Social Scientist. v 7, no. 78 (Jan 1979) p. 73.

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On Vidyasagar's Life and Work


THIS account of Vidyasagar's life and work is intended to be different from all previous ones. The present reviewer would like to bear witness to the success of the project, but he also feels constrained to point out certain serious limitations. The early biographies of Vidyasagar are marked by a spirit of idolatry. They tended to emphasize Vidyasagar's works of charity, his fearless integrity and independence of mind and drew the portrait of an extraordinary personality. The more recent accounts, inspired by revolutionary political views and haunted by the failure of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in India, offer an assessment of the man as a typical product of the 19th century 'Bengal Renaissance5 and crippled by its inherent weakness: the insuperable limits of a class that had a vested interest in the colonial regime as its beneficiaries. In a sense, therefore, both these versions are moralistic, the earlier one propounding a moral lesson of individual nobility and the more recent one demonstrating the incurable debility of a servile class-outlook.

It is to Sen's credit that he has set out to correct the errors of historical perspective in both. He rejects the earlier emphasis on private virtues and goes on to draw a detailed picture of the economic and social background that gives significance to those virtues. On the other hand, he qualifies the 'extremist' portrait as simplistic and onesided. In his concern for the general class-affiliations the 'extremist' historian is prone to overlook significant variations in the general pattern. Besides, he fails to detect the tension between Vidyasagar's ideological position and his social setting. While the typical 'extremist' account sees the ideology as

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