Michael Madhusudan Dutt, the 19th century pioneer of Bengali drama, described Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar as having “the genius and wisdom of an ancient sage, the energy of an Englishman and the heart of a Bengali mother”.
One of Bengal’s towering cultural icons, and among the greatest personalities of the Bengal Renaissance, Vidyasagar was a polymath who reconstructed the modern Bengali alphabet and initiated pathbreaking reform in traditional upper caste Hindu society.
The focus of his social reform was women — and he spent his life’s energies trying to ensure an end to the practice of child marriage and initiate widow remarriage. Vidyasagar’s Bengali primer, Borno Porichoy, remains, more than 125 years after his death in 1891, the introduction to the alphabet for nearly all Bengali children.
The making of the ‘Vidyasagar’
Born in 1820 in a Brahmin family, Iswar Chandra is known to have been thirsty for knowledge since his childhood. He studied Sanskrit grammar, literature, Vedanta philosophy, logic, astronomy, and Hindu law for more than 12 years at Sanskrit College in Calcutta, and received the title of Vidyasagar — Ocean of Learning — at the age of just 21. Privately, Iswar Chandra studied English literature and philosophy and was appointed principal of Sanskrit College on January 22, 1851. He was all of 31 years old then.
Attack on child marriage, advocacy of widow remarriage
Vidyasagar followed in the great reformist tradition of Raja Ram Mohun Roy (1772-1833), and argued, on the basis of scriptures and old commentaries, in favour of the remarriage of widows in the same way as Roy did for the abolition of Sati.
His earliest effort at social reform, however, came in the second half of 1850 when, in a paper on the evils of child marriage, he 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 January and October 1855, Vidyasagar wrote his two famous tracts on the Marriage of Hindu Widows, basing his argument entirely on reason and logic, and showing that there was no prohibition on widows remarrying in the entire body of ‘Smriti’ literature (the Sutras and the Shastras).
In the second tract, he gave a crushing reply to his critics who had sought to counter him after the first tract. Underlining the rationalism of his thought and the difficulties of his reformist project, Vidyasagar wrote:
“But how is this to be done? By reasoning alone? No. For it will not be admitted by our countrymen that mere reasoning is applicable to such subjects. The custom must have the sanction of the Sastras; for in matters like this, the Sastras are the paramount authority among Hindus, and such acts only as are conformable to them are deemed proper.”
While stating that he did feel compassion for “our miserable widows”, Vidyasagar 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.”
From a high moral pedestal, he implored the people of India to end this cruel and illogical custom: “Countrymen! How long will you suffer yourselves to be led away by illusions? Open your eyes for once and see that India, once the land of virtue, is being overflooded with the stream of adultery and foeticide… Dip into the spirit of your Sastras, follow its dictates, and you shall be able to remove the foul blot from the face of your country…Habit has so darkened your intellect and blunted your feelings, that it is impossible for you to have compassion for your helpless widows.”
Impact of his reformist zeal
Vidyasagar’s first pamphlets in Bengali on widow remarriage created a tremendous stir in Hindu society. Two thousand copies were sold out in a week, and a reprint of another 3,000 copies also did not last. These were unprecedented sales figures for a book at that time.
On October 14, 1855, Vidyasagar presented a petition to the Government of India praying that “your Honourable Council will 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, both in Bengal and elsewhere. In 1864, Jyotiba Phule succeeded in persuading a Saraswat Brahmin widow to remarry. In 1866 Vishnu Shastri Pandit translated Vidyasagar’s book on widow remarriage into Marathi.
Campaign against polygamy
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, led by the Maharaja of Burdwan. The mutiny of the sepoys resulted in the postponement of action on this petition, but in 1866, Vidyasagar inspired another petition, this time with 21,000 signatures.
In the 1870s, Vidyasagar, the great rationalist, 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.
The college bearing his name
Today’s Vidyasagar College in North Kolkata grew out of the Calcutta Training School that Vidyasagar conceptualised in 1859, and which came to be known as Metropolitan Institution in 1864. The efforts of Vidyasagar and the brilliant performance of its students led to the college gaining affiliation with the prestigious Calcutta University in 1872. The college was named after Vidyasagar in 1917.
“This college has a glorious history. At one point in time, Rabindranath Tagore was a governing member of this college, Surendranath Banerjee used to teach here, and later, Babu Jagjivan Ram was a student here. Many other eminent personalities have either taught or studied in this college,” Jiban Mukhopadhyay, a former professor of history at the college, and the Trinamool Congress MLA from Sonarpur Dakshin said.