Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar: A Profile of the Philanthropic Protagonist


Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891) born Ishwar Chandra Bandopadhyaya, was a Bengali polymath, Sanskrit pundit, educator, social reformer, writer and philanthropist. He was one of the greatest intellectuals and activists of the 19th century and one of the pillars of the Bengal Renaissance. He was born on 26th September, 1820 to a Kulin Brahmin family at Birsingha in the Midnapore District of Pre-Independence, Undivided Bengal (now in West Bengal, India). He spent his childhood in extreme poverty. But this did not deter him from his chosen path of achieving his life's goals.

Ishwar commenced primary education at the village school – pathshaala - an indigenous Indian school where language, grammar, arithmetic and other shastras were taught to youngsters. He was a student known for his dedicated learning, modest manners, supreme honesty and great respect for teachers.

His parents, despite dire poverty, somehow managed to send him to the city of Calcutta for higher studies after he finished his early education at the village pathshala.

Ishwar studied at Sanskrit College, Calcutta from 1829 to 1839. He applied himself to learning with full discipline, diligence and perseverance - in the most arduous of circumstances. He passed successive annual examinations with exemplary brilliance. His meritorious performance in every field of study rewarded him with prizes and scholarships which were a welcome relief in his impoverished financial condition. In this institution, he came in close contact with many Sanskrit scholars who left an indelible mark on his young impressionable mind.

In 1839, he graduated in Law examination conducted by the Hindu Law Committee. He gained mastery in many shastras or disciplines - kavya (poetry), alankar (rhetorics), vedanta (vedic literature and anthology), smriti (philosophy of law), nyaya (logic, science and jurisprudence), and jyotish-vidya (astrology).

He bagged all the prizes and scholarships for best performance. Evaluating his stupendous results in the above courses, the College Committee endowed Ishwar Chandra with the Honorific Title of Vidyasagar (Ocean of Knowledge) in 1839 when he became a Law Graduate.

The Sanskrit Title "Vidyasagar" has the Etymology of Vidya = Knowledge and Sagar = Ocean, thus meaning "Ocean of Knowledge." The appellation of this Name is identified almost exclusively with Ishwar Chandra due to his many scholastic achievements.

On 29th December in 1841, at the age of 21, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar started his career as the Head Pundit of Fort William College, Calcutta. He joined Sanskrit College as a Professor in 1850. Satisfied with his hard work and his immense contribution to the betterment of the education system, his remuneration was doubled. Soon afterwards, he was appointed Principal of the Sanskrit College.

Concurrently with this position, in 1855, the government also appointed him as the Special Inspector of Schools for the districts of Hooghly, Burdhwan, Midnapore and Nadia in the then Undivided Bengal of Pre-Independence India.

Vidyasagar was consulted in all educational matters by Sir Frederick Halliday, the first lieutenant-governor of Bengal.

He was also an honorary office bearer of several organisations including Asiatic Society and Bethune Society. He also received honors and felicitations from many social, cultural and scientific organisations.

Vidyasagar: A Mother’s Son

Vidyasagar’s mother had a very deep-impacted spiritual influence on him all his life. He always remembered his mother’s words and deeds, who had made many a sacrifice for her son.

She taught her son not to be concerned with only worldly education.

In her opinion, the shallow ones acquire all kinds of scholarship, but have little understanding of who and what they are. By study alone, a man does not get rid of his lowly ways. Through scholarships, one cannot acquire complete wisdom. Why pursue studies which end up in death? One should study so as to free himself from death. Spiritual Knowledge can make one achieve such Immortality. It is enduring…Worldly Knowledge is temporary and transient. For earning one’s livelihood, worldly education is necessary. But this education should be acquired only to lead an independent life, with limited wants.

Therefore, Vidyasagar was encouraged by his mother to not only pursue his academics but also embark on a Spiritual Quest.

Vidaysagar was very fond of his mother and was very obedient of her. Once during his early education years, while he was staying and studying away from home, his mother asked him to come and visit her. When he arrived at the river bank, all the boatmen refused to cross the river because of an impending storm. Unable to persuade anyone as all the boatmen were afraid of the bad weather, he started swimming across the river. This anecdote of his life not only symbolizes his fearlessness and bravery but also his blind obedience to his mother whom he loved and revered very much.

On completing his education and taking up his first job assignment, Ishwar went to his village at Barsingha one day, to attend a folk festival. The women of the village had donned their best clothes and jewellery to attend the festival. His mother also went but in tattered clothes. The son could not bear to see his mother’s impoverished plight.

He said, "Mother, you have neither good clothes nor jewellery. I am distressed to see you like this. Please let me know what ornaments you wish to have!

The mother replied, "This is not the right time, son. I shall let you know at the proper time".

When Vidyasagar rose to the higher positions in his career, he again returned to his mother and asked what ornaments she desired. “I shall get them as fast as I can”, he said.

His mother told him that she wished 3 ornaments, but she would disclose what they were later on, as the opportune moment hadn’t yet arrived.

The son in the course of years reached one of the highest positions in the academia, and once again he entreated her, "Mother, I have some money now. Please let me know what jewels you would like. I shall get them for you."

The mother said, "Son! I can now wear those jewels. There are 3 ornaments I would like you to give me:

"In our small village, I am grieved to find that the children have to go to distant places for education. The1st ornament I desire is that you should set up a primary school in the village.

Our people in the village have no facilities for medical care. Please set up a health care centre here. This will be your 2nd ornament for me.

The 3rd ornament is something which you have to do by yourself. In the days to come, your reputation may grow. If anybody asks, who is your mother? You may mention my name. Your conduct must be such that you must share with others the benefits of the education you have received. Do not go after wealth. The worshipper of the Mammon will not yearn for God. The observance of this is the 3rd ornament I desire from you."

Vidyasagar did everything that his mother wanted by opening up the school and health centre in his village and followed her words of wisdom throughout his life.

Vidyasagar and Indian Education:

Vidyasagar travelled all over Bengal in the capacity of Inspector of Schools. This gave him the opportunity to witness the pervading darkness and superstition amongst the illiterate, uneducated masses of Bengal. He was so distressed by all the malpractices he saw and esp. the exploitation of women in the name of religion, that he hurriedly established 20 Model schools in a short period of only 2 months.

He realised that unless women of the land were educated, it was impossible to emancipate and liberate them from the terrible burden of inequalities and injustice imposed on them by the oppressive Hindu society blinded by false beliefs and derelict customs. He worked relentlessly and opened 30 schools for girls in Bengal. In order to promote the education of girls, Vidyasagar made door to door calls, requesting parents to send their daughters to schools.

As Special Inspector of Schools, Vidyasagar also used his position to encourage landholders and other wealthy people to establish educational institutions. Within his inspection zone, he was instrumental in founding many schools, several of which were for girls. Some schools were established at his own initiative and with his financial support. Vidyasagar's philanthropy was proverbial. It is said that half the money that he got from his salary and the royalties of his published books was kept reserved for helping the distressed.

His well documented protests against the then Education Department officials testify the degree of intensity with which he pursued the course of educational reforms. He favored English and Bengali as a medium of learning alongside Sanskrit and wanted to offer students a wide range of subjects. He wanted to broaden their horizons in studying and analysing European and Indian conceptual practices so that they could judge for themselves and discover the ultimate truth.


He was not afraid of discarding erroneous beliefs of Indian shastras and preferring European science wherever appropriate. But he also did not blindly accept everything European just by its virtue of being a western concept. He had an open mind for discovering the truth and truth alone, with an unshakable determination.


Close Encounters with Vidyasagar:

Vidyasagar was a very righteous and fearless persona with unparalleled courage. He never deviated from his goals despite all adversities. He never compromised on any matter of substance neither in fear nor for favors. Here are a few of his life’s anecdotes to exemplify his outstanding personality:

# Ishwar Chandra stuck to the traditional Indian attire of his home-spun cotton Dhoti-Kurta, woven by his mother. He was once denied entry into a club by the gatekeeper as he was not dressed according to the dress code of the club. He then went back home, changed into a suit and was promptly given admission by the same gatekeeper who refused to recognize him before. At the dinner in the club, he kept on talking to his clothes and prodded them to have food. The host and the other guests at the party were bewildered and then he explained the incident with the gatekeeper. He elaborated that respect is increasingly being accorded to sartorial affairs, rather than cerebral affairs.

# Once, while he was traveling to a village for one of his regular speeches to the masses, a young officer, who wanted to listen to Vidyasagar’s lecture, got down from the train with a suitcase to go to the lecture hall. Vidyasagar also got down from the same train with a suitcase to go to the Lecture hall.

The young officer was shouting for a coolie. Vidyasagar went to him and said, "Why do you need a coolie to carry this small suitcase? Can’t you carry it yourself and save the money?"

The young officer replied, "It is not in keeping with my dignity to carry my suitcase. I am an educated person."

Vidyasagar told him, "The hallmark of education is humility and not pride. If you cannot carry your own bag, how are you carrying your body? If however, you cannot carry your bag, I shall do so." Ishwar carried the officer’s suitcase, acting on his life’s motto of "simple living and high thinking.”

Vidyasagar left the suitcase where the officer wanted it. The young man then offered money to his ‘porter’. Vidyasagar told him, "To serve you is my reward” and went away.

The young officer then left and started proceeding to the venue of the meeting. He was stunned to see people welcoming Vidyasagar with garlands in the Lecture-Hall. He realised that the man who had offered to carry his suitcase at the station was none other than the respected lecturer of that evening, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. He felt ashamed that he had made such a great man carry his suitcase. He reflected. "What is his education and what is mine? I have behaved like a monkey. I am like a glow worm before the sun".

# Once when Vidyasagar went to visit the the then Principal of Hindu College, Mr. Kerr, he was offended by the latter’s rude manners as the he didn’t get up to welcome him, instead kept sitting on his chair, resting his booted legs on the desk upfront, with a complete disregard for showing any courtesy to his native visitor. Mr. Kerr was reported to have been very displeased on his visit to the Sanskrit College at a later date, when this same behavior was reciprocated to him by Vidyasagar as a Tit for Tat!

# There was another incident when Vidyasagar happened to travel by train in a compartment with some Englishmen. He sat between the two of them. One of them asked, "Who is this donkey?" The other man asked, "Who is this pig?" A third English man asked, "Who are you?" Ishwar Chandra coolly replied, "I am a human being sitting between a donkey and a pig." The three Englishmen felt ashamed of themselves as they didn’t expect him to know and speak English.


They felt even more awkward when they saw a large crowd of persons with garlands waiting to receive Ishwar Chandra when he descended from the train. The Englishmen then realised that though many Indians might appear simple and unlettered, they were inherently wise and educated.


Vidyasagar and Women’s Liberation:

The enactment of the Act of 1856, legalizing widow remarriage and the Civil Marriage Act of 1872, abolishing polygamy and child marriage and encouraging widow remarriage, owed a great deal to Vidyasagar, whose writings and activities had helped to create public opinion in favor of these social issues.

Perhaps Vidyasagar’s greatest legacy is his unflinching resolve to change the plight of Indian women, especially in his native Bengal. Being a devout Hindu himself, he sought transformation of orthodox Hindu society from within. As the principal of the Sanskrit College, he encouraged scholars to study ancient sacred texts and interpret them for contemporary usage. His study of ancient texts convinced him that the debilitating status of women in 19th century Hindu society had less legitimacy according to the scriptures, but had more to do with the existing power relations in society.

The prevailing social custom of Kulin Brahmin polygamy ensured that aged persons (often on the verge of death) married teenage girls and even children. The ill-fated girl used to be widowed very soon because her elderly husband died in old age. The life of such girls for the rest of their lives was full of woes and miseries like abstinence, torture, discrimination and deprivation.


These hapless widows were prohibited (as spiritual sanction) to abstain from consuming meat, fish, onion and garlic. Everyday, they had to rise before dawn to conduct their diurnal religious rituals, bathe in icy cold water and wrap a clean white sari around their wet bodies without drying themselves, and pick fresh flowers with dew-drops, to offer prayers to God. By custom, they were the last ones to eat in the household, or went without food observing various religious fasts.


They had to dress in plain white cotton saris and remain with their shaved off, hairless heads for the rest of their lives to render them unattractive to other men. They were usually abandoned soon after their husband’s demise and despatched to their parental homes, with their parents bearing the entire expense of their upkeep in addition to the financial burden of the wedding and dowry.


Some widows would even be thrown out of their houses or sent to religious places like Varanasi or Vrindavan in India, supposedly to pray and purify themselves, but in reality, they frequently ended up as prostitutes, rape victims and unsupported mothers.

Vidyasagar was very deeply moved by the plight of these hapless widows.

Vidyasagar’s heart melted at the pain and suffering imposed by the society, often in the name of religion, on Indian women. Polygamy, ban on widows from remarrying, child marriage, gender inequalities, keeping women away from the light of education, depriving them from property rights, etc. All these malpractices deeply distressed him.


He took up his pen, called discussion meetings, ran seminars and saw Government officials. All these efforts were directed to wipe out the evil traditions of the nation. But his call fell on deaf ears. On every instance, dictates from Hindu shastras were forwarded by the clergy as an excuse. So Vidyasagar set out to prove them wrong.

He conducted extensive research into Hindu scriptures and puranas and tried to explain that there was nothing against widows marrying a second time and why polygamy was an evil and hence unacceptable.


As the principal of the Sanskrit College, he encouraged scholars to study ancient sacred texts and interpret them for the times. His study of these texts convinced him that the debased status of women in 19th century Hindu society, the bias in law against female inheritance, wealth and property, and the social prejudice against female autonomy and education was not sanctioned by the scriptures, but had more to do with the prevalent power relations in society.


He published two volumes of books on remarriage of widows and another two volumes on polygamy citing quotes from scriptures and explaining the validity of his arguments.

He compiled a list of 'distinguished' polygamous Calcuttans who unable to control their boundless lust for sex, had married up to 80 times, often marrying under-age girls.

For his stern stand against polygamy, he was virulently attacked by the conservative Hindu religious groups and also received threats of physical violence and death. But nothing stopped Vidyasagar from what he had set out to do. His iron-will prevailed till the very end. On 26th July 1856, widow re-marriage was legalized by the then Government of India.

Due to his courageous entrepreneurship, widow-remarriage was ushered in the conservative Hindu Brahmin society of Bengal.

To prove that his compassion for widows was not empty rhetoric as some might have assumed, he even encouraged his son to marry a widow. He also established the Hindu Family Annuity Fund to help widows who could not remarry. He financed many such widow re-marriage weddings, often getting into debts himself.


 Vidyasagar: The Compassionate Reformist
Though he was very outspoken and blunt in his mannerisms, yet Vidyasagar had a heart of Gold - full of mercy and kindness. He always reflected and responded to distress calls of the poor, sufferings of the sick and injustice to humanity. While being a student at
Sanskrit College, he would spend part of his scholarship proceeds and cook paayesh (rice pudding) to feed the poor and buy medicines for the sick.


Later on, when he started earning, he paid fixed sums of monthly allowances to each member of his joint family, to family servants, to needy neighbors, to villagers who needed help and to his village surgery and school. This he continued without break even when he was unemployed and had to borrow substantially from time to time.

Vidyasagar did not believe that money was enough to ease the sufferings of humanity. He opened the doors of the
Sanskrit College to lower caste students (previously it was exclusive to the Brahmins), nursed sick cholera patients, went to crematoriums to bury unclaimed dead bodies, dined with the untouchables and walked miles as a messenger-man to take urgent messages to people who would benefit from them.


When the eminent Indian Poet of the 19th century, Michael Madhusudan Dutta, fell hopelessly into debts due to his reckless lifestyle during his stay in Versailles, France, he appealed for help to Vidyasagar (who was also known to all as Dayar Sagar – the Ocean of Kindness, for his immense generosity), Vidyasagar laboured to ensure that sums owed to Michael from his property at home were remitted to him and sent him a large sum of money to France.


Vidyasagar’s Published Works:


Vidyasagar devoted most of his time in writing reformist literature and text books. He also wrote biographical notes on numerous noteworthy personalities in the history of the world so that the young generation could be inspired by reading the great examples of their endurance, hard work, honesty, patience, perseverance, courage, determination and philosophy of life.

Betaal Panchavinsati - 25 tales of a Betaal (Demon) published in 1847 - a translation from the Sanskrit Kathasaritsagara on King Vikramaditya and his Betaal, is one of the most popular works of Vidyasagar in Bengali Prose.


Other notable Literary contributions by him include Banglar Itihaas (1848), Jivancharita (1849), Shakuntala (1854), Mahabharata (1860), Seetar Vanavas (1860), Bhrantivilaas (1869), Oti Alpa Hoilo (1873), Aabaar Oti Alpa Hoilo (1873), Brajavilaas (1884) and Ratnopariksha (1886).


But the most far-reaching and controversial of his Social Reform Monologues are:


  • Bidhobabivah (Widow Remarriage – on widows’ rights to remarry) the First Exposure (1855)
  • Bidhobabivah – (Widow Remarriage – on widows’ rights to remarry) the Second Book (1855)
  • Bahubivah - (on Banning of Polygamy) the First Exposure (1871)
  • Bahubivah – (on Banning of Polygamy) the Second Book (1873)
  • Balyabivah (on the Flaws of Child Marriage) - publication date not known

Vidyasagar is also famously known for his Educational Book of “Barnoparichoy”a first book of the Bengali alphabet to introduce children to the alphabetical letters of the Bangla Language. The term “Barna” means Letter (of the alphabets) and “Parichoy” means Introduction. This book on the Bengali alphabets and their elementary usage is illustrated with very interesting pictures, which was an entirely innovative and novel concept during those times.


Vidyasagar: A Persona Beyond Comparison


Thus, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was a legendary figure who played a significant role in all aspects of Indian life - be it education, culture, religion, ethics or literature.

He struggled relentlessly against all forms of corruption, blind superstition, prejudices and malpractices. He tried his best to emancipate the Indian women from the shackles of the biased, patriarchal society and didn’t want them to live like second class citizens of the country. He wanted them to be strong individuals with dignity and self-esteem. He was literally a 'modern' man with refined ideas. He fought with the conservative society in the 19th century and influenced the Government to enact the Widow Remarriage Act. He also fought relentlessly to abolish the practice of polygamy in the Indian Society.

His acts of supreme kindness and generosity, his fierce determination and courage, his education and social reform publications and activities have made Vidyasagar Immortal. The poet, RabindranathTagore was hard pressed to find a comparable personality in the West and according to him, the closest that he found who could come to resemble Vidyasagar in his words and deeds, was the English writer, Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Vidyasagar lived all his life as a very modest man, a simpleton, but with a generous heart, as he contributed so much to society by dedicating his whole life to the upliftment of the poor and downtrodden.

Towards the later part of his life, there was considerable deterioration in his health because of all the struggles he had gone through those many years of perseverance, in order to bring about social reform and justice.


Disgruntled with some of his own family members’ petty-mindedness and selfishness, he severed all relations with them and lived amongst the tribal people in his last years. He died on 29th July, 1891 at the age of 70.

Vidyasagar's stature as an educator, reformer, writer, scholar and philanthropist grew to such great heights that the whole nation, irrespective of race, religion and caste, mourned his sad demise. The newspapers and magazines were flooded with obituaries and features applauding his deeds and achievements; poets and writers, including the poet-laureate Rabindranath Tagore, wrote poems and prose in his remembrance.

Till Date, The Vidyasagar Mela, a fair dedicated to imparting education and creating social awareness, has been held in his memory every year since 1994 in West Bengal, India.


 Compilation Courtesy : Aparna Chatterjee


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