Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, The 19th Century Polymath Who Fought For Women Emancipation

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was a powerful voice against oppression of women in 19th century Bengal

New Delhi: 

As revered as Swami Vivekananda by Bengalis, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar is the 19th century polymath reformer who modernised and simplified the Bengali alphabet and propagated widow remarriage.

The widespread reaction to the vandalism of his statue in Kolkata on Tuesday is a reflection of the immense passion he evokes across the state.

The first book a Bengali child is handed is Vidyasagar’s “Barna Parichay” (Introduction to Bengali letters). This is followed by a text written by Rabindranath Tagore, “Sahaj Path”.

According to legend, Vidyasagar learnt English numerals by observing milestones by the side of the road on a journey to Calcutta (now Kolkata) along with his father from his native Midnapore for higher studies.

Born as Ishwarchandra Bandyopadhyay in 1820, he earned the title “vidyasagar” — the “ocean of knowledge” for a good reason. He brought the magic of William Shakespeare alive in Bengali by translating a number of the bard’s dramas as well as a number of Sanskrit classics.

He simplified Bengali typography and interpreted complex notions of Sanskrit grammar in easy legible Bengali language.

Besides his work in the field of education, he was a powerful voice against oppression of women in 19th century Bengal.

Vidyasagar opened a school for women and was instrumental in bringing the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act in 1856, for which he endured the wrath of conservative Hindus. He changed the rules of admission in Sanskrit College, where he taught, to allow non-Brahmin students study there.

Across India, he is known as a leading social reformer of the 19th century. In the forefront of Bengali Renaissance along with Ram Mohan Roy and others, he helped shape the modern Bengali, and in an extension, the Indian society.

He was also known for his kind-hearted nature and helped revered Bengali poet Michael Madhusudan Dutta to relocate from France to England and study for the bar and later his return to India.

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