How the father of the modern Bengali alphabet made English compulsory in Kolkata’s historic Sanskrit College

Several lesser-known facts have emerged over the translation of a book on the legendary institution as it completes 200 years

February 25, 2024 03:26 am | Updated 03:26 am IST - Kolkata

That Raja Ram Mohan Roy had objected to the setting up of Sanskrit College because he believed education should be Western, and that it was Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the father of the modern Bengali alphabet, who insisted that English be taught in that college — these are some of the lesser-known facts that emerged during the translation of a book containing the history of the institution that is completing 200 years.

Established in 1824, now known as Sanskrit College and University, the institution turns two centuries old on February 25, when year-long events will begin in celebration. One of the activities undertaken to mark the bicentenary is the translation into English of the two volumes of Kolikata Sanskrit College-er Itihas (‘History of Kolkata’s Sanskrit College’) Part 1 authored by Brajendranath Bandyopadhyay, and Part 2 by Gopikamohun Bhattacharya.

“We associate Sanskrit College with traditional knowledge systems, but forget that for many years, English was considered an essential subject to be learnt by the scholars in this institution,” Samata Biswas, the English Professor responsible for the translation, said.

“I became interested in the history of English in Sanskrit College through these volumes, and I found these interesting facts — Ram Mohan Roy’s objection to the setting up of the Sanskrit College and Vidyasagar’s restructuring of the English syllabus as far back as in 1853 when, as the Principal, he made it a compulsory subject,” Dr. Biswas said.

“Vidyasagar’s reform of the English curriculum was instituted to give the students of Sanskrit College an exposure in European systems of thought, and thereby discover the unity in different philosophical traditions. Today, students from different Humanities disciplines are also expected to study across cultures, hence Vidyasagar’s reforms were truly centuries ahead of their time,” she said.

As for Ram Mohan Roy’s objection to the setting up of the institution, his letter to Lord Amherst features not only in the book being translated but is also now in public domain. “We now find that the Government are establishing a Sangscrit (sic) School under Hindoo Pundits to impart such knowledge as is already current in India. This seminary (similar in character to those which existed in Europe before the time of Lord Bacon) can only be expected to load the minds of youth with grammatical niceties and metaphysical distinctions of little or no practicable use to the possessors or to society,” he wrote in December 1823, shortly before the foundation stone was laid.

Dr. Biswas spoke of some of her rare findings. “Then there were instances I came across [during the translation] that I found inspirational. Vidyasagar and Prashanta Kumar Sarbadhikary [initially Professor of English and later Principal) both resigned from their jobs citing interference with their administrative and academic insight and integrity. Prashanta Kumar was later persuaded to rejoin the institution. This is a rarest of rare occurrences today, when education is seen more as a commodity and less as an autonomous domain of dedicated teachers, students and administrators who were willing to forego their personal economic fortunes to stand for what they believed in,” Professor Biswas said.

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