Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar CIE (26 September 1820 – 29 July 1891), born Ishwar Chandra Bandyopadhyay, was a Bengali educator and social reformer from the Indian subcontinent, and a key figure of the Bengal Renaissance. His efforts to simplify and modernise Bengali prose were significant. He also rationalised and simplified the Bengali alphabet and type. He is considered the "father of Bengali prose".
He was the most prominent campaigner for Hindu widow remarriage and petitioned Legislative council despite severe opposition and a counter petition against the proposal with nearly four times more signatures by Radhakanta Deb and the Dharma Sabha. But Lord Dalhousie personally finalised the bill despite the opposition and it being considered a flagrant breach of Hindu customs as prevalent then and the Hindu Widows' Remarriage Act, 1856 was passed.
He received the title "Vidyasagar" (in Sanskrit Vidya means knowledge and Sagar means ocean, i.e., Ocean of Knowledge) from Sanskrit College, Calcutta (from where he graduated), due to his excellent performance in Sanskrit studies and philosophy. Noted Cambridge mathematician Anil Kumar Gain founded Vidyasagar University, named in his honour.
Ishwar Chandra Bandyopadhyay was born in a Bengali Hindu Brahmin family to Thakurdas Bandyopadhyay and Bhagavati Devi at Birsingha village in the Ghatal subdivision of Paschim Midnapore district on 26 September 1820. At the age of 9, he went to Calcutta and started living in Bhagabat Charan's house in Burrabazar, where Thakurdas had already been staying for some years. Ishwar felt at ease amidst Bhagabat's large family and settled down comfortably in no time. Bhagabat's youngest daughter Raimoni's motherly and affectionate feelings towards Ishwar touched him deeply and had a strong influence on his later revolutionary work towards the upliftment of women's status in India.
His quest for knowledge was so intense that he used to study under a street light as it was not possible for him to afford a gas lamp at home He cleared all the examinations with excellence and in quick succession. He was rewarded with a number of scholarships for his academic performance. To support him and the family, Ishwar Chandra also took a part-time job of teaching at Jorashanko. Ishwar Chandra joined the Sanskrit College, Calcutta and studied there for twelve long years and passed out of the college in 1841 qualifying in Sanskrit Grammar, Literature, Dialectics [Alankara Shastra], Vedanta, Smriti and Astronomy As was the custom then Ishwar Chandra married at the age of fourteen. His wife was Dinamayee Devi. Narayan Chandra Bandyopadhyaya was their only son.
In the year 1839, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar successfully cleared his Sanskrit law examination. In 1841, at the age of twenty-one years, Ishwar Chandra joined Fort William College as head of the Sanskrit department.
After five years, in 1846, Vidyasagar left Fort William College and joined the Sanskrit College as 'Assistant Secretary'. In the first year of service, Ishwar Chandra recommended a number of changes to the existing education system. This report resulted in a serious altercation between Ishwar Chandra and College Secretary Rasomoy Dutta. In 1849, he against the advice of Rasomoy Dutta, resigned from Sanskrit College and rejoined Fort William College as a head clerk.
Vidyasagar championed the upliftment of the status of women in India, particularly in his native Bengal. Unlike some other reformers who sought to set up alternative societies or systems, he sought to transform society from within.
Unable to tolerate the ill-treatment, many of these girls would run away and turn to prostitution to support them. Ironically, the economic prosperity and lavish lifestyles of the city made it possible for many of them to have successful careers once they stepped out of the sanction of society and into the demi-monde. In 1853 it was estimated that Calcutta had a population of 12,700 prostitutes and public women. Many widows had to shave their heads and don white saris, supposedly to discourage attention from men. They led a deplorable life; something Vidyasagar thought was unfair and sought to change.
The Wood’s despatch of 1854—considered the Magna Carta of Indian education—adopted a new policy towards 'mass education'. Hitherto the official focus was on the upper classes of population for education. Dubbed the 'Downward Filtration Theory', this implied that education always filters down from the upper classes of the society to the common masses.
In 1859, the government’s education policy reiterated "the spread of vernacular elementary instruction among the lower orders". Upon this, Vidyasagar addressed a letter, dated 29 September 1859, to John Peter Grant, the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, underlining his perception:
An impression appears to have gained ground, both here and in England, that enough has been done for the education of the higher classes and that attention should now be directed towards the education of the masses... An enquiry into the matter will, however, show a very different state of things. As the best, if not the only practicable means of promoting education in Bengal, the Government should, in my humble opinion, confine itself to the education of the higher classes on a comprehensive scale.
The words "higher classes" in Bengali parlance do not entail anything but caste which bestows or withdraws the privilege of education on a person by birth. Thus, Vidyasagar explicitly advocated for confining education to "higher classes".
Earlier in 1854, Vidyasagar had scoffed at the admission of a wealthy man from the goldsmith caste of Bengal in the Sanskrit College, Calcutta. His argument was that "in the scale of castes, the class (goldsmith or Subarnabanik) stands very low". Notably, Sanjib Chattopadhyay, a biographer of Vidyasagar, revealed that Ishwar Chandra started his primary education in a school established and maintained by Shibcharan Mallick, a rich man of goldsmith caste in Calcutta.
Vidyasagar was liberal in his outlook even though he was born in an orthodox Hindu Brahmin family. Also, he was highly educated and influenced by Oriental thoughts and ideas. Ramakrishna in contrast, did not have a formal education. Yet they had a nice relation between them. When Ramakrishna met Vidyasagar, he praised Vidyasagar as the ocean of wisdom. Vidyasagar joked that Ramkrishna should have collected some amount of salty water of that sea. But, Ramakrishna, with profound humbleness & respect, replied that the water of general sea might be salty, but not the water of the sea of wisdom.
Shortly after Vidyasagar's death, Rabindranath Tagore reverently wrote about him: "One wonders how God, in the process of producing forty million Bengalis, produced a man!"
After death, he is remembered in many ways, some of them include:
Vidyasagar Setu (commonly known as the Second Hooghly Bridge), is a bridge over the Hooghly River in West Bengal, India. It links the city of Howrah to its twin city of Kolkata. The bridge is named after Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar.
In 2004, Vidyasagar was ranked number 9 in BBC's poll of the Greatest Bengali of all time.
A fair named Vidyasagar Mela, which is dedicated to spreading education and increasing social awareness, has been held annually in West Bengal since 1994. Since 1995, it has been held simultaneously in Kolkata and Birsingha.
Vidyasagar College in Kolkata is named after him, as well as Vidyasagar University in Paschim Midnapore.
Rectitude and courage were the hallmarks of Vidyasagar's character, and he was certainly ahead of his time. In recognition of his scholarship and cultural work the government designated Vidyasagar a Companion of the Indian Empire (CIE) in 1877 In the final years of life, he chose to spend his days among the "Santhals", an old tribe in India.
There is Vidyasagar Street in Central Kolkata, which is named after him.
The West Bengal Government has established a stadium named after this great man at Barasat, the district center of North 24 Parganas.
Indian Post issued stamps featuring Vidyasagar in 1970 and 1998.