1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Vidyasagar, Iswar Chandra

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VIDYASAGAR, ISWAR CHANDRA (1820-1891), writer and social reformer of Bengal, was born at Birsinha in the Midnapur district in 1820, of a Kulin Brahman family. He was removed to Calcutta at the age of nine, was admitted into the Sanskrit College, and carried on his studies in the midst of privations and extreme poverty. In 1839 he obtained the title of Vidyasagar (= “Ocean of learning”) after passing a brilliant examination, and in 1850 was appointed head pandit of Fort William College. In 1846 appeared his first work in Bengali prose, The Twenty-Five Tales of a Fetal. This was succeeded by his Sakuntala in 1855, and by his greatest work, The Exile of Sita, in 1862. These are marked by a grace and beauty which Bengali prose had never known before. The literature of Bengal, previous to the 19th century, was entirely in verse. Ram Mohan Roy, the religious reformer of Bengal, created the literary prose of Bengal early in the 19th century by his numerous translations and religious tracts; and Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and his fellow-worker, Akhay Kumar Datta, added to its power and beauty about the middle of that century. These three writers are generally recognized as the fathers of Bengali prose literature. As a social reformer and educationist, too, Iswar Chandra made his mark. He associated himself with Drinkwater Bethune in the cause of female education; and the management of the girls' school, called after Bethune, was entrusted to him in 1851. And when Rosomoy Datta resigned the post of secretary to the Sanskrit College of Calcutta, a new post of principal was created, and Iswar Chandra was appointed to it.

Iswar Chandra's influence in the education department was now unbounded. He simplified the method of learning Sanskrit, and thus spread a knowledge of that ancient tongue among his countrymen. He was consulted in all educational matters by Sir Frederick Halliday, the first lieutenant-governor of Bengal. And when the great scheme of education under Sir Charles Wood's despatch of 1854 was inaugurated in India, Iswar Chandra established numerous aided schools under that scheme in the most advanced districts of Bengal. In 1858 he resigned his appointment under government, and shortly afterwards became manager of the Metropolitan Institution, a private college at Calcutta.

But a greater task than literary work or educational reforms claimed his attention. He had discovered that the ancient Hindu scriptures did not enjoin perpetual widowhood, and in 1855 he startled the Hindu world by his work on the Remarriage of Hindu Widows. Such a work, from a learned and presumably orthodox Brahman, caused the greatest excitement, but Iswar Chandra remained unmoved amidst a storm of indignation. Associating himself with the most influential men of the day, like Prosonno Kumar Tagore and Ram Gopal Ghosh, he appealed to the British government to declare that the sons of remarried Hindu widows should be considered legitimate heirs. The British government responded; the act was passed in 1856, and some years after Iswar Chandra's own son was married to a widow. In the last years of his life Iswar Chandra wrote works against Hindu polygamy. He was as well known for his charity and wide philanthropy as for his educational and social reforms.

His large income, derived from the sale of school-books, was devoted almost entirely to the succour of the needy; hundreds of young men owed their education to him; hundreds of widows depended on him for their daily bread. The Indian government made him a Companion of the Indian Empire in 1880. He died on the 29th of July 1891. (R.C.D.)