By Nithin Sridhar
Every Bengali worth his mettle got introduced to the language through ‘Barnaparichay’, the elementary Bengali textbook in two parts which has helped millions through the ages in recognizing and amalgamating the Bengali characters. The author, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was one of the foremost figures in Bengali Renaissance. He was an educator, philosopher, Sanskrit scholar, and a social reformer.
On this day, 195 years ago, he was born as Ishwar Chandra Bandopadhyay to Thakurdas Bandyopadhyay and Bhagavati Devi at Birsingha village of West Midnapore district, West Bengal. On his 195th birth anniversary let us briefly look into his life and legacy.
His Life: He was born in 1820 and his primary education was commenced at a pathshala (indigenous school) where he learned language, grammar, arithmetic, etc. Later, after moving to Calcutta (now Kolkata) he joined the Sanskrit College and mastered Sanskrit Vyakarana (grammar), Kavya (poetry), Smriti, Nyaya (Logic) and Vedanta among other subjects.
In spite of abject poverty, Ishwar Chandra studied very hard and excelled in academics. In 1839, he graduated in law examination. The college committee endowed Ishwar Chandra with the title ‘Vidyasagar’- ocean of knowledge, recognizing his expertise in various branches of knowledge.
He was married to Dinamani Devi at the age of 14 and at the age of 21 he joined the Fort William College as head of the Sanskrit department in 1841. He joined the Sanskrit college in 1846 and in 1851 he became its principal.
He worked for the upliftment of women and made significant contributions to Bengali language and literature. He finally passed away in 1891 at the age of 70 years.
His Legacy: He was one of the foremost champions of women’s upliftment. He championed the cause of widow remarriage and introduced the practice in the Bengali society. He studied the Hindu scriptures deeply and realized that there is nothing in the scriptures against widow remarriage. His efforts resulted in the passing of the Widow Remarriage Act in 1856.
He also fought against child marriages and unrestricted polygamy. He wrote various books on the issue of widow marriage and polygamy, and set up a Hindu Family Annuity Fund to help those widows who could not marry again.
He made important contributions to education sectors. He opened schools for providing education to girls. He also opened the education sector to lower caste students. Due to his immense compassion and generosity, people used to call him ‘Daya Sagar’– ocean of compassion.
In the field of languages, he made significant contributions to the Bengali language. He reconstructed the Bengali alphabets and restricted into 12 vowels and 40 consonants. He made extensive contributions to Bengali and Sanskrit literature.
Apart from his two volume books each on widow-remarriages and banning polygamy, and one volume on child marriage, he also translated the ‘Kathasaritsagara’ from Sanskrit into Bengali and called it ‘Betaal Panchavinsati’ – 25 tales of a Betaal. His other important works include ‘Banglar Itihaas’, ‘Jivancharita’, ‘Shakuntala’, ‘Seetar Vanavas’, and ‘Bhrantivilaas’.
After his death, Rabindranath Tagore wrote about him thus: “One wonders how God, in the process of producing forty million Bengalis, produced a man!”
On the birth anniversary of such a great man, one should remember that he was as much an ocean of knowledge as he was of compassion, and one should try to implement both these values in his/her life.