I first read about Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in our Bangla school textbook, when I was 11, in the original Bangla taught to us non-Bengali students, patiently, line by line, by a dearly loved teacher, Mrs Banerjee. We then wrote childish essays, learning large chunks by heart, to be able to quote him as prolifically as possible.
I hadn’t thought about Vidyasagar specifically for the last few decades, in spite of all the women’s issues currently surrounding us. That he was a feminist, fighting for women’s rights long before the word was coined – or even conceived of – somehow didn’t make headlines.
Besides, I’d moved far away from Kolkata, the beloved janmabhoomi, to alien states, struggling with new languages, in more orthodox cultures.
Why then was I filled with rage, 40 years later, at the news that barely literate hooligans had vandalised the statue of one of Bengal’s greatest sons? The man was dubbed Vidyasagar, meaning ocean of knowledge, by the age of 21, when his genius and wisdom manifested itself quite unmistakably.
He was a colossus, a renaissance in himself. His ideas were way ahead of his time. Yet, his prodigious grasp of ancient religious texts, his genius and passion enabled him to reform Hinduism for the better. He towered above his contemporaries intellectually.
This enabled him to reform the nation, its religious and cultural norms, to effect astounding changes in the 1870s, which was no easy task. He was what would now be considered a contradiction in terms – a Sanskrit scholar and an authority on Sanskrit grammar. Yet, an ardent reformist.
His knowledge and expertise on Vedanta philosophy, logic, astronomy and Hindu law were respected. And all this by the age of 21. Privately, he read English literature and philosophy. His immense learning and wisdom was what gave him the moral authority to attack the bastions of obnoxious, patriarchal values. He campaigned against polygamy and child marriage, and for widow remarriage.
He used logic and reason to convince the public. He fought this battle with passion, lobbied the government, used thousands of leaflets to disseminate educational values amongst the public. And he actually won the fight for a better deal for beleaguered, miserable Bengali widows, when the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act was passed in 1856.
His campaign to make child brides a taboo went forward slowly and painfully. To abolish the disastrous practice of child marriage was a herculean task. He pointed out to a society which did not want to listen, that it was detrimental to the little girls subject to marital rape and sexual attack, (albeit not in those particular terms) that millions died in childbirth and that they were too young to be mothers.
Slowly the marriageable age of girls moved from 10 to 12 in 1891, the year of his death. Finally, in 1929 in what was a victory for the time, the Child Marriage Restraint Act, was enacted bringing the age for marriage up to 14 for girls and 18 for boys. It also defined the child and the minor, for the first time.
Perhaps the enormity of his achievement can be comprehended if we juxtapose it with the fact that child marriage is still prevalent, indeed widely practised in several states of our country, despite being illegal, even after 70 years of Independence. Not just in backward states like Rajasthan, UP, Bihar and MP, but even in Karnataka, not very far from our very own, uber cool, tech-savvy Bangalore. Unbelievably, even as I write this, one BJP MLA in Madhya Pradesh promises to legalise child marriage if voted to power.
Vidyasagar was recognised as a powerhouse of knowledge including being an expert on the texts of the Vedas, smritis and srutis. So he could argue logically that many of the more odious and oppressive social practices, particularly against women were of dubious origin and did not really originate in the sacred texts or have a genuine religious, sacred sanction.
He was born a Brahmin, but the power vested in him by his birth and privilege did not totally shield him from orthodox, patriarchal anger. His father, fearful for his son’s safety, appointed a bodyguard to shield him from physical attacks from the opposition. Some things apparently, definitely don’t change, even a hundred years later!
Mamata Banerjee quite rightly scoffed at the offer to erect an enormous, expensive statue to replace the one destroyed by goons in her state. Vidyasagar, with the iconic group that created the Brahmo Samaj and brought sanity, reform and honour to the practice of Hinduism over a century ago, would have laughed at the thought of loud, vulgar, obscenely ostentatious statues built to honour them. They were an incredibly, honourable brigade of women and men who were real Hindus – who fought for the nation and the religion and its people. One can honour them by bringing back the ideals and values they fought for all their lives.
And this applies to most religions. We need a modern Vidyasagar and Brahmo Samaj to attack the ills in present-day practices like casteism in Hinduism, an army of Martin Luthers for a Renaissance in the current Catholic church and a host of brave Muslim women and men to stamp out the regressive paths being pushed by self-appointed misguided mullahs.
Change can only be effective if people from within each religion take it upon themselves to cleanse, renew and reinvigorate their own faith. After all, Vidyasagar used knowledge, learning and logic to change the minds and hearts of his people over a century ago.
We – all of us – need to learn from him to save the idea of India for future generations.
Mari Marcel Thekaekara is an activist who writes on social issues.