What We Can Learn From Vidyasagar’s Idea Of Patriotism
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was among those people, whose genius is recognisable since childhood. But also, he was not one born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He did not get have a comfortable life like Rabindranath Tagore or Ram Mohan Roy. He was also not one of those who either criticised or praised Hinduism with half-baked knowledge.
He was so learned a pandit (scholar), that he criticised traditional pandits who did not adequately encourage the research of modern scientific truths, and instead immersed themselves in false pride, that all knowledge and science already exists in their religious texts. He said this after being irritated by the indiscriminate praise of Sanskrit pedantic tradition, by JR Ballantine, principal of Banaras Sanskrit College.
Vidyasagar’s Patriotism, Humility & Compassion
He was a man of intuitive intelligence, who supported facts and reason, with a deep interest in both European and traditional knowledge, who used his knowledge for the betterment of society, who cared for neither praise or criticism.
The first time I heard about Vidyasagar was around the age of eight or nine, when I read a book about him published by Geeta Press in Gorakhpur. It was about the famous incident, where a man comes to meet Vidyasagar in his village. The station there was tiny, and the man looked around for a coolie. Then he spotted a man in simple clothes and commanded him, “Pick up my luggage and take me to Vidyasagar ji’s house”. So the coolie picked up the luggage and led the way. Once he got to the house he put down the luggage and turning to the man said, “Here is the house, and I am Vidyasagar. Tell me, what can I do for you?” The man was mortified and bent down to touch Vidyasagar’s feet to apologise.
Vidyasagar Used Scriptures To Invoke Humanity & Compassion, Not to Glorify The Past
Vidyasagar was born into a highly-respected, but poor Brahmin family. He gained both a traditional and modern education through hard work. He became the principal of the Sanskrit College in Calcutta. After retirement, he rejected a High Court Judge’s request to practice law.
It is interesting to note that in the beginning, Vidyasagar wanted to rely on easy intellect and logic rather than relying on the appeal of scriptures to reform society. In 1851, he wrote an essay against child marriage, 'the defects of child marriage'.
Here, Vidyasagar deviates from say a Swami Dayanand Saraswati, or a Ram Mohan Roy. Instead of refuting societal malpractices simply by saying that it is against the scriptures, Vidyasagar said that practices like child marriage were against intellect and humanity. But after five years of writing against 'the defects of child marriage', Vidyasagar sought support from the holy scriptures, especially ‘Parashar Smriti’, to create public opinion in favour of widow-remarriage and education for girls. Yet, his emphasis on reason and experience remained intact. He used the scriptures to make society more human, not for the blind glorification of the past. “Everything already exists in our culture,” is an idea that truly repulsed him.
Vidyasagar’s Contribution To Women Empowerment, & Society At Large
Vidyasagar also played the role of a social activist to help improve the condition of women, to give them equal status. He worked towards ensuring that necessary laws were made and implemented. In the face of stiff opposition, he took the initiative for widows to remarry, and acted as a parent to many young widows.
The few autobiographical notes he left behind tell us that how grateful he was to his mother, and Raimoni Devi, in whose house he lived for many years. She was the widowed daughter of a man named Bhagat Charan.
Vidyasagar was truly a leader of society. Along with social reforms, he was at the forefront, even in times of social turmoil. During the Bengal Famine of 1865, the langar that he started in his village remained open the entire year. During the epidemic in Burdwan, Vidyasagar brought volunteer teams in even before the government, to rescue the people from the epidemic. Not just Bengal, the entire country is indebted to him. And a hundred years after his demise (29 July 1891), on 14 May 2019, this debt was ‘repaid’ in a great way in Kolkata.
Vidyasagar ji, living in these unfortunate times, we apologise to you.
(Purushottam Agrawal is a Contributing Editor for Hindi Quint. He can be reached @puru_ag. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
(This article was originally published on Hindi Quint and has been translated by Mariam Shaheen.)