Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Ishwar Chandra and Ishwar

In an article entitled Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar published in Indian Opinion dated 16th of September, 1905, Mahatma Gandhi correctly attributes Bengal’s emerging political consciousness and its strong influence over the rest of India – the article was written against the backdrop of the first partition of Bengal and the consequent Swadeshi Andolan – to the spread of elementary and higher education. Then he goes on to briefly and admiringly describe Vidyasagar’s visionary role in that expansion of education particularly among women and poor, pioneering work in the creation of Bengali prose and tireless social activism leading to reforms such as legalizing remarriage of widows. The article is a short biographical sketch, one in a series of columns Gandhiji wrote to enlighten the readers about the great and famous, and is clearly not meant to be an insightful and comprehensive analysis of Vidyasagar’s life and work.

However, a few paragraphs curiously stand out – not as much by throwing light on Vidyasagar’s mind as by hinting at Gandhiji’s own perceptions and preoccupations. First, the passages:

He was a Hindu, and a Brahmin too. But to him, Brahmin and Sudra, Hindu and Muslim, were all alike. [original]
Himself he led a very simple life. His dress consisted of a coarse dhoti, a shawl of similar kind to cover his body, and slippers. In that dress he used to call on Governors, and in the same dress he greeted the poor. He was really a fakir, a sannyasi or a yogi. [original]

Compare this with what Rabindranath writes in the first paragraph of his famous eulogy Vidyasagar Charita (1896) where he explains how the immense force of life directed Vidyasagar to humanism, and specifically not to Hinduism, parochialism or communalism. He continues:

When we discuss Vidyasagar’s life, what stands out is not that he was a great Bengali or a great Hindu but the fact that he was much bigger than that, he was truly a great human being (my translation)[original]

While Gandhiji presents Vidyasagar’s egalitarianism as a contrast to his Hindu Brahmin identity, Rabindranath seems reluctant to even attach that identity to Vidyasagar. And he does have reasons for that doubt.

Quite early in his life Vidyasagar fell out with Brahmo Samaj leaders most of whom were too rigid for him to work with and from then on he always maintained a respectable distance from both the Hindu revivalist and the Brahmo reformist camps. He concentrated on social reforms through legislation and education. In addition, he was extremely reticent about his personal religious beliefs and practices in his writings and conversations. In his long essay Vidyasagar ki nastik chhilen (Was Vidyasagar an atheist?), scholar Asit Kumar Bandyopadhyay regrets that reticence as he tries to answer the question he poses to himself. The accusation of atheism – or its variant suspicion that he secretly harbored faith in some form of Christianity – was often used by conservative Bengali kulin Brahmins to deride Vidyasagar who, in addition to successfully legalizing remarriage of widows, aggressively went after practices dear to the orthodox establishment such as polygamy and child marriage. So apart from natural curiosity, the question had practical relevance when Vidyasagar was alive.

On the basis of the limited and somewhat contradictory evidence that is available, Asit Bandyopadhyay concludes that even though it is obvious that none of the organized religions – Bankim-inspired Hindu revival, any of the three post-schism Brahmo Samaj groups or Christianity – held any attraction for Vidyasagar who was definitely against preaching and evangelizing organized religion in any form, it is not clear whether he denied the existence of god altogether or he accepted god in a very personalized way but did not want to influence others by talking about it. On one hand Vidyasagar often used to invoke the classic problem of evil and express skepticism about god and after-life in a self-mocking manner, on the other the following excerpt from Chandicharan Bandyopadhyay’s biography seems to indicate that Vidyasagar, in a conversation with a close friend, once did concede the existence of god in his typically self-deprecating and humorous style completely lost in translation:

“I do think that there is a god ruling this universe, but I do not understand why I need to follow a specific path and practice certain rituals to be in his good book and to go to heaven. I do not understand these things myself and I do not want to persuade others either. I am doing so many wrongs myself and am already carrying such a heavy load of sin (mocking reference to his reforms of orthodox Hindu practices). Should I risk running into further trouble by misleading others as well? I do not think I will do that. I try to follow the path which in my judgment is the best. If you insist, I will say I do not understand anything more than that.” (my translation) [original]

The first version of Bodhodoy, a Bengali textbook along the lines of Chambers' Rudiments of Knowledge, which Vidyasagar wrote for elementary school students did not have a chapter on religion. Moreover, the final chapter on Industry-Commerce-Society was an unexpected novelty as he went on extolling science, trade and commerce by describing how they can dramatically improve standard of living. Later in the second version of the book, when he added a small section on religion after repeated requests from his peers, friends and reviewers, the god he described was nirakar chaitanya swarup (formless consciousness). Whether he personally believed in that god or not is a question that researchers and biographers have always stumbled at.

Once during a visit to Vidyasagar's place and an exchange of ideas, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa urged him:

“The great work you are doing is good for your self as well. Nishkam Karma will refine your mind, will help you to love god and with that love, you will realize god. Take the next step. Once you find god, your need for other work will diminish.” (my translation) [original]

In response, Vidyasagar smiled and avoided a confrontation, but his lifelong work is a testimony to the fact that he was not too perturbed about taking that next step. His compassion and the belief that he could make positive changes in the lives of people around him through education and legislation were strong enough to keep him going. A true workaholic, he, as a principal, ran Sanskrit College for seven years like a capable and visionary leader with brave new ideas about changes in curriculum and teaching methods – preeminence of English language, science and other western theories, reform in examination systems, hiring and grooming great teachers such as Sir Surendranath Banerjee and a national mass education policy requiring teaching of three languages: the regional language, English and Sanskrit. After he resigned from the post of principal over a disagreement with his new British boss on autonomy and policies, like a true entrepreneur, he established one new college and a large number of elementary schools where only Indian professors and teachers were hired. As an integral part of implementing his vision, he also jumpstarted the development of Bengali language around the same time by writing Bengali books and by editing and publishing Bengali journals and periodicals.

Vidyasagar never religiously fetishized his simple clothes – it was more an expression of convenience, comfort and respect for clothes that his mother used to weave for him and on rare occasions, usually to make a point, he did switch to western clothes – or his austere lifestyle. He was a worldly man justifiably proud of his ability to make an independent living just by writing and editing Bengali books and his capacity to administer large educational institutions competently. In his indifference to the unknowable and in his distaste for a cult following and guru status, rationalist and pragmatic Vidyasagar stood, fought and died alone, far apart from his contemporaries. That is why the strongly religious connotation of Gandhiji’s descriptions, however respectful and well-intentioned, sounds a trifle misdirected.

Acknowledgement: Prosongo Bidyasagar - A collection of essays published in 1991 by Bongiyo Sakkhorata Prasar Samiti on 100th death anniversary of Vidyasagar.


Ruchira Paul said...

Thanks Dipanjan, for publishing this article. It was brought to my attention by Confused who I am glad to note, has provided a link on Desi Pundit. I hope that will result in the wide exposure that I.C.V. deserves. I am afraid that too few among the current generation of Indians (outside the Bengali community) are aware of this extraordinary man and the admirable life he led. His razor sharp intellect, courage, compassion, tireless activism and above all, a life long devotion to fairness and rationality are unmatched. I will copy here what I said to Confused.

"Vidyasagar is my hero. I haven't found anything about his life, philosophy or character that I can find fault with. I don't mean that he was a perfect being - just what I wish everyone else could be. My admiration for him exceeds what I feel for Tagore, Gandhi or any other Indian leader / intellectual. It is too bad that there was just one Ishwar Chandra and that he didn't capture the Indian national imagination as much as Gandhi did. (Too sensible for the muddle headed, emotional masses).

Everything that Dipanjan has reported on his blog is more or less familiar to me, having a read a lot about Vidyasagar in my youth. But it was still a thrill to be reminded of this extraordinary man."

Dipanjan said...

Thanks Ruchira. I appreciate the comment. His almost non-existent legacy tells a lot about us.

Some fascinating angles are lurking there, but the scope of a blog post is naturally narrow.

There was a very interesting line in Gandhi's 1905 article about Vidyasagar being particularly helpful to big desi kings and princes. I did not see many references to that anywhere else.

Also the Bengali leftist deconstruction of Vidyasagar is mind-boggling. Starting from the destruction of his statues in 70s to systematic elimination of English education in the state in 80s, barring the privileged few of course, it is a post in itself.

Chirantan Kundu said...

As far as I know, In his book Bodhodoy Vidyasagar defined God as the formless self-form of Consciousness ("Iswar nirakar choitanyaswarup"). Not sure if that was the first version though.

jhimli said...

Thanks for your information.Can you please tell me where Vidyasagar used to stay in Kolkata?It will be a great help for me.

Thanking you,

Amit said...

thanks Dipanjan...amader ekta procholito dharona ache nastik er dara kono valo kaaj kora sombhob noy..bhogoban chhara abar valo kaaj hoy naki?..kintu Vidyasagar, Akshay Kumar dutta ebong Dr Mohendralal Sircar er moto lok dekhiyeche je seta kono factor e modhye Mohendralal sircar e jor golai boleche Upanishad is transcendental non sense...ebong tar kothat modhye nastikota fute utheche bahubar...amader ei bangla kotodin bhoboban dhore paap purna kore jabe janina..kintu amar sotty gorbo hoy eisob manusher kotha bhebe...sobseshe Ramkrishnar ekta dami kotha diye sesh korlam.."Biswas abar ki re?? biswas ar ondhobiswas er modhye kono tofat nei, biswas sobsomoyi ondho..anubhuti hocche sotto.."

sumit said...

Dipanjan - I am Chandicharan Bandopadhyay's great-grandson. I am keen to buy a copy of his biography of Ishwar Chandra. Is it possible to purchase this anywhere? Regards - Sumit Chanda