Least Power, Most Responsibility

Vidyasagar Revisited

Tapas Piplai

[Writing a social history or fixing a person on right social perspective is a tough job. It frequently suffers from subjective bias rather in place of logical reconstructs. This article wants to find the right canvas for evaluation of Vidyosagar and his initiatives during his time.]

Social reforms form a part of any country's comprehensive history with no exception to India. And any Reform is always associated with the names of a few individuals. In Bengal, during 19th century, it is associated with so-called Hindu Bhodroloks. These bhodroloks emerged against a canvas of complex social condition. These groups can be categorised into two types that time. One type is the families settled in Kolkata living on agricultural surplus from their respective village Zamindari or other income. This section emerges as a consequence of Permanent Settlement of Bengal in 1793, as introduced by Lord Cornwallis. Another type is the first generation families migrated to Calcutta from their villages, to have formal education and thereafter to go in for job or chakri in the establishment headed primarily by British bosses. It is to be remembered that in 1847 the last Bengali large establishment collapsed with the closure of Union Bank. Middle class nationalism is yet to surface. The protests are mainly confined within local populist movements by peasants, tribal forest dwellers etc.

The new job (chakri) oriented young generation were at the cross roads of various disparities in contrast with the then western society. The advancement of western education in Bengal facilitated the dawn of rethinking of ceremonial rituals and vocal protests against these social disorders.

The evolution processes of these reformers start with their own painstaking studies on various subjects. They watch initially with their sensitive and passionate mind, the prevailing draconian social systems and its menace. They start public debate and form public opinion. They study the roots, mobilise like minded people against social menace and finally landing up enact laws to prevent these evil practices. Needless to mention that in Bengal during Vidyasagar’s time primarily the prevailing social systems and practices were governed by Brahminical system. Therefore going against any such rule used to be taken as anti-religious and anti-Hindu system.

Amongst various misrules in the society—the gender discrimination was one of the main draconian systems which appealed and sensitized the people like Rammohan Roy, Vidyasagar etc. Indeed there were other conservative and reactionary systems in existence in urban and rural areas. Vidyasagar took up the women issues as his core area of work.

Against this canvas, the eminent personalities should be judged in history, super imposing them on the then social system, their scope of progressive and core area of actual work. It suffered a serious set-back when one wanted to evaluate the role of Vidyasagar in ’70s placing him on intended socio economic canvas while giving little importance on what then social condition was.

Fluidity and inconsistencies of mental boundaries ought to be there for any conscious individual in the society. This is because the society was evolving continuously in response to technology, shift in class interests, change in social systems etc. Any multi-layered personality will respond to these changes and in the process gets himself corrected.

Attempting to evaluate a person based on selective aspects of his life or appropriating a few statements to justify preconceived hypotheses or isolating him from prevailing social challenges and ambiguities etc are distortions which makes evaluation myopic. They should instead be judged against their core area of work. All great personalities under question are having these so-called inconsistencies. That is natural and reality. But looking at a person in isolation from the above references is unscientific and motivated vision of evaluation.

It's essential to remain clear on the class composition during mid-nineteenth century in Bengal. The British monarchy was imposing their colonial rule which was a clear departure from the earlier trading route. The exploitation of land and people just started to generate profit from colonial process. The forest and remote areas encroachment started by displacing the tribals and agriculturists. Setting up of industry was at its formative stage. Therefore the tribals, cultivators and labour classes emerged to fuel the colonial exploitation over a decadent feudal culture and value system of Bengal. It was a great process of transformation. The infrastructure change in the society to support the class interest was felt necessary.

Reaping the benefit from the inevitable changes in favour of people was the necessity so as the protest against exploitation. Vidyasagar chose the first path as he was a social reformer.

Born on Monday the 26th September 1820 (12 Aswin BY 1227) in a village called Veerasingha of the then Hoogly (now part of West Midnapore) district of West Bengal.Vidysagar spent his childhood in extreme poverty. But poverty could not imprison his soul, nor could it deter him from his chosen path of striving to reach his life's goals. After his education he got employed at Fort William College, thereafter Sanskrit College and with Government. Wherever he was, he tried to do justice to his job by capturing the good lessons from other systems as well without any bias. He was throughout his endeavor of doing good to others and society, subjected to humiliation and betrayal frequently. He got frustrated in the later part of his life and took refuge away from urban life. He was disgusted but undaunted. He was a person who staked his entire savings and fortunes for others specially for widow remarriage movement. Finally, a kind yet iron heart with utmost simplicity came to an end on 29th July 1891. He is perhaps one person during that time who transcendences from a typical bramhinical and ritual driven orthodox life to an enlightened arena of Religion of Man.

In India instead of looking objectively at the issues and its root causes, people attribute the failure on the individuals, adding some isolated remarks against these reformers. Commonly in India, the evaluation is impaired by mixing up of their personal life attributes and compromises with their core areas of activities. These are two different aspects of life. All are victims of such compromises in lives time to time. The actual social canvas has to be considered from where they make a giant leap for the society.

He followed social logic from Shastric strictures. The logic he followed was to first study the origin of the existing system. Thereafter, he used to go to the prior period of the so-found origin to study further the Shastric strictures in original Sanskrit. Thereafter, he used to bring in human values, human health, environmental factors and safety issues to firm up his proposed logic with the right reference. The same logic was followed by and large by Rammohan Roy too.

Female education, widow marriage, early marriage of girls, girl-victim of polygamy—all used to be followed interestingly under the veil of Religious strictures during that time in the society. This perspective helped him to work for female deprivation to education, proper marriage, discrimination etc. It is worth remembering the Tagore's words of appreciation that he should be credited to remove "Rustic Barbarism" and "Parochial Scholasticism" from the society. Vidyasagar's contribution should be viewed from larger perspective i.e. the prevailing gender discrimination during that time and how did he fight against it to succeed. He liberated the moribund social system of Bengal and its language from the age old parochial scholasticism. Here lies his greatness.

Relative gender position was having a great inequality during that time in the society.

The relative positions of both the genders in terms of benefits in social canvas and its disparities raised serious concerns in Vidyasagar's sensitive mind. The issues like widow burning (suttee), women's education, gender seclusion, child marriage, polygamy, widow remarriage prohibition, employment restrictions etc depicted to him the real social attitude towards females and he was deeply influenced by the menace of the issues. The hollowness of these social rules and their erroneous justifications from puranas made him extra sensitive to eradicate the same.

For both Rammohan (Suttee) and Vidyasagar (widow marriage), even after the laws were passed there were little enforcement because of social barriers. It was not their fault, neither the routes were faulty. It is the power of legacy intertwined with the age old caste class tradition that refused to accept these changes as per their Hindu Naya / Niti jurisprudence. They were fortunate enough that like Socrates they were not forced to consume poison for speaking the truth!

To impart proper and scientific education to the females and also the males he discarded the reactionary parts of the syllabus which cost him even the job. At that time he even went to the extent of removing some portions of Sankhya and Vedanta sutras from text which had too much metaphysical beliefs and conclusions.

His contribution in reformulating the school syllabus in 1850 incorporating the good sides of western education like logic, astronomy etc. replacing the earlier religious studies bears his revolutionary strength as social reformer. It was a great contribution to the society. Smriti exponent Raghunandan's books were replaced by him with a concise book incorporating all religions (Sarbadarshanasanhita) which includes non-vedic philosophy like Buddhism, Carvaka etc along with Vedic ones. He placed theism, atheism and agonist views of philosophy side by side leaving the logical judgment and conclusion for the students to make. He introduced astronomy and mathematics course taking the cue from western system. He picked up Orientalist as well as Anglo and Western approaches while drawing the syllabus. In 1850 in Sanskrit College he changed the syllabus towards modernisation. He had as reported have introduced punctuations and rationalisation of Bengali alphabets in the syllabus of Bengali language. This was unprecedented during that time.

He used to believe that education and advancement of scientific learning in vernacular could bring about sustainable social changes in the society. It is applicable to both the genders, irrespective of any strata of society.

He opened several schools in Bengal and made the timing in the evening in various places, enabling ladies to join the education class.

He not only had conceptualised the changes but implemented it as well. For easy understanding for the masses he picked up the writing in simple Bengali. He introduced formulation of Bengali grammar in a simple way, interestingly all by himself. He took up the challenge and became the secretary of Bethune School which was established to spread female education in the society. In order to make the written communication simpler he started writing for beginners—the proses, translation of world famous classics in simple Bengali language etc. Rightfully as Tagore mentioned he may be called as the father of Bengali prose. He broke the shackles of scholastic approach in education in schools. It was his another great contribution to society. It was indeed a great leap forward for the society during that time.

Though insignificant yet important issue was his introduction of clock punctuality which he introduced in the office and academic institutions. As Asst. Secretary and Principal of Sanskrit College he ensured that punctuality for everything should be maintained to inculcate the value of time with respect to work schedule.

Subsequently he unleashed a massive campaign against Hindu system of Polygamy, early marriage etc. All were directed towards well beings of females in the society against Brahminical male orthodoxy despite the fact that he ascended from same brahmmical orthodoxy. He insisted to legalise his proposals of reform so that his activities and reforms could spread across the country seamlessly.

The evil practices of multiple marriages by the so-called Kulin Brahmins pained him to the core. It was as per him a cruel exploitation of helpless condition of the innocent girls in the society. In fact not only Hindu polygamy, he protested against Muslim polygamy too. To counter the Shastric stricture in favour of polygamy, he took the references from Adisura & Ballal Sena and established that Senas never attributed any body as Kulin. Sena family in Bengal were supposed to bring in the Kulin system in Bengal by inviting Brahmins from Kanauj. Only for certain families the word Kulashreshtha was used by Senas to confer them with the royal nobility status. The reference of Kulinism was found in the literature Padachandrika. It was nothing to do with multiple marriage. It was to protect the land wealth and to protect the hindus (Raris & Barendras) from property right dilution and to avoid blood mixing with muslims (Yavanadosha). It might have emerged in the society around 1480 AD, and not before that. Getting swayed in the fake social propaganda of Kulinism the girls became unfortunate victims so as their fathers. The groom in turn used to amass wealth at no expenditure of maintenance. It was a horrible status of girls in Bengal. He made a petition to the British authority against this obnoxious social system.

Similarly against early marriage of girls he was up in arms to prevent it, citing biological reasons against it. He took the help of medical science journals to prove his point.

On widow remarriage he faced a stiff resistance from the then orthodox society. The continuation of widowhood was established by the leaders of the society citing its approval from Brihannaradiya and Adtyapuran. They claimed it as the legacy of Hindu system. Vidyasagar saw the evil aspects of it. He spent lots of time to collect authentic evidence from Parashara Sanhita which was dated earlier to former reference and proved that as per Hindu shastra—Remarriage, Suttee and Continence were the three ways a widow could live rest of her life. Since Suttee was already banned in the society by law, and continence was so subjective, the only left out option for these unfortunate widows was remarriage provided it was agreed by them. His write up was so strong in argument, even the opponents in the society could not refute. Yet they did not accept it from heart because of age old legacy of superstitions and discreet system of perversion. He through his writings held the mirror to show the society the actual menaces of this system.

He ensured on all the disparities as above that he fought for, a proper law should be enacted to declare the continuance of existing draconian activities as illegal.

He could not give much attention beyond city Bhadroloks because of his acute shortage of people and money. To make his efforts effective he approached for patronisation to local Rajas and Zamindars and the upper strata of Hindus who were the opinion leaders of the society during that time. By this he wanted that rest of the society would automatically be enthused to fall in line with his reforms. Further, to establish his view points he used to study a lot and write, taking enough evidences from Veda, Sanskrit Literatures and Puranas etc to counter the claims of the Hindu pundits who were sitting at the helm of society and used to decide the social customs.

He assumed the role in the society with that of Public Intellectual, like Budha in earlier days or Socrates in Greece. He unlike others adopted the traditional, yet modem and logical approach. He was always keen to legalise the reforms through his repeated representation to authority and public debate coupled with actual evidence of facts. He was in this aspect different from Derozians during that time. More-over the country was then just got annexed to British sovereign. He felt it necessity to maintain good relationship with British rulers that time as it would have been otherwise counterproductive, if he landed in a frontal acrimony with them. Even he was said to have compromised on a few unwarranted issues too. He wanted to ensure the successful roll out of the broader issues of gender and language upliftment of Bengal society from the yoke of age old traditional Shastric approach of education and gender oppression etc.

He did all these activities with his limited resource of money and followers. He asked help from the ruling British people to achieve his larger objectives. Despite all these great efforts he got deceived mostly from his own fellow countrymen. He was during last part of life got dejected with the civil society behaviours and took refuge with tribal Santhal community in Karmatar area.
He was not a freedom fighter, neither a mass revolutionary leader. He was not bound by any nationalist traits pertaining to state. He was a great reformer who revolutionised the thought process and system of Society and also language. He should be seen in the proper perspective. The elitism coupled with liberated mind confluenced at him. He was an iconic personality who not only expressed his opinion in "word" but also converted these words into "deed" too. He was not only profound in his Shastric knowledge but also had deep feeling for humanity. He was the actual Prometheus who stole fire from Shastras, Western education system and spread across the fire to Bengali society during mid-nineteenth century. ooo

[Acknowledgement: Various articles & books on Vidyasagar and his time, by Sumit Sarkar, Benoy Ghosh, Amalesh Tripathi, Indra Mitra, Tanika Sarkar etc.]

Vol. 49, No.34, Feb 26 - Mar 4, 2017