A look at the legacy of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the father of Modern Indian Renaissance

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 Bengal Presidency’s Radhanagar in Hooghly district, would have turned 250 years today. As India grapples with changing social and religious circumstances, Roy’s work in the sphere of women’s emancipation, modernizing education and seeking changes to religious orthodoxy finds new relevance in this time.

In Makers of Modern India (Penguin Books, 2010), a book that profiles the “work and words of the men and women who argued the Republic of India into existence”, its editor, historian Ramachandra Guha, writes, “Roy was unquestionably the first person on the subcontinent to seriously engage with the challenges posed by modernity to traditional social structures and ways of being. He was also one of the first Indians whose thought and practice were not circumscribed by the constraints of kin, caste and religion.”

Early Life

Born into a prosperous upper-caste Brahmin family, Roy grew up within the framework of orthodox caste practices of his time: child-marriage, polygamy and dowry were prevalent among the higher castes and he had himself been married more than once in his childhood. The family’s affluence had also made the best in education accessible to him.

A 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 ​​bred in him a scepticism towards religious dogmas and social strictures. In particular, he chafed at practices such as Sati, that compelled widows to be immolated on their husband’s funeral pyre. Roy’s sister-in-law had been one such victim after his elder brother’s death, and it was a wound that stayed with him.

The waning 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 was slowly coming into his own. His education had whetted his appetite for philosophy and theology, and he spent considerable time studying the Vedas and the Upanishads, but also religious texts of Islam and Christianity. He was particularly intrigued by the Unitarian faction of Christianity and was drawn by the precepts of monotheism that, he believed, lay at the core of all religious texts.

He wrote extensive tracts on various matters of theology, polity and human rights, and translated and made accessible Sanskrit texts into Bengali. “Rammohun did not quite make a distinction between the religious and the secular. He believed religion to be the site of all fundamental changes. What he fought was not religion but what he believed to be its perversion… (Rabindranath) Tagore called him a ‘Bharatpathik’ by which he meant to say that Rammohun combined in his person the underlying spirit of Indic civilisation, 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, whose Rammohun Roy: A Critical Biography (Penguin, Viking, 2012), remains a definitive work on the man who was a key figure in India’s journey into modernism.

Roy, the first among liberals

Even though British consolidation of power was still at a nascent stage in India at the time, Roy could sense that change was afoot. Confident about the strength of his heritage and open to imbibing from other cultures what he believed were ameliorative practices, Roy was among India’s firsts. 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 civic rights, the unjust treatment of women and the appalling condition of the poor Indian… And he studied matters not in the abstract or in academic solitude but with the practical objective of securing human happiness and freedom. That made him a modern man.”

In 1814, he started 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 social ills. The Atmiya Sabha would make way for the Brahmo Sabha in 1828, set up with Debendranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore’s father.

Abolition of Sati, educational and religious reforms

During the course of his time in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), a period of about 15 years, Roy became a prominent public intellectual. He campaigned for the modernisation of education, in particular the introduction of a Western curriculum, and started several educational institutions in the city.

In 1817, he collaborated with Scottish philanthropist David Hare to set up the Hindu College (now, Presidency University). He followed it up with the Anglo-Hindu School in 1822 and, in 1830, assisted Alexander Duff to set up the General Assembly’s Institution, which later became the Scottish Church College.

It was his relentless advocacy alongside contemporaries such as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar that finally led to the abolition of Sati under the governor generalship of William Bentinck in 1829. Roy argued for the property rights of women, and petitioned the British for freedom of the press (in 1829 and 1830).

His Brahmo Sabha, that later became the Brahmo Samaj, evolved as a reaction against the upper-caste stranglehold on social customs and rituals. During the Bengal Renaissance, it ushered in sweeping social changes and birthed the Brahmo religion, a reformed spiritual Hinduism that uniform believes in monotheism and theity of all men, irrespective of caste, class or creed.

Perils of non-conformism

As many modern liberals discover to their peril, non-conformism brings with it its own share of infamy. Roy, who was given the title of Raja by the Mughal emperor Akbar II, was no exception to this. Among the first Indians to gain recognition in the UK and in America for his radical thoughts, in his lifetime, Roy was also often attacked by his own countrymen who felt threatened by his reformist agenda, and by British reformers and functionaries, whose views differed from his.

Would Roy’s reformist agenda have met with equal if not more resistance in contemporary India? After all, in 2019, actor Payal Rohatgi had launched an offensive against Roy on Twitter, accusing him of being a British stooge who was used to “defame” Sati. Sen says Roy’s legacy has not been celebrated enough for many historic reasons, of which partisan reading by the Hindu right is one, but “His life and message stands vastly apart from the spirit of contemporary Hindutva or exclusionary, political Hinduism.”

Celebrations

Roy’s 250th birth anniversary will see year-long celebrations in different parts of the country. In West Bengal, the unveiling of a statue at Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation, Salt Lake, by GK Reddy, Minister of Culture; Tourism; and Development of North Eastern Region, will mark the inauguration of the Center’s celebration plans. The West Bengal state government has overseen the repairs of Roy’s ancestral house in Radhanagar, and is set to confer heritage status to it. The Sadharan Brahmo Samaj in Kolkata has organised a three-day inaugural program from May 22 to May 24 that will see musical tributes and talks by Rajya Sabha MP and retired diplomat Jawhar Sircar; eminent academics and historians such as Suranjan Das, vice-chancellor, Jadavpur University; Rudrangshu Mukherjee, chancellor, Ashoka University; professor Arun Bandyopadhyay of Calcutta University, among others.

A philatelic exhibition on the Bengali Renaissance has been organized by the Rammohun Library and Free Reading Room, set up in 1904. The organization will also publish a commemorative volume.

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