Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagr, Pundit (1820-1891)

ishar-chandra-vidyasagarxtrIshwar Chandra Vidyasagar (26 September 1820 – 29 July 1891), born Ishwar Chandra Bandopadhyay, was an Indian Bengali polymath and a key figure of the Bengal Renaissance. Vidyasagar was a philosopher, academic, educator, writer, translator, printer, publisher, entrepreneur, reformer, and philanthropist. His efforts to simplify and modernize Bengali prose were significant. He also rationalized and simplified the Bengali alphabet and type, which had remained unchanged since Charles Wilkins and Panchanan Karmakar had cut the first (wooden) Bengali type in 1780. He received the title “Vidyasagar” from the Calcutta Sanskrit College, where he graduated, due to his excellent performance in Sanskrit studies and philosophy.
In 1841, Vidyasagar took the job of a Sanskrit Pandit (Professor) at Fort William College in Kolkata (Calcutta). In 1846, he joined the Sanskrit College as Assistant Secretary. A year later, he and a friend of his, Madan Mohan Tarkalankar, set up the Sanskrit Press and Depository, a print shop and a bookstore. While Vidyasagar resigned from Sanskrit College in 1849 as some serious differences arose between him and Rasamoy Dutta who was then the Secretary when Vidyasagar proposed to open the College to students from all castes. Later, Vidyasagar rejoined the College, and introduced many far-reaching changes to the College’s syllabus. He vigorously promoted the idea that regardless of their caste, both men and women should receive the best education. His remarkable clarity of vision is instanced by his brilliant plea for teaching of science, mathematics and the philosophies of John Locke and David Hume, to replace most of ancient Hindu philosophy. His own books, written for primary school children, reveal a strong emphasis on enlightened materialism, with scant mention of God and religious verities – a fact that posits him as a pioneer of the Indian Renaissance. Vidyasagar reconstructed the Bengali alphabet and reformed Bengali typography into an alphabet (actually abugida) of twelve vowels and forty consonants. Vidyasagar contributed significantly to Bengali and Sanskrit literature.Vidyasagar’s “Barna Porichoy” is still considered a classic.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar had a heart of Gold. He was also known for his charity and philanthropy as “Karunar Sagar”. While being a student at Sanskrit College, he would spend part of his scholarship proceeds 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 neighbours, 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.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, Vidyasagar, sent him a large sum of money to France.
Vidyasagar championed the uplift of the status of women in India, particularly in his native place Bengal. With valuable moral support from people like Akshay Kumar Dutta, Vidyasagar introduced the practice of widow remarriages to mainstream Hindu society. Vidyasagar took the initiative in proposing and pushing through the Widow Remarriage Act XV of 1856. He also demonstrated that the system of polygamy without restriction was not sanctioned by the ancient Hindu Shastras.

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