Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar –Ishwar Chandra Bandyopadhyay (1820-1891) was one of the key figures of India’s renaissance in the nineteenth century. He worked wholeheartedly for women’s empowerment andprosperity. He was an academician, a thinker and a scholar par excellence. It was due his vast erudition that the title of Vidyasagar – the sea of knowledge was conferred on him.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was a man of multi-dimensional personality. Besides being a great scholar, he was also a leading social reformer. Particularly, women’s regeneration formed the nucleus of his ideasand works related to his social reform programmes. He studied the social status and honour women enjoyed in the past. He also analysed the root causes of their pitiable condition in his own time and came to the conclusion that for the restoration of theirfreedom, due honour and respect, and to bring them within the ambit of equality, it would be necessary to get women out of the hardship of social evils and malpractices. He laid emphasis on education among women.
Women, due to lack of education were inthe grip of social malpractices. Therefore, they were deprived of their human rights and were, in fact, totally unaware of the purpose of life. Education, in the words of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar himself “...is the priceless treasure (of life). Just its arrival not only ascertains welfare at individual level, but paves the way for large scale development of the society.”
Dealing with education and its basic spirit at the root, i.e., the realisation and development of virtues withineveryone equally, Vidyasagar started his social movement from Bengal in both the fields – women’s education and getting them out of the grip of social evils, and thus, became a champion of social reform. His endeavours for women’s upliftment, welfare, empowerment and elevation proved to be a milestone, and he became a great source of inspiration for people.
The social condition of women, especially within Hinduswas pitiable in those days. Social evils were, as has been mentioned, responsible for a hell-like situation for women all over the country. Those malpractices were framed by male-dominated society.
Vidyasagar, therefore, took the task of making the masses realise the reality. He avowed to uplift the status of women and prepared the ground for remarriage. It was not an easy task. But, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar who was committed to the noble human cause, succeeded. It was the result of his untiring struggle that the Government of India passed the Widow Remarriage Act in 1856. It was indeed another revolutionary social step taken after the Sati Regulation Act.
With the purpose of gathering people’s support for the implementation of the provision of remarriage of widows, he encouraged his only son Narayan Chandra Bandyopadhyaya to marry a widow.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar also fought against the evil of child marriage and strongly protested against polygamy. Both of these social evils had detrimental effect on women’s dignity and self-respect. He launched a movement against these social evils. Later legendary Indian figures like Swami Dayananda Saraswati (1824-1883) and Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) also worked in this direction and their cumulative efforts brought about the Child Marriage Prevention Act in 1929.Although various measures were taken for the abolition of polygamy, it was not until India achieved its independence that this tradition could be abolished. It is an irony that all sections of society are not following it uniformly.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s work in the field of women’s education was indeed a landmark. He established many educational institutions throughout Bengal. The Metropolitan School of Calcutta was one of theinstitutions founded by him. All girls could study in institu-tions established by him without any kind of discrimination.
The sole purpose of these schools was to make women self-sufficient and empowered. Along with this, special focus was laidon spreading values among girls. They were taught about India’s past glory and about the underlying tenets of Indian culture. They were expected to defend this and Indian nationalism. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was of the firm opinion, “Itdoes not matter how great one has become; he must remember (the glory of) his past…”
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar called on his compatriots to adopt eternal Sanatana values, established thousands of years ago. He urged Indians to remain optimistic and come forward for the protection of basic dictums and teachings of Indian culture and unite for social and human welfare. In respect of optimism he went to the extent of saying, “Those who are atheists, they should believe in God by adopting a scientific approach. Their welfare remains only in this.”
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar founded thirty-five schools for girls throughout Bengal. For this purpose, he also established a memorial fund, the Nari-Shiksha Bandar. It was the result of his inspiration that Bethune School, the first women’s school of India came into existence in the year 1849 in Calcutta. John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune founded it and it became the first women's college of Asia in the year 1879.
Vidyasagar’s works for the upliftment of women – their self-sufficiency, prosperity and empowerment, along with his untiring efforts for Nari-Shiksha remain unique. Keeping this view firmly in the centre, he said, “Taking social and national cause to be above all is the Dharma of a conscious and true citizen.”
Even today, many curses like social evils persist in India that suppress women. These malpractices are the major hurdles in the way of their empowerment. Social system, traditions, religion and customs often promote these social evils. A large section of women are still in a pitiable condition in many fields. They are far behind in the education sector, particularly in rural areas. Social evils like child-marriage are connected to illiteracy. It is shameful that nearly twelve million Indian children were married before the age of ten as revealed by India Spend analysis in recently released census data. In such a situation the path shown by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar is significant and worth following. We must remember that without women’s empowerment – their equality, freedom and rise, society and the nation cannot flourish.