Vidyasagar and the Emergent Bengal Renaissance – Part I

Canons of Character from Shambhu Chandra Vidyaratna’s Vidyasagar Jeevan-Charit O Bhramaniras


Part I

[Translator’s commentary:  There were two central pillars at the front end of the nineteenth century Bengal Renaissance and the social reformation movement, a cultural re-awakening considered a direct consequence of the English colonial establishment then on the rise in Bengal and gradually elsewhere in India.  On the religious front (along with his significant role in the abolition of the practice of Sati, then fairly prevalent in Bengal), by seriously attempting to bring the archaic practices and beliefs of Hinduism into the modern age, Rammohun Roy (1773-1833) established extensive outreach into the Unitarian movement in Europe and even the then relatively young United States, and ushered in the Brahmo Movement, which further blossomed thereafter in the hands of Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905) and Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-1884).  As far-reaching and influential as Rammohun’s reach and influence were (in several ways across the world- a topic I intend to discuss elsewhere), on the critical social reform front, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891), an educator, school founder, relentless campaigner for women’s rights, and an exemplary archetype of a truly enlightened figure nonpareil, many would argue, rose higher than almost all others.  In his lifetime, he was an absolute legend within Bengal (in Calcutta and Birsingha, the village of his birth, and gradually across India).  Many of these legends grew into folklore, several of which we ourselves grew up reading about.  Most were absolutely true; and the few that might not have been so factually, nevertheless, most plausibly attest to a person of the highest moral character and unsurpassed kindness for his fellow man.  The standards of character and service Vidyasagar established have not then and since been replicated; it is one of those eternal misfortunes that the world today seems not to remember this diminutive giant from a colonized people whose lifelong service and action for an entire people have virtually no equal anywhere.  Let me cite three of the supposed non-factual legends regarding ICV, and attempt to establish that even the “unlikely” legends are in complete resonance with the material reality of ICV’s life.  The first has to do with the prevailing legend that Vidyasagar with his extremely modest means, studied for his various subjects in school at night under the streetlights near his home.  Given ICV’s legendary erudition and mastery of language, literature and sacred texts, this legend is entirely believable.  A second legend, accepted widely as true (and depicted in the 1960s biographical film, Vidyasagar, with Pahari Sanyal in the leading role), maintains that ICV as a child taught himself the decimal numerals and their symbols simply by reading and memorizing the numbers on milestones when walking home with his father, Thakurdas Bandyopadhyay.  The third widely prevalent legend highlights ICV’s unqualified devotion to his mother, Bhagavati Devi.  According to this legend, while he was employed as an educator at the Sanskrit College in Calcutta, he received news that his mother (in Birsingha) wished to see him.  The story maintains that on his way to the village of Birsingha, he would need to cross the river Damodar, which on this particular occasion was virtually overflowing to full flood with swift currents in the middle of a severe thunderstorm.  Unable to find a ferry-boat to cross the raging river, ICV apparently jumped into the Damodar and swam across- such was his determination to fulfill his mother’s wishes.

Myths and legends aside, what the many uncontroverted facts of Vidyasagar’s life offer as vital lessons for the ideals of humanity include: (i) the very high place of honor that would be placed upon character and integrity in the development of a higher-order human being- qualities lauded across the world right up to the early twentieth century, qualities that have now been relegated to secondary or tertiary status, subsumed by money, vanity, self-promotion, and disregard for learning and wisdom; (ii) how one single individual with exemplary character, combined with erudition, foresight, determination and tenacity to impact positively the future of an entire people can in fact set into motion the necessary wheels of change; (iii) how Vidyasagar used his vast learning and knowledge of the classical and sacred works of Hinduism to initiate major social reforms, yet in his personal life was guided by the principles of morality and ethics, and not any religious doctrine; (iv) how Vidyasagar’s far-sightedness and supreme generosity enabled (one out of many examples) the unmatched poetic genius Michael Madhusudan Dutt to leave behind immortal works of creativity and literary innovation.

This essay is not intended to be a biographical enunciation of ICV’s life and works.  Instead, it is intended to offer some insights into anecdotes from his life as outlined in the narrative by his third younger brother, Shambhu Chandra Vidyaratna, in his biographical work, Vidyasagar Jeevan-Charit, based on first-person encounters with and about his widely venerated eldest brother.  The excerpts I present are brief snapshots from a most detailed narrative which demonstrates the extraordinarily larger-than-life role played by ICV in spearheading the Bengal and Indian renaissance of the 19th century.  A more detailed picture would require a complete rendition into English of Shambhu Chandra’s work.  The excerpts primarily highlight ICV’s interactions with the English educators and administrators in Bengal, and in turn the extraordinary respect he garnered from the colonial overlords.

[Excerpted from Vidyalaya Charit– sketches from his school years]

…….  A few days later, in the month of Ashwin (September), my Agraja (a mode of address in veneration of an older brother, here ICV, practiced in India) left for our village home due to illness.  At the time, Madhusudan Tarkalankar was the Assistant Secretary of the Sanskrit College and the Head Pandit at Fort William College. Upon Tarkalankar’s death in Kartik (October), many submitted applications to Mr. Marshall (then ex-Secretary of the Sanskrit College and occupying the same position at Fort William College) intending to succeed Tarkalankar at Fort William College.  Babu Kalidas Dutta from the Malanga neighborhood near Bowbazar, for instance, went forth to petition Mr. Marshall on behalf of another Pandit.  However, Mr. Marshall maintained, “There is a student named Ishwar Chandra at Sanskrit College- I intend to assign this post to him.  When I served the Sanskrit College as Secretary, I became well aware that Ishwar was exceptionally intelligent, and was particularly well-versed in the Sanskrit language.”  Hearing thus from the Sahib, Kalidas Babu responded, “He is very close to me also, and I would be most pleased if he were to be assigned this post.”  Thereafter, Mr. Marshall summoned Jaynarayan Tarkapanchanan and inquired, “Where is your student Ishwar? I wish to appoint him to Head Pandit at Fort William College.  However, I realize Ishwar is a minor; I am concerned that the Government may not approve his appointment being that he is underage.”  Thereupon, the venerable Tarkapanchanan replied, “Ishwar successfully completed the Law examination at Sanskrit College at age 22; a year later, he studied much of the Vedanta Shastra, followed by four years of intense study of Philosophy, whereby he has mastered much of the Philosophical treatises. Therefore, Ishwar has now passed 27 years in age, and is no longer a minor.”  Hearing thus, Mr. Marshall’s apprehensions were allayed.  It turns out that during his service as the chief administrator of Sanskrit College, Mr. Marshall had special interest in the activities of my Agraja.  Shortly thereafter, he sent Babu Rajendra Dutta of Malanga Lane [this, incidentally, is a lane which runs near the Bowbazar area, close to St. Joseph’s College, this translator’s middle and high school- MRC] to dispatch the news to our family.  Since Agraja was then back at Birsingha, my Father therefore traveled there in haste, and returned to Calcutta with him.  The following day, a formal application for the vacant Head Pandit position at Fort William College was submitted to Mr. Marshall, and shortly thereafter the appointment was approved by the Government.  ……

[Excerpted from Chakuri– sketches from his years in service]

… During his years as the chief administrator at the Sanskrit College, Mr. Marshall developed very high regard for Agraja as an unmatched scholar in grammar, poetry and alankara (figures of speech) in the Sanskrit language.  Accordingly, he would in fact take lessons on these subjects from Agraja, studying among other classical texts, the Mukta-Bodha, Raghuvamsa, Kumara Sambhava, Shakuntala, Vikram-Urvashi (the last four being significant works by the major classical poet-playwright Kalidasa- MRC) and several others.  Agraja was reasonably knowledgeable in English.  Therefore, Mr. Marshall suggested to him, “Ishwar- you must learn both English and Hindi most intensely, so that following the examinations of the civilian students (those preparing for the Civil Service- MRC), you must carefully evaluate them for merit or otherwise.”  Hence, for several months thereafter, Agraja hired a Hindi-language Pandit to offer him Hindi lessons each day until 9 am.  Thereby, he became quite proficient in evaluating the results of the Hindi examinations for the Civil Service. ….

[Excerpted from Chakuri– sketches from his years in service]

…. Around this time, Lord Hardinge arrived in India as the Governor General (then the titular head of the colonial administration conducted by the East India Company- MRC).  Once, during his initial few months, the Governor General went on a tour of the Sanskrit College (it needs to be noted that Calcutta was at this time the headquarters of all colonial operations of British India- MRC), and was informed that the students there did not have English in their curriculum, and hence would not find fruitful employment afterwards.  Each zilla (the equivalent of a county- MRC) erstwhile would have a Judge to supervise administration, but that position too had recently been eliminated.  Hence, the enrollment at Sanskrit College had dropped noticeably.  Lord Hardinge thereupon arranged to have one hundred schools (primary and secondary) across Bengal.  The Government assigned the task of screening and hiring teachers/Pandits for the schools upon Mr. Marshall.  Since Agraja was himself Mr. Marshall’s tutor, and the Englishman did not know much Bengali, it was Agraja who effectively carried out the screening and hiring.  In those days, there were not very many Bengali textbooks available.  The hiring examination was based on such texts as Purusha-Pariksha, Jnana-Pradeep, the Bengali version of Hitopadesa, and Annadamangal.  Agraja would ensure that the selection criteria would include proficiency also in Lilavati’s Arithmetic and Geography.  Ordinary people greatly lauded Mr. Marshall’s far-sightedness in assigning this vital task of school-building upon Agraja; however, many a Pandit envied the great prestige and honor bestowed upon him.

[Excerpted from Chakuri– sketches from his years in service]

… After receiving Mr. Marshall’s report, the Government hired (Taranath) Tarkavachaspati to a first-level grammar faculty position at Sanskrit College at a handsome monthly salary of ninety rupees. Around the same time, since a second-level grammar faculty and a librarian position had become vacant also, initially the Secretary Babu Rasamay Dutta had recommended that Pandits from the 4-year suburban schools be offered those positions.  However, when Mr. Moyt, who was Secretary of the Education Council, asked Mr. Marshall for his thoughts, the latter communicated to him the advice from Ishwar Chandra, “Suburban school teachers would not be appropriate for the college faculty positions.  These positions ought to be reserved for meritorious ex-students who graduated from the College.”  Several well-regarded Sanskrit College graduates and other Pandits thereafter sat for the second-level grammar faculty examinations.  Subsequently, Dwarkanath Vidyabhusan and Girishchandra Vidyaratna passed the examination ranked first and second respectively.  They were thereafter hired to the two positions at monthly salaries of fifty and thirty rupees respectively.  … Thus, three leading Sanskrit grammarians, Tarkavachaspati, Vidyabhusan and Vidyaratna were now hired as faculty at Sanskrit College. Most notable in this sequence of events is the fact that the high-salaried (ninety rupees) position had originally been offered to Agraja; yet, he characteristically turned the offer down, and instead personally initiated the steps necessary to get Tarkavachaspati hired for the position.

[Excerpted from Chakuri– sketches from his years in service]

…In 1842, a civilian with an aristocratic background named Robert Cost was a student of advanced courses at Fort William College.  My Agraja was then the Head Pandit at the college. Mr. Cost would occasionally engage Agraja in conversations on a variety of topics.  Mr. Cost was both intelligent and learned, and derived much please talking to my Agraja.  One day he placed a request before Agraja, “It would bring me much happiness if you were to write a couplet or two about me in Sanskrit.” Thus persuaded, Agraja wrote the following slokas for him:

Sriman Robert Costohadya vidyalayamupagatah  |

Soujanyapurnairalapairnitarang maamatoshayat  ||1||

Sa hi sadgunasampannah sadacharatah sada |

Prasannavadano nityang jivatribdashatang sukhi ||2||

* The meaning of the above slokas will not be discussed here.  MRC.

Mr. Cost appreciated the slokas, and offered two hundred rupees to Agraja as reward.  However, instead of accepting the reward, Agraja recommended that the money be deposited at the College.  Thereby, the funds could be used as a 50-rupee award for one student each year who would write the best poem or essay in the Sanskrit writing competition.  This plan was implemented, and indeed the winner of the competition won the Cost Award at Sanskrit College four years in a row.  Mr. Cost was most impressed by Agraja’s generosity and selflessness.  In the first year of the award, Agraja posed the question- Discuss the relative merits of Knowledge, Intelligence and Modesty, and argue which of the three is most important via Sanskrit prose.  The competition was held at Fort William College, and Nilmadhav Bhattacharya was the winner that year.  The competition in the second year dealt with writing poems; Dinabandhu Nyayaratna and Srishchandra Vidyaratna finished at the top.  It turned out that Srish’s composition had grammatical errors, while Dinabandhu’s did not.  Yet, given that Dinabandhu was his (ICV’s) brother, lest people raise questions (of partiality), Agraja selected Srish for the award.  ….

[Excerpted from Chakuri– sketches from his years in service]

… During his service at Fort William College, my Agraja developed very close friendships with several prominent English civilians of the time, including Robert Cost, Chapman, Sir Cecil Beadon (then Lt. Governor of the Bengal Presidency- note Kolkata has a road, Beadon Street, dedicated to his name- MRC), Gray, Grand, (Sir Frederick James) Halliday (the first Lt. Governor of the Bengal Presidency), Lord Brown, Ashley Eden (then Secretary to the Government of Bengal under Cecil Beadon and others- MRC) and several others.  The civilians and administrators almost uniformly held him in very high regard (these interactions, often aimed at social upliftment, bear testimony to a somewhat more benign aspect of English administration in the Bengal Presidency, and their respectful collaborations with prominent Indians of the time- MRC).  It would so happen that if a junior civilian were unable to pass the required examinations, he would have to return to England.  Consequently, Mr. Marshall out of kindness would suggest to Agraja that their marks be inflated a little to enable them to pass.  Despite such appeals from his superior, Agraja held fast to what was righteous.  If pressed any harder, he would shake his head and say, “Rather than be party to any injustice, I will resign instead.”  This earned him much respect from the civilian students and of course Mr. Marshall.

[Excerpted from Chakuri– sketches from his years in service]

… Once, for a specific task on behalf of the Sanskrit College, Agraja had to visit the Principal of the Hindu College, Mr. Carr.  For the entire time Agraja stood in Mr. Carr’s office to discuss with him the purpose of his visit, the Englishman placed his feet with the leather shoes upon his table top, facing his visitor. This discourtesy greatly offended Agraja.  Some days later, to solicit a special favor on behalf of the Hindu College, Mr. Carr had to visit Agraja at the Sanskrit College.  Agraja remembered well the measure of courtesy he had received earlier from Mr. Carr.  Upon hearing about the Sahib’s visit, Agraja lifted his feet with the leather sandals upon his table, and did not bother to greet or welcome the visitor.  The Sahib stood there for a while, conversing with him, thereafter feeling insulted and embarrassed, left Agraja’s office in a huff. He later filed a complaint with the Secretary of the Education Council, Dr. Moyt, to the effect that, “I had visited the Assistant Secretary of Sanskrit College on assignment from the Hindu College. His discourtesy towards me was most offensive.  No other European would have tolerated such rude behavior.” The Education Council, therefore, sent notice to Agraja, asking for an explanation.  To this, Agraja responded in writing, “Sometime earlier, the Sahib had displayed a similar discourtesy towards me, that is to say, he had lifted his feet with leather shoes upon his table while conversing with me.”  Upon being informed thus, the Secretary of Education was much impressed, and said with an agreeable smile, “I have hitherto never come across a more upright and righteous person than Pandit Vidyasagar in all of Bengal.  This is the reason we hold the Pandit in higher reverence and admiration than any other Bengali. There is not a second person in Bengal comparable to Vidyasagar.”  For as long as Dr. Moyt remained Secretary of the Education Council, he would not undertake any action without consulting with Vidyasagar.  …..

Dr. Monish R. Chatterjee, a professor at the University of Dayton who specializes in applied optics, has contributed more than 130 papers to technical conferences, and has published more than 75 papers in archival journals and conference proceedings, in addition to numerous reference articles on science.  He has also authored several literary essays and four books of literary translations from his native Bengali into English (Kamalakanta, Profiles in Faith, Balika Badhu, and Seasons of Life).  Dr. Chatterjee believes strongly in humanitarian activism for social justice.

Selected excerpts translated by Monish R Chatterjee ©2021

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