The man whom Michael Madhusudan Dutt, the 19th century pioneer of Bengali drama, described as having “the genius and wisdom of an ancient sage, the energy of an Englishman and the heart of a Bengali mother”, was born Iswarchandra Bandopadhyay on September 26, 1820, in Birsingha village of Midnapore district in a poor Brahmin family.
After his elementary education, Iswarchandra moved to Calcutta, where he studied Sanskrit grammar, literature, Vedanta philosophy, logic, astronomy, and Hindu law, and received the title of Vidyasagar — Ocean of Learning — at age 21. Privately, he studied English literature and philosophy. When he was barely 30, Vidyasagar was appointed principal of Calcutta’s Sanskrit College.
The Ocean of Learning, who is said to have studied under street lights as a child, was also the “Daya’r Sagar” — Ocean of Compassion — who literally wept at the sight of the poor and destitute, and is said to have spent his salary and scholarships on their welfare.
But his most enduring contributions were as an educationist and reformer of traditional upper caste Hindu society. The focus of his reform was women — he spent his life’s energies trying to ensure an end to the practice of child marriage and to initiate widow marriage.
His Bengali primer, the Borno Porichoy, reconstructed the modern Bengali alphabet, and remains, more than 125 years after his death in 1891, almost every child’s introduction to learning and writing the language.
Nineteenth-century Hinduism, Max Weber wrote in his 1916 study on The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism, had “become a compound of magic, animism and superstition”. Social conditions and practices reflected deep religious obscurantism, and the immutable hierachies and segregations of caste.
The humanist reformism of Raja Rammohan Roy (1772-1833), Akshay Kumar Dutt (1820-86) and Vidyasagar was shot through with a powerful rationalism that rejected the decadence of contemporary Hindu society, and questioned the bases of the faith in which it claimed to have its roots. Roy founded the Brahmo Sabha; Vidyasagar and Dutt were agnostics who refused to discuss the supernatural — Vidyasagar once said that given the amount of work he had in this world, he did not have the time to ponder what lay beyond.
In a paper written in 1850, Vidyasagar launched a powerful attack on the practice of marrying off girls aged 10 or even younger, pointing to social, ethical, and hygiene issues, and rejecting the validity of the Dharma Shastras that advocated it. In 1855, he wrote his two famous tracts on the Marriage of Hindu Widows, grounding his argument in reason and logic, showing that there was no prohibition on widows remarrying in the entire body of ‘Smriti’ literature (the Sutras and the Sastras).
While stating that he did feel compassion for “our miserable widows”, the great rationalist stressed “that I did not take up my pen before I was fully convinced that the Sastras explicitly sanction their remarriage. This conviction I have come to after a diligent, dispassionate and careful examination of the subject and I can now safely affirm that in the whole range of our original Smritis there is not one single text which can establish anything to the contrary”.
Alongside the campaign for widow remarriage, Vidyasagar campaigned against polygamy. In 1857, a petition for the prohibition of polygamy among Kulin Brahmins was presented to the government with 25,000 signatures. The revolt of the sepoys resulted in postponement of action on this petition, but in 1866, Vidyasagar inspired another petition, this time with 21,000 signatures.
In the 1870s, Vidyasagar wrote two brilliant critiques of polygamy, arguing to the government that since polygamy was not sanctioned by the sacred texts, there could be no objection to suppressing it by legislation.
Two thousand copies of Vidyasagar’s first pamphlets on widow remarriage were sold out in a week, and a reprint of another 3,000 was sold out as well. These were unprecedented sales figures for that time.
On October 14, 1855, Vidyasagar petitioned the Government of India asking that it “take into early consideration the propriety of passing a law (as annexed) to remove all obstacles to the marriage of Hindu widows and to declare the issue of all such marriages to be legitimate”.
On July 16, 1856, The Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act, known as Act XV, was passed. Inspired by Vidyasagar, a number of literary men produced dramas advocating the remarriage of widows, in Bengal and elsewhere, especially in Maharashtra. Indeed, some of the earliest and most fundamental reforms impacting the lives of Hindu women were pioneered by the man whose bust was vandalised in Tuesday’s attack on the college that he founded.