The Message and Ministrations of Dewan Bahadur R. Venkata Ratnam, volume 2/Chapter 29

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From the galaxy of 'Indian Worthies there have disappeared beyond human ken two most radiant orbs of the very first magnitude. Within four days of each other have ended the illustrious careers here below of two of India's most noted worthies. If the lives of its great men be the most precious treasure of a country, our poor fatherland has had to pay a very heavy tribute, indeed, to the grim old king of "mantle dark and cold n in the departure, almost simultaneously, of one who signally vindicated the intellectual greatness of his nation and the other who was a life-long champion of the social victims of his custom-ridden race. Verily a cloud, a gloom, has passed over the face of Aryavarta; and the entire peninsula mourns the loss of two of the rarest products of this country or age. RAJAH RAJENDRA LAL MITTER, D.L., C.I.E., the marvel of his mother-country, "the pride of the sciences of Europe a scholar of world-wide reputation, breathed his last on the 26th July, in his sixty-eighth year. He was descended from one of those historical Kayastha*[1] companions of the five Brahmin families of Kanauj that emigrated into Bengal sometime during the closing ages of the Hindu rule of that province and became the progenitors of the present Kulins. The Rajah's ancestors held, for some generations, high positions under the Moghul sovereigns of the land; and young Rajendra Lal had thus all the advantages that rank and position could afford to the growth and development of those very rare talents with which kind Nature had endowed him and which, when enriched and augmented by his other great qualities, raised him to a very high pedestal of fame. He was a versatile genius that could master the principles of different sciences. After having tried, with con- siderable credit, the study of medicine and of law, he chalked out a brilliant career for himself in the investigation of the Ancient History and Archaeology of his country. To excel in the, particular life which he chose, he worked hard and honestly for amply equipping himself with all the requisite knowledge; and he thus acquired a command of something like a dozen languages. Thus, in his own chosen life-work the gifted author of the "Buddha-Gaya" and the "Indo-Aryans" stood not only inapproachably ahead of his countrymen working in the same field but also quite abreast with the best scholars of Europe and America; with a good many of whom he was on terms of learned correspondence, measuring swords with some of them occasionally. Apart from his contributions to journals, magazines and " transactions," in which he seemed almost to rival the fertility of a Heyne (as Carlyle reports it), his larger productions are very numerous.*[2] Several of them are models of patient research, keen comprehension, striking originality, marked independence, lucid exposition and a masterly style. While his wonderful command of the English language wrung out praise from even the bitterest banterers on what is unjustly termed "Babu English," the results of his investigations were valued as a rare achievement by the scholars of the West. He was an honored member of numerous learned Societies and Academies all over the world, and was elected some years ago the President of the Asiatic Society in Bengal, thus rising — and very deservedly, too — to a position analogous to the one held, a century ago, by that linguistic prodigy and large-hearted scholar, Sir W. Jones. The Government conferred upon him the titles of Rajah and C. I. E.; and the Calcutta University, of which he was nominated a Fellow — rather an ambiguous honor in India — conferred upon him the highlyenvied distinction of the "honorary" degree of Doctor-in-Law, the only other native of India similarly honored as yet being that erudite but somewhat biassed scholar, the late Rev. K. M. Bannerjea. Thus, respected by his countrymen, honored by the Government, and esteemed by his fellow-savants, the illustrious Rajah was "the cynosure of neighbouring eyes."

But even an Achilles may have his vulnerable heel; and the towering genius that could so thoroughly master the most abstruse problems of ancient history could hardly realise the sad social defects of the nation at the present time. He who traced the sociology of by-gone generations with such remarkable success justified the woes and wrongs of our virgin-widows with the specious argument of the numerical equality of the two sexes! In fact, Macaulay's well-known reflection on Johnson may, with almost equal justice, be applied to our "great Cham," that his mind was like the gin of the Arabian tale that now, in full freedom, spread out in amazing proportions over land and sea, but anon, under the seal and spell of a pet idea, shrank into a little vessel. However, now that he has "past to where beyond these voices there is peace, "let none allow a few "wandering isles of night" to bedim the glory of the "source and fount of day."

Equally great in his own way was Pandit Iswara Chandra Vidyasagar, the darling child of India, the far-famed advocate of widow-marriage; who passed away on the 29th of July, at the ripe age of seventy-one. Born a Brahmin of the very highest sect (a Kulin Bannerjea), he had exceptionally good opportunities for studying the sociology of the Hindus, especially what we may term its dark aspects. Though descended from parents in rather narrow circumstances, he nevertheless had the benefit of a very sound education, in virtue of which he received from the classical Navadweepa (Nuddea) the high title of Vidyasagara. In fact, he was "a gem of purest ray serene" which no obscurity could hide. The native genius of his soul shone through all disabilities and discouragements. He rose to high distinction in the Government Educational Department. But the glory which it was his to achieve was more of the heart than of the head; it lay more in the depth of affection and the vigour of character than in the height of the intellect. To him was given the noble privilege of following, in more than one respect, in the track of the great Rajah Rammohan Roy; which might, we think, be partly ascribed to his early and intimate association with the famous Thathvabodhini Sabha, of which the founder and central figure was that true saint of God, Maharshi Devendranath Tagore, the Chief Minister (Pradhanacharya) of the Indian Theistic Church for the last half-century. And though this connection with the noted Sabha ceased after a time in its religious activities, Vidyasagar was always in deep sympathy with the Brahma Samaj iii its social reforms. In fact, latterly, losing all confidence in his "orthodox" countrymen, he looked upon that body as almost the sole reforming agency in the province. A sincere well-wisher of the illiterate, he devoted his time and energy to a vigorous spread of education. Many and various have been the works from his gifted pen; and such is their worth and such their popularity that, it is said, he had an income of several thousand rupees a month from the sale of his productions. His tender heart always throbbed in rich and living sympathy for those dumb victims of ruthless custom— the fair sex of our country. With unflagging zeal he toiled to emancipate the minds of our women from the thraldom of ignorance and superstition. Through his earnest endeavours several girl-schools were established. To him, we think, has been due to a large extent the stability and success of one of the biggest colleges under Indian management in Calcutta — the Metropolitan Institution. Thus his large income was mostly dedicated to education and philanthropy. However, it was by his heroic exertions in the cause of widow-marriage that Vidyasagar has come to be known and, at least partly, revered wherever the hard lot of India's ill-starred daughters has been evoking in- terest and sympathy. So early as 1854 Vidyasagar, then at the head of the Sanskrit College, issued his famous pamphlet in defence of Widow-marriage on Sastric grounds. This brochure was a veritable sling and stone for the Goliaths of orthodoxy. It created an immense sensation. Violent replies poured in from the guardians of our dear old institutions. After much deliberation, Vidyasagar sent out a masterly rejoinder, which has ever since remained practically unanswered. Those who lack some personal experience of the dreadful difficulties of social reform in our own day, after a generation of wide-spread liberal education, can form no idea of the appalling dangers Vidyasagar had to brave in his heroic attack on the strongholds of bigoted conservatism. Verily he was an ocean of sound and fruitful learning. Two years later, while the shade of the coming gloom of the Indian Mutiny was scarcely perceptible, he prevailed upon the Government to inaugurate a silent, beneficial revolution in Hindu Society by passing the famous Widow-marriage Act; which, though not very popular as yet, will nonetheless exercise a very healthy influence on the India-to-be. From theory to practice has ever been a sure and natural transition with all greatmen; and Vidyasagar was preeminently great. The first widow- marriage among the higher classes in Modern India — itself the happy harbinger of several others — took place in the historic Sukea Street in the ever-memorable 1865. Nor was his reforming zeal, like Solomon's wisdom, meant only for others. His only son was married to a virgin-widow, in the face of stout domestic opposition; and as a strong protest against those solemn farces, those sad parodies of sacred wedding, the infant marriages of India, he had his own daughters married only when of full age. His efforts to root out the upas-tree of Kulinism and polygamy should have likewise succeeded but for the turn-coat friends on whom he had relied for support but whose deplorable change of front at the last hour shook his confidence in his countrymen for ever. Thus at the risk or expense of health and wealth, position and popularity, he wrestled almost single-handed with many a social hydra; and although the monster might have proved too-many-headed for this dauntless Hercules, wherever worth is appreciated, patriotism is esteemed, philanthropy is honored and heroism is revered, the name of Vidyasagar is cherished as that of a noble-minded, tender-hearted and high-souled son of India whose entire life has been one love-offering unto the sons and, especially, the daughters of his mother-country. In enriching his native tongue — in which he takes rank with the honored names of Rammohan Roy, Akshay Kumar Dutt and others, in promoting education among his countrymen, in succouring the poor and relieving the distressed, in weaning the minds of his sisters from the ignorance of generations, in rescuing the down-trodden widow from "hallowed" social tyranny, and in carrying on a throttling-struggle with the monster of Kulinism which exacted its iniquitous maiden tribute in Bengal, he has set a glorious example of patriotism and benevolence — of nobility of aim, singleness of purpose, unflinching moral courage and far-reaching liberality-which few may feebly match but none can ever surpass. The Government conferred upon him the title of C.I.E., and the Calcutta University the honor of a Fellow; but far more lasting and far wider known than what lies in the virtue of any honor or title, or in the durability of any "storied urn" or "animated bust," will be the immortality of Vidyasagar in the loving hearts and grateful memories of the sons and daughters, for generations to come, of this ancient land for whose intellectual, social and moral progress and happiness he worked throughout his long life with such matchless courage and exemplary disinterestedness.

Such have been the two renowned sons of India who have just entered the peace that never ends and the glory that never fades. Both were truly learned; both were sincerely patriotic; but each after his own type. The one shed the light of research upon some of the very obscure problems of ancient history; the other carried the light of education and the gleam of hope into the dark caverns of ignorance and the gloomy retreats of misery. And posterity will honor them after their respective merits. With all his valuable services to the Municipality, the University and the British Indian Association of Calcutta, it is mainly as an intellectual luminary that the learned Rajah Dr. Rajendra Lal Mitter will shine in the firmament of fame; while the revered name of the venerable Iswara Chandra Vidyasagar will be bequeathed to the succeeding generations as the type of the good Samaritan (so to speak) in an age and a nation of Pharisees, a saintly life which was one sacred psalm unto the glory of his Maker, and a surpassing love which embraced as "brothers all the human race." And not a few centuries will have elapsed before India may see the "like" of the great Rajendra Lal or the good Iswara Chandra. May these "royal souls" repose in undying happiness in the bosom of the All-Merciful; and may their inspiring examples endure through many an age to come, exercising a most potent influence for high thinking and noble living among their reverent countrymen!

  1. * The Mitras (or Mitters) are Kulin Kayasthas and not, as some of our contemporaries have observed, Kulin Brahmins.
  2. * According to a contemporary, he wrote 50 works, extending over 128 volumes, consisting of 33,089 pages There was a giant of "the mammoth brood"!