Ishwar Chandra Bandhopadhyay, popularly known as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, is considered as one of Bengal renaissance. He continued the reforms movement that was started by Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Vidyasagar was well known writer, intellectual and above all a staunch follower of humanity. He brought a revolution in the education system of Bengal. Born on 26th September 1820 in a village called Veerasingha of the then Hoogly (now part of Midnapore) district of West Bengal Vidyasagar spent his childhood in extreme poverty. He commenced primary education at the village pathsahaala– an indigenous Indian school where language, grammar, arithmetic and other shastras were taught to youngsters. Later he accompanied his father to Calcutta. Within a short while, Ishwar was admitted to the Sanskrit College.
As a student of the Sanskrit College, he witnessed the religious controversy between the reformists like Ram Mohan; radicals like Derozio (who denounced Hinduism as obsolete) and the conservatives who wanted to preserve and protect the basic character of Hinduism. Vidyasagar maintained religious neutrality. To him there was one religion that was welfare to humanity.
Young Ishwar applied himself to learning with full discipline, diligence and perseverance and passed successive annual examinations with exemplary brilliance. It is here he came in close contact with half a dozen Sanskrit scholars, who would have left an indelible mark on his young impressionable mind. In 1839 he graduated in law examination conducted by the Hindu Law Committee. His well rounded education at Sanskrit College saw him amassing considerable knowledge and mastery in a number of shastras, and in 1839 at a tender age the title Vidyasagar was endowed to him.
On 29th December Vidyasagar joined Fort William College (FWC) as a Principal Lecturer (or Pundit). G.T. Marshall who was the Secretary of the College at the time acted as the catalyst for gaining this prestigious position for him at the age of 21. Vidyasagar started learning English and Hindi here. Marshall had been thoroughly impressed by Ishwar’s scholastic achievements.
Savior of Sanskrit College
After a five year stint with the FWC Vidyasagar joined the Sanskrit College as Assistant Secretary in 1846. He wanted to improve the teaching system in the college. In the first year of service with Sanskrit College, he brought out a report to the authorities outlining and recommending a number of changes to the curricula and the education system. This report attracted criticisms from the College Secretary Rashamoy Dutta but it generated keen interest of authorities and a tremendous amount of favorable comments and praises from the Education department, particularly from G.T. Marshall. Because of irreconcilable differences with Dutta on this subject Vidyasagar resigned.
Ishwar Chandra’s principles, determination and courage were unparallel in every detail. He never deviated from his goals in the face of all adversities. He knew not how to compromise on any matter of substance neither in fear nor for favor. He resigned from the college, after the skirmish with Dutta. In 1850 Vidyasagar came back to Sanskrit College as a Professor at Sanskrit College with one condition that he should be allowed to do the redesign of the education system. In 1851 he became the Principal of this college.
His well documented protestations against Education department officials of the day testify to the degree of intensity with which he pursued the course of education reform. He favored English and Bengali as a medium of learning alongside Sanskrit and wanted to offer to students a wider range of subjects and thus broaden their horizons in examining European and Indian concepts and practices side by side so they could apply their own judgement in discovering the truth for themselves. He was not afraid of discarding erroneous beliefs of Indian shastras and in preferring European science in its place where appropriate. Similarly he did not accept everything that Europe had to offer. His mind was open only to discovering the truth and reality. In these matters his determination was unmistakable and his resolve unshakable. In his famous “Notes on the Sanskrit College” Vidyasagar put forward a comprehensive scheme through which he aimed at creating an elegant Bengali style based on a combination of sound knowledge of both Sanskrit and English languages. He wrote books on Sanskrit grammar in Bengali in simple ways- Upakramonika and Byakaran Koumudi. He laid equal stress on learning the three branches in English- History, Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. Vidyasagar also achieved another success when the gates of the Sanskrit College were made open to castes other than the Brahmins. He also introduced admission fee and tuition fee. He prevailed upon the government to select as deputy magistrates some of the graduates of this college and established the Normal School for training Bengali teachers at the College thereby broadening the prospect of career opportunities as well as the range of academic interests that could be pursued on its campus. Vidyasagar took several such measures to expand enrolment and strengthen student commitment in Sanskrit College. In this way, he rescued classical education from medieval scholasticism.
In 1853, Vidyasagar established an Anglo Sanskrit free school in Virsingha village. Vidyasagar was an ardent advocate of non official secular and popular institutions for higher education with a purely Indian teaching staff. This is evident from his zeal to establish the Metropolitan Institution (which was originally founded in 1859 under the name of the Calcutta Training School under the management of the natives). In 1864 the management devolved entirely on Vidyasagar and he maintained this college out of its own resources. Its object was to find means of higher collegiate education for the youths of Bengal. This college was administered by the Indians with no financial aid from the government. The teaching staff too consisted of Indians. It became a first grade college in 1879. From 1884 it introduced courses in Law, BA Honours and MA course.
He was appointed to the board of Examination for the selection of ICS candidates in 1854 and in 1855 he was made a member of the University Committee. In 1857 he became a fellow of the Calcutta University.
Education of girls was one of the prime objectives of Vidyasagar’s plans. He realized that unless women of the land could be educated it was impossible to emancipate and liberate them from the terrible burden of inequalities and injustice imposed on them by the cruel society of the day. However, the conservatives in the society were against education of the girls. Vidyasagar had to fight these conservatives with quotations from the Sanskrit scriptures that clearly prescribed care and education of the daughters. The credit for explaining the true meaning of the Hindu shastras upholding the women’s right to education and the propagation of this truth among his countrymen entirely goes to Vidyasagar who utilized his literary talent for writing books, pamphlets and articles in support of female education.
From submitting reports about the curriculum taught to girls in schools which included reading, writing, arithmetic, biography, history of Bengal, reading of passages on different subjects, needlework and sewing, to opening of 35 schools for girls in Bengal with an enrolment of 1300 girls; making door-to-door calls, requesting parents to send their daughters to school; giving financial support to some schools; appealing the government to extend grant-in-aid benefits towards the maintenance of girl’s schools; initiating a fund “NARI SHIKSHA BHANDAR” for rendering financial help to the girls’ education, Vidyasagar did it all.
Another significant contribution of Vidyasagar was the spread of mass education. On witnessing the pervading darkness and superstitions in which people of Bengal lived in the absence of education, Vidyasagar explored local popular support and participation in the spread of mass education. He appealed to the people who responded positively and it was decided that schools would be set up at chosen localities where the financial burden of erecting school buildings were to come from the locality. Vidyasagar got quite a number of schools constructed in this way in areas under his official jurisdiction.
Vidyasagar had his contribution in journalism as well. He published his article on widow marriage in the Sarbashubhankari Patrika. Akshay Kumar Dutta often got his articles examined by Vidyasagar, who was on the Paper Committee of the Tattwabodhini Patrika. He was directly associated with the Somprakash, a distinguished journal of the time (1855). The responsibility of properly learning the Hindu Patriot also fell on him when it fell on difficult ways days after the death of Haris Chandra Mukherjee.
Vidyasagar may be regarded as the first architect of national education. He strongly advocated education through mother tongue, which leads to mass education. He contributed in fields like Sanskrit studies, women education and education through the medium of mother tongue. Being a man of action Vidyasagar took all necessary measures to concretize his plans of educational reform.