RAJA RAM MOHAN
: AS A GREAT REFORMER OF 19TH
DR. M.N. RAHMAN, ASSISSTANT PROFESSOR, JEMTEC, SCHOOL OF LAW, GREATER NOIDA (U.P.)
“ Raja was distinctly different from the other great men of India before his day. In range of vision, in reach of sympathy, in versatility of power, in variety of activities, in coordination of interests and in coalescence of ideas… (he) is a unique figure in the history of India, if not in the annals of the race”
Saumyendranath Tagore has cited with approval R. Venkata Ratnam’s fulsome, tribute.
A pioneer religious, social and political reformer, Ram Mohan Roy is best described as the father of modern India. He was born in an orthodox and well-to-do family at Radhanagar, in the Hooghly (Burdwan) district of West Bengal. The family surname was Banerjee ‘but the title of Roy-Rayan’, conferred by the Nawab of Bengal, had become hereditary. As he grew up, Ram Mohan Roy acquired a good knowledge of languages- Bengali, Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, English, French and working knowledge of Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Ram Mohan Roy was a prolific writer and the author of two books in Persian, three in Hindi, thirty-two in Bengali and forty-seven tracts, letters and books in English.
He settled in Calcutta in 1814 and gathered around him a band of young men. With their support, he started the Atmiya Sabha in 1815. The Atmiya Sabha held weekly meetings for propagating the monotheistic doctrines of the Hindu scriptures. In 1825, he established the Vedanta College for teaching the monotheistic doctrines of the Vedanta as a means for leading the people into pure and elevated theism. In 1828, he founded a new religious society called the Brahma Sabha later known as the Brahma Samaj meaning- One God Society’. The chief objects of Brahma Sabha were purification of Hinduism and spreading the idea of monotheism or the worship of one God. The new society was based on reason as well as the Vedas and the Upanishads. It also incorporated the teachings of other religions. It laid emphasis on human dignity. It opposed idolatry and condemned social evils like sati.
Roy adhered to theism. To him, God and His existence were proven by the complexity of reality. Like European rationalists, he envisioned God as the almighty superintendent of the universe. This rational and highly ethical vision of Hinduism had been lost over the centuries through the unfortunate influence of Brahman priests. Ram Mohan Roy wanted Hinduism to return to its past purity. He thought that once proper belief was re-established, erroneous customs such as sati, the debarring of women from education, useless rituals, idolatry and polytheism (The belief in more than one God) would disappear. He based his vision of interpretation of Hinduism on the Vedas, Upanishads and the Vedanta-sutras. He wrote on the validity of these texts, justifying the revised Hinduism. His efforts were aimed at transforming the sins of Hinduism into mere errors caused by ignorance. Ram Mohan Roy attempted to legitimize his arguments on the basis of reason and social utility. According to him, religion could not be judged solely on its own internal scriptural evidence, but it must also be measured by reason and shown to be free from contradictions and functioning to uphold a beneficial social order.
Ram Mohan vigorously opposed worship of idols and meaningless religious rituals. He condemned the priestly class for encouraging and inculcating these practices. He held that all the chief ancient texts of the Hindus preached monotheism. To prove his point, he published the Bengali translation of the Vedas and of the five of the principal Upanishads. He also wrote a series of tracts and pamphlets in defence of monotheism. In 1809, he wrote in Persian “A Gift to Monotheists” in which he argued against belief in many Gods and preached the worship of a single God. As a rationalist, he relied on the power of human reason which he regarded as the final touchstone of the truth of any doctrine whether Eastern or Western. He thought that the philosophy of Vedanta was based on this principle of reason. He advised his followers to depart from holy books and inherited traditions, if human reason commanded them to do so. He did not confine this application of reason to Indian traditions and religions alone. On the other hand he insisted on applying rationalism to Christianity also. In 1820, he published his “The Precepts of Jesus” in which he attempted to separate the moral and philosophic message of the New Testament from its miracle stories. This had earned to him the hostility of Christian missionaries.
Ram Mohan Roy stood for reform of Hinduism, not its supersession by Christianity. What he preached was that while there should be no blind reliance on India’s own past, there should not also be a blind aping of the West. He wanted New India to acquire all that was best in the East and the West. Thus, he wanted India to learn from the West and this learning, he said, was to be an intellectual and creative process so that Indian culture and thought could be regenerated. He vehemently opposed any kind of imposition of Western culture on India. That was why he vigorously defended Hindu religion and philosophy from the attacks of the missionaries. Indeed, it was he who had begun the reform of Hindu religion from within. His support of Hinduism did not prevent him from being friendly to other religions. In fact, he believed that basically all religions preach a common message and their followers are all brothers.
Roy rejected missionary claims to superiority by pointing out that Christianity too was laced with superstition and error. He had the greatest respect for ethical Christianity. However, he did not regard it as superior to ethical Hinduism. Thus, he pursued equivalence as the basic relationship between the two religions.
Roy stimulated the translations of the Upanishads and of the Vedanta-sutras into the vernacular language by substituting scriptures for priests as the source of proper knowledge. This had resulted in an increased use of printing. This ended the prohibition against any but the first three Varna’s from reading the most sacred Hindu literature. Now women, peasants, untouchables and non-Hindus could read and study the sacred Hindu scriptures. Roy also established his first journal, the bilingual Brahmmunical Magazine to broadcast his opinions to a literate audience.
Ram Mohan paid heavily for this kind of a daring religious outlook. He was condemned by the orthodox section for criticizing idolatry and for his philosophic admiration of Christianity and Islam. He was branded as a heretic. Things did not stop there. A social boycott was organised against him. Even his mother had joined it. Ram Mohan was treated as an outcaste. Yet he never shrank from his chosen course.
Ram Mohan also laid the foundations of the reform of Indian society. The agitation he organised against sati is the best example of his life-long crusade against social evils. Ram Mohan believed that Hindu religion was opposed to sati. Ram Mohan published in 1818 an article on “A Conference between an Advocate for and An Opponent of the Practice of Burning Widows Alive”. He cited scriptural sources to justify his contention that Sati was not required by Hindu law and was an erroneous accretion and an example of degenerate Hinduism. When the orthodox Hindus protested against the regulations of 1817 against sati and sent a petition to the government for their repeal, Ram Mohan submitted a counter petition describing the horrors of Sati and characterising it as murder. He also wrote a pamphlet on the subject. He cited the authority of the oldest sacred books that the Hindu religion was opposed to the practice. He argued against it on grounds of reason and humanity. In the end, he appealed to the compassion of the people. He also organised a vigilance committee to ensure that government regulations were followed in each instance. He himself went to the burning ghats(Area near river) at Calcutta to persuade the relatives of widows to give up their plan of self-immolation. All these had roused the hostility of the orthodox against Ram Mohan. Feelings ran so high that his life itself was threatened. Again, when William Bentinck’s measures against sati evoked loud protests, Ram Mohan sent a congratulatory message to the Governor General signed by 300 residents of Calcutta. He even undertook a visit to England to thwart the attempt made by the orthodox to have the new Regulation repealed by the Privy Council.
Ram Mohan Roy played a notable part in improving the lot of women in many other ways too. He condemned the subordination of women and opposed the prevailing notion that women were inferior to men in all ways. He tried to improve the condition of helpless widows in various ways. For instance, he caused the Hindu laws of inheritance about women to be changed so that they could have the right of inheritance and property. He was opposed to polygamy. He advocated re-marriage of widows under special circumstances.
Another social evil that was attacked by him was the rigours of caste rules. Ram Mohan denounced caste rules which he declared had been the source of disunity. He believed that it not only divided the people and thereby deprived them of patriotic feeling but also created inequality. Thus, by upholding the cause of women and denouncing the rigours of caste rules, he struck the true keynote of social reform in India, the two main lines on which social reform had proceeded since.
Ram Mohan was the prophet of the age in the field of Indian politics also. He was an initiator of public agitation on political questions in India. He can be said to have laid the lines for political agitation in a constitutional manner which in due course resulted in the emergence of the Indian National Congress. His views on political problems were modern and represent the high watermark of Indian political thought of the nineteenth century. Love of freedom and a sincere belief that the people of India were endowed with the same capacity for improvement as any other civilised people of the world were the basic principles of his politics. The prospect of educated India approximating European standards of culture was ever present in his mind. He claimed in advance for his countrymen the political rights which progress in civilisation inevitably involved. He is, therefore, regarded as the tribune and prophet of New India.
Ram Mohan had a clear understanding of the political machinery by which India was ruled. Having fully realised the importance of presenting India case before the home authorities when the question of renewal of the Company’s charter in 1833 was being considered by parliament, he went to England. When he was invited to give evidence before the select committee of the House of Commons, he declined to appear in person. Instead, he submitted his views in the form of many “Communications to the Board of Control”.
Ram Mohan was a firm believer in internationalism and in free cooperation between nations. In the words of Rabindranath Tagore, “Ram Mohan was the only person in his time, in the whole world of man, to realise completely the significance of the Modern Age. He knew that the ideal of human civilisation does not lie in the isolation of independence, but in the brotherhood and inter-dependence of individuals as well as nations in all spheres of thought and activity”. Ram Mohan evinced keen interest in international events and supported the cause of liberty, democracy and nationalism everywhere. He did not hesitate to oppose injustice, oppression and tyranny in any form. It seems that he had cancelled all his social engagements on hearing that the Revolution of 1821 in Naples against Ferdinand 1 had failed and that he had given a public dinner to celebrate the success of the revolution in Spanish America. He publicly declared that he would emigrate from the British Empire if Parliament failed to pass the Reform Bill. He condemned the deplorable condition of England under the oppressive regime of absentee landlordism.
Ram Mohan was a pioneer of Indian journalism. He brought out journals in Bengali Hindi and English. Through them, he disseminated scientific, literary and political knowledge among the people, educated public opinion on current affairs and represented popular demands and grievances before the government. He was also a great champion of the freedom of the press. Stringent restrictions were put upon publication of journals since 1799. In 1817, Lord Hastings abolished the Press Censorship, but restricted the discussion of certain matters. John Adam asked the publishers of the newspapers and journals to get licence from the government. Against these restrictions Ram Mohan presented petitions to the Supreme Court and to the king-in-council. Though these petitions were rejected, his efforts bore fruit in 1835, when Metcalfe removed all restrictions on the press.
Ram Mohan was a great champion of the cause of the peasants. He pointed out that under the permanent settlement (1784) the zamindars grew richer and richer by forcing their tenants to pay higher rents as a result of which the condition of the peasants became intolerable. He therefore urged the government to reduce the burden of the tenants by reducing the revenue payable by the zamindars. To make good the loss of revenue, he urged the government to collect a tax on luxuries and to employ low salaried Indians instead of high-salaried Europeans. A supporter of the permanent settlement, he also urged the government to fix permanently the maximum rents to be paid by the actual cultivators of land so that they could enjoy the benefits of the permanent settlement. He protested against the imposition of taxes on tax-free lands. He pleaded for the abolition of the trading rights of the Company and the removal of heavy export duties on Indian goods.
Ram Mohan advocated Indianisation of the British-Indian army and superior services, trial by Jury, separation of the executive and the judiciary, codification of civil and criminal laws, the substitution of English for Persian as the official language of the courts of law, and advocated consultation with Indian leaders before enactment of new laws. In his famous petition against the Jury Act of 1827, he denounced the introduction of religious distinctions into the judicial system of India. The Act, while providing for the trial of any native, Hindu or Muslim, by Christians, either European or native, exempted Christians, including native converts, from the degradation of being tried either by a Hindu or Muslim juror. It also denied the Hindus and Muslims the honour of a seat on the grand jury even in the trial of fellow Hindus and Muslims.
Ram Mohan was a great pioneer of English education. He gave the most enthusiastic assistance to David Hare in the promotion of modern education in India. In addition, he maintained an English school in Calcutta at his own cost from 1817. Subjects like mechanics, Voltaire’s philosophy, etc., were taught there. In 1825, he established a Vedanta College. Courses, both in Indian learning and in Western social and physical sciences, were offered. Ram Mohan was equally interested in making Bengali the medium of intellectual intercourse in Bengal. He compiled a Bengali grammar. His translations, pamphlets and journals helped to evolve a modern and elegant prose style for Bengali language.
The foregoing account may justify the claim that Ram Mohan laid the foundation of all the principal movements for the elevation of the Indians. Ram Mohan is said to present “a most instructive and inspiring study for the new India of which he is the type and pioneer”.
In 1815, Roy first attempted to establish an organisational base for his ideas when he founded the Atmiya Sabha (Friendly Association/Philosophical discussion circle) in Calcutta. This was a private society that held weekly meetings at his residence. Members recited Hindu scriptures, sang hymns, and held discussions on religious and social issues. It ceased to function in 1819. Nine years later, the Brahma Sabha was organised. It was intended to be an assembly of all those who believed in the Unity of God and discarded idol worship. It gathered every Saturday evening. The service consisted of selections from the Upanishads first chanted in Sanskrit and then translated into Bengali, a sermon in Bengali and the singing of theistic hymns. Whoever wanted to attend could attend. There was no membership, no creed, no formal organisation at that time. In 1830, the Sabha began its tenure in a new building erected by Roy and his supporters. Later a house was built and a body of trustees was formed to manage it. A Trust Deed filed by Roy provided a statement of principles for the Sabha. It included a reaffirmation of equalitarianism, his concept of the deity, “the Eternal, Unsearchable, and Immutable Being who is the Author and Preserver of the Universe”, a prohibition of all forms of idolatry and sacrifice, and a ban on criticism of other religious beliefs and practices. After his death in 1833, the Brahma Sabha faded to extinction. This arrangement for the non-sectarian worship of the one True God is regarded as the foundation of Brahma Samaj.
- Upendra Nath Ball, Ram Mohan Roy: A Study of his Life, Works and Thoughts, Calcutta, 1933.
- Iqbal Singh, Ram Mohan Roy: A Bioraphical Inquiry into the Making of Modern India, Vol. I, Bombay, 1958.
- C.E. Buckland, Dictionary of Indian Biographyi, reprint, Varanasi, 1971.
- Saumyendranath Tagore, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, New Delhi, 1973.
- V.C. Joshi (ed.), Ram Mohan Roy and the Process of Modernization in India, New Delhi, 1975.
- Purushottam Mehra, A Dictionary of Modern India, New Delhi, 1985.