Stories By Swami – Story of Vidyasagar

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PLACE: Almora.

TIME: May and June, 1898.

The Swami introduced Vidyasagar to us now as “the hero of widow remarriage and of the abolition of polygamy”. But his favourite story about him was of that day when he went home from the Legislative Council, pondering over the question of whether or not to adopt English dress on such occasions. Suddenly someone came up to a fat Mogul who was proceeding homewards in leisurely and pompous fashion in front of him, with the news “Sir, your house is on fire!” The Mogul went neither faster nor slower for this information, and presently the messenger contrived to express a discreet astonishment, whereupon his master turned on him angrily. “Wretch!” he said. “Am I to abandon the gait of my ancestors because a few sticks happen to be burning?” And Vidyasagar, walking behind, determined to stick to the Châdar, Dhoti and sandals, not even adopting coat and slippers.

The picture of Vidyasagar going into retreat for a month for the study of the Shâstras, when his mother had suggested to him the remarriage of child-widows, was very forcible. “He came out of his retirement of opinion that they were not against such remarriage, and he obtained the signatures of the pundits that they agreed in this opinion. Then the action of certain native princes led the pundits to abandon their own signatures so that, had the government not determined to assist the movement, it could not have been carried – and now”, added the Swami, “the difficulty has an economic rather than a social basis”.

We could believe that a man who was able to discredit polygamy by moral force alone, was “intensely spiritual”. And it was wonderful indeed to realize the Indian indifference to a formal creed when we heard how this giant was driven by the famine of 1864 – when 140,000 people died of hunger and disease – to have nothing more to do with God and become entirely agnostic in thought.

With this man, as one of the educators of Bengal, the Swami coupled the name of David Hare, the old Scotsman and atheist to whom the clergy of Calcutta refused Christian burial. He had died of nursing an old pupil through cholera. So his own boys carried his dead body and buried it in a swamp and made the grave a place of pilgrimage. That place has now become College Square, the educational centre, and his school is now within the university. And to this day Calcutta students make pilgrimage to the tomb.

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