Crossroads for Women’s Empowerment – The Shillong Times

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Swami Vivekananda once said: “The best thermometer of a nation’s progress is its treatment of its women. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar is a figure from the pages of history who tirelessly strove to empower girls and women in the 19th century.
Despite facing a rebellious traditional Orthodox society in Bengal, he continued to hold on, challenging and reforming centuries-old customs and traditions hostile to the fabric of Bengal. Throughout his life, this great educator and social reformer lived his life for the cause of the upliftment and advancement of marginalized sections of society.
Among the many luminaries in India, the name of Vidyasagar stands out as a shining star who illuminated the path of reform in Indian society of this period, freeing it from many social tribulations that prevailed then. The Bengal Renaissance was actually ushered in by the tireless efforts of two sons of the soil – Raja Rammohun Roy and Vidyasagar. Both played a central role in the reform movement by eradicating restrictive traditions that bogged down the lives of people, especially women. While Roy has campaigned tirelessly against the evil practice of Sati, Vidyasagar ushered in the process of change for the cause of remarriage of widowed children, ending polygamy, introducing education for women and improving the condition of the oppressed in the community. society, especially women.
Vidyasagar can be described as one of the pillars of the rebirth of Bengal which succeeded in continuing the movement of social reforms started by Roy in the early 1800s. The greatness of Vidyasagar also lies in the fact that he worked tirelessly to eradicate several prevalent evils in society despite severe discontent with its reform measures from a patriarchal Orthodox Bengal society of the time.
Born in the village of Birsingha in the Midnapore district of Bengal on September 26, 1820, Vidyasagar received much of his values ​​from his pious parents, his father Thakurdas Bandyopadhyay and his mother Bhagavati Devi.
Despite his education in poverty, he turned out to be a disciplined student who excelled in studies. There are many interesting stories about his genius and dedication as a student. It is said that Vidyasagar as a child learned English numbers by following the milestones on his way to Calcutta. It is also said that he helped with household chores after school hours and that he studied at night under the lampposts to save oil for cooking the next day! Besides Sanskrit, he helped himself to learn Vedanta, Vyakarana, literature, rhetoric, Smriti and ethics at Sanskrit College from 1829 to 1841. His meritorious spirit earned him regular scholarships and later, he held a teaching post in a Bengal school. Jorasanko to support his family.
It was in 1839 that he obtained the title of “Vidyasagar” which means “Ocean of knowledge” after having excelled in a Sanskrit test competition. In the same year, Vidyasagar took his law exam. In 1841, at age 21, he joined Fort William College as head of the Sanskrit department. Soon he became proficient in English and Hindi. After five years, in 1946, Vidyasagar left Fort William College and joined Sanskrit College as assistant secretary. In 1851 he became Principal of Sanskrit College and in 1855 he assumed the responsibilities of Special Inspector of Schools with additional charges and during this tenure he traveled to remote villages in Bengal to oversee the quality education and realized the lack of quality education, especially among girls and women, which he said is the root cause of the perpetuation of many social ills.
Vidyasagar completely reshaped the medieval school system that prevailed at Sanskrit College and brought modern knowledge about the education system. The first change he made upon returning to Sanskrit College as a teacher was to include English and Bengali as a medium of learning in addition to Sanskrit. It introduced courses in European history, philosophy and science alongside the Vedic scriptures. He encouraged students to pursue these subjects and soak up the best of both worlds. He also changed the student admission rules for Sanskrit College, allowing unprivileged students to enroll in an institution where the admission of non-Brahmin students was considered a taboo.
To facilitate the learning system of the time, Vidyasagar even wrote two books Upakramonika and Byakaran Koumudi, interpreting complex notions of Sanskrit grammar into easy-to-read Bengali. It has set up training schools for teachers, allowing uniformity in teaching methodology.
Vidyasagar was way ahead of her time when it came to empowering women and getting them their rightful place in society. At a time when the place and position of women were strictly delimited to domestic roles within the four walls of the house, he realized that if society was to be freed from orthodoxy and rigidity, it had to be through the tool of education and learning. He rightly saw education as the crucial way for women to free themselves from societal oppression. He wielded his power and lobbied for the opening of schools for girls and even defined an appropriate curriculum that not only educated them but emphasized the development of skills to empower them through to the inclusion of trades such as sewing, etc.
Moreover, to convince the parents of the vital need to educate the girl, he reportedly went door to door, asking them to allow their daughters to be enrolled in schools. It has opened 35 schools exclusively for women across Bengal and has successfully enrolled nearly 1,300 students.
At a time when the birth of a girl was seen as a burden, Vidyasagar singlehandedly carried out the arduous task of educating girls and women. He even started Nari Siksha Bhandar, an exclusive fund to support this cause. He impressed John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune, then chairman of the British India Board of Education to establish the first permanent girls’ school in India.
The Béthune school was created on May 7, 1849, with an initial enrollment of 21 girls, which rose to 80 girls the following year. In order to disseminate its ideals to a wider audience, Vidyasagar regularly published articles in periodicals and newspapers. He went on to write a number of books to educate the masses about Bengali culture. His lasting legacy remains with Borno Porichoy, an elementary level book for learning the Bengali alphabets, where he reconstructed the Bengali alphabets and reformed it into typography of 12 vowels and 40 consonants. He also created the Sanskrit Press with the aim of producing printed books at affordable prices.
Apart from his educational reforms, Vidyasagar has always spoken of the oppression that society inflicts on women. He was very close to his mother, a woman of great character, and encouraged her to relieve the pain and helplessness of Hindu widows, forced to live a life of misery and self-sacrifice. Widows were not only deprived of the basic pleasures of life, but they were marginalized in society and often unfairly exploited and treated as a burden by their families.
Vidyasagar’s compassionate heart made him take charge of the miserable plight of widows and he quickly made it his mission to improve the quality of life of these vulnerable women. The departure was not easy as it had to face fierce opposition from the orthodox elements of society. He challenged traditional Brahminic ideologies and to then convince to stop this evil practice, he even laid bare before them the sanction of remarriage of widows as written in Vedic scriptures.
But he realized that age-old traditional practices can only be broken if there is a law against it. He took this matter to the British authorities and after strong arguments in his favor, the Hindu Widows Remarriage Act, 1856 or Act XV, 1856, was passed on July 26, 1856. His personality was such that he even gave personal examples when in 1870 he married his own son Narayan Chandra to a teenage widow. Thereafter, the deplorable and pitiful status of widows improved considerably. He was a man of exceptional strength of character and his unwavering courage made him stand firm in resolutely ridding Bengali society of many evil practices despite the backlash. It was Michael Madhusudan Dutt who, in his deep gratitude and gratitude, gave the epithet “Daya Sagar” (ocean of generosity) to Vidyasagar for his selfless selflessness. After decades of bitter struggle to reform his own society, the great scholar, academician and reformer breathed his last on July 29, 1891, at the age of 70.
Today, the ideals and philosophies of Vidyasagar are still supported and revered by individuals, educational institutions and organizations. One such educational institution in northeast India that has followed in her footsteps is the Women’s College at Shillong.
Besides other programs, the annual Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar endowment conference has been organized in this college since 2009 by the Internal Quality Assurance Unit to defend and espouse the ideals of this academic par excellence among students, academics and citizens in general. This conference took place this year on September 25, coinciding with the bicentenary of Vidyasagar’s birthday, in hybrid mode in the college auditorium and the virtual platform.
Eminent academician Sugata Bose, Gardiner professor of ocean history and affairs at Harvard University virtually gave a lecture on “A few pearls from an ocean of learning”. Professor Bose highlighted the role played by Vidyasagar and called her a “champion of women’s education who broke the inertia that weighed on the Bengali language and gave it progressive momentum”. He said Vidyasagar believed in mixing Eastern and Western concepts of education and was rightly a reformist who broke the rigid code of Bengali society by instilling the essentials of Western learning.
In homage to the great teacher, a bronze bust of Vidyasagar sculpted by Amiya Nimai Dhara was unveiled the same day in the premises of the college. It is the first bust of the great social reformer in the North East.
Very few people born from a humble background can reach Vidyasagar’s stature, reform themselves, transform and leave their indelible contribution which even after 200 years is remembered with pride, admiration and gratitude. Her pioneering efforts as a torchbearer for women’s education and empowerment are indeed worth emulating and can guide our current women-centered policies and plans to achieve a modern, more gender-sensitive society. and egalitarian.
Such was the aura of Vidyasagar that after his death Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote: “One wonders how God, in the process of producing forty million Bengalis, produced a man!


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