Iswarchandra Vidyasagar was a fearless social reformer and educator, who took on the Hindu orthodoxy in his campaign for women’s rights. Here’s an excerpt from the book Vidyasagar: Reflections on a Notable Life by Amiya P. Sen which takes a refreshing look at a pioneer of the Bengal Renaissance, who also contributed to vernacular education and Bengali literature.
Most biographical accounts of Vidyasagar emphasise his charity and compassion. This is not unwarranted and yet, on one level, represents attempts to sanitise a figure whose personal anguish and exasperations sometimes reached tragic proportions. Bringing out the ‘greatness’ and some exceptional qualities in men was also a patently Victorian trait in biography writing. Its typical manifestations in colonial Bengal may be seen in the series of biographical sketches that Tagore produced for his ‘Charitrapuja’ (literally, Character Worship). In the case of Pundit Iswarchandra, however, such readings need to be qualified in at least three aspects.
First, Vidyasagar’s identity and approach differed significantly from that of Rammohun and, after him, of the Brahmo Samaj. Kissory Chand Mitra (1822– 73), a member of the Young Bengal group, saw Rammohun as embodying the spirit of ‘theo-philanthropy’, a deistic movement that had originated in eighteenth-century France and advocated the idea that service to man was tantamount to the veneration of God. Rammohun’s spiritual successor, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore (1817–1905), was fond of reciting the following sloka,‘tasmin preetitasya priyakarya sadhanancha eba’ (the veneration of God is accomplished by performing acts dear to Him, that is, service to one’s fellow-man). In Vidyasagar’s view of philanthropy, however, there was no reference to ‘theos’, to religion and God. To that extent, he was as much a humanist who took man to be the measure of everything as he was a humanitarian who was moved to care for humanity.
Second, inasmuch as it was driven purely by an attempt to alleviate human poverty and suffering and did not have a class dimension, Vidyasagar’s concept of charity differed significantly from the Brahmanical concept of daan, which was principally directed at a certain class (Brahmins) and aimed at deriving some value from the act, namely punya or religious merit. Whether consciously or otherwise, Vidyasagar appears to have followed Manu in believing that charity was the best course of action in benighted Kaliyuga, and yet his intentionality on this issue was markedly different. The noted Bengali scholar of popular science and folklorist, Ramendra Sundar Trivedi (1864–1919), reminds us of how Vidyasagar disagreed with the European concept of charity which, in both intention and effect, only underscored an assertion of the human ego. It was precisely this egoistic assertiveness that had also discomfited Sri Ramakrishna, who did not believe that a pious religious life could be derived from the philanthropic act of building schools and charitable hospitals. While at the Kali temple, the saint warned his devotees, one could not focus solely on feeding beggars while forgetting to pay respect to the Goddess Herself. On one level, this looks somewhat extraordinary since we have here two men arriving at the same conclusion, but from radically different positions. At first sight, there really cannot be valid points of comparison between the deeply pious Hindu devotee Ramakrishna, and a man who, though a Brahmin, often mocked religion, everyday rites and rituals, and conceited religious experts who claimed to truly understand God and religion.
Third, an emphasis on his charity and compassion alone conceals as much as it reveals. It reveals a deeply compassionate man who could not hold himself back at the sight of human depravity and suffering and often went out of his way to help those in distress. And yet the title ‘Karunasagar’ (ocean of compassion) conferred on him by the poet Madhusudan tends to take away from the other title he rightfully earned at the end of his course of study in the Sanskrit College: ‘Vidyasagar’.
Pundit Iswarchandra once confessed before the Ramakrishna devotee and Calcutta schoolteacher, Mahendranath Gupta (1854–1932), that grinding poverty had denied him the opportunity to pursue his studies further. We do also know that Thakurdas, his father, entertained similar feelings about himself, and his first desire upon relocating Iswarchandra in Calcutta was to ensure a classical Sanskrit education for his son so that he, too, could fall back on the traditional calling of his ancestors. The contemporary scholar, Benoy Ghose, takes Knowledge (bidya) to be Vidyasagar’s true asset, one that he earned purely on the strength of his own merit;‘Vidyasagar was a successful trader in knowledge’, Ghose concluded. When valorising his acts of charity and compassion, some contemporaries like Madhusudan may have been partly influenced by the magnanimity of Vidyasagar, who often went to the extent of borrowing money from friends and acquaintances in order to rescue another friend in acute distress, with some financially damaging consequences for himself.
The other aspect that has been relatively neglected is Pandit Iswarchandra’s self-understanding as a Brahmin. Even the otherwise brilliant essay by Tagore (Vidyasagar Charit, 1895, 1898) neglects to adequately stress this quality in the man that was at once the source of his extraordinary courage and compassion. It is noticeable that Vidyasagar does not really complain about the hard life that he had to face as a young boy, partly because in his perception, even a life of grinding poverty did not erode the sanctity or innate powers of Brahminhood. On the contrary, it was the consistent pursuit of simplicity, self-denial, endurance, moral courage, and the will to turn down gratuitous patronage even in times of distress that truly established an ideal Brahmin in his rightful place. Quite possibly, Vidyasagar’s persistent sartorial preference for coarse dhuti and chadar and unostentatious slippers also underscores this identity of a man nobler in deeds than in appearance. I also suspect that his fondness for walking tirelessly for long stretches was also a means of recovering for himself the qualities of an ideal Brahmin through a self-imposed discipline. What is usually overlooked is the fact that he was also opposed to any form of cruelty shown to man or animal. For part of his life, Vidyasagar would not agree to ride horse-drawn carriages for fear of subjecting an animal to hardships that it could not protest. At no stage in his life was Vidyasagar oblivious to his standing as a Brahmin, and here I would venture to argue that both his reforming zeal and moral pedagogy were, at least in part, also derived from his self- conscious location within the potent agency and institution of the ideal Brahmin. This was the Brahminism that also produced a somewhat condescendingly compassionate view of the world and of our recurring follies and frailties, helplessly caught up as we were in the inexorable cycle of births and deaths. The key to unravelling the mysteries of life was unquestionably held by the Brahmin.
In ethnic Bengal, where texts more than custom were seen to regulate social behaviour and hence governed the processes of social change or legal innovation, a Brahmin like Vidyasagar, reputed for his traditional scholarship and yet committed to things modern, was well-equipped to assume a position of social leadership. He would have been especially valuable to those who did not resent change per se, but preferred that the initiative for change remained in the hands of competent Hindus. He would have been equally valuable to those who were convinced of the need for social reordering at a time when it looked increasingly difficult to resist or brush aside the moral and intellectual challenges thrown by the contemporary West. Further, he could also make himself useful to the colonial State, which was keen to live up to a professed rhetoric that underscored its ‘enlightened’ and ‘emancipating’ presence. In one of the concluding readings of the draft Widow Marriage Bill in 1856, the Law Member to the Governor General’s Council let it be known that even in the face of the most vitriolic opposition, the government would still pass the Bill, if only for the ‘sake of the English name’. Vidyasagar was clearly important to the success of the Bill in a province where, hitherto, all major acts of social reform had originated in a Brahmin and on the strength of textual hermeneutics. Through the nineteenth century, Bengal clearly followed the path of social initiatives being seized by the Brahmin and in the interests of a subtly controlled enforcement of a reformed Brahmanism. In Bengal, Brahmanism was rarely contested, one way or the other, by radical challenges originating in the lower social orders. On the contrary, a local Sudra potentate like Radhakanta Deb had the power and resources to defend older habits and practices even against Brahmin-led initiatives, as over the controversy surrounding the abolition of sati. Interestingly enough, this encourages us to separate the greater cumulative power of Brahmanism from the initiatives taken by an individual Brahmin. And yet, it would be important to remember that what a man like Radhakanta essentially contested was not the Brahmin’s right per se to take social initiatives, but a rupture between the Brahmin and Brahmanism. With both the sati legislation and that concerning widow marriage, reformist moves would have floundered had they not originated in a Brahmin. Arguably, there is a curious parallel here too between the top- down model adopted by Pundit Iswarchandra in matters of social reform and the filtration theory he supported with respect to mass education.
It has been suggested, typically by Gopal Haldar, that for Vidyasagar, the recourse to shastras for effecting social change was essentially a matter of strategy. At first glance, this appears to draw support from the Pundit’s own admission that his countrymen were unlikely to respond to humanitarian appeals or to the voice of reason, and that locating support in the smriti texts would bring them around sooner to accepting novel changes. Going by preceding history, such a surmise appears neither unreasonable nor unfounded. In early modern Calcutta, it was quite common to secure the arbitration of pundits in matters pertaining to everyday life. When running water in taps was first introduced in the city, learned Brahmin scholars were summoned by a local aristocrat, Raja Kalikrishna Dev Bahadur, to determine if its consumption was ritually polluting for the orthodox Hindu. Pundit Premchandra Tarkabagish (1805–67), one of Vidyasagar’s teachers at the Sanskrit College, was so averse to its use that he left Calcutta for Kashi, only to die of cholera in that city. Hindus agreed to consume sacred food (prasada) from the Jagannath temple in Puri with their shoes on only after a team comprising three ritual experts pronounced their judgement in its favour. In 1829, the first flour mill was set up on the banks of the Ganges amidst great consternation. Pundit Taranath Tarkavachaspati (of whom we shall soon hear more) excluded both ice and soda-water from the list of food and drink that a Hindu could consume without scruple. In 1836, Madhusudan Gupta (1800–56) was deemed an out caste after dissecting a human cadaver at the Medical College, and was taken back into his community only after he defended the shastric validity of his position before a team of pundits.
And yet, it was somewhat naïve of Vidyasagar to believe that the day-to-day life of the contemporary Hindu was still significantly determined by the rule of the smritis. In his own writings against Kulin polygamy, Vidyasagar was to cite how customs had been changing over time, with or without reference to the shastras. But more importantly, he also seems to have taken a dynamic view of Hindu law and legalists, arguing that even Hindu law-givers of old were sensitised to the changing needs of society and flexible enough to suitably alter their prescriptions in keeping with the social or moral transformations occurring within the community. This is the ground on which he chose to base his widow marriage campaign, specifically the text by Parasar, which he argued had adopted the principle of yugadharma, or conduct befitting a particular age. This made Parasar Smriti alone the authoritative text for Kaliyuga. Later down this work, we shall find him arguing that it was pure expediency that had led Parasar to allow the marriage of widows in degenerative Kaliyuga, since the other options left to the Hindu widow were far more difficult to follow. Admittedly, the recourse to the shastras had been partly thrust upon Vidyasagar by Rammohun’s earlier handling of the sati campaign, which drew heavily upon Manu and other works of smriti. This was a precedence that could neither be ignored nor negated, and it may be reasonably argued that Rammohun’s taking to the path of exegesis perhaps only underscores what Vidyasagar was to later express about shastra alone being the effective key to procuring a public consensus on social reform. This makes the recourse to shastra attuned more towards social realism than strategy.
Excerpted with permission from the book Vidyasagar: Reflections on a Notable Life by Amiya P. Sen, published by Orient BlackSwan in February 2021.