How Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar Left His Mark on India

One of the key figures of India's renaissance in the nineteenth century, the social reformer, philanthropist and anti-colonial activist made more than one contribution that have made the annals of our history richer.

Note: This article was originally published on September 30, 2018, and is being republished on July 29, 2019, to mark Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s death anniversary.

His portrait is famous: a dome-like forehead bordered with a crown of dark hair, a wide mouth that typically remains unsmiling, a short body clad in a dhoti, a shawl around his shoulder. There are no overt signs of assertive Brahmanhood – the sacred thread, the bare torso – and few might know that his title is actually Bandopadhyaya. But there is a blazing confidence. He is an “awakened Brahman,” one who can challenge Brahmanical practices without fear. Ishwar Chandra’s eyes in his portraits are direct and piercing.

There are two wonderful things about the man. We could call him more reverentially, the guru, except that we should make friends with fellow-writers and philosophers in our country, not merely revere them. These two things, to my mind, emphasise the importance of Ishwar Chandra in our history.

What do women want?

The first is the needs of women. We know that the career of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891) was partly made because of his interest in women. He agitated for their education, their rights to a normal life after widowhood, and against the malevolence of various oppressions still weighing on them in late nineteenth century Bengal.

We could be intrigued by this importance of women for Ishwar Chandra. But there had been a half century of reform already, social leaders active for two generations at least. They had seen reflected in their master’s eyes a picture of themselves that was not pleasing, and had striven to pull themselves together as a society. Through lecturing, sermonising, haranguing, these leaders taught their peers, if not fellow-citizens (subjects, given the colonial times) who they actually were. And it succeeded. The efforts of Rammohan Roy (1772-1830) two generations earlier, Jyotiba Phule (1827-1890) at the same time, and of Mahadev Govind Ranade (1848-1901) and Dhondu Keshav Karve (1858-1960) in the generation to come, as well as so many others, seem idealistic and over-ambitious at first reading. Decades seem to slowly pass, until first one woman, then another, ceases to be identified with property that can be owned and disposed of by their menfolk; decades go by until they can complete school, get a university degree, work, even become a lawyer, then a doctor.

The marriage age for girls inches up bit by bit, starting with the sheer right to life. In 1829, window immolation (sati daha) is made illegal. In 1856, widow remarriage is legalised. 1870 sees the ban on female infanticide, and 1891 the raising of the age of consent from ten years to 12. In 1929 is the triumph of the Child Marriage Restraint Act which defines the child and the minor in relatively liberal ways, as under eighteen for boys and fourteen for girls.

By now, this should be familiar story, particularly as the research of historians such as Ishita Pande, Tanika Sarkar and Mrinalini Sinha, focused on the recognition of the ‘woman’ as child, and of the child/woman as in possession of rights, has trickled down to popular consciousness. We should all know the work of Sudhir Chandra, Geraldine Forbes, Radha Kumar and Madhu Kishwar; the brilliant theorisation of Lata Mani which opens up our imagination a further necessary bit, and all the evocative, useful work on goddesses, Aryan women, bhakti saints and popular worship, by scholars too numerous to be named. The fraught path towards small victories for women’s equality is certainly well researched, and, hopefully, known by everyone to different degrees.

What women already have

Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar. Credit: Vidyasagar University Prospectus/Wikimedia

But there is another part to the story of women which is exemplified in Ishwar Chandra’s life. Women were the grandmothers, mothers, sisters, other senior relatives or fictive relatives, and then wives and daughters, of the men of any period, including of the educated, reforming men such as Ranade, Karve, Phule and everyone else. We may not be able to build a vivid picture for each person, but for Ishwar Chandra, we know this: his paternal grandmother, Durga Devi, and his mother Bhagvati Devi’s mother,  were both powerful women who survived through destitution through their own planned labour. His honorary didi in Calcutta, Rajmani, and a female shopkeeper in his father’s time, helped selflessly to have the men survive, and succeed. Ishwar Chandra says for the shopkeeper:

“When I heard this heart-rending story from my father it kindled an unbearable blaze of sorrow in my heart, matched in intensity only by the profound respect for women it engendered in me.”

And for his didi:

“Many say that I am an advocate for women. I suppose they are right. Anyone who could witness Rajmani’s love, compassion and goodness, and enjoy the fruits of her virtues, and not become an advocate for women would have to be the most vile and ungrateful person on this earth.”

Both quotations are from Brian Hatcher’s “The Shakuntala Paradigm,” in The Journal of Hindu Studies (Vol 3 No. 6), Hatcher being the premier biographer and commentator on Ishwar Chandra.

Shakuntala is well known to us as the heroine forgotten, then recognised, by her paramour. Hatcher rightfully stresses the man, in this case, Vidyasagar’s (as he addresses him) sensitivity and imagination, and response to the call to recognise. However, we should also consider another obvious fact, this one about women. They made the recognition of themselves possible. They knew they were oppressed and in need of succour.

As Geetanjali Shree’s novel Mai tells in its story of a mother and two reformer-children, a woman is not an object of pity, simply raw data, as it were, to act upon. She is a subject in her own right, one who knows who she is, processed data. Just as Vidyasagar recognised the women he encountered, and we know this from his writings, the women in his life recognised themselves, for which we unfortunately have no written data. But we have beautiful writing such as the novel Mai to reveal to us this hidden and forgotten fact about women – they are cognisant of themselves, including their problems, and the men in their family are often the vehicle for change because the women reveal themselves in various ways to the men.

We should remember Vidyasagar on his birthday for all his various accomplishments, as Sanskrit professor, inspector of schools, self-sacrificing philanthropist, anti-colonial Indian. He would be proud, however, that we understood, as he must have done, that women’s agency and power extended to their consistent working, through men like him, for their uplift.

The Bengali alphabet

Then we come to the second important contribution of Vidyasagar as I have selected it. He wrote down the Bengali alphabet as we know it today. His original publication on the subject is called Barna Parichay, literally, An Introduction to the Alphabet. We think, What? There was no alphabet before? Of course there was. Just as there was writing, there were stories, there was education, there were children. But everything has a date and a beginning because from there starts the categorisation and the classification. Vidyasagar made it uniform by removing some letters, adding others, confirming how many there must be and what the exact shape and sound of each was. He further made a rhyme to introduce each to the child-learner. He published the alphabet accompanied by beautiful wood-cut illustrations.

In the history of modern India, there have been few who have matched this. What we have needed for a long time is more resources for children, more writing and the arts, more rhymes and pictures, all based on observation of how children learn. This can only come if we immerse ourselves in our everyday world and are intimate with our shapes, sounds, images and symbols. More and more of us are turning to this, hopefully, and we will soon match our rich history with an equally rich present.

But Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar did this over a century and a half ago.

Nita Kumar is Brown Professor of South Asian History at Claremont McKenna College, California. She writes on education and children, including The Artisans of Banaras (Princeton, 1988); Lessons from Schools (Sage, 2000); and The Politics of Gender, Community and Modernity (Oxford, 2007). She is Honorary Director of NIRMAN, and Vidyashram—the Southpoint School, in Varanasi. Read her at https://nitakumar.wordpress.com