Brief notes on Debendranath Tagore and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar

The Brahmo Samaj had in the meanwhile continued to exist but without much life till Debendranath Tagore, father of Rabindranath Tagore, revitalised it. Debendranath was a product of the best in the traditional Indian learning and the new thought of the West.

In 1839 he founded the Tatvabodhini Sabha to propagate Rammohun Roy's ideas. In time it came to include most of the prominent followers of Rammohun and Derozio and other independent thinkers like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Akshay Kumar Dutt.

The Tatvabodhini Sabha and its organ the Tatvabodhini Patriot promoted a systematic study of India's past in the Bengali language. It also helped spread a rational outlook among the intellectuals of Bengal.

In 1843 Debendranath Tagore reorganised the Brahmo Samaj and put new life into it. The Samaj actively supported the movement for widow remarriage, abolition of polygamy, women's education, improvement of the riot's condition and temperance.

The next towering personality to appear on the Indian scene was Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the great scholar and reformer.

Vidyasagar dedicated his entire life to the cause of social reform. Born in 1820 in a very poor family, he struggled through hardship to educate him and in the end rose in 1851 to the position of the principal ship of the Sanskrit College.

Though he was a great Sanskrit scholar, his mind was open to the best in Western thought, and he came to represent a happy blend of Indian and Western culture.

His greatness lay above all in his sterling character and shining intellect. Possessed of immense courage and a fearless mind he practiced what he believed.

There was no lag between his beliefs and his action, between his thought and his practice. He was simple in dress and habits and direct in his manner. He was a great humanist who possessed immense sympathy for the poor, the unfortunate and the oppressed.

In Bengal, innumerable stories regarding his high character, moral qualities and deep humanism are related till this day. He resigned from government service for he would not tolerate undue official interference.

His generosity to the poor was fabulous. He seldom possessed a warm coat for he invariably gave it to the first naked beggar he met on the street.

Vidyasagar's contribution to the making of modern India is many- sided. He evolved a new methodology of teaching Sanskrit. He wrote a Bengali primer which is used till this day.

His writings helped in the evolution of a modern prose style in Bengali. He opened the gates of the Sanskrit college to non-Brahmin students for he was opposed to the monopoly of Sanskrit studies that the priestly caste was enjoying at the time.

He was determined to break the priestly monopoly of scriptural knowledge. To free Sanskrit studies from the harmful effects of self-imposed isolation, he introduced the study of Western thought in the Sanskrit College. He also helped found a college which is now named after him.

Above all Vidyasagar is remembered gratefully by his countrymen for his contribution to the uplift of lndia's downtrodden womanhood. Here he proved a worthy successor to Rammohun Roy.

He waged a long struggle in favor of widow remarriage. His humanism was aroused to the full by the sufferings of the Hindu widows.

To improve their lot he gave his all and virtually ruined himself in 1855, he raised his powerful voice, backed by the weight of immense traditional learning, in favour of widow remarriage. Soon a powerful movement in favor of widow remarriage was started which continues till this day.

Later in 1855, a large number of petitions from Bengal, Madras, Bombay, Nagpur and other cities of India were presented to the government asking it to pass an act legalizing the remarriage of widows. This agitation was successful and such a law was enacted.

The first lawful Hindu widow remarriage among the upper castes in our country was celebrated in Calcutta on 7 December 1856 under the inspiration and supervision of Vidyasagar.

Widows of many other castes in different parts of the country already enjoyed this right under customary law. An observer has described the ceremony in the following words:

I shall never forget the day. When Pandit Vidyasagar came with his friend, the bridegroom, at the head of a large procession, the crowd of spectators was so great that there was not an inch of moving space, and many fell into the big drains which were to be seen by the sides of Calcutta streets in those days.

After the ceremony, it became the subject of discussion everywhere; in the bazaars and the shops, in the streets, in the public squares, in students' lodging-houses, in gentlemen's drawing-rooms, in offices and in distant village homes, where even women earnestly discussed it among themselves.

The weavers of Santipore issued a peculiar kind of women's sari which contained woven along its borders the first line of a newly composed song which went on to say 'May Vidyasagar live long'.

For his advocacy of widow remarriage, Vidyasagar had to face the bitter enmity of the orthodox Hindus. At times even his life was threatened. But he fearlessly pursued his chosen course.

Through his efforts, which included the grant of monetary help to needy couples, twenty-five widow-remarriages were performed between 1855 and 1860.

In 1850, Vidyasagar protested against child marriage. All his life he campaigned against polygamy. He was also deeply interested in the education of women.

As a Government Inspector of Schools, he organised thirty-five girls' schools, many of which he ran at his own expense. As Secretary to the Bethune School, he was one of the pioneers of higher education for women.

The Bethune School, founded in Calcutta in 1849, was the first fruit of the powerful movement for women's education that arose in the 1840s and 1850s.

While the education of women was not unknown in India, a great deal of prejudice against it existed. Some even believed that educated women would lose their husbands! The first steps in giving a modern education to girls were taken by the missionaries in 1821, but these efforts were marred by the emphasis on Christian religious education.

The Bethune School had great difficulty in securing students. The young students were shouted at and abused and sometimes even their parents were subjected to social boycott. Many believed that girls who had received Western education would make slaves of their husbands.