Literature reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar29 July 2016
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891) Sanskrit scholar, writer, educationist, humanist pundit, social reformer and philanthropist, was born on 26 September 1820 in a poor Brahman family in a village in Medinipur. His father Thakur Das Bandhyay was a clerk at a shop in Kolkata.
Ishwar was sent to a village Pathshala (primary) at the age of five, but three years later, in December 1828, he was brought to Kolkata, where he briefly attended a Pathshala, and later was admitted to Sanskrit College in June 1829. An exceptionally brilliant student, he earned the title of Vidyasagar (an ocean of learning) by 1839, but continued studying there for two more years until December 1841. At the end of his studies, which included grammar, literature, rhetoric, Vedanta, jurisprudence, logic, astronomy, Hindu law and English, he was awarded a certificate of proficiency in these subjects.
Soon after leaving Sanskrit College in December 1841, Vidyasagar started his teaching career as the head pundit in Bangla at Fort William College. As a Sanskrit pundit, was looking for a job at Sanskrit College, which he eventually got in April 1846 -- the post of Assistant Secretary. He took his job seriously and wanted to improve the syllabus of the College, but faced obstacles from the conservative secretary, Rasamay Datta. Frustrated, he resigned his post in July 1847. In December 1850, he again joined Sanskrit College, this time, as its professor of Sanskrit literature, and, in the following month, became its Principal.
As Principal, he brought about a range of significant changes in affairs of the college. Previously only Brahman and Vaidya students were qualified to enroll in the college, but he opened its doors to all Hindus ; introduced nominal tuition fees; changed weekly holiday from each 1st and 8th days of the moon (which varied according to the lunar calendar) to Sundays; and persuaded the government to accept the degree given by the College to be sufficient for competing for the post of Deputy Magistrate of the time. Ishwar Chandra revised the syllabus radically, and instead of teaching Grammar and Mathematics (including Algebra) through Sanskrit alone, he began teaching these subjects through Bangla and English as well; and strengthened the English Department. He also made English a compulsory subject in view of the contemporary reality. While he also emphasised mare efficient teaching of Bangla, the teaching of philosophy received even a wider attention. He considered Sankhya and Vedanta philosophy to be unacceptable, and, also, refused to include Berkeleyan or similar Western philosophy in the syllabus; in its place he suggested teaching Bacon's philosophy and JS Mill’s logic.
Following the implementation of the Education Charter of Charles Wood (1854), which recommended expansion of education to rural areas, Vidyasagar was given, in addition to his work as the Principal of the College, the responsibility of the Assistant Inspector of schools in May 1855. He almost immediately started opening Bangla schools in four districts of Nadia, Bardhaman, Hugli and Medinipur; and, within a couple of years, set up altogether twenty schools. He also established a ‘normal school’ for the training of teachers for these schools and founded a school in his own village, almost entirely with his own money.
Alongside opening these Bangla model schools, the government also decided to establish some girls’ schools, even though it was uncertain as to whether it would be possible to do so in the face of strong opposition from conservative society which considered female education a taboo. Vidyasagar, an ardent supporter of female education, was given the responsibility of launching these schools; and he persuaded local people to establish such a school in Bardhaman in May 1857; and later, between November 1857 and May 1858, he opened the doors of thirty-four more girls' schools. However, he was unable to continue his work, as differences emerged between him and the Director of Public Instructions. Vidyasagar resigned his post both from Sanskrit College.
One of his important contributions to education was the establishment of the Calcutta Metropolitan Institution. It was first started in 1859 as an English training school for students from the rich Hindu families, but lost its vigour by 1861. He took over the responsibility of running it and named it Hindu Metropolitan Institution in 1864. With the approval of Kolkata University, it started preparing candidates for Entrance Examination and showed instant success. In early 1872, it was recognised by the University as an Intermediate college, and in 1879 as a Degree college.
Apart from modernising and reforming Sanskrit College; and establishing vernacular and girls' schools, his most important contribution to education was the textbooks he wrote and published. Until he published his pioneering work Barnaparichay (An Introduction to Alphabet, 1851), there was no such model reader for the beginners. The quality of this book was so good that it served as the universal textbook for the beginners for the following half a century. Similarly successful were his readers Badhoday (1851), Kathamala (1856), Charitabali (1856) and Jibancharit (1859) - all readers for young pupils. Like Barnaparichay, there was no Sanskrit grammar written in Bangla until he published his Samskrita Byakaraner Upakramanika (An Introduction to Sanskrit Grammar) in 1851. His Byakaran-kaumudi (1853-1863) was another monumental work on grammar.
A close look at the textbooks he wrote makes it evident that not only did he want to teach students the skills of reading and writing, but he also wanted the reader to acquire moral values and a liberal outlook. In his Charitmala (Biographies), for example, he did not write biographical sketches of ancient and medieval saints of India, but wrote about sixteen great men of Europe. In Jibancharit (Biographies), he again wrote short biographies of such scientists as Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Herschel; and such scholars as William Jones. In Nitibodh (Understanding Ethics), he chose to write not on institutionalised religions or rituals, but on the virtues that every human being should acquire. In Kathamala, he compiled fables that would contain a moral at the end; and in the three volumes of Akhyanmanjari (A Compilation of Anecdotes) he compiled popular stories from Europe and America (four from Arabia and Persia), and gave titles such as Devotion to Mother, Devotion to Father, Love for Brother, Devotion to the Teacher, Hospitality, Helping Others and Prize for Honesty; thus, he tried not only to teach moral values, but also to encourage his readers to look beyond their country. As his textbooks ran dozens of editions and were prescribed every school in Bengal, he was at once able to set a standard of language, including spelling, and elevate the moral standard of his readers. n (To be continued)