The great social reformer, educationist, philosopher and writer, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar passed away on July 29, 1891.
Born in a small village in West Bengal, Ishwar Chandra was sent to Calcutta at the age of six. His keenness to study and gain knowledge was so great that he used to study under the streetlight as he couldn’t afford a gas lamp. He won several scholarships, which helped him to pursue higher studies. He studied Sanskrit Grammar, Literature, Vedanta, Smruti and Astronomy at the Sanskrit College in Calcutta and after gaining high proficiency in Sanskrit became a Sanskrit scholar. He cleared his law examination in 1839.
Owing to his vast knowledge on so many subjects, Ishwar Chandra was given the title of Vidyasagar which means ‘the ocean of learning’. He was also known as ‘Daya-r Sagar’ or ‘Karunar Sagar’, which means ‘ocean of kindness’, because of his generosity and charity.
His career spans his lectureship at Fort William College for some years and then later the Sanskrit College, which he initially joined as a lecturer and went on to become the principal. During his tenure as the principal, the college saw a number of reforms. He wrote a book on the grammar rules of Sanskrit, which is followed even today. He revised many Bengali letters and paved the way for Bengali prose. He wrote many books that are now a part of the Bengali literature and read by all.
While he was a special inspector of schools, he travelled far and wide to the Bengali villages. Saddened by the state of education, especially of girls, he opened thirty schools especially for them. He believed education could liberate his fellowmen from the clutches of blind practices and superstitions prevalent then. He firmly believed in equal education for everyone, irrespective of caste, creed, religion or gender. He gave admission to lower caste men in his Sanskrit college, which was meant for upper class only.
He protested vehemently against child marriage and was a firm believer of widow remarriage. His constant efforts towards these issues convinced the British government to pass the Hindu Widows Remarriage Act in 1856. He also strongly protested against polygamy, a practice prevalent among the high caste rich men.
He was also known for his humility and generosity, which earned him a lot of respect and love across India.
He passéd away in 1891, at the age of seventy. His house was sold by his son to the Mallick family of Kolkata after his death. The Bengali Association later purchased it and is now maintaining it in its original form. The home to the great reformist now has a girl’s school and a free homoeopathic clinic – an apt tribute to one of the greatest man of all times.
Text by Tasneem Dhinojwala