Ram Mohan Roy(August 14, 1774 – September 27, 1833) was a founder in 1828 (with Dwarkanath Tagore and other Bengali Brahmins) of the Brahma Sabha which engendered the Brahmo Samaj, an influential Indian socio-religious reform movement. His remarkable influence was apparent in the fields of politics, public administration and education as well as religion. He is best known for his efforts to abolish the practice of sati, the corrupted Hindu funeral practice in which the widow were compelled to sacrificed herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. It was he who first introduced the word "Hinduism" into the English language in 1816. For his diverse contributions to society, Raja Ram Mohan Roy is regarded as one of the most important figures in the Bengal Renaissance.
Early life and education (1774 - 1796)
Roy was born in Radhanagore, Bengal, in 1774. His family background displayed an interesting religious diversity. His father Ramkanta was a Vaishnavite, while his mother Tarinidevi was from a Shivaite family. This in itself was unusual for Vaishanavites did not marry Shaivites at the time.
- "Thus one parent prepared him for the occupation of a scholar, the sastrin, the other secured for him all the worldly advantage needed to launch a career in the laukik or worldly sphere of public administration. Torn between these two parental ideals from early childhood, Rammohun vacillated the rest of his life, moving from one to the other and back.
Rammohun's early education was controversial. The common version is
- Rammohun started his formal education in the village pathshala where he learned Bengali and some Sankrit and Persian. Later he is said to have studied Persian and Arabic in a madrasa in Patna and after that he was sent to Benares (Kashi) for learning the intricacies of Sanskrit and Hindu scripture, including the Vedas and Upanishads. The dates of his sojourn in both these places is uncertain. However, we will go by the commonly held belief that he was sent to Patna when he was nine years old and two years later to Benares.
His faithful contemporary biographer writes,
- "Rammohun with his new found madrasa knowledge of Arabic also tasted the fruit forbidden to Brahmins of Quran and was converted to its strict monotheism. Rammohun's mother Tarini Devi was scandalised and packed her son off to Benares (to study Sanskit and Vedas) before he could take the irrevocable step. In Benares, Rammohun's rebellion continued and he persisted in interpreting the Upanishads through the Holy Quran's monotheist strictures especially against idolatry. Benares, the spiritual seat of traditional Hinduism, was awash with temples to the billion gods of Hindu pantheon, and Rammohun would not complete his formal Vedantic education there. He instead travelled widely (not much is known of where he went, but he is said to have extensively studied Buddhism at this time) to eventually return to his family around 1794 when a search party sent by his father tracked him down to Benares in the company of some Buddhists with similar notions. Between 1794 and 1795 Rammohun stayed with his family attending the family zamindari holdings. There was considerable friction in the family between Rammohun and his father, who died in about 1796 leaving some property to be divided amongst his sons.
Christian and Company period (1795 - 1828)
During these overlapping periods, Ram Mohan Roy acted as a political agitator and agent, representing Christian missionaries whilst employed by the East India Company
and simultaneously pursuing his vocation as a Pandit
. To understand fully this complex period in his life leading up to his eventual Brahmoism
is not easy without reference to his peers,
"In 1792 the British Baptist shoemaker William Carey published his influential missionary tract "An Enquiry of the obligations of Christians to use means for the conversion of heathens".
In 1793 William Carey lands in India to settle here. His objective is to translate, publish and distribute the Bible into Indic languages and convert the Hindus thereby. Astutely he realizes that the "mobile" (i.e. service class) Brahmins and Pundits are best situated to help him in this endeavour, and he begins cultivating them. He learns the Buddhist and Jain religious works that expose chinks in the armor of Hinduism's doctrine.
In 1795 Carey makes contact with a Sanskrit scholar - the Tantric Hariharananda Vidyabagish - who later introduces him to Ram Mohan Roy who wished to learn English.
Between 1796 and 1797 the trio of Carey, Vidyavagish and Roy fabricate a spurious religious work known as the "Maha Nirvana Tantra" (or "Book of the Great Liberation") and palm it off as an ancient religious text to "the One True God" actually the Holy Spirit of Christianity masquerading as Brahma. (The explanation later given by Ram Mohan Roy to his family concerning his whereabouts during this period is that he went to "Tibet" then as far away as "Timbuktoo"). For the next 2 decades this amazing document is regularly and conveniently added to. Its "judicious" translations are used in the law courts of the English Settlement in Bengal as Hindu Law for adjudicating upon property disputes of the zamindari. However a few British Magistrates and Collectors begin to suspect its "convenient" forgeries and its usage (as well as the reliance on Pundits as sources of Hindu Law) is quickly deprecated. Hariharananda has a brief falling out with Carey and separates from the group to go about his mendicancy but maintains lifelong personal and familial ties to Ram Mohan Roy. (The Maha Nirvana Tantra's significance for Brahmoism lies in the wealth that accumulates to Rammohun Roy and Dwarkanath Tagore by its "judicious" application, and not due to any religious wisdom within although it does contain an entire chapter devoted to "the One True God" and his worship).
In 1797, Rammohun reached Calcutta to become a "banian" (ie.
moneylender) mainly to impoverished Englishmen of the Company living beyond their means. Rammohun also continues his vocation as Pundit in the English courts and starts to make a living for himself. He begins learning the rudiments of Greek and Latin.
In 1799, Carey is joined by missionary Joshua Marshman and the printer William Ward at the Danish settlement of Serampore, after the news of his great triumphs in India reach back home.
From 1803 till 1815, Rammohun served the English Company's "Writing Service" commencing as private clerk "munshi" to Thomas Woodforde, Registrar of the Appellate Court at Murshidabad (whose distant nephew - also a Magistrate - later made a rich living off the spurious Maha Nirvana Tantra under the pseudonym Arthur Avalon). Roy resigned from Woodforde's service shortly due to allegations of corruption. Later he secured employment with John Digby a Company collector and Rammohun spent many years at Rangpur and elsewhere with Digby, where he renewed his contacts with Hariharananda. William Carey by this time is well settled at Serampore and the old trio renew their profitable association. William Carey is also aligned now with the English Company, then headquartered at Fort William, and his religious and political ambitions were increasingly intertwined. At the turn of the 19th century the Muslims, although considerably vanquished after the battles of Plassey and Buxar, still posed a formidable political threat to the Company. Rammohun was now chosen by Carey to be the agitator among them. He thus embarked on a remarkable new career described by the contemporary biographer as,
- "Rammohun's remaining life is a melange of his denunciation of various religious beliefs, if now Islam, then Hinduism and finally Christianity in his career as political agent for diverse vested interests.
Under Carey's secret tutelage in the next 2 decades, Rammohun launched his spirited attack against the bastions of Hinduism of Bengal, namely his own Kulin Brahmin priestly clan (then in control of the many temples of Bengal) and their priestly excesses. The social and theological issues
Carey chose for Rammohun were calculated to weaken the hold of the
dominant Kulin class (especially their younger disinherited sons forced into service who constituted the mobile gentry or "bhadralok" of Bengal) from the Mughal zamindari system and align them to their new overlords of Company. The Kulin excesses targeted include - sati (the concremation of widows), polygamy, idolatory, child marriage, dowry. All causes equally dear to Carey's ideals.
In the final analysis of Rammohun's life in this extraordinary period, we find that Rammohun's religious reform is but a tool to implement his powerful social reform agenda which lays the foundation for modern India.
Here is what Roy's contemporary biographer records for this period,
- "In 1805 Rammohun published Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin (A Gift to Monotheists) - an essay written in Persian with an introduction in Arabic in which he rationalised unity of God. Although a critique of the deception and universal falsehood prevalent in all organised religions, it was a paen to "rational ego" and Rammohun's own hitherto unrecognised divine gift of intellectual power and acquired knowledge. Being published in Persian, it particularly antagonised sections of the Muslim community and for the next decade Rammohun travelled to serve with John Digby of the East India Company as munshi and then as Diwan. His English and knowledge of England's Baptist Christianity increased tremendously. He also cultivated friendship in a Jain community to better understand their approach to Hinduism - rejecting priesthood (which for long in Bengal demanded bloody ritual sacrifices) and God itself,
- In 1815 after amassing large wealth, enough to leave the Company, Rammohun resettled in Calcutta and started an Atmiya Sabha - as a philosophical discussion circle to debate monotheistic Hindu Vedantism and like subjects. Rammohun's mother, however, had not forgiven him and ironically from 1817 a series of lawsuits were filed accusing Rammohun of apostasy with the object of severing him from the family zamindari. Rammohun countered denouncing his family's practice of sati where widows were burned on their husband's pyres so that they laid no claim to property via the British courts. 1817 was also the year when Rammohun was alienated from Hindu zamindars in an incident concerning the Hindu (later Presidency) College involving David Hare. Hindu public outrage in 1819 also followed Rammohun's triumph in a public debate over idolatry with Subramanya Shastri, a Tamil Brahmin. The victory, however, also exposed chinks in Rammohun's command over Brahmanical scripture and Vedanta whose study he had somewhat neglected. The trusted younger brother of Hariharanda, a Brahmin of great intellect Ram Chunder Vidyabagish was brought in to repair the breech and would be increasingly identified as Rammohun's alter-ego in matters theological for the rest of Rammohun's life especially in matters of Bengali concern and language. By now it was suspected (but never established) that Carey and Marshman were behind Rammohun's English works, a charge repeatedly made by the Hindu zamindars. From time to time Dwarkanath Tagore a young Hindu Zamindar had been attending Sabha meetings and he privately persuaded Rammohun (financially reduced by lawsuits and in constant danger from Hindu assassins) to disband the Atmiya Sabha in 1819 and instead be political agent for him."
- From 1819, Rammohun's battery now increasingly turns against Carey and the Serampore missionaries. With Dwarkanath's munificence he launches a series of attacks against Baptist "Trinitarian" Christianity and is now considerably assisted in his theological debates by the Unitarian faction of Christianity."
Middle "Brahmo" period (1820 - 1830)
This was Rammohun's most controversial period. Sivanath Sastri
commenting on his published works alone writes:-
"The period between 1820 and 1830 was also eventful from a literary point of view, as will be manifest from the following list of his publications during that period
- * Second Appeal to the Christian Public, Brahmanical Magazine^ Parts I, II and III, with Bengali translation and a new Bengali newspaper called Sambad Kaumudi in 1821;
- * A Persian paper called Mirat-ul-Akbar contained a tract entitled Brief Remarks on Ancient Female Rights and a book in Bengali called Answers to Four Questions in 1822;
- * Third and final appeal to the Christian public, a memorial to the King of England on the subject of the liberty of the press, Ramdoss papers relating to Christian controversy, Brahmanical Magazine, No. IV, letter to Lord Arnherst on the subject of English education, a tract called "Humble Suggestions" and a book in Bengali called "Pathyapradan or Medicine for the Sick," all in 1823 ;
- * A letter to Rev. H. Ware on the " Prospects of Christianity in India" and an "Appeal for famine-smitten natives in Southern India " in 1824 ;
- * A tract on the different modes of worship, in 1825 ;
- * A Bengali tract on the qualifications of a God loving householder, a tract in Bengali on a controversy with a Kayastha, and a Grammar of the Bengali language in English, in 1826;
- * A Sanskrit tract on " Divine worship by Gayatri " with an English translation of the same, the edition of a Sanskrit treatise against caste, and the previously noticed tract called " Answer of a Hindu to the question &c.," in 1827 ;
- * A form of Divine worship and a collection of hymns composed by him and his friends, in 1828 ;
- * "Religious Instructions founded on Sacred Authorities" in English and Sanskrit, a Bengali tract called "Anusthan," and a petition against Suttee, in 1829 ;
- * A Bengali tract, a grammar of the Bengali language in Bengali, the Trust Deed of the Brahmo Samaj, an address to Lord William Bentinck, congratulating him for the abolition of Suttee, an abstract 'in English of the arguments regarding the burning of widows, and a tract in English on the disposal of ancestral property by Hindus, in 1830.
It is indeed a matter for wonder how, in the midst of so much active work and such furious contests, Ram Mohan Roy could make time to write such masterly treatises on such a variety of subjects !
The struggle against Sati
Ram Mohan Roy is best known abroad for his agitation against sati
(the practice of burning a widow alive on her husband's pyre). Seeing his brother's widow cruelly forced to commit sati in 1812, and unable to stop it then, Roy set his mind to abolish the practice.
- "Suffice it to say that as many as 309 widows were burnt alive with their husbands within the jurisdiction of Calcutta in the year 1828, the year in which the Brahma Sabha was established. It was but natural that the misery and degradation of womanhood should have strongly appealed to the sympathetic heart of Ram Mohan Roy. His earnest pleadings on their behalf form an important feature of his writings. The women of India have found no greater defender of their rights than the founder of Brahmoism. He defended the legal rights of females, advocated their right to education and enlightenment, and, above all, devoted all the energies of his noble soul to save them from a cruel death.
Life in England (1831- 1833)
In 1831 Ram Mohan Roy travelled to the United Kingdom
as an ambassador of the Mughal Empire
to ensure that the Lord Bentick's regulation banning the practice of Sati was not overturned. He also visited France
He died at Stapleton then a village to the north east of Bristol (now a suburb) on the 27th September 1833 of meningitis and is buried in Arnos Vale Cemetery in southern Bristol. A street 'Raja Rammohan Way' has recently been named in memory of him in Stapleton.
Religious Reform of Rammohun
- He believed in one Supreme Being - "Author and Preserver of Existence".
- He denounced idolatry and vowed to erase it from India.
- He denounced rituals, which he deemed meaningless and giving rise to superstitions.
Social Reforms of Rammohun
- Crusaded against social evils like sati, polygamy and child marriage etc.
- Demanded property inheritance rights for women.
- In 1828, he set up the Brahma Sabha a movement of reformist Bengali Brahmins to fight against social evils.
- Roy believed education to be an implement for social reform.
- In 1817, in collaboration with David Hare, he set up the Hindu College at Calcutta.
- In 1830, he helped Alexander Duff in establishing the General Assembly's Institution, by providing him the venue vacated by Brahma Sabha and getting the first batch of students.
- He supported induction of western learning into Indian education.
- He also set up the Vedanta College, offering courses as a synthesis of Western and Indian learning.
- Roy published journals in English, Hindi, Persian and Bengali.
- His most popular journal was the Samvad Kaumudi. It covered topics like freedom of press, induction of Indians into high ranks of service, and separation of the executive and judiciary.
- When the English Company muzzled the press, Rammohun composed 2 memorials against this in 1829 and 1830 respectively.
"To great natural talents, he united through mastery of many languages and distinguished himself as one of the greatest scholars of his day. His unwearied labour to promote the social, moral and physical condition of the people of India, his earnest endeavours to suppress idolatry and the rite of sati and his constant zealous advocacy of whatever tended to advance the glory of God and the welfare of man live in the grateful remembrance of his countrymen."