A philosopher, an academic, an educator, a writer, a translator – Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was born in Birsingha village on September 26, 1820. He loved to study, and his quest for knowledge was so intense that he used to study under street light since it was not possible for him to afford a gas lamp at home. He was also rewarded with a number of scholarships for his outstanding academic performance. Ocean of knowledge
He received the title ‘Vidyasagar’ or ‘Ocean of Knowledge’ from Calcutta Sanskrit College due to his excellent performance in Sanskrit studies and philosophy. The title was given for his vast knowledge in all subjects, which was compared to the vastness of the ocean.
Vidyasgar gave us Barnaparichay – the first book that any Bengali learns, or anyone wanting to learn Bengali should take as a primer. He broke the conventional rules of the language and was the person who first used dari to signify ‘full stop’ in Bengali, as well as comma and semi-colon, taken from English, to make the Bengali stories more creative and interesting.
Humanitarian par excellence
A champion of women’s rights, he started the tradition of educating women. He was a firm believer in gender equality and encouraged widow remarriage, which during his time was no less than blasphemy.
He was a fighter for man and humanity. When the poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt fell into debt due to his reckless lifestyle during his stay in Versailles, France, he appealed for help to Vidyasagar, who laboured to ensure that sums owed to Michael from his property at home were remitted to him, and sent him a large sum of money to France as well. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar felt very sorry and compassionate whenever he saw poor and weak people in distress. Though he was very outspoken and blunt in his mannerisms, he had a heart of gold.
He was also known for his charity and philanthropy. His immense generosity earned him the popular titles of ‘Dayar Sagar’ and ‘Karunasagar’ – both standing for ‘Ocean of Kindness’. He always reflected on and responded to distress calls of the poor, sufferings of the sick and injustice to humanity. While being a student at Sanskrit College, he would spend part of his scholarship proceeds to cook paayesh to feed the poor and to buy medicines for the sick.
Vidyasagar opened schools in villages because he considered that unless and until the people of the country are educated, it can never be independent and its improvement is impossible. The rural folk taunted him for taking the initiative to educate girls. Into the dark world of the purdah, the unfortunate domain of most girls of that era, he brought the light of knowledge.
He emphasised on teaching the mother language, Bengali to his students. But at the same time, proving his width of knowledge and his sagacity, he accepted the English and Sanskrit languages as equally important. He believed that men and women are equal and should be provided with the same social statuses.
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