One of the most influential social and religious reformers of the 19th century, Ram Mohan Roy, born on May 22, 1772 in what was then Radhanagar of the Bengal Presidency in Hooghly district, would have been 250 years old today. As India increasingly grapples with changing social and religious circumstances, Roy’s work in empowering women, modernizing education, and seeking change in the Religious orthodoxy finds new relevance in this era.
In Makers of Modern India (Penguin Books, 2010), a book that features “the work and words of the men and women who supported the creation of the Republic of India”, its editor, historian Ramachandra Guha, writes: “Roy was unquestionably the first person on the subcontinent to engage seriously with the challenges posed by modernity to social structures and traditional ways of being. He was also one of the first Indians whose thought and practice were not circumscribed by the constraints of kinship, caste and religion.
Born into a prosperous upper-caste Brahmin family, Roy grew up within the orthodox caste practices of his time: child marriage, polygamy and dowry were prevalent among the upper castes, and he himself had been married earlier. once in his childhood. The wealth of the family had also made available to him the best of education.
Polyglot, Roy knew Bengali and Persian, but also Arabic, Sanskrit and, later, English. His exposure to the literature and culture of each of these languages engendered in him a skepticism towards religious dogma and social restrictions. In particular, he resented practices such as Sati, which compelled widows to be immolated at the funeral pyre of their husbands. Roy’s sister-in-law had been one of those victims after the death of his older brother, and it was a wound that stayed with him.
The decline of the Mughals and the ascendancy of the East India Company in Bengal towards the end of the 18th century was also the time when Roy slowly began to flourish. His education had whetted his appetite for philosophy and theology, and he spent considerable time studying the Vedas and Upanishads, but also the religious texts of Islam and Christianity. He was particularly intrigued by the Unitarian faction of Christianity and drawn to the precepts of monotheism which he believed were central to all religious texts.
He has written numerous tracts on various issues of theology, politics and human rights, and has translated and made accessible Sanskrit texts into Bengali. “Rammohun didn’t really distinguish between religious and secular. He believed that religion was the site of all fundamental change. What he was fighting was not religion but what he believed to be his perversion… (Rabindranath) Tagore called him a ‘Bharatpathik’ by which he meant that Rammohun combined in his person the underlying spirit of Indian civilization, its spirit of pluralism, tolerance and a cosmic respect for all forms of life,” says historian Amiya P Sen, Sivadasani Fellow at the Oxford Center for Hindu Studies, Oxford, UK, including Rammohun Roy: A Critical Biography (Penguin, Viking, 2012), remains a definitive work on the man who was a key figure in India’s journey to modernism.
Roy, the first among the liberals
Although the consolidation of British power was still in its infancy in India at the time, Roy could sense that change was afoot. Confident in the strength of his heritage and open to immersing himself in other cultures in what he believed to be ameliorative practices, Roy was among India’s earliest liberals. In the introduction to his biography of Roy, Sen writes, “…his mind also reveals a wide range of interests, rarely paralleled in the history of Indian thought. He was simultaneously interested in religion, politics, law and jurisprudence, commerce and agrarian enterprise, constitutions and civil rights, the unjust treatment of women and the appalling condition of the Indian poor… And he studied matters not in the abstract or in academic solitude, but with the practical objective of securing human happiness and freedom. It made him a modern man.
In 1814 he founded the Atmiya Sabha (Society of Friends), to nurture philosophical discussions on the idea of monotheism in Vedanta and to campaign against idolatry, casteism, child marriage and other evils social. The Atmiya Sabha will give way to the Brahmo Sabha in 1828, created with Debendranath Tagore, the father of Rabindranath Tagore.
Abolition of Sati, educational and religious reforms
During his stay in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), a period of about 15 years, Roy became a prominent public intellectual. He campaigned for the modernization of education, especially the introduction of a Western curriculum, and started several educational institutions in the city.
In 1817 he collaborated with the Scottish philanthropist David Hare to establish the Hindu College (now Presidency University). He continued with the Anglo-Hindu school in 1822, and in 1830 helped Alexander Duff establish the General Assembly Institution, which later became Scottish Church College.
It was her strenuous advocacy alongside contemporaries such as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar that ultimately led to the abolition of Sati under William Bentinck’s governorship in 1829. Roy advocated for women’s property rights and asked the British for freedom of the press (in 1829 and 1830).
His Brahmo Sabha, which later became the Brahmo Samaj, evolved as a reaction against the upper caste’s hold on social customs and rituals. During the Bengal Renaissance, he ushered in sweeping social changes and gave rise to the Brahmo religion, a spiritual reformed Hinduism which believes in monotheism and uniformity of all men regardless of caste, class or race. belief.
The perils of non-conformism
As many modern liberals discover at their peril, nonconformity brings with it its own share of infamy. Roy, who was given the title of Raja by Mughal Emperor Akbar II, was no exception to this. Among the first Indians to be recognized in the UK and America for his radical thoughts, during his lifetime Roy was also often attacked by his own countrymen who felt threatened by his reformist agenda, and by British reformers and civil servants , whose views differed from his own.
Would Roy’s reformist program have met with equal, if not more, resistance in contemporary India? After all, in 2019, actor Payal Rohatgi launched an attack on Roy on Twitter, accusing him of being a British stooge who used to “defame” Sati. Sen says Roy’s legacy has not been sufficiently celebrated for many historical reasons, of which the partisan reading by the Hindu right is one, but “his life and his message stand largely outside the spirit of the Contemporary Hindutva or Exclusive Political Hinduism”.
Roy’s 250th birthday will see celebrations throughout the year in different parts of the country. In West Bengal, the unveiling of a statue at the Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation, Salt Lake, by GK Reddy, Minister of Culture; Tourism; and development of the Northeast region, will mark the inauguration of the Centre’s celebratory plans. The West Bengal state government has overseen repairs to Roy’s ancestral home in Radhanagar and is preparing to confer heritage status on it. The Sadharan Brahmo Samaj in Kolkata held a three-day inaugural program from May 22-24 which will see musical tributes and speeches by Rajya Sabha MP and retired diplomat Jawhar Sircar; eminent scholars and historians such as Suranjan Das, Vice-Chancellor of Jadavpur University; Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Chancellor, Ashoka University; Professor Arun Bandyopadhyay of the University of Calcutta, among others.
A philatelic exhibition on the Bengali Renaissance has been organized by the Rammohun Library and Free Reading Room, established in 1904. The organization will also publish a commemorative volume.