Raja Rammohun Roy
the father of Modern India
Well, that's how the tombstone of Raja Rammohun Roy's final resting place "records the sorrow and pride with which his memory is cherished by his descendants..."
But, some 172 orbits of the Earth around the Sun since his passing, one wonders if the above epitaph adequately describes the profound influence Rammohun's life had on modern India or for that matter, the world at large. Any Bengali, any Indian, any South Asian, as a matter of fact any free thinking man or woman of today's world must feel genuine pride in kissing this ground where Raja Rammohun onced walked.
King Amongst Men
He was not a Raja (king) in the literal sense, the ceremonial Mughal monarch of Delhi bestowed the Raja title upon him. But we know he was bigger than a King. Handsome, articulate, intellectually unparallel, fearless, socially responsive, politically astute and religiously liberated Raja Rammohun Roy was a writer, educationist, journalist, philospher, politician, social reformer, theologian and humanist - all rolled into this such resourceful character that this world will not witness ever again in the near future. Indeed, his life was the torch that helped to rid India of darkness, superstition and ignorance.
Rammohun was born in a Brahmin family of Radhanagar village in the Hoogly district of West Bengal on 22nd May 1772 (there's some uncertainty as to the exact date; the epitaph noted the year of birth as 1774). His father Ramakanta Roy's family belonged to the Vaisnava (who worship Lord Vishnu - the Preserver; followers of SriCaitanya Maha Prabhu ) a liberal sect that flourished in Bengal and South India. His mother Tarini Devi's orthodox priestly family (Bhattacharyas of Chatra) on the other hand belonged to the Shakta sect (worshippers of Godess Kali - the Shakti - the Mother Energy of the universe).1
In the 16th Century, the Koli-Avatar (Kolyug incarnate of God), Lord SriCaitanya renunciated the caste and proclaimed supremacy of God and universal brotherhood. Followers of this proletariet religion are known as Vaishnavas. Despite being Vaishnav descendants, the Roy family was very conservative. The Shaktas hardly ever see things the same way as the Vaishnavas do; they appear to be even more conservative. In a 18th century Bengali non-urban family setting, where active religious conflicts were bound to arise between the shakta (maternal side) and vaisnava (paternal side) rituals, it is not hard to imagine that some degree of uncertainty and unease would exist in younger minds as to why there were such apparent differences within the one and the same religion. Rammohun too must have been at a loss to not find a real handle on questions as to why there are so many gods and godesses, why so many sects, why so much confusion and why such a large variety of rites and practices to reach the same goal - attaining Moksha (nirvana).
Rammohan learned Bengali and Sanscrit to start with; Ramakanta Roy then sent young Rammohun (merely 12 years old at the time) to Patna to learn Persian and Arabic languages at a Islamic institution in the hope that it would assist the young man to secure a better occupation in one of Mughal high offices, even though the British victory at Battle of Plassey in 1757 was gradually undermining the foundation of the Mughal empire. The youngman quickly learned these languages and became well-versed in Koranic teachings. The logical organisation of Koran and its monotheistic interpretations - in contrast with the overwhelming breadth and diversity of Hindu literature - appealed to the young mind. The veil of mist lifted from before his eyes. His ever-inquisitive free-thinking mind wanted to know more about other religions and philosophies.
He fell out with his parents for leaving home on more than one occasion without their consent. One of these excursions took young Rammohun to Tibet where he gained insight into the Buddhist philosophy and religion. His unceasing questions, inquisitions and critical analyses of rational principles from dogmas annoyed his Llama teachers.
His utter disregard for what can be described as the normal parental expectation displeased his father no end who finally forced him out of the family home. His unabating criticisms of Hindu rituals, superstitous beliefs on the one hand and open support for montheistic principles of Koran, Bible and Tripitak, on the other, later (after his father's death) led him to the Court of Law when his mother and sister unsuccessfully tried to disinherit him on grounds of apostasy.
The Man Who Found Unity in God
Rammohuan moved to Kolkata in 1897 and started a minor lending business to earn a modest living for a while. Shortly before his father's death in 1803 Rammohun moved North to Mushidabad with a job with the East India Company. In 1805 he published Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin (A Gift to Monotheism) - written in Persian with an introduction in Arabic in which he preached unity of God. This publication antagonised a section of the muslim community.
In 1809 he was appointed a Reveue Officer in the Company and was posted in Rangpur. Here he vigorously continued his Vedic and Tantrik studies and held regular evening discussions with like-minded Hindu, Muslim and Jain friends. During this period he also spent time honing his English language skills with private study and with the help of an English friend (John Digby - Collector of Rangpur). He followed English and European political trends with keen interest and closely absorbed the cause and implications of the French Revoultion for India. Later he learnt Greek, Hebrew and Latin to quench his thirst for knowledge of peoples and their religions. He thoroughly mastered the scriptures, doctrines and genesis of the Jewish religion and Christianity.
During the course of his researches into Sanskrit literature Rammohun was impressed by the purity of the monotheistic doctrines imbued in the Upanishads, which were in sharp contrast with the decadent idolatrous and superstitous Hindu rituals. In 1815 Roy founded the Atmiya Sabha (friendly society) comprising like-minded Indian liberals - like Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, Prasanna Kumar Tagore, Kali Nath and Baikuntha Nath Munshi, Raja Kali Shankar Ghoshal. The Shabha was also frequented by William Carey's missionaries of Serampore who needed his help in translating the New Testament to Bengali. While he was attracted by the monotheistic aspects of Christianity, he seriously questioned the misguided Christian doctrine of Trinity on grounds of idolatry. He criticised that such doctrines are nothing short of direct parrallels of Hindu beliefs and practices. He clashed with other missionary members of the translation team and a vigorous debate followed. Rammohan's The Precepts of Jesus (1820) was the product of this debate. Roy, with his extensive knowlege and understanding of the Gospels, smashed the claimed supremacy of the holy trinity doctrine with the same arguments and disdains that the missionaries used to criticise Indian idolatrous practices as a load of rubbish.
Rammohun's doctrine of unity of Godhead was an object of criticism from all corners of the orthodoxy - hysterical brahmins, fundamental muslims, European missionaries, theocrats and political masters alike. Some at the higher echelons of the missionary churches in England were incensed by comments made in The Precepts of Jesus by a heathen. Not being able to defend against Roy's watertight logic, they instead patronised and attacked Roy himself.2 How come a non-believer, a creature who does not possess the mental faculties to comprehend the grand purpose and design of the doctrine of Trinity dare to pass such a callous judgement on their superior faith and their prophet! For fear of retribution from the rulers, friends advised Roy to exercise caution in future. But Roy was determined. He satirised his response in the Padari Sisya Sambad (in Bengali 1823).
Rammohun's point was crystal clear: one doesn't need a prophet (Jesus) to preserve Christianity. One doesn't need to attribute divinity to Jesus to believe in the Christian God. One doesn't need a son to vouch for the existence of the Father. He argued that Trinity = idolatry. A distinct stream of Christian thinkers, who established the Unitarian Church, needed no convincing. They found a resourceful ally in Rammohan.
In August 1828 Rammohun inaugurated his Brahma Sabha, which formed into a church in 1830 (Church of Brahma). The followers, among whom Debendranath Tagore, Keshab Chandra Sen, Pratap Chandra Mazumdar, Raj Narayan Bose etc. of this rejuvinated Hindu Church, known as the Brahma Samaj, played a major role in reforming and modernising the Indian society.
The Man Who Fought Superstitions
Rammohun's attack on the Hindu religious idolatry, rituals, caste system and the criminal 'Suttie'(-daho) system of burning alive of widows in the funeral pyre of their husbands (a practice which has evolved motivated more by petty property greed of the surviving relatives than by the need for spiritual savation) has been not only a bold and forthright attempt at the reform of Hindu socities, but a death blow to ignorance, superstitions and dogmas of his ancestors. Rammohun was aghast with these practices. He witnessed the burning of his own sister-in-law (brother Jogmohun's wife was killed in the suttie practice by his own family and he had no power to stop it). His active movement against these senseless practices dissatisfied in particular the 'upper classes of the society' (the kulins) - those who seemed to have benefited the most at the expense of the deprived mass. Each practice of a society always has two parties - the beneficiary and the victim.
While the suttie practice was abolished in 1829 (as a result of Rammohun's earnest pleading with and direct assurance to William Bentinck that it is not sanctioned by any Hindu scriptures), similar practices against the less priviledged of the society persist. While the incidences (to a lesser extent, their impact too) are somewhat in decline, India still suffers from the indignation of the remnants of caste discrimination, polygamy, child marriage and ban on widow marriage (still a social stigma - even though allowed under the law since a quarter century after Roy's death); despite Rammohun's or Iswarchandra Vidyasagar's active educational drives and moral persuasions of the ignorant mass and the priviledged few. Old habits - the white-anting of the Indian life - die hard. Particularly, if one may benefit from their existence.
Pioneer of Indian Education
Rammohun was the first Indian who realised that the only way India can rid itself of ignorance and superstions of the dark ages is by educating its mass by modern European method i.e., by teaching language, science and philosophy. He knew India had to retain its rich heritage from the past, but she also rquired the best of modern European thoughts and practices to step ino the future. He established a number of schools to popularise the modern system of education. He supported David Hare in his educational drive for native Indians. Roy was instrumental in establishing the Hindu College, which was to be later known as the Presidency College.
Pioneer of Bengali Prose and Indian Press
Roy retired from the Company service in 1814 and published his first book of prose called Vedantasar in 1815. A well deserved break with the tradition was established in Bengali prose style. The influence of Sanscrit, Arabic and Persian words was minimised. Rammohun, for his time, was a fiercely independednt journalist. In 1821 he published his first Bengali Newspaper - Sambad Kaumudi.
In a speech in the Kolkata Press Club, the Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, regarded Rammohun as "the father of the Indian press and of Bengal renaissance". PM stated that:
PM quoted from Rammohun's own thoughts on freedom of press:
In the space of 15 years, from 1815 to 1830, Rammohun wrote thirty books in Bengali. According to Soumendranath Tagore, "the excellence that the Bengali prose [later] achieved in literary form under Bankim Chandra and Rabindranath owes its beginning to the Bengali prose developed by Rammohan".
The major publications during this period includes the following - not all those mentioned here are in Bengali:
Rammohun composed a large number of Bengali songs (hymns) called BrahmaSangeet that are still popular in Brahma Churches.
Travel to England And France
Rammohun was awarded the 'Raja' title by Delhi's titular king. In 1829 he travelled to England to meet the East India Company bosses and the British Parliament. He was received by the local Unitarian ministers with great adulation. He met with King William IV. He went to France in 1833 and was received by King Louise-Phillippe. Incidentally, the French Revolution left a lasting impact on Roy's thought. Back from Paris to Bristol, where Roy lived with a family of local Unitarian Church minister friend, Raja Ramohun died on September 27th. 1833. He was buried locally there. A decade later his mortal remains were taken to Arno's Vales cemetery and were buried there with a memorial built by Prince Dwarkanath Tagore.
The Prophet of the New Age
Given the economic, social, religious and political context in which Raja Rammohun Roy grew up in India, there is no measuring rod with which one can mesure and undertand the depth of contribution made by this phenomenal character to his society. Radhakrishnan, a well known academic who became Preisdent of India, like so many others, called him the father of modern India.
Rabindranth Tagore in a speech on Rammohun Roy Centenary said this in the opening:
According to another Indian hero, Netaji Subhas Bose "Raja Rammohun Roy therefore stands out against the dawn of the new awakening in India as the prophet of the new age."