Till his bust was vandalised a week back during the recent West Bengal election campaign, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was unknown and almost forgotten ! Even after the vandalization, it got political about whose legacy was he forgetting that he belonged to the undivided India.
Who was Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar ?
He was the second runner in the social reform relay race that started with Raja Ram Mohan Roy. See the timeline below –
1772 – 1833 – Raja Ram Mohan Roy ; 1820 – 1891 – Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar; 1861 – 1941 – Rabindranath Tagore
While today it can be argued that Raja Ram Mohan Roy is responsible for converting Sanskrit schools to English medium schools and that was a terrible thing to do, but the many things that he did by way of social reform outweighs that mistake. Ram Mohan Roy was a polymath who setup the Brahmo Samaj and brought the law abolishing sati. That sati is not an age old Hindu practice is understood now, but during his times it was a social ill – a widow having to immolate herself on her husband’s pyre was inhuman. That the practise came in response to the barbaric rapes by the Muslim invaders, was forgotten and it applied to all Hindu women whose husbands died before them.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was moved by the plight of a young widow and started his campaign for widow re-marriage. Its almost as if he picked up the baton of social reform from where Raja Ram Mohan Roy had left it. If Sati got abolished , there were widows who couldn’t marry again – there was nothing against widow re-marriage in the scriptures but it was a social taboo. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar managed to get the widow re-marriage act passed in 1856. The weavers of Santipore celebrated by weaving a sari which contained along its borders the first line of a newly composed song which went on to say ‘May Vidyasagar live long’. He didn’t stop at just getting the act passed but conducted 25 widow remarriages between 1855 and 1860 at his own expense !!!
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar not made widow re-marriage into an act but he also setup several schools for girls, spoke out against polygamy and worked towards stopping child marriages. Especially girl children being married off to much older men who would die soon after the marriage. These girls then ended up as prostitutes :(.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar earned the name “Vidyasagar” (Ocean of knowledge) by participating in a competition that tested the knowledge of Sanskrit in 1839. He was a polymath and spoke many languages. He wrote a book that is still used to teach Bengali alphabets.
He was a tremendously compassionate man, he stopped drinking milk for years apparently, because the calves were being deprived of it. He also would not go in a horse drawn carriage because it would cause discomfort to the horses. What a humane man…
No wonder Rabindranath Tagore said on his passing – “One wonders how God, in the process of producing forty million Bengalis, produced a man!”.