Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was a philosopher, educationist, writer, publisher, reformer, and philanthropist.
He was one of the greatest intellectuals and activists of the 19th century and is considered as one of the pillars of Bengal renaissance. He put in great efforts to carry on the reforms movement which was initiated by Raja Rammohan Roy. Vidyasagar was a staunch follower of humanity. He was instrumental in bringing the revolution the education system of Bengal.
Iswar Chandra Bandopadhaya was born at Birsingha in Midnapur on September 26, 1820. Born in to a poor family of Thakurdas Banerjee and Bhagabati Devi, he was not only remarkably intelligent but was full of determination. His quest for knowledge was so intense that he used to study on street light as his poor parents couldn’t afford a gas lamp at home. He cleared successive annual examinations with flying colors and won many scholarships for his academic performance which were a welcome relief in his impoverished financial condition. He also took up a teaching job to support himself and the family.
In the year 1839, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar successfully cleared his Law examination. In 1841, at the age of twenty one years, Ishwar Chandra joined the Fort William College as a head of the Sanskrit department. He received the title "Vidyasagar" from the Calcutta Sanskrit College, due to his excellent performance in Sanskrit studies and philosophy. This title was mainly given for his vast knowledge in all subjects which was compared to the vastness of the ocean.
He travelled all over Bengal in the capacity of Inspector of Schools. It gave him the opportunity to understand the pervading darkness and superstitions in which people of Bengal lived in the absence of education. It resulted in establishment of 20 Model schools in only two months. He also realized that unless women were educated it was impossible liberate them from the terrible burden of inequalities and injustice.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar initiated the concept of widow remarriage and raised concern for the abolition of child-marriage and polygamy.
Vidyasagar championed the cause of the uplift of the status of women in India. He was a strong supporter of widow marriages. He wanted to transform orthodox Hindu society from within. With valuable moral support from his friends, Vidyasagar introduced the practice of widow remarriages to mainstream Hindu society. In earlier times, remarriages of widows was no so common. There were very few of such marriages used to take place among progressive members of the Brahmo Samāj. During this period, young girls were married to very elderly widowers to. This situation led to many girls becoming widows at a very early age. The life of such young girls was agony. They were subjected to orthodox rituals which included semi starvation diet, rigid and dangerous daily ritual of cleanliness, hard domestic labor. Some of them used to run away and turned to prostitution. Vidyasagar took the initiative in proposing and pushing through the Widow Remarriage Act XV of 1856 in India. He also demonstrated that the system of polygamy without restriction was not sanctioned by the ancient Hindu religion. His fearless championing on behalf of widow re-marriage ends in success. He failed to get the abolition of polygamy though succeeded in the imparting female education.
He spent most of his time in writing reformist literature and text books, his pioneering work in Bengali prose certainly deserves the very best of appreciation. His simplification of idiomatic expressions and clarification of the writing style provided the sound base on which latter Bengali writers like Tekchand Thakur, Pyarichand Mitra and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee built their literary superstructures. Indeed, Tagore revered him as 'the father of modern Bengali prose'
His efforts to simplify and modernize Bengali prose were significant. He also rationalized and simplified the Bengali alphabet and type.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the great scholar, academician and reformer passed away on 29 July, 1891 at the age of 70 years. After his death Rabindranath Tagore said, "One wonders how God, in the process of producing forty million Bengalis, produced a man!"
Vidyasagar promoted the idea of best education for everybody regardless of their gender, caste and class.
In the face of opposition from the Hindu establishment, Vidyasagar vigorously promoted the idea that regardless of their caste, both men and women should receive the best education. He truly believed that people should learn the more progressive sibj in 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.
Shortly after Vidyasagar's death, Rabindranath Tagore reverently wrote about him: "One wonders how God, in the process of producing forty million Bengalis, produced a man!"