The Pundit who was mistaken for a Coolie

This is a post on Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar taken from the excellent blog on Sanatana Dharma. The blog is “a collection of short stories illustrating the varied manifestations of Sanatana Dharma.

It “aims to explore various facets of SanAtana Dharma, as espoused by our sages and seers, across different epochs of time and different regions of the Indian sub-continent, through the medium of short stories.

The stories/anecdotes are amazingly interesting, informative and purposeful, and are written in a very lucid style. Many stories are accompanied by photos and pictures. Here is the link to the original blog post on this topic.

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From time to time, in the sacred land of Bharath, are born the kind of people who make such a large impact on society within a very short period of time in their lives. One perfect example of such a great man was Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar who was the pillar of the Bengal Renaissance and a very active social reformer who strived to remove the crippling ills that were prevalent in the Hindu society during his time.

He was born in 1820 to orthodox Brahmin parents. He was an avid reader on a wide range of topics and even as a teenage boy, he gained the respect of the entire village as a boy with a vast ocean of knowledge, and hence he was conferred the title of Vidyasagar (Vidya –meaning learning, Sagar – meaning Ocean). He graduated with Sanskrit as his major and went on to become a very learned Sanskrit Pundit. He worked as a Sanskrit professor in Sanskrit College, Calcutta until his retirement. Simultaneously, he also was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, social activist, reformer, writer, publisher and also a renowned Bengali and Sanskrit linguist. Despite being highly successful and recognized in all these various fields, Vidyasagar remained an extremely modest man. There are several anecdotes from his life that prove this point about his character. Because of his humility, he was widely respected across the country.

There lived another certain pundit from across the country who had also studied Sanskrit grammar in great detail. However, despite all his struggles, he was unable to decipher certain portions of the Panini Sutras (Panini’s grammar rules). Immediately, he thought of the great Sanskrit pundit, Ishwar Chandra and wrote to him to see if he was available for a brief discussion. Ishwar Chandra invited this other pundit to come to Calcutta so that they could talk in leisure and discuss the grammatical doubt in greater detail. Ishwar Chandra also volunteered to receive the pundit at the railway station and take him to his house. This pundit was overjoyed after getting Ishwar Chandra’s reply and made preparations to go to Calcutta. But, the pundit was a very haughty man, and he was proud of himself for being a scholar. Even though he had struggled to understand a few rules from the Panini sutras, now that he had got Ishwar Chandra’s reply, he became overconfident about his scholarship and became even more proud. He dressed exquisitely during the train journey, so that he was well dressed when meeting Ishwar Chandra.

As promised, Ishwar Chandra was waiting at the railway station to receive this pundit. Ishwar Chandra always dressed very modestly, and this proud pundit mistook him to be a coolie and disregarded him when he waved. The pundit looked around searching for a well-dressed Ishwar Chandra. He assumed that a person as respected and as famous as Ishwar Chandra would wear shiny clothes and costly shoes. He could not find anyone dressed as exquisitely as he himself was, and so beckoned the coolie and ordered to carry his luggage and asked him “Do you know where the famous Ishwar Chandra lives?” and he nodded in the affirmative. Ishwar Chandra quietly obeyed the pundit and carried his luggage to his own house. On the way, this pundit would not stop blowing his own trumpet. He said “I am a Sanskrit scholar. Do you know how difficult it is for people to study the Sanskrit grammar rules? It was written by a genius man called Panini. I am one of the very few people in this country who understands that. Another person who understands them is Ishwar Chandra and I am here to see him so that I can have these intellectual conversations with someone who is equal to me in intelligence.” Ishwar listened to the pundit’s continuous self-praise but did not become angry or agitated. He still did not reveal his true identity, but quietly carried the luggage to his house.

Upon reaching his house, he opened the door and invited the pundit inside courteously. It was then that the pundit realized – the person he had been singing his own praises to was none other than the great Ishwar Chandra himself. He felt very ashamed of himself when he saw how such a genius like Ishwar Chandra could dress so simply, conduct himself so modestly and respect everyone else so humbly, even when we was being treated like a coolie. He was astounded also by the simplicity of his residence and the simplicity of his habits. After staying with Ishwar Chandra for a couple of days, and after clarifying his grammar doubts, the pundit returned home, a more humble man himself.

This incident is one of the many incidents in the life of Ishwar Chandra where his simplicity and modesty are portrayed. He truly lived up to the ideal – “knowledge liberates”. He was indeed a liberated man. He worked very hard through the rest of his life to do away with social ills- sati and child marriage. He strived for widow remarriage and supported the education of women, so that the society could liberate itself of other related social ills. Besides this, Ishwar Chandra was instrumental in the construction and opening of several schools for young girls. He also published several books in Sanskrit and Bengali. He revised the Bengali alphabets and published a book that is used even today. He also published a fundamental book on Sanskrit grammar that many students of Sanskrit grammar currently use.

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