From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar
Mains level : Social reforms in Colonial India
- Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was the 19th century intellectual giant whose bust was vandalized by some political goons in Kolkata.
- However he was perhaps the first Indian reformer to put forward the issues of women.
- Vidyasagar’s Bengali primer, Borno Porichoy, remains, more than 125 years after his death in 1891, the introduction to the alphabet for nearly all Bengali children.
- Michael Madhusudan Dutt, the 19th century pioneer of Bengali drama, described Vidyasagar as having “the genius and wisdom of an ancient sage, the energy of an Englishman and the heart of a Bengali mother”.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar
- One of Bengal’s towering cultural icons, and among the greatest personalities of the Bengal Renaissance, Vidyasagar was a polymath who reconstructed the modern Bengali alphabet and initiated pathbreaking reform in traditional upper caste Hindu society.
- He studied Sanskrit grammar, literature, Vedanta philosophy, logic, astronomy, and Hindu law for more than 12 years at Sanskrit College in Calcutta, and received the title of Vidyasagar — Ocean of Learning — at the age of just 21.
- Privately, he studied English literature and philosophy and was appointed principal of Sanskrit College on January 22, 1851. He was all of 31 years old then.
Reforms by Ishwar Chandra
I. Widow Remarriage
- The focus of his social reform was women — and he spent his life’s energies trying to ensure an end to the practice of child marriage and initiate widow remarriage.
- He followed in the great reformist tradition of Raja Ram Mohun Roy (1772-1833), and argued, on the basis of scriptures and old commentaries, in favour of the remarriage of widows in the same way as Roy did for the abolition of Sati.
- His earliest effort at social reform, however, came in the second half of 1850 when, in a paper on the evils of child marriage.
- He launched a powerful attack on the practice of marrying off girls aged 10 or even younger, pointing to social, ethical, and hygiene issues, and rejecting the validity of the Dharma Shastras that advocated it.
- He showed that there was no prohibition on widows remarrying in the entire body of ‘Smriti’ literature (the Sutras and the Shastras).
II. Campaign against polygamy
- Alongside the campaign for widow remarriage, he campaigned against polygamy.
- In 1857, a petition for the prohibition of polygamy among Kulin Brahmins was presented to the government with 25,000 signatures, led by the Maharaja of Burdwan.
- The mutiny of the sepoys resulted in the postponement of action on this petition, but in 1866, Vidyasagar inspired another petition, this time with 21,000 signatures.
- In the 1870s, the great rationalist, wrote two brilliant critiques of polygamy, arguing to the government that since polygamy was not sanctioned by the sacred texts, there could be no objection to suppressing it by legislation.
Impact of his reformist zeal
- Vidyasagar’s first pamphlets in Bengali on widow remarriage created a tremendous stir in Hindu society.
- Two thousand copies were sold out in a week, and a reprint of another 3,000 copies also did not last.
- These were unprecedented sales figures for a book at that time.
- On October 14, 1855, Vidyasagar presented a petition to the Government of India praying for early passing a law to remove all obstacles to the marriage of Hindu widows and to declare the issue of all such marriages to be legitimate.
- On July 16, 1856, The Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act, known as Act XV, was passed.
- Inspired by Vidyasagar, a number of literary men produced dramas advocating the remarriage of widows, both in Bengal and elsewhere.
- In 1864, Jyotiba Phule succeeded in persuading a Saraswat Brahmin widow to remarry.
- In 1866 Vishnu Shastri Pandit translated Vidyasagar’s book on widow remarriage into Marathi.