Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar

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26 September 1820, Birsingha,
Bengal Presidency, British India

29 July 1891 (aged 70), Calcutta,
Bengal Presidency, British India

Alma Mater
Sanskrit College (1829-1839)


Rig Veda - Let noble thoughts come to me from all directions.

The Father of Modern Bengal

From time to time, in the sacred land of Bharath, are born the kind of people who make such a large impact on society within a very short period of time in their lives. One perfect example of such a great man was Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, who was the pillar of the Bengal Renaissance and a very active social reformer, who strived to remove the crippling ills that were prevalent in the Hindu society during his time.

He was born in 1820 to orthodox Brahmin parents. He was an avid reader on a wide range of topics and even as a teenage boy, he gained the respect of the entire village as a boy with a vast ocean of knowledge, and hence he was conferred the title of Vidyasagar (Vidya - meaning learning, Sagar - meaning Ocean). He graduated with Sanskrit as his major and went on to become a very learned Sanskrit Pundit. Vidyasagar was a good writer and is considered the father of modern Bengali language. He wrote in journals and newspapers. He was dedicated to the cause of education. He worked as a Sanskrit professor in Sanskrit College, Calcutta until his retirement. Traditionally, people from the so-called lower castes were not allowed to study Sanskrit. But, he welcomed students from all religions and castes to learn Sanskrit in his college. He also introduced the study of modern western thought in his college. During his tenure as Principal, the Sanskrit College became the centre of free and reformist thinking. Simultaneously, he also was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, social activist, reformer, writer, publisher and also a renowned Bengali and Sanskrit linguist. He also published several books in Sanskrit and Bengali. He revised the Bengali alphabets and published a book that is used even today. He also published a fundamental book on Sanskrit grammar that many students of Sanskrit grammar currently use.

Vidyasagar devoted his entire life to the cause of social reforms. He is particularly remembered for his contribution to the cause of women. He protested against child-marriage and polygamy. He waged a long struggle in favour of widow remarriage. It was largely due to his efforts that the Widow Remarriage Act was passed in AD 1856. This act made the marriage of widows legal. He participated in the first widow remarriage that took place in AD 1856 at Calcutta. Vidyasagar was also devoted towards the cause of education for women. He was very close to Drinkwater Bethune, who started the first school for girls at Calcutta in AD 1849. Today, it is very natural for girls to go to school and get educated. But in those days, close-minded people were strongly opposed to it. When Vidyasagar was made the Special Inspector of School in AD 1855, he opened a large number of schools for girls and ran many of them at his own expense. Despite being highly successful and recognized in all these various fields, Vidyasagar remained an extremely modest man. There are several anecdotes from his life that prove this point about his character. Because of his humility, he was widely respected across the country.

Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar and his friends were busy collecting donations to start Calcutta University. One day Vidyasagar stopped at the door of the palace of Nawab of Ayodhya. Nawab was not exactly known to be a generous person and many people tried to dissuade Vidyasagar from taking this mission. Vidyasagar met Nawab and presented his cause. On hearing Vidyasagar's plea, Nawab got up, pulled one of his shoes and dropped in Vidyasagar's bag for donation. Vidyasagar did not say a word. He simply got up, thanked Nawab and left. Next day Vidyasagar organized auction of Nawab's shoe in front of his palace. Lot of Nawab's knights , Jahagirdars, court members, who wanted to impress Nawab started bidding. By the mid afternoon, the shoe was sold for Rs 1000. Nawab, happy to hear that his shoe fetched Rs 1000, matched the auction money. He added his own Rs. 1000 as donation. When the destiny dropped a shoe in his basket, Vidyasagar could have walked out furious. He could have thrown the shoe on Nawab as revenge of insult. He could have got depressed and gone home and cried that nobody is willing to give him donation and given up his efforts to raise donation for university. ? But he did nothing of that sort. He remained focused on the main goal. He rose above his personal feelings, ego, and insecurities and exploited the situation creatively. He rose above his insecurities and exploited that of others around him. He took that shoe and converted it to the biggest donation to University of Culcutta. Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar converted his on-face insult and resulting disappointment into a Rs. 2000 donation plus a pleased Nawab who could be of some assistance at some point later. Calcutta University became a reality. It became a center of education for fine arts, social studies, science and technology.