“Anniversary Tribute: Think Hindu Widows’ Remarriage, Think Vidyasagar”

A Symbol of the Bengali Renaissance 1820-1891

Image: Wikipedia

He taught himself numbers counting the mile-stones from his native Birsingha village of Midnapore district, West Bengal to Calcutta when he was barely eight years old. Today, September 26 is 196th Birth Anniversary. Born into a family steeped in poverty, his life story is one of commitment and compassion. His life struggle was to dignify the life of the Hindu widow, prevent Child Marriage and ensure egalitarianism and dignity for those whom the caste system viewed as “lower”, unclean or polluted. The last two decades of his life were spent with the Santhals at ‘Nandan Kanan’ in the district of Jamtara where he died in 1891.

His fierce advocacy and campaigning ensured the enactment of a law in 1856 which removed all legal obstacles to the marriage of Hindu widows. The Widow Remarriage Act XV was passed in 1856.(July 25)

It was the plight of child widows in India that influenced his passionate campaign and he worked hard to make life better for these young girls and women. He was a staunch believer in the remarriage of widows and tried to create awareness about this issue.
Why were there so many increasing numbers of child widows?
One of the huge contributing factors was that many wealthy men of high castes used to have numerous wives which they would leave behind as widows upon their death. Hence, as a logical extension of the campaign for modernity and reform, Vidyasagar also fought against the system of polygamy.
Ishwar Chandra Bandopadhyaya was born to Thakurdas Bandyopadhyay and mother Bhagavati Devi was a unique symbol of the Bengali Renaissance, a great scholar, academician and reformer of whom, on his death Rabindranath Tagore said, "One wonders how God, in the process of producing forty million Bengalis, produced such a man!"

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar campaigned for Widow Remarriage, Abolition of Child-Marriage and Polygamy. He also opened the doors of the colleges and other educational institutions to lower caste students, which were earlier reserved only for the Brahmins. For his immense generosity and kind-heartedness, people started addressing him as "Dayar Sagar" (ocean of kindness). He is credited and remembered across Bengal for revolutionizing the education system of Bengal. In his book, "Barno-Porichoy" (Introduction to the letter), Vidyasagar refined the Bengali language and made it accessible to all persons, reducing its exclusivist, Brahmanical orientation.
In this day and age of a dominant Hindutva men like Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar find no place or mention. Any surprises? They spoke of radical reforms and modernizing of faith practices.
In his own words, why Widow Marriage needed to be Abolished. These are Excerpts from a booklet entitled, Whether the practice of widow-marriage among Hindus should or should not prevail, published by Vidyasagar in 1885:
“AN ADEQUATE idea of the intolerable hardships of early widowhood, can be formed by those only whose daughters and sisters have been deprived of their husbands during their infancy. How many hundreds of widows, unable to observe the austerities of a Brahmacharya life, betake themselves to prostitution and foeticide and thus bring disgrace upon the families of their fathers, mothers and husbands. If widow-marriage be allowed, it will remove the insupportable torments of life-long widowhood, diminish the crimes of prostitution and infanticide and secure all families from disgrace and infamy. As long as this salutary practice will be deferred so long will the crimes of prostitution, adultery, incest and foeticide flow on in an ever increasing current… so long will a widow’s agony blaze on in fiercer flames….
And this is a description of the first widow marriage, obtained from a biographical sketch of Vidyasagar by Pandit Shivanath Shastri, a Brahmo Samaj leader.
“I SHALL never forget the day. When Pandit Vidyasagar came with his friend, the bridegroom, at the head of a large procession, the crowd of spectators was so great that there was not an inch of moving space, and many fell into the big drains which were to be seen by the sides of Calcutta streets those days. After the ceremony, it became the subject of discussion everywhere; in the bazaars and the shops, in the streets; in the public squares, in students’ lodging-houses, in gentlemen’s drawing-rooms, in offices and in distant village homes, where even women earnestly discussed it among themselves. The weavers of Santipore issued a peculiar kind of women’s sari which contained woven along its borders the first line of a newly composed song which went on to say “May Vidyasagar live long.”

Sati ceremony in progress. (Pictorial History of China and India,185.)
Campaign for Reforms
It was with the support of many including e Akshay Kumar Dutta, Vidyasagar introduced the practice of widow remarriages to mainstream Hindu society. The prevailing custom of Kulin Brahmin polygamy allowed elderly men — sometimes on their deathbeds — to marry teenage or prepubescent girls, supposedly to spare their parents the shame of having an unmarried girl attain puberty in their house. After such marriages, these girls would usually be left behind in their parental homes, where they might be subjected to orthodox rituals, especially if they were subsequently widowed. These included a semi-starvation, hard domestic labour, and close restriction on their freedom to leave the house or be seen by strangers.

Often, unable to tolerate the ill treatment, many of these girls would run away and turn to prostitution to support themselves. Ironically, the economic prosperity and lavish lifestyles of the city made it possible for many of them to have successful careers once they stepped out of the sanction of society and into the demi-monde. In 1853 it was estimated that Calcutta had a population of 12,718 prostitutes and public women. Many other widows had to shave their heads and don white saris, supposedly to discourage attention from men.
A brilliant mind that excelled at academics, his quest for knowledge was so intense that he used to study under a street light as it was not possible for him to afford a gas lamp at home. He cleared all the examinations with excellence and in quick succession. He was rewarded with a number of scholarships for his academic performance. To support himself and the family Ishwar Chandra also took a part-time job of teaching at Jorashanko. In the year 1839, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar successfully cleared his Law examination and two years later, in 1841, at the age of twenty one years, Ishwar Chandra joined the Fort William College as a head of the Sanskrit department.

After five years, in 1946, Vidyasagar left Fort William College and join the Sanskrit College as 'Assistant Secretary'. In the first year of service, Ishwar Chandra recommended a number of changes to the existing education system. This report resulted into a serious altercation between Ishwar Chandra and College Secretary Rasomoy Dutta. Following this, Vidyasagar resigned from Sanskrit College and rejoined Fort William College but as a head clerk.

How a Nawab's Shoe Helped Ishwa Chandra’s Dream of Staring the Calcutta 
An interesting story. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and his few friends decided to collect donations to form Calcutta University. He traveled across Bengal and neighboring states asking people to donate for the foundation. While doing so, one day he reached outside the palace of an influential King, a Nawab. After hearing his plea, not entirely sympathetically, the King, pulled one of his shoes and dropped into Vidyasagar's bag as donation. Vidyasagar thanked the Nawab and left. Turning this into an opportunity, the very next day Vidyasagar organised an auction of the Nawab's shoe and earned Rs. 1000. The Nawab after hearing that his shoe has fetched so much amount of money, he himself gave a similar amount of money as donation.

The title 'Vidyasagar' (ocean of knowledge) was given to him due to his vast knowledge in almost all the subjects. Poet Michael Madhusudan Dutta while writing about Ishwar Chandra said: "The genius and wisdom of an ancient sage, the energy of an Englishman and the heart of a Bengali mother".

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar passed away at the age of 70 on 29 July, 1891. After his death, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s home was sold by his son to the Mallick family of Kolkata that was later purchased by the Bengali Association, Bihar on 29 March 1974. They maintained the house in its original form and also started a Girls’ school and a free homeopathic clinic.

Girls Schools a Priority for Reformers
Recognising the taboos imposed by caste, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, along with many other active reformers emphasized the importance of girls education and even participated in opening schools for girls. This was because, for him, educational reform was much important than any other reform. He believed that the status of women and all kinds of injustice and inequalities that they face could be changed only through education.



Related Articles