Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar

Justice Markandey Katju-



Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891), whose bust in Vidyasagar College, Kolkata was vandalized recently, and whose birth bicentenary will be celebrated next year, is an outstanding figure in India, a veritable colossus who almost single-handedly sought to transform the nation.


Justice Markandey Katju

Though Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833 ) is often called the Father of Indian Renaissance, that appellation truly belongs to Vidyasagar.


Born in an orthodox Brahmin family in Bengal, and steeped in traditional Sanskrit learning, one would have expected him to have become an arch-conservative and die-hard reactionary. Instead, however, he broke out of his orthodox upbringing and background, and for his times became a revolutionary.


Though outwardly he appeared to be a devout Brahmin who wore a dhoti at knee height, had a traditional tuft of hair, and was well versed in Hindu scriptures and Sanskrit, he fought all his life for the scientific and rational approach and modern education.


While Principal of Sanskrit College, Calcutta, he opposed Prof. Ballantyne, Principal of Sanskrit College, Benares who wanted only Sanskrit to be taught along with Vedanta and Sankhya, and insisted that English (a language he learned on his own without any formal education in it ) should be taught. He realized that English was a window to modern scientific knowledge, without which India could not progress. He called Vedanta and Sankhya false philosophies, though himself an authority in these spiritual schools, and instead advocated the study of Western science, Western philosophies such as those of David Hume and John Stewart Mill, logic and history.


He championed the cause of education, opening school after school in Bengal, and in particular, he advocated women’s education, which at that time was against the traditional notion that women were not suited for education.

He forcefully propagated the idea of widow remarriage, which was then a revolutionary idea, something which even Raja Ram Mohan Roy had not done. At that time many young girls became widows, as medical science was not advanced, and epidemics which killed thousands were commonplace. These young widows were often treated very shabbily, and remarriage was then unthinkable. In his second tract on widow remarriage (1855 ) he impassionately wrote: “Indian menfolk, you are quite willing to burn your dearest daughters in the hellfire of widowhood, but you are not prepared to support widow remarriage and thus emancipate your daughters from living hell. In this country, menfolk are devoid of kindness, justice, sense of good and evil, and only want to cling to blind prejudices. Let women be never again born in such an accursed land.”


In a remarkable letter dated September 7, 1853, to the Secretary, Council of Education, Government of India, Vidyasagar wrote:  “It appears to me to be a hopeless task to conciliate the learned folk of India to the acceptance of the advancing sciences of Europe. They are a body of men whose longstanding prejudices are unshakeable. Any idea when brought to their notice, either in the form of a new truth or in the form of expansion of known truths, they will not accept. It is but natural that they will obstinately adhere to their old prejudices. They believe that their Shastras have all emanated from omniscient Rishis, and therefore they cannot but be infallible.”


Vidyasagar was a polymath and is known as the father of modern Bengali alphabets and Bengali prose.

Why then was such an outstanding man’s bust smashed? Perhaps it was because those who broke it mistakenly thought he was against Indian culture and wanted it to be replaced by Western culture, something which the orthodox Hindu society, which was bitterly hostile to his views, thought in his lifetime.


But the truth is that Vidyasagar was not critical to the entire Indian culture, steeped as he himself was, in it. He only wanted to reject that part of our culture which was holding up our progress. While he was opposed to Vedanta and Sankhya philosophies, he advocated the study of science and the scientific and rational outlook, something which the Nyaya- Vaisheshik Indian philosophies stood for (see my articles ‘ Nyaya or Vedanta ‘ and ‘ Indian Philosophy ‘ on my blog Satyam Bruyat).


If India is to progress it must follow the path shown by Vidyasagar, the path of science and rationalism, which far from being foreign to Indian culture, is an integral part of it (see my articles  ‘Indians were once leaders in science’ and ‘Sanskrit as a language of science‘ online).



[Justice Markandey Katju is former Judge, Supreme Court of India and former Chairman, Press Council of India. The views expressed are his own]



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