Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar CIE (26 September 1820 – 29 July 1891), born Ishwar Chandra Bandyopadhyay (Ishshor Chôndro Bôndopaddhae), was an Indian Bengali polymath and a key figure of the Bengal Renaissance.He was a philosopher, academic educator, writer, translator, printer, publisher, entrepreneur, reformer, and philanthropist. His efforts to simplify and modernize Bengali prose were significant. He also rationalized and simplified the Bengali alphabet and type, which had remained unchanged since Charles Wilkins and Panchanan Karmakar had cut the first (wooden) Bengali type in 1780.
He received the title “Vidyasagar” (in Sanskrit vidya means knowledge and sagar means ocean, i.e., Ocean of Knowledge) from Sanskrit College, Calcutta (from where he graduated), due to his excellent performance in Sanskrit studies and philosophy. Noted Bengali mathematician Anil Kumar Gain founded Vidyasagar University, named in his honour.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was born in a Hindu Brahmin family to Thakurdas Bandyopadhyay and Bhagavati Devi at Birsingha village in the Ghatal subdivision of Paschim Midnapore District on 26 September 1820. At the age of 6, he went to Calcutta and started living in Bhagabat Charan’s house in Burrabazar, where Thakurdas had already been staying for some years. Ishwar felt at ease amidst Bhagabat’s large family and settled down comfortably in no time. Bhagabat’s youngest daughter Raimoni’s motherly and affectionate feelings towards Ishwar touched him deeply and had a strong influence on his later revolutionary work towards the upliftment of women’s status in India.
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. Ishwar Chandra joined the Sanskrit College, Calcutta and studied there for twelve long years and passed out of the college in 1841 qualifying in Sanskrit Grammar, Literature, Rhetoric Vedanta, Smruti and Astronomy. As per the customs then Ishwar Chandra married at the age of fourteen. His wife was Dinamani Devi. Narayan Chandra Bandyopadhyaya was their only son.
In the year 1839, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar successfully cleared his Law examination. In 1841, at the age of twenty one years, Ishwar Chandra joined Fort William College as head of the Sanskrit department.
After five years, in 1846, Vidyasagar left Fort William College and joined 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. In 1849, he again joined Sanskrit College, as a professor of literature. In 1851, Ishwar Chandra became the principal of Sanskrit College. In 1855, he was made special inspector of schools with additional charges. But following the matter of Rasomoy Dutta, Vidyasagar resigned from Sanskrit College and rejoined Fort William College as a head clerk
Vidyasagar championed the uplift of the status of women in India, particularly in his native Bengal. Unlike some other reformers who sought to set up alternative societies or systems, he sought, however, to transform orthodox Hindu society from within. With support from people like Akshay Kumar Dutta, Vidyasagar introduced the practice of widow remarriages to mainstream Hindu society. In earlier times, remarriages of widows would occur sporadically only among progressive members of the Brahmo Samaj. The prevailing custom of Kulin Brahmin polygamy allowed elderly men – sometimes on their deathbeds – to marry teenage or even 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. 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 quite successful careers once they had 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 widows also had to shave their heads and don a white sari, supposedly to discourage attention from men. They led a deplorable life, something Vidyasagar thought was unfair and sought to change. .
He took the initiative in proposing and pushing the Widow Remarriage Act XV of 1856 (25 July) in India. He also demonstrated that the system of polygamy without restriction was not sanctioned by the ancient Hindu Shastras
He reconstructed the Bengali alphabet and reformed Bengali typography into an alphabet (actually abugida) of twelve vowels and forty consonants. He contributed significantly to Bengali and Sanskrit literature.Vidyasagar’s “Barna Porichoy” is still considered a classic.
One of the important events in the life of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was his meeting with Ramakrishna. Ramakrishna invited Vidyasagar to the Kali temple where he was serving.
Vidyasagar was liberal in his outlook even though he was born in an orthodox Hindu Brahmin family.Also he was highly educated and influenced by Oriental thoughts and ideas. But Ramakrishna in contrast did not have a formal education.
Thus neither his talks created any impact on him(Ramakrishna), nor vice-versa.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar spent the last 18 to 20 years of his life among the Santhals at ‘Nandan Kanan’, Karmatar in the District of Jamtara, Jharkhand. The station Karmatar has been renamed as ‘Vidysagar’ railway station in his honour