29 July 1891: Social Reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar Passes Away


On 29 July 1891 popular social reformer, writer, philosopher, educator and translator, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar passed away in Calcutta (now Kolkata) at the age of 70.


Born on 26 September 1820 in the Paschim Midnapore District of West Bengal to impoverished Brahmin parents, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was six years old when he moved to Kolkata to live with the family of Bhagabat Charan, where his father had already been staying for some time. While staying there, Vidyasagar was deeply moved by Bhagabat’s daughter Raimoni’s maternal affection for him, which eventually had a great influence on his work towards the betterment of the status of women in society.


Vidyasar was a keen learner from a very young age and would study under a streetlight as he could not afford a gas light at home. He soon passed all his exams with a good score and won many scholarships in the process. The name Vidyasagar, which meant “ocean of knowledge”, was given to him by the people of his village because of his vast knowledge on various subjects. Vidyasagar soon took on a teaching job to support his family financially. In 1839, Vidyasagar cleared his law exam and by the time he was twenty one, he had joined Fort William College as the head of the Sanskrit Department.


After five years in Fort William College, Vidyasagar joined the Sanskrit College as an Assistant Secretary and recommended many changes in the existing education system. This led to a dispute between Vidyasagar and Rasomoy Dutta, the College Secretary. Vidyasagar left and later rejoined the Sanskrit College as a professor of literature in 1849. By 1851 Vidyasagar became the principal of the college and by 1855 he became special inspector of schools. But since there already existed a disagreement with Rasomoy Dutta, Vidyasagar left the Sanskrit College and went back to Fort William College as a head clerk.


Vidyasagar will always be remembered for championing the cause of education, especially for girls. Along with other reformers, such as Ramgopal Ghosh, Madan Mohan Tarkalankar and others he founded schools for girls. When these schools opened in the early 19th century, people were wary of them and thought that by sending their daughters to school they would not be available for domestic duties. Many people were also not comfortable sending their daughters out to public places and hence most educated women were taught at home by their liberal fathers or husbands. Being an open minded individual, Vidyasagar opened up the premises of the Sanskrit College to lower caste people, something which had never been done earlier and which was one of the reasons of discord between Vidyasagar and Rasomoy Dutta. Vidyasagar maintained that despite their caste or gender everyone had the right to receive education.


Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar worked tirelessly for social emancipation and as a social reformer he is remembered for his contribution towards the removal of social injustice, upliftment of women, allowing widow remarriage and preached the ills of polygamy. Vidyaagar was especially vocal about the cause of widow remarriage because young widows were treated very badly after the demise of their husbands. Most of them were ill treated, subjected to a lot of cruelty and hard labour and not given proper food by the family. Widows were not allowed to leave the house and were prohibited from meeting strangers. Most of these young widows would flee from their homes and take up prostitution to support themselves. In 1853 it was believed that Kolkata had around 12,718 prostitutes.


Vidyasagar was so moved by the cruel poverty people were living under that as a student he would use his scholarship proceeds to feed the poor and buy medicines for the sick. Apart from his kindness, Vidyasagar was an extremely humble individual, a characteristic through which he constantly inspired people. Vidyasagar also authored many books which greatly helped the Bengali education system. In him India saw an individual whose own interests took a backseat as he constantly worked for the betterment of society.


Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar passed away on 29 July 1891 in Kolkata at the age of seventy. Following his death his son sold his house to the Mallick family of Kolkata, who later sold it to the Bengali Association. The association used the premises to start a school for girls and a free homeopathic clinic. 


Also on This Day:


1802: Agreement between Gaekwad of Baroda and the British about the army.


1911: Mohan Bagan became the first Indian football team to win the I.F.A. Shield.


1927: Madhavsingh Solanki, one of the leaders in Gujarat, was born.


1953: Anup Jalota, famous Bhajan and Ghazal singer, was born.


1996: Aruna Asaf Ali, freedom fighter and player of important role in Quit India Movement, passed away in New Delhi. She was awarded with the Bharat Ratna.

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