Iswar Chandra vidyasagar (b.1820) was one of India's greatest intellectuals and activists of the nineteenth century. He was born into a poor Brahmin family and faced poverty all through his childhood.
He was known variously as an educator, academic, philosopher, reformer and philanthropist. He stated his career as the principal of fort William college at age twenty-One and then joined Sanskrit College in 1850 and became principal the following year.
Through his writings, Vidyasagar, raised many questions about the various ills that had permeated society like early marriage and polygamy. He advocated widow-remarriage all through his life and was considdered as one of the greatest pillars of the Bengal renaissance.
The present publication is intended to meet a long-felt desideratum. Biographies of the late venerable Vidyasagar have been written in Bengali by distinguished writers, but no attempt has yet been made to bring out in English an account of the life and career of that eminent man, although more than eleven years have passed since he left this world. All this long while we have been waiting to see if an abler hand than ourselves would take up this onerous task, but in vain; so, with great reluctance, we at last feel compelled to take this mighty responsibility upon ourselves. Our sole aim has been to give a clear and faithful account of life's work of the great pundit in the simplest language at our command; without endeavouring in the least to gloss over what appeared to us as his shortcomings. How far we have succeeded in our attempt it is for the reading public to judge.
We have to express our indebtedness to our venerable countryman Mr R.C. Dutt c.I.E. for his kindness in writing the Introduction. Indeed, the readiness with which he accepted the task will always be gratefully remembered by the present writer. As regards the body of the work, our heart felt thanks are due to Babu Behari Lal Sarkar, the veteran author and journalist, from whose excellent biography of Vidyasagar in Bengali, we have got much help in the compilation of this work. His kindness and generosity and the very valuable aid rendered by him all through the course of the writing of this book deserves our most grateful recognition. Without his help, the work would never have been what it is.
Before concluding, we feel it also to be our duty to acknowledge with thanks the help we have received from Pundit Narayan Chandra Vidyaratna in the shape of many anecdotes which he has told us regarding his illustrious father, and this we do accordingly. Thanks are also due to Babu Chandi Charan Banerjee for his kind permission to make extracts from letters contained in his life of Vidyasagar in Bengali.
The book is offered to the public in all humility. We shall feel ourselves sufficiently rewarded for our pains if it is accepted in the spirit in which it is offered.
There is a good biography of the late Isvar Chandra Vidyasagar in Bengali language; but the fame of this venerable pundit is not confined to Bengal. All India claims him as one of the greatest and most earnest workers of the nineteenth century; and there were few Englishmen of the past generation who did not appreciate the high character and the distinguished services of that true-hearted Indian who was the friend of Sir Cecil Beadon and the collaborator of Drinkwater Bet.Lne. Mr. Subal Chandra Mitra has therefore done well in compiling an account of Vidyasagar's life in English, and his book will supply a real need.
Vidyasagar will always fill a unique place in Indian history. Raja Ram Mohan Roy represented the new aspirations and the earnest work of the first generation of his countrymen in the nineteenth century; Pundit Isvar Chandra Vidyasagar reflected their arduous endeavours in the second. English rule and English education had powerful and far reaching influences which called forth new ideas and new efforts from the people. Ram Mohan Roy responded to these influences in the commencement of the century; Isvar Chandra, during the next thirty years.
The lives of these two great Indian workers fit in curiously in respect of dates. The establishment of the Brahmo Samaj, or the Hindu Theistic Society, in 1828, was the crowning work of Ram Mohan Roy's social and religious reforms; in the following year, Isvar Chandra, a gifted and bright-eyed boy, was wending his way from his native village to Calcutta to seek for that education which was to fit him for his life's work. Ram Mohan died in England in 1833; within a few years after that date Isvar Chandra completed his education at the Sanskrit College, passed a brilliant examination, and won the title of Vidyasagar by which he will always be known by his countrymen.
Lord Wellesley had founded the Fort William College in 1800 for the education of young civilians on their arrival in India in the vernacular languages; and young Vidyasagar, then only twenty-one years of age, was appointed head pundit of this college in 1841. The appointment had great influence on his life, as it led him to take up the study of the English language, of which he had learnt very little before. It was an eventful period of Vidyasagar's life and he came in daily contact with some of the best Englishmen in Calcutta and some of the greatest Indian workers of the day. He helped the young Durga Charan Banerjea (father of our distinguished countryman, the Honorable Surendra Nath Banerjea) to the post of head writer to the Fort William College; he learnt English with the young and earnest Raj Narain Basu who subsequently distinguished himself in Bengali Literature; he made the acquaintance of Raja Radha Kant Dev, then the venerable head of the orthodox Hindu community, and he formed that early friendship, which lasted through life, with the talented Akshay Kumar Datta, who subsequently rivalled Vidyasagar himself in his patriotic work, as in his high literary reputation.
Lord Hardinge, then governor-general of India, paid a visit to Fort William College in 1844, and had a long talk with Vidyasagar. And when the 101 'Hardinge schools' were founded in the different districts of Bengal during the two subsequent years, the selection of teachers for these schools was left to Mr Marshall and to Vidyasagar. It is a remarkable and a characteristic fact that in the exercise of his extensive patronage, Isvar Chandra Vidyasagar was never influenced by personal considerations, and was never untrue to the trust which was reposed on him. A touching instance is recorded of the manner in which he passed over his own claims to appoint one whom he considered worthier, at the time of which we are writing. (Vidyasagar was drawing a poor pay of Rs 50 a month. The appointment which fell vacant was that of teacher of the grammar class in the Sanskrit College, and carried a pay of Rs 90. The post was offered to him on the recommendation of Mr Marshall. But Vidyasagar refused the appointment because he considered the eminent Tara Nath Tarkavachaspati a more profound grammarian. The appointment was given to Tarkavachaspati, and Vidyasagar walked all the way from Calcutta to Calna to inform him of the appointment. Such a rare instance of disinterestedness astonished Tarkavachaspati himself. 'Glory to you, Vidyasagar,' he exclaimed, 'You are not a man, but a god in human form!'
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