Iswarchandra Vidyasagar is remembered as one of the most distinguished educators, writers, and social reformers of nineteenth- century India. A unique amalgam of fearlessness, compassion, idiosyncrasy, conformism, and crusading zeal, Vidyasagar was firmly convinced that the rational-scientific knowledge of the contemporary West would bring about a social and moral reordering of traditional Hindu society. It is interesting that while he was a Brahminist in his cultural self- understanding, Vidyasagar spurned Brahminical religion itself. He was one of the rare Hindu thinkers of his time who exhibited no interest in either the everyday religion of the Hindus, or in reforming it.
Vidyasagar: Reflections on a Notable Life takes a fresh look at the life of this well-known and revered figure to both re-establish Vidyasagar's greatness and explore the multiple ways in which posterity has assessed his 'greatness'.
This biography focuses on Vidyasagar's lasting contributions to education and pedagogy, to the writing of highly popular school textbooks; his close friendships with some of the most prominent Indians and high-ranking British officials of the time; his humanism and his humanitarianism, and, of course, his social reform projects directed at improving the status of Hindu women-promoting female education, the abolition of child marriages, advocating marriage for upper-caste Hindu widows, and opposing multiple marriages among men.
As the author also points out, Vidyasagar is the only figure from renaissance Bengal whose memory has been vandalised by fellow Indians for various political and ideological reasons. Vidyasagar's legacy is equally important in the way it reveals the complex play of history, affect and memory, vitally shaping our attempts at understanding ourselves.
AMIYA P. SEN is Retired Professor of Modern Indian History, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He has over thirty years of research and teaching experience, and has authored and edited fourteen published volumes.
Then in school, I recall a teacher telling me that the lives of great men and women had to be written afresh every 100 years. To this, she added two reasons by way of explanation. In the first place, this was but a way of re-establishing their greatness, she said, and second, to also interrogate whether time and changing human perspectives required new ways of looking at 'greatness'. Was it not the case that notions of what constituted greatness also changed with time, she had quipped. Those words have stayed with me through every biography that I have so far attempted to write. As it turned out, such advice also eminently suited a historian who is apt to locate a life in its historical context, but also pay adequate attention to deeply personal ways of negotiating that context. There is no denying that the life and work of Pundit Iswarchandra Vidyasagar is best understood in the light of the social and historical environment into which he was born and which vitally shaped some of his core ideas and beliefs. And yet, in the course of working on this biography, it has occurred to me that there were ways in which he also transcended it. On important matters concerning contemporary Hindu society and culture, he held views that often went against received wisdom and was known to act in ways most men of his class would not. Situating him within a certain social class and its distinct behavioural patterns certainly helps, but does not exhaust the range of heuristic possibilities. As some of his contemporaries were quick to point out, Vidyasagar was, in several ways, an idiosyncratic Hindu Bengali.
This biography was written under extraordinary circumstances of the kind that the world has not seen in over 100 years. In this country, the human misery that has followed in the wake of the COVID-19 regime has been depressing and dehumanising, to say the least. While the fortunate among us have had the luxury of complaining about either the self-imposed isolation or enforced captivity, countless more have been forced to spend life in open spaces, painfully separated from their homes and families, disillusioned, dislocated, and disoriented, with only the recurring needs of food and shelter goading them to stay alive and continue to wage their relentless struggle. As I have found from experience, death is a more dramatic but also a simpler event to negotiate than continued human suffering.
In his time, too, Pundit Iswarchandra was a witness to the vagaries of famines and epidemics which ravaged the Bengal countryside and caused great human misery. His personal contribution to the alleviation of such misery and suffering would have been only marginally less than the relief provided by the colonial State. In contemporary Bengal, there were many who were richer than him in personal wealth, but poorer when it came to converting that wealth into selfless charity that could feed the starving, nurse the sick, but above all, show a sense of deep empathy for the deprived and the distressed.
Book's Contents and Sample Pages
Art & Culture (810)
Emperor & Queen (494)
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