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Vidyasagar&’s Secular And Materialistic Humanism

Not many would refer to Vidyasagar as an  atheist. Equally, it is difficult to regard him as a theist. Arguably, it would be appropriate to describe him as an agnostic. He was neutral towards God and religion, a true secular. He had no firm faith in religious practices. He had even forgotten the gayatri mantra ~ the Brahmin&’s  compulsory prayer ~Tapas Kumar Basu

IN 1905, Mahatma Gandhi wrote in Indian Opinion, “The reason for the special distinction that we find in Bengal is that many great men were born there during the last century.  Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar was the greatest among them all. He was not an ocean of learning alone; he was an ocean of compassion, of generosity, as well as of many other virtues. He was a Hindu and a Brahmin too. But to him a Brahmin, a Sudra Hindu and a Muslim were all alike”. His 122nd death anniversary was observed on 29 July this year.
As a social reformer, Vidyasagar was noted for his campaigns in support of widow remarriage, against polygamy and for women&’s education. His contribution to  Sanskrit College, his ideas on the medium of education and the running of schools and colleges are of enduring value. His literary contributions earned him a pivotal position in the history of Bengali literature. His contemporary Bengali poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, once described him as a person with the genius and wisdom of an ancient sage, the energy of an Englishman and the heart of a Bengali mother. He was ahead of his time and was noted for his non-spiritual, secular and materialistic humanism.
Humanism strives to solve problems with the help of reason. It regards man as the central focus. Humanism accords priority to the well-being of man, promotes  the freedom of thought and work, and expresses tolerance, sympathy, fraternity, and equality. Vidyasagar may well be regarded as a great humanist. Humanism made him dependent on knowledge and reason, and freed him from superstitions.
Vidyasagar was a materialist. In the 19th century, there were two facets of humanism ~ idealistic or spiritual and materialistic or secular. The followers of the first, pre-eminently Rammohan Roy, Bankim Chandra, Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath tried to re-orient the Hindu religion and sought to end the inhuman practices, rooted in superstition and ignorance.  At another remove, the secular and materialistic humanists of the Young Bengal group, such as Derozio, Akshay Kumar Dutta and Vidyasagar were relatively less conspicuous.
In terms of metaphysics, idealism and materialism are opposed to each other. The main contention of classical idealists like Berkeley is that matter exists only in the consciousness of man ~ outside man&’s consciousness, matter has no existence and hence the task of the scientist is to try to understand the language and intention of the creator of nature without trying to seek natural phenomena with the help of realistic reason. On the other hand, materialism believes in the independent existence of matter irrespective of man&’s consciousness and hence in the priority of matter over idea and all other factors. The true task of the scientist or the seeker of knowledge is to acquire knowledge by verifying experience in the light of reason, leaving aside any pre-conceived idea.
When in 1853, the British Principal of Benares Sanskrit College recommended inclusion of Bishop Berkeley&’s Inquiry as a text book in  the curricula, Vidyasagar contended  that this “would beget more mischief than advantage. We are obliged to continue the teaching of the  Vedanta  and  Sankhya in Sanskrit College. That the Vedanta and  Sankhya are false systems of philosophy is no more a matter of dispute. Whilst teaching them in the Sanskrit course, we should oppose them by sound philosophy in the English course to counteract their influence. Bishop Berkeley&’s  Inquiry, which has arrived at similar or identical conclusions with the Vedanta or  Sankhya and which is no more considered in Europe as a sound system of philosophy, will not serve the purpose”.
Scientific truth was an important aspect of Vidyasagar&’s materialistic outlook. He included History, Geography, Economics, Mathematics, Astronomy, Natural Science, Physiology, and biographies of famous scientists in the course to be taught in the schools founded by him. He regarded most of the teachings of the ancient Hindu scriptures as incongruous in the context  of the modern age.
In 1858 was published Somprakash, the Bengali magazine that discussed modern politics, economics, international affairs etc. under the editorship of Dwarakanath Vidyabhushan, a teacher of Sanskrit College. The editor admitted that it  was Vidyasagar&’s advice and planning that guided the magazine. He had stressed the need for a progressive magazine in a dependent country.
Those who professed realistic humanism regarded Vidyasagar as a non-believer. Krishnakamal Bhattacharyya, his follower, was the first to brand his mentor as an atheist. Indeed, there has been considerable speculation over  Vidyasagar&’s attitude towards God and/or religion because he never openly discussed the issue. Perhaps it was not possible for a rational person to participate in a discourse over an entity whose true self is uncertain. Even if God exists, He is beyond comprehension. Vidyasagar had once remarked that since it is not possible to know Him, everybody should work for the good of society.
Not many would refer to Vidyasagar as an atheist. Equally, it is difficult to regard him as a theist. Arguably, it would be appropriate to describe him as an agnostic. He was neutral towards God and religion, a true secular. He had no firm faith in religious practices. He had even forgotten the gayatri mantra ~ the Brahmin&’s  compulsory prayer. This was rather unusual for one born into a conservative  Brahmin family. However, unlike a religious reformer, he did not revolt against the unreasonable rituals and practices.
Vidyasagar&’s religious philosophy did not follow any specific system. On the one hand, he did not have much faith in the rituals of conservative Hindus; on the other, he was never attracted to such progressive religious views such as Brahmoism. It was almost as if he did not belong to any particular religious community. Humanism was his religion.
Vidyasagar was a non-believer in the “next life” or existence after death. Indeed, he was on occasion sarcastic towards “the other world”. Not that he never faced a crisis in his life, but he never appealed to God for compassion.
Vidyasagar&’s attitude towards God, the “other world” and shastras  might reflect  the attitude of an atheist. But his love for man, his longing to do good to society and materialistic humanism are no less positive or desirable than any form of theism.
The writer is former Head of the Department of Political Science, Rammohan College, Kolkata