Notwithstanding vandalism of his statue, Vidyasagar remains the unblemished name of an unforgettable character with an amazing personality in Indian history

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A statue of Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, the doyen of the Indian Renaissance, was shamelessly vandalized during the road show of the BJP President in Kolkata  in the recent Lok Shabha election campaign. It was not just an act of vandalizing a statue, dragging it down and smashing it. It amounted to a heinous affront to the Indian people – a foul attempt to desecrate Vidyasagar, the great luminary of Indian Renaissance, himself. Protests were lodged in different parts of the country against this vandalism.  Based on the reports so far received, a few photos of the protests are given here.

Along with that we present here an extended excerpt from the widely acclaimed book, The Pioneer of Indian Renaissance Iswarchandra Vidyasagar : A Marxist Evaluation by Comrade Provash Ghosh, General Secretary of our Party, Socialist Centre of India (Communist), based on Comrade Shibdas Ghosh Thought and his brilliant analysis of Indian Renaissance. It brings out at what height Vidyasagar stood in  his time, and in the history of India, and how deplorable and heinous is the act to vandalize a statue of a outstanding personality like Vidyasagar and try to desecrate him. Below is the excerpt : 

“Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, (was) an unforgettable character with an amazing personality in Indian history.  …. from the middle of the nineteenth century and Swadeshi movement till today, all have bowed their heads to this great man, and still do so, in reverence. Born of this reverence, the idea that has come to prevail for long in our country is that he is an ocean of kindness and compassion, a social reformer, a reformer of the education system, implementer of widow marriage and such other deeds. This is how he has been known to a large extent to the people of this country….

The famous poet, Michael Madhusudhan Dutta, in a letter, said about him  —  “The genius and wisdom of an ancient sage, the energy of an Englishman and the heart of a Bengali mother”. Another famous statement of Madhusudhan regarding Vidyasagar is – “The first modern man in this country”….

Ramendrasundar Tribedi, the eminent thinker of that era remarked about Vidyasagar – “In reality Iswarchandra Vidyasagar is so great and we are so small – he is so upright and we are so crooked that taking his name may be deemed utmost impudence on our part…”. He further said  — “There is a kind of instrument called microscope which shows magnified images of small objects; even though physics specifies the means of making large things appear small, we do not usually use any apparatus designed for that purpose. But the biography of Vidyasagar is, as it were, a device for making big things look small. Those who are hailed as very big in our country suddenly find themselves dwarfed the moment a copy of that book is held before their gaze”… The question is where lies the source of such towering greatness in Vidyasagar — beside which the greatness of other acclaimed personalities becomes so small?

The most significant and extremely valuable observation about him was by viswa-kabi (poet of the world) Rabindranath.  He said — “The people in our country in a way could not but pay their respects to him; however by projecting the fame of his kindness and charity, they try to hide the noble aspect of Vidyasagar’s character by virtue of which he dauntlessly attacked the fortress of customs and traditions in our country.  In other words, this is the greatest credential of Vidyasagar which is attempted to be hidden by his countrymen by raising a screen”.  Rabindranath says —  “Neither compassion, nor learning, but the crowning glory of Iswarchandra Vidyasagar’s character was invincible manhood and imperishable humanness”.  This observation by Rabindranath is truly appropriate and historical…

“… we will have to find out the source of inspiration behind the unique arduous and unflinching struggle of this noble character.  The answer to this can be found in two historic statements by Vidyasagar – ‘‘How many have seen the unbearable suffering of the impoverished? How many have felt the writhing pain, the agony in their hearts.” He further said — “The true virtue and the most important task of a person is to attempt with utmost care and to the best of his ability to bring about the welfare of the country where he is born.” These two extraordinary deep realizations constitute the guiding principle in Vidyasagar’s life and this was the source of his quest for truth and devotion in his life-long struggle. 

Throughout history, in different ages, all great men and pioneers of noble struggles who had appeared in different countries had carried the pain and sufferings of the oppressed of the period in their hearts; and then only they could illumine the road to the struggle for liberation of mankind in response to the necessity of a particular era.  The eminent Marxist thinker of this era, my teacher and the great leader of the liberation struggle of the proletariat, Comrade Shibdas Ghosh, the successful heir of great men like Vidyasagar, gave expression to this : “Nobler is the feeling of heart that spurs on to revolutionary politics”. Such higher values and feelings for the exploited and oppressed people always draw great men into this struggle.   Hence we find that during the time of Vidyasagar, a section of the educated and influential were infatuated by wealth, position, status, name and fame, reveling in luxury and pleasures, whereas Vidyasagar was completely the opposite.  He himself had advanced by struggling against dire poverty and though he had succeeded in reaching the top in fame and standing, he never forgot for a single day the anguish of the poor. Rather, to him they were his very own. That is why,  deeply pained by the conduct of the elite of the society he (Vidyasagar) said — ‘‘How many have seen the unbearable suffering of the impoverished? How many have felt the writhing pain, the agony in their hearts.”

Another great ideal to which he not only adhered himself throughout his life but left the message for everyone to be followed irrespective of time and place one lives in that the most important task and greatest virtue is not to seek fulfillment of one’s own desires and comforts but to attempt with utmost care and effort to bring about the welfare of one’s own country. These two were his guiding principles, the source of inspiration of his accomplishments in the entire period of his struggling life.

It must be remembered however that the struggle in the right direction cannot be conducted only from a feeling of compassion for the poor or the desire of bringing about the welfare of the country unless the correct ideology is acquired in the search for truth, illumining the direction of struggle. In absence of  the correct outlook, ideology and the correct road, simply with noble qualities like deep feelings for the people, honesty, dedication and sacrifice, the struggle will not only result in failure, but instead of bringing about the desired benefit it will cause harm.

Many important personalities in our country and outside have suffered this tragedy.  However Vidyasagar was a unique exception to this.  This became possible because he possessed a mind which intensely searched for truth and even though he was the son of a religious Brahmin family, well versed in the religious scriptures, he had succeeded through the medium of English language and literature in acquiring the then advanced ideas of science and knowledge of the West as a result of which he emerged as the towering pioneer in India in that era who tore the fetters of spiritualism and religious obscurantism and proclaimed the message of secular humanism in a resounding voice.

So, the great Marxist thinker of this era, Comrade Shibdas Ghosh, in evaluating Vidyasagar said “In our country, Renaissance movement is deemed to have started with Raja Rammohan Roy.  He initiated the Renaissance movement in our country by religious reformation, through fusion of the bourgeois humanist concepts and moral values of the European Renaissance with the main theme of religion.  As a result, the Renaissance movement of this country proceeded along the course of religious reformation. The emergence of Vidyasagar thereafter was a landmark in the Renaissance movement, because, in my opinion, it was he who, for the first time, brought about a break with its religious orientation.  He, for the first time on our soil, tried utmost to develop the humanist movement, as far as it was possible in the then condition, on the firm foundation of science, history and logic…. Our countrymen regard Vidyasagar as a great man and do respect him greatly no doubt, but how many of them could really understand him?

Most of the people take him for an orthodox Brahmin from his outward appearance and traditional Brahmin dress.  True, his dress and appearance made him look like a theologist and an orthodox Brahmin, but, in reality, he was a true humanist in the then social environment of our country. He wanted to bring about a rational integration of the Indian society with the scientific concepts of the West.  So his firm opinion was :  Teach the students English, teach them the ‘logic’ of Mill as it is not possible to make this crippled nation stand erect on its moral backbone through teaching Sanskrit. For the resurgence of this nation, our countrymen must be made conversant with the treasure-house of knowledge and science of the world. What is more, it is through the knowledge of English that our students and youth may be made acquainted with the history, logic and modern scientific ideas as well as with the materialist philosophy of Europe. Therefore opposing Ballantyne’s view, he said that as Sankhya and Vedanta were false systems of philosophy, so also was the philosophy of Berkeley of Europe…In order to be free from the influence of such erroneous philosophies, our people should get acquainted with the knowledge of science and the materialist philosophy of Europe. Then and then only our countrymen, knowing the material world meticulously, would be able to grasp truth and on the basis of that alone could they evolve a new philosophy of life and a new sense of values.  That is why he was vehemently opposed to teaching such inane idealist philosophies”. It is my considered opinion that such scientific evaluation of Vidyasagar has never been done before in India.  It can well be understood that his intense compassion for the poor and oppressed and his endeavour to bring about the welfare of his country as the foremost task of his life along with the search for truth free from religious tutelage as a secular humanist by following the path of science and logic resulted in Vidyasagar possessing such a great character…

Another aspect was the introduction of English education in India based on British rule. In these conditions, a handful of people who had succeeded in acquiring English education in the newly growing towns of this country got influenced for the first time by the ideas of the European Renaissance. At that time the industrial capital of Europe had become strengthened and advancing rapidly it held aloft the banner of Renaissance and humanism. It was these thoughts of Renaissance that had influenced the mind of a section of educated people of this country. It is in this context that we have to understand Vidyasagar. Shibdas Ghosh, in his evaluation of Vidyasagar, said that Vidyasagar was the first representative of secular humanism in India and a bold representative of the Renaissance. The analysis of Shibdas Ghosh is correct and in conformity with the tenets of Marxism.  It is true that Raja Rammohan was the first to introduce the ideas of the European Renaissance in this country before Vidyasagar, and that he had given emphasis on English education in place of Sanskrit education.  His role in this regard is historic. However he could not free himself completely from the influence of spiritualism and he reformed Hindu religion that led to the establishment of Brahmo Samaj, just as Martin Luther in Germany had introduced the reformation of the Catholic system of Christianity and introduced Protestantism.

So, Rammohan’s emergence in the history of the Renaissance movement of this country is like the early dawn – the darkness of the night waning, the sun not yet risen but the eastern horizon heralding its crimson appearance. And Vidyasagar is like a fiery red sunrise piercing the darkness of several thousand years.

A characteristic of Vidyasagar, with which few people in this country are acquainted — an aspect which has been less discussed, though most important — is his humanist outlook free from spiritualism. These secular humanist thoughts which constituted the most developed and progressive thoughts of that era served as his weapon in his lifelong struggle to seek truth. His forceful opinion that “The Vedanta and Sankhya are false systems of philosophy, is no more a matter of dispute”  will be ever remembered.  In an era submerged in and blinded by religious bigotry; how dedicated one has to be in the search for truth; how deep one must penetrate in the arduous struggle to acquire knowledge about philosophy and science so as to arrive at such a decision, and what boldness and courage is required so as to be able to publicly express this thought is difficult to grasp even today!  In our country however, practically nobody gave much importance to this amazing aspect of Vidyasagar’s character in any discussion about him. A section of intellectuals, though aware of this aspect, have consciously avoided to highlight it, trying to narrow down his greatness by projecting him merely as ‘the ocean of knowledge’, ‘the ocean of compassion’, ‘propagator of widow remarriage’, ‘social reformer’, ‘reformer of education’ and such other attributes.  As a result, the overwhelming majority of the people are not aware of this   aspect. 

The education movement, which he started, was intimately linked to the secular humanist ideas and acts free from religious superstitions and bigotry.  Many of you are aware that Vidyasagar had established many schools in both villages and towns.  He had even gone to the extent of personally collecting funds to establish schools.  Yet this was not merely to provide some opportunity for the students to study in schools and colleges.  …. Vidyasagar succeeded in assimilating the essence from the science and knowledge of the West, and merely at the age of about thirty-three came to the conclusion that -‘Vedas, Vedanta, Sankhya are false’.  He introduced the study of modern English education in the Sanskrit College.  He said that Sanskrit is to be studied only to that extent, which is necessary for the development of Bengali language — not more than that, and not merely to study Sanskrit scriptures. Hence, he gave the study of Sanskrit only that much importance which was necessary to develop Bengali language.  He had contemplated that the student community in India, by learning English language would come in contact with the science and knowledge of the West, just as he had come in close touch with the ideas of modern sciences; as a result of which they would free themselves from the influence of spiritualism of Vedas-Vedanta-Sankhya and based on this only, they would advance with modern scientific ideas.

This was his only objective at that time. Otherwise, he would not have rushed from one village to another in pursuit of building schools and colleges. He said —‘‘Wherever the light of modern European science has penetrated and to whatever extent it has penetrated, to that extent, the influence of the religious scriptures of this country has diminished there. Therefore the expanse of this education has to be increased”.

Vidyasagar… did not merely want to reform the then prevailing education system in a conventional way. In order to introduce an education system and syllabus based on secular humanism and science to create new man in a new age, he desired and fought throughout his life to bring about a revolutionary change of the religious education, dominated and controlled by ancient scriptures, on the one hand, and the British-ruled education system which produced mere office-clerks and bureaucrats. So, it can be seen that Vidyasagar earnestly desired a revolutionary change in the education system,

This Vidyasagar whom I tried to acquaint you with was unknown to me also. Just as you had come to know about him from the school books or from popular tales, that is the way I, too, got to know about him.  I gained the inspiration and outlook to get to know Vidyasagar in a new way from the eminent Marxist thinker Shibdas Ghosh.  He deeply revered Vidyasagar as the noblest character of the then era, and had repeatedly urged us to take lessons from the life-struggle of Vidyasagar along with other great characters, luminaries and revolutionary fighters of the past and to further advance devoted to the endeavour to cultivate and acquire the new revolutionary anti-capitalist ideals and character. I tried to  discuss today with this approach and thus I could avail myself of the opportunity to learn again from this lofty character of the Indian Renaissance. For this,  I  am  grateful  to  the  organizers  and  also  to  you present. 

Again, I like to repeat that judged from all aspects, it can doubtlessly be said that Vidyasagar possessed the greatest character in the era of Renaissance and freedom movement in our country. Even in the Renaissance of the West, a character comparable to him would be very difficult to find.

Finally, let me remind you once again Vidyasagar’s historic remark — “A long time will be required for the emancipation of this country. The cultivation and harvesting of men with old habits and instincts should be stopped, the seven layers of thick soil should be removed and after that if cultivation of new men can be accomplished, then only will it be beneficial to the country.” In these dark days of all-out crisis, the truth of this observation is manifesting itself more and more.  Can we not move ahead carrying the appeal of this historic observation in our heart?

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