Raja Rammohun Roy almost single-handedly wrote the script of India as we know it today. That a new India would be a clear break from its past, shouldered upon the Vedic culture of the Formless and Unnameable God, was part of a greater design in his mind with which he fought both the idolatry of religions and the indolence of his countrymen.
THE year of the 75th Independence Day of India coincides with that of the 250th birth anniversary of Raja Rammohun Roy, known as the First Modern Man of India, who almost single-handedly wrote the script of India as we know it today. That a new India would be a clear break from its past, shouldered upon the Vedic culture of the Formless and Unnameable God, was part of a greater design in his mind with which he fought both the idolatry of religions and the indolence of his countrymen.
Unless we appreciate that Rammohun’s project was one of hope for the future and not a pining for the present, nor a nostalgia of the past, we may miss the spirit of the Indian Constitution as that of the nation and the Republic resting on an expectant optimism, rather than living through a rear-view mirror.
He used his intellectual might to abolish Sati, which was the foundation upon which he mounted his image of a new India, as he also fought against child marriage, polygamy, child and animal sacrifice, and for inheritance property rights for women, remarriage of widows, rights of peasants, employment of natives in British services, western education, freedom of the press, freedom of international travel, import of capital and technology in farming, the development of Bengali prose and modern Bengali music, writing of textbooks, as well as, in England, the rights of industrial labour.
Roy was born on May 22, 1772 in Radhanagar, presently in the district of Hooghly, but which, during his times, belonged to Burdwan, the family having migrated from Murshidabad two generations before him. Parasuram Bandopadhyay, the sixth generation before Rammohun, was the Chief Treasurer of Bengal, from where the family obtained its title of Rayiroyan, or simply Roy.
Rammohun’s father, Ramakanta, was employed with Alivardi Khan, the Nawab of Bengal, and left Murshidabad on account of differences with his successor and grandson, Siraj Ud Dowlah, moving away and settling in Burdwan. The choice of place as relocation was not fortuitous since the locus of economic activity had shifted into Burdwan, Midnapore and Chittagong after 1765, which is when the East India Company obtained its diwani.
Irritated with the British officers and their mess up with the collection of revenues, the family nevertheless was conscious that the British presented great opportunities for those who knew how to work with them. Indeed, in the words of English writer and social critic Charles Dickens, the 18th century represented both the worst as well as the best of times. Rammohun’s family chose to opt for the best.
Rammohun’s version of the Formless Divine as the manifestation of impersonal forces of the Universe, somewhat helped to ease the tension between science and religion, reason and faith, and evidence and belief in the West.
Like the Renaissance in Europe, in India, too, the age was brought about by persons who were economically sound, financially effective, and politically free from the tyranny of the Nawabi regime and yet to fall under the iron structures of direct British Rule. Rammohun consolidated the energies of his age into a palpable vision for politics. Unless we appreciate that Rammohun’s project was one of hope for the future and not a pining for the present, nor a nostalgia of the past, we may miss the spirit of the Indian Constitution as that of the nation and the Republic resting on an expectant optimism, rather than living through a rear-view mirror.
We may never understand Rammohun unless we also acknowledge the everyday tyranny of the Muslim Rule, despite the inclusive and nearly secular Mughal Empire towards which Rammohun was both personally close and fiercely loyal, and yet understood that its institutions had no power to tackle the modern era brought about by a contact with the West. He writes of his initial annoyance with the British that converted into an admiration of their rational approach to administration, ability to document details, and remove the personal preferences from the realm of public dealings. His self-image seems to be that of Mughal emperor Akbar as he stunned the west by being a Brahmin dressed in Mussalman clothes, and his vision of interfaith harmony, the Atmiya Sabha which he founded, appears to be overwhelmingly based upon Akbar’s Din -i-Ilahi and Sulh-i Kul.
But his role in the liminality between two epochs resembles that of ancient Indian polymath Chanakya, who used the ruler Chandragupta Maurya to create an Empire out of his imagination. Rammohun was more strategic than inspired, a great planner and even a plotter, sometimes a performer and one who, standing deeply inside his times, could think of centuries beyond him. His depositions in the British Parliament in England may well be consolidated as his Arthashastra, strangely unchanged in spirit and even much of details as the present-day dispensation of the Indian Constitution.
Initial intellectual formation and writing
Rammohun is mistakenly called to be an influence of Western liberalism because there was not much of liberalism in the West even when he died in Bristol in 1833. He learnt English, some Hebrew, and developed a working knowledge of Latin only when he was in his 30s. As a child, he was educated in Persian and Bengali in the local school, and learnt Sanskrit through a private tutor at home. This was the usual routine of education for Bengalis aspiring for government jobs.
The unusual episode is, however, that, at his age of nine year, his father sent him to Patna to learn Arabic, which was almost a finishing school for aspirants of high bureaucracy. For many Brahmins who wished to be in the judiciary – a service typically reserved for Muslims – degrees in Koran could help in entry. When he was only 14 years old, Rammohun qualified as the Zabardast Maulavi, the highest dispenser of the hadiths.
The Patna seminary being a centre for high Arabic learning and Rammohun being as studious that he was, he must have read up the Arabic texts that gave him a sense of reason and practicality over belief and faith. He returned home a changed person who argued bitterly against the faith-based religion upheld and supported by idolatry, miracles, myths and make beliefs. Not finding many who could reason things out like him, Rammohun wrote out copious notes, which he published only after the death of his father in 1804, as ‘Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin’.
His father had discovered the notes, which read like those of a blasphemous atheist, and was beyond himself in anger. Fearful of corporal punishment, Rammohun fled home with a band of itinerant sanyasis to reach Tibet. In Tibet too, he fell into disagreements about Buddhism and when the llamas conspired to assassinate him, escaped back to Bengal. He spent much of his young adult days in Varanasi learning the Vedas and the Upanishads as well as Awadhi, in which he read the saint and poet Tulidas’s epic poem Ramayana in a single sitting. It was here that he mastered the dhrupad, which was later used to construct Bengali song compacts with notations and lyrics.
Contribution in the West
Rammohun’s views were at odds with his family, and with Hindus, Brahmans and even the folk dispensations. He fell out with the Sreerampore Baptists, summarized the Vedanta, and rewrote the Bible as the Precept of Jesus. It was Rammohun’s writings on religion that carried his fame to England and France, to Naples and Spain, and eventually to America, where American statesman, diplomat, lawyer, architect and philosopher Thomas Jefferson is often called as his twin in Biblical reinterpretations.
Rammohun understood nationalism not in terms of the racial group of the ruler and the ruled, but as a contract between the king and the subject. If the King facilitated the subject to grow economically, spiritually, politically and socially, one could support a regime; otherwise, he brought it upon himself to fight what would be oppression.
The West during such times was battling between science and religion, and Rammohun’s version of the Formless Divine as the manifestation of impersonal forces of the Universe, somewhat helped to ease the tension between science and religion, reason and faith, and evidence and belief. The fall out of the resolution of dualities helped the likes of English philosopher, jurist and social reformer Jeremy Bentham, and Welsh textile manufacturer, philanthropist and social reformer Robert Owen, extend their own politics of democratic inclusion in Britain.
Indeed, Rammohun’s intervention in the process of the Reform Bill of 1832 of the British Parliament was eagerly sought. British Baptist minister, missionary, abolitionist and academic William Adam, his close associate, migrated to the U.S.A. after Rammohun’s death, and waged a war against slavery using the principles of arguments presented in his writings against Sati.
Whether in the reading of politics of revolution and war in Europe, or the process of revenue collection and commerce in India, Rammohun understood nationalism not in terms of the racial group of the ruler and the ruled, but as a contract between the king and the subject. If the King facilitated the subject to grow economically, spiritually, politically and socially, one could support a regime; otherwise, he brought it upon himself to fight what would be oppression.
Rammohun’s economic and political ideas were developed by novelist, poet and journalist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in his essays, incidentally more voluminous than his novels; his religious and spiritual ideas by Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore; and his humanist and feminist dispensation by educator and social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar.