We share this article on the eve of Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s birth anniversary with a hope that his ideas and ideals will lead us to the right path of Vedantism.
By Somashis Gupta
The brief walk from the main gate of Presidency University to the library was interrupted when I heard a group of students. One of them said “…and I believe only proper education will help us fight this dogmatism and radicalism practiced in the name of religion.”
I continued my walk with a thought that perhaps similar ideologies, led to the birth of Bengal renaissance almost 200 years back. What an irony, I was walking down the same institution which once was the centre of the movement, started by the man who pioneered the Bengal Renaissance.
A few months have passed since that day. In this article I share with you the story of the same man who was the father of the Bengal Renaissance and often considered as the first modern Indian both by his critics and admirers. But before that, little bit of history.
When you read the Vedas and Upanishads you will find numerous texts which indicates, women enjoyed a high place in the Vedic society. In many aspects the present-day Indian women would have to wait a long time to regain what the Vedic women enjoyed. The Vedic times were free from many of the social evils that disparaged the Indian society in later years.
Somewhere in time, the uniformity in social structure was destroyed leading to social evils like dowry, child marriage, caste discrimination and the worst of them all Sati. These evils churned in the society making it hostile and abashed the bygone era.
Later in history, leaders like Chaitanya, Guru Nanak, Kabir, Srimanta Shankardev of the Bhakti movement and Sheik Nizamuddin Ullah, Mullah Mohammad Mahdi of the Sufi movement, brought some respite to such evils, but failed eradicated it completely. During the British Raj there are at least 8134 instances of Sati is recorded.
Now let’s come to the year 1772. On the 22nd of May of that year, a baby boy was born in the district of Hooghly at Radhanagar. This boy was named Rammohan. His parents Ramakanta Roy and Tarini Devi both were conformists. But in spite of the orthodox environment Rammohan grew up studying great scholars which developed him as a free thinker. He was eloquent in Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit & Bengali which helped him to gain knowledge on various ancient texts.
With knowledge comes rationalism. Same happened with Rammohan, and this often resulted in debates especially with his father. Finally the debates resulted in him being driven away from his home by his father. Rammohan, the way he was, took this as an opportunity and went all the way to Tibet to study Buddhism. Here too his free thinking made him protest against the Lama’s worshiping of idolatry which resulted in the wrath of the teacher and his disciples.
The death of his father in 1803 brought him back to Murshidabad. In 1805 he published “Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin” or “A Gift to Monotheism” a Persian treatise with an Arabic preface. However this attracted great deal of resentment by the orthodox Muslims. Over the period of next two decades Rammohan went on publishing various books into the domain of Sanskrit literature.
Rammohun was struck by the purity of the monotheistic doctrines of the Upanishads which were in sharp contrast with the prevailing corruptions of Hindu idolatry. He decided to publish the Upansihads with his own preface and translations. These books produced an intense and wide spread agitation in the Indian society.
He published the Vedanta (1815), Ishopanishad (1816), Kathopanishad (1817), Moonduk Upanishad (1819), The Precepts of Jesus – Guide to Peace and Happiness (1820), Sambad Kaumudi – a Bengali newspaper (1821), Mirat-ul-Akbar – Persian journal (1822), Bengali Grammar (1826), Brahmapasona (1828), Brahmasangeet (1829) and The Universal Religion (1829).
These publications showed his profound knowledge which he acquired over a period of time. He used to discuss religion with members of Hindu, Muslim and Jain community during his tenure as the Dewan of Rangpur. These discussions gave him an insight to the true essence of religion.
He was already an epitome of knowledge in ancient Vedantic literature. He continued his quest of knowledge by studying Tantric works with the aid of Hariharananda Tirthaswami. He also mastered the Kalpa Sutra and other Jain texts. He took up English with private study and started taking interest in European politics.
Rammohan shifted to Calcutta in the year 1814. The next year he formed the Atmiya Sabha which was an association for the dissemination of the religious truth and the promotion of free discussions of theological subjects. Soon the Sabha became popular among the elites of Bengal like Prince Dwarkanath Tagore of Jorasanko, Prasanna Kumar Tagore of Pathuriaghata, etc. The Sabha propagated Rammohan’s doctrines. Regular recitation of expounding Hindu scriptures, were also done during the sessions.
In the year 1819, at a well attended sabha meeting, Subramanya Sastri, a prominent Madras (now Chennai) Brahmin challenged him in a debate. The debate was on the subject of idol worship. Leading citizens of Calcutta including Raja Radhakanta Deb were present in this debate. Rammohan vanquished Shastry with his immense knowledge of Vedas.
Rammohan’s personality was such that he practiced what he preached. He discontinued financial support to his family’s religious practices. This led to a series of lawsuits, 1817-19, filed by his nephew, Govindaprasad Roy, and his widowed sister-in-law, Durga Devi, who sought to confiscate Rammohun’s property on the grounds of apostasy. His mother was said to be the driving force behind these ultimately unsuccessful proceedings.
Mr. William Adam, a young Baptist missionary who had come over from England, mentioned openly in 1821 that he was converted into Unitarian doctrines through the influence of Rammohun Roy. Rammohun wrote in the Brahminical magazine where he assailed the Trinitariansim of Christianity and tried to prove that it was no better than the Hindu polytheism. This gave rise to great scandal amongst the orthodox Christian community.
Rammohan silenced his critics by saying, “Because I feel already weary of the doctrine of Man God or God Man frequently inculcated by the Brahmins in pursuance of their corrupt traditions and the same doctrine of Man God though preached by another body of priests cannot effectually tend to excite my anxiety to listen to it. Because Unitarians believe, profess, inculcate the doctrine of divine unity, a doctrine which I find firmly maintained both by Christian scriptures and by our most ancient writings commonly called the Vedas.”
By this time Rammohan was successful to gain support form a large section of educated Bengalis. He formed the Brahma Samaj on 20th August 1828. Meetings of the Samaj were held every Saturday. This new theistic service was called Brahma Sabha or “One God Society.” This attracted the masses and had a large number of sympathizers.
Besides all these his greatest contribution to the society, was the abolition of Sati. The disapproval to Sati probably started much earlier. But the burning of his sister-in-law after his brother’s death in 1812 added fuel to the fire. Deeply disturbed by her death Rammohan started his mission to abolish this heinous crime. He believed that no human should ever be pressured to kill themselves for any reason.
Rammohan visited Calcutta’s cremation grounds to persuade widows not to kill themselves. He prepared a petition to the British government against sati, and wrote A Conference between an Advocate for, and an Opponent of the Practice of Burning Widows Alive, 1818 (published in Bengali and English). He based his reasoning on Hindu scriptures, tradition, and practical morality.
In the second conference, in 1820, his arguments were based upon women’s rights. He said women were considered lesser creatures and unworthy of being trusted to survive their husbands, not due to their nature, but to their inferior upbringing and education. In everyday experience, he contended, they lived harsher lives and, on the whole, behaved better than men. “What I lament,” reprimanded Roy, “is, that seeing the women thus dependent and exposed to every misery, you feel for them no compassion, that might exempt them from being tied down and burnt to death.”
This tireless agitation against this evil practice finally resulted in ‘The Abolition of Sati Act’ on 4th December 1829’ declared by Lord William Bentinck. The orthodox Hindus under Raja Radhakanta Deb formed a rival association called Dharma Sabha to ridicule and protest against Rammohun’s actions. They used to call him ‘Kala Pahar’. But Rammohan continued his reforms and worked against caste system and child marriage.
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in his book The India Struggle called Rammohun Roy “the apostle of a religious revival” in India writes “…He urged a return to the original principles of Vedantism and for a total rejection of all the religions and social impurities that had crept into Hinduism in later times. He also advocated an all-round regeneration of the social and national life and the acceptance of all that is useful and beneficial in the modern life of Europe. Raja Rammohun Roy therefore stands out against the dawn of the new awakening in India as the prophet of the new age.”
In his inaugural address read at the Sri Ramkrishna Centenary Parliament of Religion and published in the Modern Review in April 1937, Dr Brajendranath Seal said:
“Rammohun Roy, the precursor and in a very real sense the father of Modern India, sought the Universal Religion, the common basis of the Hindu, Moslem, Christian and other faiths. He found that each of the national religions was based on this common faith with a certain distinctive historical and cultural embodiment.”
Today on the eve of Raja Rammohan Roy’s birth anniversary I share this article with you as we face yet another challenge globally in the form of Sectarianism, bigotry, and the horrible descendant, fanaticism in our society across all religions. ‘May knowledge help us to overcome such great social evils, which even till the present day divides our society.’
“Education consists mainly of what we have unlearned”
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A devoted foodie with keen interest in wild life, music, cinema and travel Somashis has evolved over time . Being an enthusiastic reader he has recently started making occasional contribution to write-ups.