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What Rabindranath Tagore Said about Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, His Meeting with Ramakrishna

Tagore argued that unlike the average Bengali who exhibited a lot of faith but not the will to turn it into action, Vidyasagar was the living antonym of all these traits.

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Updated:September 26, 2019, 5:47 PM IST
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What Rabindranath Tagore Said about Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, His Meeting with Ramakrishna
Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar.

A man of many faces — an educationist, writer, social reformer and feminist — one of the early progenitors of modernity in India, Ishwar Chandra Bandopadhyay was born on September 26, 1820 to Thakurdas Bandyopadhyay and Bhagavati Devi at Birsingha village in the Ghatal subdivision of Paschim Midnapore District in West Bengal.

A key figure of the Bengal Renaissance, Vidyasagar rationalised and simplified the Bengali alphabet and type, which incidentally had remained unchanged since Charles Wilkins and Panchanan Karmakar had cut the first Bengali type in 1870. Apart from that, Vidyasagar was the most prominent campaigner for Hindu widow remarriage and petitioned Legislative council despite severe opposition from several contemporary thinkers and socialists.

Vidyasagar's influence on later thinkers can be best seen in Rabindranath Tagore's essay on the social reformer called Vidyasagarcharita that appeared in the collection Charitrapuja (1907). In a self-critical vein, the essay sees the Nobel laureate observing how dissimilar Vidyasagar, the educationist and reformer, was compared to his contemporaries.

Tagore argued that unlike the average Bengali who exhibited a lot of faith but not the will to turn it into action, or the fact that contemporary Bengali's took pride in emulating their English superiors, Vidyasagar, was the living antonym of all these traits.

The essay lists how Ishwar Chandra was a self-made man who grew through his own determination and diligence and for whom yatna (effort) and unnati (progress) remained the keywords.

In fact, shortly after the demise of Vidyasagar, Rabindranath Tagore reverently wrote about him: "One wonders how God, in the process of producing forty million Bengalis, produced a man!"

Not only his influence on Rabindranath Tagore, but Vidyasagar’s meeting with Ramakrishna is also well known and well documented.

According to Kathamrita, August 5, 1882, was the first time that Ramakrishna had met. While one was a liberal individual who was highly educated and influenced by Oriental thoughts and ideas, Ramakrishna, in contrast, did not have a formal education. When they first met, Ramakrishna praised Vidyasagar as the ocean of wisdom. Vidyasagar on his part joked that the saint should have collected some amount of saltwater of that sea. But, Ramakrishna, with profound humbleness and respect, replied that the water of general sea might be salty, but not the water of the sea of wisdom.

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