Why Vidyasagar is so Relevant today in the Fight Against the Communal Fascist Discourse

[The inscription below this bust of Vidyasagar quotes Rabindranath Tagore: “His foremost virtue was neither his compassion nor his learning, but his invincible manliness and imperishable humanity.” He saw education as a tool of enlightenment and empowerment of the masses. Said he, “Education does not only mean learning, reading, writing, and arithmetic. It should provide comprehensive knowledge. Education in geography, geometry, literature, natural philosophy, moral philosophy, physiology, political economy, etc. is very much necessary. We want teachers who know both Bengali and the English Languages, and at the same time are free from religious prejudices.” Souvik Ghoshal, a historian by training, presents here a short account of the life and work of the great educationist, courageous social reformer, compassionate philanthropist and the father of modern Bengali prose. -- Ed.]


During the last phase of 2019 Lok Sabha election, BJP president Amit Shah's road show in Kolkata turned into a chaotic rabble and rowdies manning the show started hurling stones at protesting students of Calcutta University. Later, they broke into the nearby Vidyasagar College and demolished Vidyasagar's statue.

Why did Vidyasagar, nearly 200 years after his birth, become the target of the communal fascist brigade? Was it because he took little interest in religious matters and devoted his entire life to progressive social reforms, spread of modern education and material progress of the people? To find a proper answer to this question, we must know the man and his legacy in the backdrop of the social milieu in Bengal in the early years of British rule.


The 1757 Battle of Plassey installed British Rule in Bengal and Bengal Presidency became the base of British Imperialism in India. The brave resistance put up by the likes of Tipu Sultan, the Marathas and Sikhs, the adivasis and peasants failed to stop the chariot of British expansion in India. After some years of ‘dual government policy’, (where political power was nominally or apparently in the hands of Bengal Nawbabs while the economy was under the control of British East India Company), the Company took over direct control of all state affairs.

The British bureaucracy was trying to come to grips with the established laws of the land, the education system and traditional social customs so that they could lord it over the vast subcontinent with a small military and administrative force. In the process, Indology developed as a new branch of learning. Initially the British East India Company officials preferred a policy of non-intervention in the sphere of religion and culture because they feared an adverse reaction from the people of India. However, under pressure from different quarters such as the Missionaries, the Liberals, the Orientalists, the Utilitarians etc, the company was compelled to give up the position of neutrality and to take up the responsibility of promotion of education. However, the administrators were divided on whether the company should promote western or oriental education, giving rise to the Orientalist - Anglicist controversy.

Those who were in favour of continuation of the existing institutions of “oriental” learning and promotion of Indian classical tradition were called Orientalists. They wanted to acquaint the British officials with local languages and cultures in order that they could do their job more efficiently. The establishment of the Calcutta Madrasa by Warren Hastings in 1781, the Asiatic Society of Bengal by William Jones in 1784, the Benares Sanskrit College by Jonathan Duncan in 1791 and the Fort William College at Calcutta in 1800 were the most important initiatives in this direction. Orientalists were also keen to develop friendly relations with the elites of the indigenous society and that was the main reason behind the establishment of the Calcutta Madrassa on the one hand and the Benaras Sanskrit College on the other.


While the Orientalists had their way in the initial stage, a strong opposition was mounted by different groups in England, such as the Evangelicals, the Liberals and the Utilitarians. They strongly believed in the superiority of Christian ideas and/or western knowledge and institutions. The foremost proponent  of this idea was the influential British historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay. He asserted that the objective of education policy in India should be to promote western learning through English language.

These groups, collectively called Anglicists, believed that western education by English medium alone could lift Indians from their educational and cultural backwardness. Since mass education was expensive, a more cost-effective way would be to first educate a group of people who would gradually spread education through the rest of society. In other words, education would filter down from the elites to the masses.

Even as the polemic was going on, the young Ishwar, aged nine, was walking with his father Thakurdas Bandyopadhyay from Birsingha, a nondescript village in Bengal, to Calcutta in quest of better education and a better future. It was 1829. This was not a journey of just one father and son. It represented a growing trend among the Bengali bhadralok. Times were changing, and Calcutta --the then Capital of British India -- was fast emerging as a centre of modern education and literary-cultural-journalistic activities, a battleground of ideas old and new and a hot spot of social churning. No doubt only a tiny section of Bengali/Indian society got exposed to this new kind of education and social churning, but the impact was to be felt far and wide.   


In the year 1841 Vidyasagar graduated from the Sanskrit College and was appointed as a teacher in Fort William College. Five years later he left Fort William College and joined Sanskrit College as Assistant Secretary. He proposed a number of important changes to modernize the existing curricula. This led to a serious altercation with the College Secretary Rasomoy Dutta, who was a staunch Orientalist. Finally in 1849 he resigned from Sanskrit College and rejoined Fort William College as a head clerk.

In February 1853, Macaulay presented his ‘Minute on Indian Education’ that sought to impart English education to the ‘natives’. The old debate was finally settled in favour of Anglicists. It was decided that limited government resources were to be allotted to the teaching of western sciences and literature in English. The Government gradually made English as the medium of instruction in its schools and colleges and opened a few English schools and colleges.

In this backdrop Vidyasagar rejoined the Sanskrit college and finally became its principal. In recognition of his zeal as an educationist, the Bengal Government appointed him as the Special Inspector of Schools. But as we shall presently see, he had his own ideas of modern education.  His goal was to fight illiteracy and make available to the broad masses the best of the “Orient” and the “Occident”.


But this was no easy task. Back in 1830s William Adam, a Scottish missionary, had been asked to tour the districts of Bengal and Bihar and submit a report on the prevailing state of education. Adam found that the system of education in the local schools, known as pathshalas, was really pathetic. There were no fixed fees, no benches or chairs, no system of separate classes, no annual examinations. In many a case, classes were held under a banyan tree, or in a village shop (think the Pather Panchali scene showing Apu in a typical pathshala) or temple, or at the teacher’s home. Teaching was oral and it was left to the teacher to decide what to teach and how.

Prompted by the findings of Adam report, the government of Bengal decided to found 101 primary schools Bengal, Bihar and Orissa and Vidyasagar submitted a detailed plan for mass education in the vernacular medium on an extensive scale. Encouraged by the government he established several model schools in different districts. He also produced a good many textbooks, such as ‘Banglar Itihas,’ (1848) based on John Marshal’s ‘History of Bengal’; Jiban Charit (1849) (translations from the Chambers Biographical Dictionary, which traced the biographies of a good many western scientists); Bodhoday (1851), Kathamala (1856), Akhyan Manjari (1863). The didactic tales and discourses collected from Sanskrit and English sources reflected his concern for enlightenment of the broad masses.


Vidyasagar was equally concerned with the spread of women's education. He collaborated with his friend Drinkwater Bethune, a British philanthropist, and served as the honorary Secretary of the girls’ school established by the latter in 1849. As Inspector of Schools he established 35 girls’ schools on his own initiative and expense. A vigorous activist to the core, he launched a movement to redress the wrongs done to women. In January 1855, to the chagrin of orthodox Hindus, he published a pamphlet on widow remarriage: Bidhaba Bibaha Bishayak Prastab. A second pamphlet on the same subject was published in October. Both pamphlets were translated into English next year under the title ‘Marriage of Hindu widows’. Like his predecessor Rammohan,  Vidyasagar cited evidence from Hindu scriptures to support his contention that marriage of widows was actually sanctioned by the scriptures. He made a strong and emotional plea for the acceptance of widow remarriage and in 1856 successfully persuaded the government to enact a law permitting widow remarriage. These pamphlets showcase his profound knowledge of the Hindu scriptures, which he used in the cause of secular humanist enlightenment. In all such progressive social activities he faced tremendous resistance from powerful conservative sections of Hindu society but fought on courageously. He opposed child marriage and in 1871 launched a movement to end polygamy. He wrote a couple of pamphlets exposing the evil practice. However, he failed to create a sufficiently strong public opinion and to persuade the government to pass a law banning the practice.

While tirelessly responding to all the demands of public life, he found time to simplify and rearrange Bengali typography into an alphabet of 12 vowels and 40 consonants, eliminating the Sanskrit phonemes. This formed the foundation of ‘Borno Parichay’ (Introduction to the Letters) -- the ground-breaking Bengali primer published in two parts in 1855 -- which still remains unsurpassed as a primer. These texts, like his other works, stand witness to his vast knowledge as a Sanskrit scholar and expertise in putting ideas across to the reader/student in a simple, straightforward manner.


There are critics who hold that Vidyasagar was just a pawn in the hands of the British Government and worked as their collaborator. The fact is, while he made full use of official sponsorship in dissemination of the light of rational knowledge in the vernacular and in a secular, humanist idiom so rare in Bengal in those days (honourable exceptions include the works of Akshay Kumar Dutta, whose 200th birth anniversary is being celebrated this year) there was a huge gulf between his mindset and the motive of the British Government. The two approaches were bound to collide, and did collide. The Britishers planned to educate a small section of upper and middle classes, thus creating a class "Indian in blood and colour but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect" (as Macaulay famously put it) who would act as interpreters between the government and masses and help spread the knowledge of western sciences and literature among the people. Vidyasagar had a totally different vision. His motto was to establish a large number of elementary schools and spread education far and deep in a direct, proactive manner. He rebelled against caste discrimination in education and opened the doors of Sanskrit College to lower caste students (previously it was exclusive to the Brahmins). And when in 1849 he found that his British superiors were not supporting his move to spread education in the remote villages, he promptly tendered his resignation.


The immense contribution of Ishwar Chandra to the development of Bengali language and literature can be gauged when we recall that prior to the 19th century, there was hardly any literary prose in Bengali. A beginning was made by the Srirampore-based Baptist Missionaries followed by pundits and munshis of the Fort William College and then by a few newspapers since 1818. Rammohan Ray made a significant contribution with his essays and translations but it was Vidyasagar who really consolidated the structural base of Bengali. The Government officials were then looking for good Bengali prose for the purpose of circulating official orders. They requested Vidyasagar to create good prose books in Bengali for the British clerks studying in Fort William College and also for the young students of the missionary schools spread over Bengal. So he ventured upon translating books from other languages. He wrote Basudeva-charita based on the Sanskrit epic Srimadvagbat, but it did not see the light of day. A prolific and powerful writer, he then penned Betaal Panchabingshoti (1847) – 25 tales of a Betaal, translated from a Hindi version of a Sanskrit classic -- followed by ‘Kathasaritsagara’ (‘Ocean of the Streams of Story’), a work in Sanskrit compiled in 11th-century by Somadeva, but based on yet older materials. While retelling old stories he took care to make them suitable for the modern reader. He translated Abhijnanashakuntalam by Kalidasa (1854) in prose, where Shakuntala and her two companions appear more like young Bengali girls; as does Sita in Sitar Banabas (1860). When he translated Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors and named it ‘Bhrantibilash’ (1886), he adapted it for Bengali readers and retold it as a narrative. His style,  wit and humour made his works highly readable. As Rabindranath Tagore observed, “the first real artist of Bengali prose”. His other literary works include ‘Mahabharata’ in 1860, ‘Oti Alpa Hoilo’ in 1873, ‘Aabaar Oti Alpa Hoilo’ in 1873, ‘Brajavilaas’ in 1884 and ‘Ratnopariksha’ in 1886.


Vidyasagar -- meaning an ocean of knowledge -- was also known as “dayar sagar” or ocean of compassion. He was always ready to help the poor, the sick and the oppressed.  Even when he was a student at Sanskrit College, he would spend part of his scholarship to feed the poor and buy medicines for the sick. Later on, he paid fixed sums of monthly allowances to each member of his joint family, to family servants, to needy neighbours, to villagers who needed help and to the village clinic and school. This he continued without break even when he was unemployed and had to borrow substantially from time to time. In his last will he mentioned the names of all those who received his monthly allowances,  added some new names to that list and also inserted a blanket category: “those who need help”.


Throughout his life Vidyasagar fought hard against the obscurantist inhuman traditions of his society. The “Young Bengal” group of free thinkers emerging from Calcutta’s Hindu College, and led by the young radical teacher Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, were also doing the same since the early decades of the nineteenth century, but Vidyasagar went a big step ahead. Young Bengals agitated the society but Ishwar Chandra was a breaker of old obscure traditions and a maker of new constructive ways of life. In the face of stubborn opposition from traditionalists he was able to influence the contemporary society much deeper than others. Noted historian and commentator of Bengal Renaissance Binay Ghosh was spot on when in his much acclaimed book ‘Vidyasagar O Bangali Samaj’ (Vidyasagar and Bengali Society) he upheld Vidyasagar as the central figure of Bengal Renaissance.

The doyen of Bengali prose realized that modern literature is a prerequisite of social reform. He translated from Mahabharata, Ramayana and from Kalidasa into Bangla not to return to ancient India, but to improve the literary tastes of the emerging intelligentsia. The literature he translated were mostly those of gods and goddesses, such as Rama and Sita, but he transformed them into adorable modern human beings. Unlike most scholars of his time, he was a champion of progressive change and liberalism. In these turbulent times, when the ruling dispensation is out to destroy secular, scientific and rational discourse in educational institutions and the society at large, we must cherish and draw upon the legacy of Vidyasagar in our ongoing struggle against religious bigotry, obscurantism and divisiveness.

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