Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar was born Iswarchandra Bandopadhyay on September 26, 1820, in Birsingha village of Midnapore district in a poor Brahmin family.
Michael Madhusudan Dutt, the 19th century pioneer of Bengali drama, described Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar as having “the genius and wisdom of an ancient sage, the energy of an Englishman and the heart of a Bengali mother”,
After his elementary education, Iswarchandra moved to Calcutta, where he studied Sanskrit grammar, literature, Vedanta philosophy, logic, astronomy, and Hindu law, and received the title of Vidyasagar — Ocean of Learning — at age 21. Privately, he studied English literature and philosophy. When he was barely 30, Vidyasagar was appointed principal of Calcutta’s Sanskrit College.
The Ocean of Learning, who is said to have studied under street lights as a child, was also the “Daya Sagar” — Ocean of Compassion — who literally wept at the sight of the poor and destitute, and is said to have spent his salary and scholarships on their welfare.
But his most enduring contributions were as an educationist and reformer of traditional upper caste Hindu society. The focus of his reform was women — he spent his life’s energies trying to ensure an end to the practice of child marriage and to initiate widow marriage.
His Bengali primer, the Borno Porichoy, reconstructed the modern Bengali alphabet, and remains, more than 125 years after his death in 1891, almost every child’s introduction to learning and writing the language.
Reforms for women
In a paper written in 1850, Vidyasagar 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 1855, he wrote his two famous tracts on the Marriage of Hindu Widows, grounding his argument in reason and logic, showing that there was no prohibition on widows remarrying in the entire body of ‘Smriti’ literature (the Sutras and the Sastras).
Alongside the campaign for widow remarriage, Vidyasagar campaigned against polygamy. In the 1870s, Vidyasagar 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 lasting impact
Two thousand copies of Vidyasagar’s first pamphlets on widow remarriage were sold out in a week, and a reprint of another 3,000 was sold out as well. These were unprecedented sales figures for that time.
On October 14, 1855, Vidyasagar petitioned the Government of India asking that it “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, in Bengal and elsewhere, especially in Maharashtra. Indeed, some of the earliest and most fundamental reforms impacting the lives of Hindu women were pioneered by the man whose bust was vandalised in Tuesday’s attack on the college that he founded.