Teachers who helped shape our modern society


It is said that most social changes are student-driven. Suppress students and the society will stagnate. What makes youth a powerful agent of change is not just the energy and enthusiasm they possess but also the values and learnings good teachers imbibe in them. It is always the teachers who are behind the scene who guide students and help them with perspective, without which energy is often just chaos.

All of us remember a teacher or two who have helped us become who we are: who not only imparted education but also flared the curious rebel in us, encouraged our curiosity, showed us direction, and never lost track of the larger purpose of education. It is these ‘hippie’ teachers who almost always challenged the established beliefs of their times, were questioned and even criticized, but were proven right when seen in hindsight.

India has been home to many such educators; some who influenced not only their students but the society as a whole. Today, as the country celebrates Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s birthday, we present a listicle of teachers who were agents of social transformation in India.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy

Regarded as one of the most important figures in the Bengali renaissance, Raja Ram Mohan Roy was deeply influenced by European liberalism and public administration policies. He believed that radical reforms were necessary in the Hindu religion and its social practices, and therefore, founded the Brahmo Samaj.

He believed education to be the most important agent of social reform. He was a lifelong educator and helped found many educational institutions including the Hindu College, Anglo-Hindu School, Vedanta College and Scottish Church College. He strongly advocated induction of western learning into Indian education, offering courses as a synthesis of Western and Indian learning.

He is best known for his efforts to establish the abolishment of the practice of sati, the Hindu funeral practice in which the widow was compelled to sacrifice herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, in certain parts of the Bengal. A crusader against polygamy and child marriage in India, he was among the first influential Indians to demand property inheritance rights for women.

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar

A polymath and another key figure of the Bengal renaissance, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was a philosopher, academic educator, writer, translator, entrepreneur and social reformer. Vidyasagar championed the cause of upliftment of women in India, and helped introduce the practice of widow remarriage to mainstream Hindu society. Unlike the revolutionary Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Vidyasagar advocated reforms within the Hindu religion.

During those days, remarriage of widows would occur occasionally only among progressive members of the Brahmo Samaj. The prevailing custom of polygamy and child marriage left many young widows helpless: they were subjected to orthodox rituals, close restrictions, starvation and hard domestic labour. Most widows had to shave their heads and wear white sarees to discourage attention from men. Unable to tolerate the ill treatment, many of these women would flee from their homes and turn to prostitution to support themselves. In 1853, it was estimated that Calcutta had a population of 12,718 prostitutes, many of whom were widows.

Taking note of the situation, Vidyasagar proposed and pushed the Widows’ Remarriage Act XV of 1856 in India. He also demonstrated to the orthodox Hindus that the system of polygamy was not sanctioned by the ancient Hindu texts either. This helped both the Bengal renaissance, and consequent reforms in the whole country. Additionally, Vidyasagar’s efforts to simplify and modernize the Bengali language were significant. As an educator and scholar, he also rationalized and simplified the Bengali alphabet and type.

Savitribai Phule

A social reformer and poet, Savitribai Phule, played an important role in improving women’s rights in India during the British rule. Along with her husband Jyotirao Phule, she founded the first women’s school of India at Bhide Wada in Pune in 1848. She was also among India’s first women teachers.

She was deeply moved by the way young widows were easy prey for sexual exploitation; often by male members of their own family. Widows who became pregnant would resort to suicide or killing the newborn due to the fear of being ostracized by society. She adopted one such newborn child, who eventually grew up to become a doctor. She also established a centre for caring for pregnant rape victims and delivering their children, and helped them become respected members of the society.

Regarded as the founder of modern Marathi poetry, she actively struggled against the caste system. The well at her house, against all criticism, was open for dalits; and her school readily accepted dalit members of the society. She was pelted with stones and cow-dung, but she never stopped. When the third pandemic of the bubonic plague hit Pune in 1897, Savitribai took patients to a clinic she founded – where her adopted son treated them. While caring for the patients, she contracted the disease herself, and passed away, leaving a nonpareil legacy.

Mahadev Govind Ranade

One of the founding members of the Indian National Congress, Mahadev Govind Ranade, was the Dean of the Arts department at Bombay University. He displayed much organizing power, and shared great intimacy with the needs of the students. A thorough Marathi scholar, he encouraged the translation of standard English works, and also tried to introduce vernacular languages into the university curriculum.

Ranade was a lifelong activist and social reformer who worked against child marriage, the shaving of widows’ heads, the heavy cost of marriages and other social functions, and the caste restrictions on travelling abroad. He vigorously advocated widow remarriage and female education. He was one of the founders of the Widow Marriage Association in 1861. A believer of reformation over revolution, Ranade attempted to work with the structure of weakened traditions, without destroying the social atmosphere that was India’s heritage.

Rabindranath Tagore

The famous poet’s legacy in the form of Santiniketan is perhaps the most lasting. Tagore despised rote classroom schooling, and compared it with the way parrots are trained inside a cage. He believed that walls represent conditioning of the human mind. Tagore once said, “I do not remember what I was taught, I only remember what I learnt.” He conceived a new type of university, and founded the ‘Vishwa Bharati’ as a connecting thread between India and the world, envisioning it to be “a world centre for the study of humanity somewhere beyond the limits of nation and geography.”

He gave away most of his inheritance, along with the Nobel Prize money, to build the college and raised funds widely in Europe and the United States between 1919 and 1921. After being founded in Shantinekatan, ‘Vishwa Bharati’ became a centre of Brahmo learning, where Tagore employed a Brahmacharya system: gurus gave pupils personal guidance – emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. Believing that each child’s interest and talent is special, if a course demanded by a student was not available, he would design a course and bring in new teachers. Teaching was almost always done under the trees. Tagore himself spent most of his time guiding and mentoring students – almost until he passed away in 1941.

Dr B. R. Ambedkar

The architect of the Indian Constitution was born into a dalit family, and had to face discrimination his entire life. As a student, he was made to sit outside the class and was not allowed to share the water upper caste children drank. The peon of the school used to pour water for him, and on days when the peon was absent, young Bhimrao had to go without water. Even as a scholar and educator, he faced similar problems. Most of his ventures failed when his clients learned that he was an untouchable. His fellow professors objected to his sharing the same drinking-water jug that they used.

Soon, Ambedkar started to voice his opinion against caste and class prejudices. He became a champion of dalit, women and labour upliftment in India. A scholar all his life, his research helped establish the Reserve Bank of India, and many of his ideas helped shape the modern India. He advocated Buddhism, and strongly criticised the Hindu orthodox religious leaders and the caste system. He gained huge student following and his books were widely celebrated. Some of his most famous works include ‘The Annihilation of Caste’, ‘Who Were the Shudras?’, ‘Essays on Untouchables and Untouchability’, and his incomplete book – ‘Revolution and Counter-revolution; Buddha or Karl Marx’.

Today, as we celebrate Teachers Day, let’s not forget the social transformations they brought about, and pledge to subscribe to their belief of knowledge and scientific critical thinking, which is the greatest agent of social change.


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