission to colleges which was till then governed by caste considerations. He enforced strict discipline on both the students and the staff and raised the prestige of the college by the sheer weight of his personality.
The greatest achievement of Vidyasagar was the legislation of the marriage of Hindu widows. The pitiable condition of the child widows deeply moved him. He disarmed all the orthodox views of Hindus against widow remarriage by producing sufficient scriptural sanctions to widow marriages. He started a historic campaign against orthodoxy with the blessings of his parents. He published a series of articles in newspapers and brought out a good number of pamphlets in Bengali upholding his cause.
One Radhakant Dev, the mouthpiece for the orthodox Hindus, sent a petition to the government opposing the legislation permitting marriage of widows, by appending about 36,000 signatures as against Vidyasagar’s 987. But Mr. J. P. Morgan, the Law Member to the Government of India, rejected the views of the orthodox Hindus and upheld Vidyasagar’s contention. Accordingly, the Bill was passed on July 26, 1856. The first widow marriage was performed at Vidyasagar’s initiative and expenses in Calcutta on December 7, 1856. It is said that Vidyasagar helped thousands of widows for their marriage and in the process contracted debts amounting to Rs. 50,000 on this account alone. He celebrated his son’s marriage with a child widow on August 11, 1870. Just a day or two before the death of Vidyasagar on July 29, 1891, he had celebrated the marriage of his grandson [daughter’s son] with a widow.
Vidyasagar was so much committed to the cause of widow marriage which is evident from the following extract of a letter which he wrote to his younger brother after having performed his son’s marriage with a widow. “Introduction of widow-marriage is the greatest good deed I have achieved in my life — I have striven utmost to bring this about and, if necessary, I am prepared to sacrifice my life for it”.
Vidyasagar was a great philanthropist. Whatever he earned he gave away as monetary help to the poor and to the needy. A major part of his income went to charities which earned him the epithet ‘Dayasagar’, which means ‘ocean of compassion’.
Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa called on Vidyasagar at his residence in Calcutta sometime in 1892. It was a case of a great saint visiting the great philanthropist. On this memorable occasion, the great saint has said:
“Up till now, I have seen only canals, marshes, or a river at the most. But today I am face to face with the Sagar, the ocean. You are the ocean of Vidya, knowledge. You are the ocean of condensed milk.”
Article by : B. M. N. Murthy
Source: Bhavan's Journal 15 September 2007
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