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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 43 New Delhi October 12, 2019

Remembering Vidyasagar on his 200th Birthday

Sunday 13 October 2019

by Jayanta Kumar Ghosal

Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar (Bandopadhyay), the doyen or our 19th Century Bengali Renaissance, was born in a dark period of the early 19th Century, on September 26, 1820, in a remote village of Medinipur district, 84 kms away from Calcutta. The inhabitants of the village were poor and illiterate and full of orthodoxy and age-old customs and did not get modern education. Ruthless zamindars and bigoted priests ruled the village society. A deeproted belief in a number of gods and goddesses and worship of their images, the caste system, restrictions of food and marriage...was the general picture of the society. “The Sati or burning of the widows along with their dead husbands, throwing children into the Ganges... and suffering of the Kulin girls left the society unmoved.â€

Voltaire said: “Society is a growth in time...†The age-old traditions, customs, beliefs and rituals are inherited by the people and they spread through generations. Bigotry and superstition get their roots within the blood,. And “the individual is almost completely absorbed in the society, responsive to it and accounted for by it†.

The study of the life of Vidyasagar reveals that he was born with a mission of modernising his country and ridding her of the deplorable state of degradation. Vidyasagar devoted a major part of his life, from 1841 to 1891,  for imparting modern education to his countrymen, fought steadily against his own people to remove evil customs and superstitions and strove firmly in defence of the helpless women-folk to save them from cruel social injustice.

The assessment of the activities of the great man and his contribution to the regeneration of the nation has shown that Vidyasagar is very much relevant to us even in the 21st Century.

Vidyasagar is the creator of the Bengali prose-style enriching it in the process; this was later followed by eminent literateurs. Rabindranath Tagore himself said: “If the excellence of my contribution to Bengali literature is recognised by my countrymen, then I should also acknowledge that the gate has been opened by Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar.â€

Vidyasagar will be ever remembered for his magnificient contribution to the making of a national programme for education. The goal of his educational activities was to spread education among the masses of the people and this could be possible if, he opined, the regional languages were made the medium of instruction. He set up many schools in villages both for boys and girls. In his ancestral village, Birsingha, he established two schools, one for boys and the other for girls at his own expense. He was the first in the country to open an evening school for the sons of workers who could not attend classes during daytime. In this ‘Shramik Vidyalay’ (Workers’ School) there was no school fee. Books were given free to every student and sometimes food was given too. He emphasised upon women’s education and set up 40 schools for girls. His educational activities were not only confined in setting up educational institutions, both schools and colleges, but imparting modern education— introducing science, modern philosophy and such in the curriculum.

In a nutshell, we can say the initial moves of Vidyasagar in the field of education were: (1) to spread education among the mass of people and (2) to develop regional language to make the vernacular as the medium of instruction. He genuinely realised that mass education was possible only where the vernacular was the medium and (3) he wanted to make education meaningful with relevant syllabus, good and dutiful teachers.

Our present education system is grateful to Vidyasagar for his secular attitude and his efforts to introduce scientific study. He did not allow any discourse on religion or religious topic and left out the idea of the super-natural at all stages of education. He sought the help of English education for reading Western literature, philosophy and science and so he made English compulsory for the students. He had no faith in Vedanta as it denies the existence of the material world and he firmly declared that ‘Vedanta and Sankhya are false systems of philosophy’. He was indifferent about the existence of God, but he regarded man as real and positive. He recognised only the religion of humanity, and thus represented Renascent Bengal.

In the 19th Century the social reform movements primarily centred on the removal of socio religious oppression on women. Rammohan Roy fought for abolition of the ‘Sati’ system. Vidyasagar fought against the plight of women launching the movement of widow re-marriage, abolition of child marriage defying the polygamy in the name of ‘Kaulinya’. He firmly announced that he was not a slave of-Deshachar. And all through his life he fought against the evil customs existing in society.

His initiatives for social reform were stirred by his experience of women as an unduly oppressed section of mankind and not by the idea that women are equal partners of men in society. He was primarily concerned with the emancipation of women from the shackles of shastric and customary oppressive rules. He never tried to idealise women’s role in society; rather he helped to find their own place there. He supported the right of a known prostitute’s son for admission in a government college and endorsed the right of a fallen widow to the family property. Thus he sought to create a code of civil rights for women independent of the prevailing morality. His attitude towards women was humanitarian and universal rather than Indian and nationalistic. He thus became the real emancipator of Bengali women.

In this decadent state of our society and the country, the nation needs a man who has the heart of a mother for the suffering humanity, a man who has an indomitable will and invincible manliness; he will spurn the arrogant persons around him with his high-browed chappal. 

The author is a social activist associated with the literacy movement.

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