Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar-The Father of Modern Bengal
“Aano bhadra krtavo yantu vishwatah”.- RIG VEDA
Meaning: Let noble thoughts come to me from all directions
From time to time, in the sacred land of Bharath, are born the kind of people who make such a large impact on society within a very short period of time in their lives. One perfect example of such a great man was Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar who was the pillar of the Bengal Renaissance and a very active social reformer who strived to remove the crippling ills that were prevalent in the Hindu society during his time.
He was born in 1820 to orthodox Brahmin parents. He was an avid reader on a wide range of topics and even as a teenage boy, he gained the respect of the entire village as a boy with a vast ocean of knowledge, and hence he was conferred the title of Vidyasagar (Vidya –meaning learning, Sagar – meaning Ocean). He graduated with Sanskrit as his major and went on to become a very learned Sanskrit Pundit. Vidyasagar was a good writer and is considered the father of modern Bengali language. He wrote in journals and newspapers. He was dedicated to the cause of education. He worked as a Sanskrit professor in Sanskrit College, Calcutta until his retirement. Traditionally, people from the so-called lower castes were not allowed to study Sanskrit. But, he welcomed students from all religions and castes to learn Sanskrit in his college. He also introduced the study of modern western thought in his college. During his tenure as Principal, the Sanskrit College became the centre of free and reformist thinking. Simultaneously, he also was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, social activist, reformer, writer, publisher and also a renowned Bengali and Sanskrit linguist. He also published several books in Sanskrit and Bengali. He revised the Bengali alphabets and published a book that is used even today. He also published a fundamental book on Sanskrit grammar that many students of Sanskrit grammar currently use.
Vidyasagar devoted his entire life to the cause of social reforms. He is particularly remembered for his contribution to the cause of women. He protested against child-marriage and polygamy. He waged a long struggle in favour of widow remarriage. It was largely due to his efforts that the Widow Remarriage Act was passed in AD 1856. This act made the marriage of widows legal. He participated in the first widow remarriage that took place in AD 1856 at Calcutta. Vidyasagar was also devoted towards the cause of education for women. He was very close to Drinkwater Bethune, who started the first school for girls at Calcutta in AD 1849. Today, it is very natural for girls to go to school and get educated. But in those days, close-minded people were strongly opposed to it. When Vidyasagar was made the Special Inspector of School in AD 1855, he opened a large number of schools for girls and ran many of them at his own expense.
Despite being highly successful and recognized in all these various fields, Vidyasagar remained an extremely modest man. There are several anecdotes from his life that prove this point about his character. Because of his humility, he was widely respected across the country.
Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar and his few friends were busy collecting donations to start Calcutta University. One day Vidyasagar stopped at the door of the palace of Nawab of Ayodhya. Nawab was not exactly known to be a generous person and many people tried to dissuade Vidyasagar from taking this mission. Vidyasagar met Nawab and presented his cause. On hearing Vidyasagar’s plea, Nawab got up, pulled one of his shoes and dropped in Vidyasagar’s bag for donation. Vidyasagar did not say a word. He simply got up, thanked Nawab and left.
Next day Vidyasagar organized auction of Nawab’s shoe in front of his palace. Lot of Nawab’s knights , Jahagirdars, court members, who wanted to impress Nawab started bidding. By the mid afternoon the shoe was sold for Rs 1000. Nawab, happy to hear that his shoe fetched Rs 1000, matched the auction money. He added his own Rs. 1000 as donation.
When the destiny dropped a shoe in his basket, Vidyasagar could have walked out furious. He could have thrown the shoe on Nawab as revenge of insult. He could have got depressed and gone home and cried that nobody is willing to give him donation and given up his efforts to raise donation for university.
But he did nothing of that sort. He remained focused on the main goal. He rose above his personal feelings, ego, and insecurities and exploited the situation creatively. He rose above his insecurities and exploited that of others around him. He took that shoe and converted it to the biggest donation to University of Culcutta. Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar converted his on-face insult and resulting disappointment into a Rs. 2000 donation plus a pleased Nawab who could be of some assistance at some point later.
Calcutta University became a reality. It became a center of education for fine arts, social studies, science and technology.
Throughout our life, we will come across situations that will bring disappointment, anger, frustration, depression. But most of the times, there will be a way we can use this situation to our advantage if we remain focused on our real objective, if we engage in introspection, and if we find a creative solution by thinking outside the box. Next time when destiny hands over you a shoe when you were expecting treasures, take that as a challenge to your creativity, not as an insult to your ego.
The incident below is one of the many incidents in the life of Ishwar Chandra where his simplicity and modesty are portrayed. He truly lived up to the ideal – “knowledge liberates”. He was indeed a liberated man.
There lived another certain pundit from across the country who had also studied Sanskrit grammar in great detail. However, despite all his struggles, he was unable to decipher certain portions of the Panini Sutras (Panini’s grammar rules). Immediately, he thought of the great Sanskrit pundit, Ishwar Chandra and wrote to him to see if he was available for a brief discussion. Ishwar Chandra invited this other pundit to come to Calcutta so that they could talk in leisure and discuss the grammatical doubt in greater detail. Ishwar Chandra also volunteered to receive the pundit at the railway station and take him to his house. This pundit was overjoyed after getting Ishwar Chandra’s reply and made preparations to go to Calcutta. But, the pundit was a very haughty man, and he was proud of himself for being a scholar. Even thought he had struggled to understand a few rules from the Panini sutras, now that he had got Ishwar Chandra’s reply, he became overconfident about his scholarship and became even more proud. He dressed exquisitely during the train journey, so that he was well dressed when meeting Ishwar Chandra.
As promised, Ishwar Chandra was waiting at the railway station to receive this pundit. Ishwar Chandra always dressed very modestly, and this proud pundit mistook him to be a coolie and disregarded him when he waved. The pundit looked around searching for a well-dressed Ishwar Chandra. He assumed that a person as respected and as famous as Ishwar Chandra would wear shiny clothes and costly shoes. He could not find anyone dressed as exquisitely as he himself was, and so beckoned the coolie and ordered to carry his luggage and asked him “Do you know where the famous Ishwar Chandra lives?” and he nodded in the affirmative. Ishwar Chandra quietly obeyed the pundit and carried his luggage to his own house. On the way, this pundit would not stop blowing his own trumpet. He said “I am a Sanskrit scholar. Do you know how difficult it is for people to study the Sanskrit grammar rules? It was written by a genius man called Panini. I am one of the very few people in this country who understands that. Another person who understands them is Ishwar Chandra and I am here to see him so that I can have these intellectual conversations with someone who is equal to me in intelligence.” Ishwar listened to the pundit’s continuous self-praise but did not become angry or agitated. He still did not reveal his true identity, but quietly carried the luggage to his house.
Upon reaching his house, he opened the door and invited the pundit inside courteously. It was then that the pundit realized – the person he had been singing his own praises to was none other than the great Ishwar Chandra himself. He felt very ashamed of himself when he saw how such a genius like Ishwar Chandra could dress so simply, conduct himself so modestly and respect everyone else so humbly, even when we was being treated like a coolie. He was astounded also by the simplicity of his residence and the simplicity of his habits. After staying with Ishwar Chandra for a couple of days, and after clarifying his grammar doubts, the pundit returned home, a more humble man himself.
After his death the Nandan Kanan, the abode of Vidyasagar was sold by his son to Mallick family of Kolkata. Before Nandan Kanan could be dismantled Bengali Association Bihar on 29 March 1974 purchased it by money collected by house to house contribution of one rupee each. The Girls School has been restarted, named after Vidyasagar. The Free Homeopathic Clinic is serving local population. The house of Vidyasagar has been maintained in the original shape. The most prized property is the 141 year old ‘Palanquin’ used by Vidyasagar himself.