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Iswar chandra vidyasagar
Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar

Pundit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891) Sanskrit pundit, educator, reformer, writer, philanthropist. Considered to be one of the greatest intellectuals and activists of the nineteenth century, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar was born in a Brahmin family at Birsingha in Midnapore district. His parents, though poor, managed to send him to Calcutta for studies after he finished his early education at the village pathshala. Iswar studied at sanskrit college, Calcutta from 1829 to 1841. He bagged all the prizes and scholarships for best performance. Evaluating his performance in various courses - poetics, rhetoric, vedanta, Smrti, astrology and logicthe College Committee endowed Iswar Chandra with the honorific title of Vidyasagar (sea of knowledge) in 1839.

At the age of 21, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar started his career as the head pundit of the fort william college, Calcutta. He joined Sanskrit College as a professor in 1850. In the following year he became Principal of the college. Concurrently with his Sanskrit College position, the government entrusted him in 1855 with the added responsibility of Special Inspector of Schools for the districts of Hughli, Burdwan, Midnapore and Nadia. He was also an honorary office bearer of several organisations including asiatic society and bethune society. In 1858, he was made one of the first fellows of the Calcutta University. He received a certificate of Honour at the Imperial Assemblage in January 1877 and in January 1880 was made a CIE. He also received honours and felicitations from many social, cultural and scientific organisations.

Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar was not truly a writer in the sense that Bankimchandra and others of his time were. His writings were instructive, reformative and utilitarian, not creative. His earliest works including Mahabharata Upakramanika (serialised in the tattvabodhini patrika 1843-44) and vetalapanchavingshati (1847), were translations. In fact, the majority of his works, 32 in all, were directly or indirectly translations from Sanskrit, Hindi and English. These were mainly textbooks addressed to school students. His only independent scholarly study, but which remains obscure among the generality, is Sanskrit Bhasa O Sanskrit Sahitya Shastra Bisyak Prastab (Propositions on Sanskrit Language and Literature, 1853). But though a textbook writer essentially, Vidyasagar is rated by the established writers of his own time as an artistic writer and inspiring educator. In his hands, Bangla prose style took a new turn. According to critics, Vidyasagar inaugurated a new era for Bangla prose literature.

A reformer of Bangla prose style, Vidyasagar as a writer had consciously avoided the new but affected prosody pursued by the orientalists at Fort William College, the pedantic and obscurantist style of rammohun roy and his followers, and the unrefined linguistic structure of the contemporary newspapers and periodicals. Instead, he charted out for himself a new course which soon laid the foundation of modern Bangla prose. Here lies the uniqueness of Vidyasagar's contributions. Since his style found expression in his text books essentially and since his books were prescribed commonly in all government and vernacular schools until the early years of the twentieth century, several generations of writers, officers and professionals were very directly and permanently influenced by the Vidyasagarian prose style, the hallmark of which was a grand synthesis of past and present techniques of Bangla language and literature.

Vidyasagar was a reformer and thinker. In his Bangalar Itihas (History of Bengal, Vol.2, 1848), he has aptly shown, contrary to Marshman's theory, the marked syncretic and synthetic trends of Bengal's social and cultural developments. Though personally an orthodox Hindu, Iswar Chandra perceived other religionists entirely secularly.

Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar's reforming mind has found most concrete expression in his socio-religious thoughts. He raised questions about early marriage, polygamy, widow remarriage, and many other ills stifling social developments. Most of his reform thoughts were embodied in his two famous works: Bidhababibaha Prachalita Haoya Uchit Kina Etadvisayak Prastab, 2 vols. (On widow remarriage... 1855; Bahubibaha Rahit Haoya Uchit Kina Etadvisayak Bichar, 2 vols. (On Abolition of Polygamy... 1871). Polygamy, widow remarriage, child marriage were sensitive issues, because these were supported by the Hindu religion. Vidyasagar did not mean to hurt the religious sentiments of the common people by directly attacking the evils. In defence of his arguments he profusely drew instances from the shastras and other classical texts, a strategem which had a tremendous impact on the people. His sastra-based and humorous arguments made the defenders of those social evils largely defenceless, though many of the conservatives maligned him savagely. The enactment of the Act of 1856, legalising widow remarriage and the Civil Marriage Act of 1872, restricting bigamy and child marriage and encouraging widow remarriage, owed a great deal to Vidyasagar, whose writings and activities had helped to create public opinion in favour of these issues.

As Special Inspector of Schools, Vidyasagar used his position to encourage landholders and other solvent people to establish educational institutions. Within his inspection zone he was instrumental in founding dozens of schools, several of which were for girls. Some schools were established at his own initiative and with his financial support. His monumental contribution to educational institution building was his Calcutta Metropolitan Institution, a model college with attached schools, which he established in 1864 at his own cost. He also funded the erection of the magnificent building housing the Metropolitan Institution. Vidyasagar's philanthropy was proverbial. It is said that half the money that he got from his salary and his royalties was kept reserved for helping the distressed.

Vidyasagar's stature as an educator, reformer, writer and philanthropist grew to such a height that, at his death on 29 July 1891, the whole nation, irrespective of race, religion and caste, mourned. The newspapers and magazines published obituaries and features applauding his deeds and achievements; poets and writers, including rabindranth tagore, wrote poems and features in his memory. In these remembrances and recollections, Vidyasagar was rated as the greatest man of the century. The evaluation remains unchanged even today.