Marching the Nation Forward

The Role of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain to the Bengal Renaissance

Published : 22 Oct 2020, 18:19

Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, a key figure of the Bengal Renaissance, was a philosopher, academic, writer, interpreter, imprinter, publisher, entrepreneur, reformer, and philanthropist. His efforts to simplify and modernize Bengali prose were momentous. He received the title Vidyasagar (in Sanskrit vidya means knowledge and Sagar means ocean, i.e., Ocean of Knowledge) from Sanskrit College, Calcutta (from where he graduated), due to his excellent performance in Sanskrit studies and philosophy.

Vidyasagar can be assessed as a great offspring of Bengal. He came from an impoverished family and became known as Vidyasagar for his profound knowledge. He was not only a scholarly man, but he was also a very kind-hearted personality and a great revolutionary social reformer. He set up numerous girls’ schools to spread education among women. He was against child marriage and got the Widow Re-marriage Bill passed. He is called the ‘father of Bengali prose’.

Being an exceptionally brilliant student, he earned the title of Vidyasagar (an ocean of learning) by 1839. He was the scholar of grammar, literature, rhetoric, Vedanta, jurisprudence, logic, astronomy, Hindu law, and English and awarded a certificate of proficiency in these subjects. He joined Sanskrit College as its professor of Sanskrit literature, and, in the following month, became its Principal.

As Principal, he brought about a range of significant changes in the affairs of the college. Previously only Brahman and Vaidya students were qualified to enroll in the college, but he unlocked its doors to all Hindus; introduced minimal tuition fees; reformed weekly holiday from each 1st and 8th days of the moon (which varied according to the lunar calendar) to Sundays; and persuaded the government to accept the degree given by the College to be sufficient for competing for the post of deputy magistrate of the time.

He revised the syllabus radically, and instead of teaching grammar and mathematics (including algebra) through Sanskrit alone, he began teaching these subjects through Bangla and English as well and strengthened the English Department. He also made English a compulsory subject because of contemporary reality. While he also emphasized mare efficient teaching of Bangla, the teaching of philosophy received even wider attention. He considered Sankhya and Vedanta philosophy to be unacceptable and also refused to include Berkeleyan or similar Western philosophy in the syllabus; in its place, he suggested teaching Bacon's philosophy and JS Mill's logic.

Alongside opening these Bangla model schools, the government also decided to establish some girls' schools, even though it was uncertain as to whether it would be possible to do so in the face of strong opposition from conservative society which considered female education a taboo. Vidyasagar, an ardent supporter of female education, was given the responsibility of launching these schools. Apart from modernizing and reforming Sanskrit College and establishing vernacular and girls' schools, his most important contribution to education was the textbooks he wrote and published. Until he published his pioneering work Barnaparichay (An Introduction to Alphabet, 1851), there was no such model for beginners. The quality of this book was so good that it served as the universal textbook for beginners for the following half a century.

A close look at the textbooks he wrote makes it evident that not only did he want to teach students the skills of reading and writing, but he also wanted the readers to acquire moral values and a liberal outlook. he compiled popular stories from Europe and America and gave titles such as Devotion to Mother, Devotion to Father, Love for Brother, Devotion to the Teacher, Hospitality, Helping Others, and Prize for Honesty; thus, he tried not only to teach moral values but also to encourage his readers to look beyond their country. As his textbooks ran dozens of editions and were prescribed to every school in Bengal, he was at once able to set a standard of language, including spelling, and elevate the moral standard of his readers.

Indeed, he reformed and developed Bangla prose not just by his textbooks, but also by his other writings. Until he published his Vetalpavchavingshati in 1847, the Bangla prose style, created by the pundits of Fort William College or by Rammohun Roy, was archaic, artificial and barely adequate for communicating information, but it fell far short of what can be termed as literary prose - a prose style suited to writing literature. Before him, Bangla prose had the vocabulary for communicating information, but little beauty, and lacked smoothness and lucidity.

Vidyasagar discovered collocation, modified the sentence structure and established the correlation between the subject and the verb, and the verb and the object. He, thus, created a style hitherto unknown in Bangla prose. He also discovered the relation between breath-pause and meaning-pause and made a synthesis of them, and helped the readers find these poses by using punctuation marks, particularly commas, at the right place. Previously, only Akshay Kumar Datta had used English punctuation marks; in Bangla, there were just full-stops and double full-stops prior to him.

However, Vidyasagar did not write in one single style; for example, the style he followed in his textbooks was, of course, different from the one he used in his literary works, and the style seen in his anonymous writings was yet another - one of sarcasm and wit.

Moreover, his language style, including his wit and humor, makes both these books seem original. Unlike Sanskrit most scholars of his time, who were mostly traditional in their social outlook and religious beliefs, Vidyasagar was an agent of change and liberalism. He realized that without modernizing traditional morals and reforming from within the family, society could never be advanced.

Vidyasagar was saddened by the distress of child widows who were at that time treated inhumanly and started writing in favor of their remarriage. His first article on this subject appeared in Bengal Spectator (April 1842) when he had just come out of Sanskrit College. In order to raise social consciousness towards the appalling condition of widows, particularly child widows. He composed a couple of books on the subject anonymously attacking those Sanskrit pundits who objected to his propositions.

Alongside justifying the remarriage of widows by putting forward arguments from ancient shastras, he started a movement for legalizing widow remarriage for which he organized a signature campaign and sent a petition to the government on 4 October 1855 asking it to pass it into law. Later, twenty-two other petitions followed, some from other parts of India, and had more than five thousand signatures against child marriage.

On the contrary, conservative Hindus sent in twenty-eight petitions bearing more than fifty-five thousand signatures, urging the government not to pass such a law and thereby interfere with the religion and culture of the natives. Even though the balance was in favor of the conservatives, the government passed an act legalizing widow remarriage in July 1857. Despite this moral victory for the liberals, the Act had only limited success. In the face of strong opposition and even violence, Vidyasagar remarried the first widow in December that year to one of his colleagues at Sanskrit College.

Boosted with his success in legalizing widow remarriage, Vidyasagar petitioned to the government for the abolition of Kulin polygamy and, later, early marriage. However, the Sepoy Mutiny (1857) had made the government cautious about hurting the sentiment of the common people. Thus, no Act was passed abolishing either Kulin polygamy or child marriage, but he is still remembered for his liberal outlook and marching the nation forward.

If Rammohun Roy played the role of the first humanist pundit in Bengal by translating, reinterpreting and publishing old shastras, and thus started the process of the Bengal Renaissance, Vidyasagar was the second. Whereas the former did it mainly for his campaign against sati, the latter did it for the remarriage of child widows, stopping polygamy, introducing female education and for improving the condition of the down-trodden in society, particularly women. Moreover, he translated from Mahabharata, Ramayana and Kalidasa into Bangla not to return to ancient India, but to improve the literary tastes of the emerging educated class. The literature he translated was mostly that of gods and goddesses, such as Rama and Sita, but he transformed these characters into adorable modern human beings.

He turned into a living legend for his personality and character. At a time when everyone in society was expected to follow the trodden path and never to challenge traditional values and morals, he established a unique example of individuality and independence. Not only did he want to go his own way, but he also had the moral courage to practice it. When he organized the movement for remarriage of child widows, he ignored the hostility and threats from traditional Hindus, and nothing could deviate him from his determination.

While other supporters of widow remarriage lost their enthusiasm within a year or so, and broke their promise to fund it, as a lonely soldier he went on fighting the conservatives and arranging marriages of widows. He dared to marry his only son to a widow, and then, for something else, even to disown him. Although there were many rich people in Bengal at that time and he was just a member of the educated middle class, he earned the name as the greatest philanthropist of his day and became a role-model to everyone, including his enemies. 

Ishwar Chandra firmly believed that the regeneration of India was possible only through education. In matters of education Ishwaraimed at extending the benefits of learning to common people. He stressed upon instruction through vernacular language. He also put emphasis on writing textbooks in vernacular language. Further, to liberate the minds of young learners from ‘unsophisticated scholarship’ Ishwar Chandra urged upon them the study of Western science and philosophy. He also opened the doors of the colleges and other educational institutions to lower caste students, which were earlier reserved only for the Brahmins. For his immense generosity and kind-heartedness, people started addressing him as Dayar Sagar (ocean of kindness).

Having spent his early life in the village Ishwar Chandra could realize the sorrowful condition of the womenfolk. He rightly believed that the emancipation of women was not possible as long as they remained ignorant. Ishwar Chandra, therefore, took upon himself the task of promoting the cause of female education. Noticing the British Government’s indifference towards female education Ishwar Chandra himself started a few model schools for girls. He also collaborated with Drinkwater Bethune in establishing the Hindu Female School (at present known as Bethune School and College) in 1849.

He brought a revolution in the education system of Bengal and refined the Bengali language and made it accessible to the common strata of the society. He invented Bengali prose through translation as well as his own writings. His Sakuntala is a facile prose translation from Kalidas.

Ishwar Chandra is considered to be one of the columns of Bengal renaissance. He managed to continue the reform movements that were started by Raja Rammohun Roy. He was a far-sighted social reformer, philosopher, philanthropist and educationalist with a modern vision.

Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, commonly known as Begum Rokeya, was a Bengali writer, thinker, educationist, social activist and advocate of women’s rights. She is considered the pioneer feminist of Bengal. She wrote novels, poems, short stories, science fiction, satires, treatises, and essays. In her writings, she advocated that both men and women should be treated equally as rational beings, and the lack of education is the main reason for women’s lagging behind. Rokeya suggested that education for women is the foremost requisite of women’s emancipation; hence she established the first school intended primarily for the Bengali Muslim girls in Kolkata. Rokeya is said to have gone from house to house persuading the parents to send their girls to her school. Until her death, she ran the school despite facing hostile criticism and various social obstacles.

In 1916, she founded the Muslim Women’s Association, an organization that fought for women’s education and employment. In 1926, Rokeya presided over the Bengal Women’s Education Conference convened in Kolkata, the first significant attempt to bring women together in support of women’s education rights. She was engaged in debates and conferences regarding the advancement of women until her death on 9 December 1932, shortly after presiding over a session during the Indian Women’s Conference.

She wanted to study Bengali, the language of the majority in Bengal. The family disliked this because much upper-class Muslims of the time preferred to use Arabic and Persian as the media of education, instead of their native language, Bengali.

Her Urdu-speaking husband, Khan Bahadur Sakhawat Hussain, was gentle, liberal-minded, and had much interest in female education. He encouraged her to write, and on his advice, she adopted Bengali as the principal language for her literary works since it was the language of the masses. She launched her literary career in 1902 with a Bengali essay entitled Pipasa (Thirst). She also published Motichur (1905) and Sultana’s Dream (1908) during her husband’s lifetime.

Rokeya established a high school in her beloved husband’s memory, naming it Sakhawat Memorial Girls' High School. It started in Bhagalpur, a traditionally Urdu-speaking area, with only five students. A dispute with her husband's family over property forced her to move the school in 1911 to Calcutta, a Bengali-speaking area. It remains one of the city's most popular schools for girls and is now run by the state government of West Bengal.

Rokeya also founded the Anjuman e Khawateen e Islam (Islamic Women's Association), which was active in holding debates and conferences regarding the status of women and education. She advocated reformation, particularly for women, and believed that parochialism and excessive conservatism were principally responsible for the relatively slow development of Muslims in British India. As such, she is one of the first Muslim feminists. She was inspired by the traditional Islamic learning as enunciated in the Quran, and believed that modern Islam had been distorted or corrupted; Anjuman e Khawateen e Islam organized many events for social reforms based on the original teachings of Islam that, according to her, were lost.

We are about to celebrate ‘International Women’s Day’ on March 8, with a vision to ensure a more equal world regardless of gender, to ensure justice, dignity, hope for daughters everywhere. At this very moment, we remember our very own and beloved daughter who celebrated the path of freedom for the Muslim women in Bengal. She can be described as the embodiment of the soul and conscience of her age.

The role of Begum Rokeya in the life of Muslim women of Bengal is so immense that Shamsun Nahar Mahmud (1908-64), biographer and associate of Rokeya, described her as a ‘spider mother’ and famously proclaimed that: “The fate of the Bengali Muslim women has changed radically within the space of half a century, and there is no way to deny that this benevolent woman played the most significant role behind it.”

Rokeya was brought up in the meticulous form of conservatism practiced by the elite Muslims of the time. Consequently, she became the fiercest critic of the system. Her understanding and insight, regarding Islam and mere societal dogma, give us a mediation to think about the ostensible opposing stand of Islam and education for girls. Instead of blindly blaming Islam for the ignorance and unholy conservatism of that time, Rokeya quoted from the history to argue in favor of the importance of the education of Muslim girls:

Although Islam has successfully prevented the physical killing of baby girls, yet Muslims have been glibly and frantically wrecking the mind, intellect, and judgment of their daughters till the present day. Many consider it a mark of honor to keep their daughters ignorant and deprive them of knowledge and understanding of the world by coping them up within the four walls of the house.

In 1926, in her address to the Bengal women’s education conference, Rokeya strongly condemned men for withholding education from women in name of religion. Her poignant assertion gives a glimpse of the deepness of her thought and idea and the pervasiveness of her understanding. Her comment reminds us of the very inadequacy of thought and practice of that time Bengali Muslims and also her ability to accept that religion is not an opposition to women's rights but social dogmas in the name of religion.

The most beautiful part of Rokeya’s story is not her rhetoric and intellectual poignant but her action. She was not only an intellectual force of the feminist movement but also an activist- a combination we seldom see. Brought up in a conservative family environment, and without any formal education, Rokeya’s life was meant for another ordinary Muslim housewife. But breaking all shackles, she grew up to become a writer in both Bengali and English, an activist for the freedom of Muslim women in Bengal, and an educationist. In March 1911, she set up a school named Sakhawat Memorial School for Girlsto to educate Muslim girls. Rokeya, who had never stepped into a school in childhood, became an architect of the Bengal Renaissance through female education and modernization of Bengali Muslim women.

Begum Rokeya ran the school for twenty-four years, enduring harsh criticism and various social obstacles, and made it the best seat of learning for Muslim girls. At first, only non-Bengali girls used to go to Sakhawat Memorial School. But Begum Rokeya worked hard to convince Bengali Muslim families to send their daughters to school. She went from door to door, persuading the parents that education is a necessity for girls and promising that purdah would be observed at her school.

Her tireless efforts paid off, with middle-class Muslim girls breaking the taboo against stepping out of the house to study. She also arranged horse-carriages so that girls could go to school and return home observing purdah.

Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ School gave lessons in recitation from the Quran, along with explanations, Bangla, English, Urdu, Persian, home nursing, first aid, cooking, sewing, physical exercise, music, etc. Begum Rokeya used to visit other girls’ schools to see for herself the teaching methods employed there and how the schools were being run. As there lacked competent female teachers at that time in Calcutta, Rokeya herself used to train the teachers she appointed from Madras, Gaya, Agra, and other places.It was at her repeated requests that the government set up the Muslim Women Training School in Calcutta in 1919. She worked to ensure government funding and social patronage for the institute, withstanding extensive criticism.

Begum Rokeya left behind many letters in Bangla and English. She had a respect for the Bangla language. Although Urdu was spoken by the aristocratic Muslims of the time including her own home she understood that Bangla, spoken by the majority of the Muslims of Bengal, should be her medium of expression. She mastered Bangla and strongly advocated its use at the Bangiya Nari ShikkhaSammelan (Convention on Women Literacy in Bengal) in 1927.

The union was at the forefront of the fight for women's education, employment, and their legal and political rights. Society defrayed the cost of education for a large number of girls and arranged marriages for many underprivileged girls. It gave shelter to orphans and the destitute and extended financial help to widows. It also established some businesses for women to earn economic independence. It contributed greatly to the development of Muslim women in Calcutta. Confronting better annotations and accusations from conservatives, Rokeya inspired women to join the union.

She criticized ruthless customs based upon a corrupted version of Islam and accentuated that women fulfilling their potential as human beings could best display the glory of Allah. Rokeya realized that economic independence was crucial if women were to achieve complete emancipation and no longer be dependent upon fathers, brothers, and husbands for their livelihoods. To that end, she encouraged the revival of craft industries, which women could successfully carry out at their home.

Unlike the Hindu women’s reform movements, which depended heavily upon legislative changes, Muslim women’s reform was carried out on a more social level around issues of education, purdah, heath care, and appropriating a literate modern Muslim identity. Besides, issues related to marriage, divorce, polygamy, and inheritance also figured as prominent issues, and the application of Sharia law was offered as a revolutionary solution to the deprived status of Muslim women in 1937.

The social reform of Muslim women can be best viewed from three different angles, a) ulama-led attempts to purify Muslim women and their religious practices through educating them about the true Islamic teachings, b) Modern educationist- and reformer-led movements for women's education, c) literary solutions offered to uplift the moral psyche and provide guidance for the modern Muslim woman's subjectivity. The underlying theme of all three strands of reform was the overall effort to come to terms with a modern Muslim identity via manipulating, re-conceptualizing, and appropriating the modern Muslim women.

The ulama idealized women’s purity, religiosity, morality, and loyalty to Allah and the family of utmost importance. Women’s unconditional submission for the cause of the family was glorified. Women’s religious obligations were considered to be of more significance than that of men since the zenana was considered to be ‘corrupted’ by non-Islamic rituals, which was recognized as a great threat to the Muslim identity since women were the primary caregivers of children and managers of the household. It was believed that if women were given proper Islamic education then it would be possible to restore the true Islamic teaching to the entire community.

Thus, within this discourse women became the vehicle through which the desired code of Islamic sanctions was to be disseminated. This domain of reform is perhaps best manifested in Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanavi’s exemplary work Bihishti Zawar. Since its publication at the beginning of the 20th century, this book has become a guide for respectable Muslim women, it has been translated into many languages and is widely circulated and read even today. One may ponder about the lasting popularity of this text. The primary reason this text became so important and durable over centuries is because of the basic egalitarian premise it sets itself off from. The text claims no innate difference between men and women and considers women to be equally capable of acquiring knowledge and spiritual height.

The author is a Lecturer in the Department of English and Modern Languages at IUBAT-International University of Business Agriculture and Technology

  • Latest
  • Most viewed