Life of Vidyasagar: The Academic Years

The first half of the 19th century in Bengal was different on many grounds. The great land gave birth to exceptional minds and was a silent witness to a flurry of activities carried out by those phenomenal personalities. Purging the society of its evil practices, spreading education, establishing schools and colleges, encouraging women education were some of the priorities. Bengal was truly a great seat of knowledge and culture. On looking back we find a galaxy of extraordinary geniuses whom we should not only admire or revere but also emulate to be of any service to our mother land. Iswarchandra Vidyasagar was one such genius.

Vidyasagar was a great son of Bengal and a man of letters. His genius was extraordinary. His intellect was sparkling. His erudition was doubtless very great. His kindness was all- embracing. There is but one man, according to Rabindranath Tagore,who can bear comparison with Vidyasagar and he is none other than Raja Rammohan Roy. If we set apart Raja Rammohan Roy, upon consideration that he belonged to a time prior to Vidyasagar’s and his challenges being greater, we shall see that the strength and greatness of character as possessed by Vidyasagar were rarely to be found among his contemporaries.

Vidyasagar was a great son of Bengal and a man of letters. His genius was extraordinary. His intellect was sparkling. His erudition was doubtless very great. His kindness was all- embracing.

An estimate of vidyasagar’s early life is necessary to understand the fountain of the virtues that he inherited– the virtues which shaped to a large extent the man he was to become later in his life. Born in a small village called Birshingha in Medinipur, on 26th September in 1820, Vidyasagar started very early to display qualities that make for a prodigy. As a child his difference from his siblings or other children of his age was stark. In his childhood Vidyasagar would often pester his father or other villagers with his puerile pranks. There was an bstinacy about his character.It is said that this obstinacy of character was bequethed to Vidyasagar by his grandfather Ramjoy Tarkabhusan, a man who combined piety with a great regard for selfrespect.

Vidyasagar’s father, Thakurdas Bandopadhaya taught his son to fight poverty with zeal. He himself suffered from the cruel blows of poverty when he went to Calcutta at a very early stage of his life to earn a livelihood to help his mother run the family in the village. He would often have to starve at night during this time. Bhagabati Debi, Vidyasagar’s mother was a highsouled lady. To feed the hungry, to serve the ailing, to say soothing words of comfort to the bereaved were among her daily activities. It was because of her mother that Vidyasagar was never found wanting in his office of charity. Bhagabati Debi would often defy the restrictions of caste and creed and shower her motherly affection on all. It is recorded that she once fed a British civilian in her house at a time when a British was quite unwelcome in an orthodox Hindu family for more than one reason.

Vidyasagar left for Calcutta after he had been initiated into the world of letter and number by his teacher Kalikanto Chattopadhaya who quite expressly had a high opinion of the boy’s intelligence.Thakurdas Bandopadhaya had hoped that his son would become a scholar in Sanskrit, a dream cherished by himself for long but thwarted by remorseless poverty. Some of the relatives suggested that the boy be given an English education. Others were in favour of his admission to the Sanskrit College for if the boy could pass the law committee examination hecould become a Judge Pundit, a respectable as well as a highly remunerative job in those days. A Judge Pundit used to explain or interpret Hindu religious texts to an English judge as required in dispensing justice.

In 1829 Vidyasagar entered the Sanskrit College. As a student he shone like a bright star and excelled in all the subjects taught. The subjects included some of the most difficult to learn like Kavya, Alankara, Shahitya, Smriti, Nyaya, Jyotish etc. He would be rewarded a scholarship during his college days and it is said that he spent much of the money by often treating his friends to sweet after the day’s lessons were over.

The title ‘Vidyasagar’ was conferred upon Iswarchandra Bandopadhaya upon his completion of the course at the Sanskrit College where he studied for 12 years and 5 months. In 1841, at the age of 21, Vidyasagar became the Head Pundit of The Fort William College where his job, inter alia, was to make the english students who were also to become future civil servants, tolerably well versed in the Sanskrit language. 

Two acts of generosity by Vidyasagar during his tenure at the Fort William College deserve mention. On his recommendation Babu Durgacharan  andopadhaya, father of the great nationalist leader Surendranath  Bandopadhaya, became the clerk of the Fort William College,a place that afforded him an adequate living to run the family. Then he taught Sanskrit to Rajakrishna Bandopadhaya, the renowned English professor of the Presidency College, who having retired felt a pressing need to learn the classical language and went to Vidyasagar for help.

Vidyasagar continued as Head Pundit at the Fort William College for five years. By then the post of Assistant Secretary at the Sanskrit College had fallen vacant. Vidyasagar accepted the offer of appointment to the post for he wanted sincerely to work for the progress of his alma mater. But he had to tender his resignation to the post within one or two years. From the letter of resignation he wrote to Rasomoy Dutta, the then principal of the college, it is clear that his wise suggestions about reviving the former glory of the college had been turned own without sufficient reasons being shown. The dignity of the man was hurt and he preferred to step aside. In 1950 Vidyasagar honored the post of the clerk at the Fort William College as Babu Durgacharan Bandopadhaya who had occupied it so far took to medical professional upon giving it up. Then in the same year when Madanmohan Tarkalanker, a friend of his, resigned as the professor of literature at the Sanskrit College, Vidyasagar accorded to fill the post on the advice of John Drinkwater Bethune. Next year Vidyasagar became the principal of the Sanskrit College.

About the Author:

Sri Anup Kumar Koner
Assistant Teacher

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