Biography of Raja Ram Mohan Roy: A Symbol of Indian Renaissance
Raja Ram Mohan Roy is the first great social and religious reformer of the nineteenth century. He symbolized, as it were, the renascent spirit of new India.
Development of Thought:
Raja Ram Mohan Roy had to fight hard against the social and religious decadence and ignorance and superstition in India. He struggled hard to modernize India both intellectually and spiritually.
He gave a modern meaning and purpose to the ancient and medieval elements of Indian polity; he brought about a synthesis of the East and the West which led to a cosmopolitan humanist culture.
He was both oriental and occidental in his outlook. He is called the first oriental occidentals in his modern India. He tried to combine the best in Indian culture with the best in Western culture. He was against idol worship and the ritualism into which Hinduism had degenerated.
He sought to put his ideas of reforming Hinduism into practice through first the Atmiya Sabha and later the Brahmo Samaj. He advocated a synthesis of all religions. His work as a social reformer especially in the abolition of Sati and the upliftment of women is remarkable.
He was also the first great Indian reformer to advocate a plan for breaking own the barriers of the caste system by introducing inter caste marriage. While he welcomed western education and scientific outlook, he was no less a patriot. He was an ardent advocate of liberty and freedom of the press.
Indeed, very aptly has Miss Collets written, “What-ever future the destinies may’ have in store for India, that future will be largely shaped by the life and work of Ram Mohan Roy.”
Raja Ram Mohan Roy is the first thinker of modern India who urged social and religious reforms on rational principles. He stands in history as the living bridge between India’s past and her bright future his Pace as the first builder of a new and renascent India is indisputable.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy headed the intellectual movement generally known as the Indian Renaissance or the re-establishment of the glory of ancient Indian culture. When Ram Mohan Roy came on the stage of Indian history ancient Indian values had slowly given place to formalism in religious and social life of the people.
Religion had assumed the shape of either extreme asceticism or excessive ritualism with no urge to life or inspiration in it and no positive criterion of Truth.
It was “perhaps the darkest age in the modern Indian history, an age in which an old society and polity had crumbled and no new one had yet been built in its place.” India then needed religion with a wholesome basis and practicability.
Born in an orthodox Brahmin family of Bengal in 1772, Ram Mohan Roy was deeply influenced by the religious life of his parents during the early stage of his life. His education in Bengali, Sanskrit, Persian and Muslim religious beliefs equipped him with first-hand knowledge of Hinduism and Islam.
At Patna he studied Western philosophy and literature. As a result of his wide study of the Hindu scriptures, Ram Mohan understood the spirit of Hindu religion and philosophy.
When he was hardly 15, he wrote a pamphlet in Bengali in which he denounced idol worship. The result was that he was turned out from his family and he had to live in exile. From 1805 to 1814 he was in the service of the East India Company after which he settled in Calcutta.
From 1815 to 1833 he restlessly fought against the inhuman practices and the unification of the existing religions of the world, for peace and happiness of the entire human race.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy was essentially a democrat and a humanist. In his religion philosophical and social outlook, he was deeply influenced by the monotheism and anti-idolatry of Islam, Deism of Sufism, the ethical teachings of Christianity, and the liberal and rational doctrines of the West.
He tried to assimilate the highest elements of Islam, Christianity and modern rationalism or humanism, and transform them into a single creed which found support in the ancient Upanishad philosophy. It was fortunate that the task of India’s religious and social regeneration fell upon a man who knew the past and recognized the present.
He looked upon society as an organic whole, led the movement of renaissance in all the fields of life-social, religious, economic and literary.
As an undisputed leader of the new movement, Ram Mohan Roy boldly advocated the use of reason in religious and social practices against blind loyalty to traditions. He may be considered as the first leader of modern India who initiated new enlightenment and urge towards the future, free from the chains of outworn customs and superstitions. Apart from India’s socio-religious reforms, the Raja was equally concerned with the religious unification of mankind. He was the first cosmopolitan religious thinker.
He was deeply influenced by the cultural values as preserved in the scriptures of the three main religions, viz, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. He felt that unless these values were revived and Hindu society was purged of all the dirt and filth spread in the name of customs and traditions, the Hindus as a race would be destroyed.
Love of all men irrespective of castes and creeds, equality of all regardless of sex were the basic doctrines of Hinduism. He felt that revival of these values could not only bring a new life among the Hindus but could also guide the human race on the path of peace and universal brotherhood.
That is why Ram Mohan Roy translated various sacred texts and reinterpreted them to defend his stand on religious and social problems. He wanted to evolve a synthetic social philosophy on the basis of Vedanta and Islamic monotheism.
He is sometimes branded as pro-Islam, but the truth is that he attached the greatest importance to the revival of ancient Hindu values through spreading Sanskrit education. The only point is that he was not dogmatic or sectarian and wanted to borrow good things from all religions.
His criticism of the existing religions practices, social customs and political-and economic system was based on rational principles.
His attack on orthodox Hindu customs was not due to any narrow sectarian bias but guided by his desire to reform Hinduism of all the rubbish of superstition and priest craft created during the centuries of ignorance. He declared that in its purity Hinduism could not be different from other religions.
Against polytheism he said that there was one God of all religions and humanity. In his conception of religion the Raja was motivated by national and socio-ethical considerations. He wanted everyone to assess the rational character of religious doctrines and rejected those which contrast the rational test.
Ram Mohan Roy believed that religion must inculcate knowledge, love of God and sympathy for his own fellow men; it must inculcate human feelings and soften the general attitude. He rejected polytheism on the basis of his own interpretation of the Hindu scriptures.
His strongest faith in monotheism was motivated by the aim to bring mankind together for a better life. Irrational elements, superstitions and polytheism were the root of religious bigotry and differences.
According to him, “the future unity of human race in religion is not to be realized by all mankind following the creed of this or that sect, but by each nation or race giving up all such erroneous and superstitious beliefs and pernicious customs and lifeless rituals as clash with pure theism.”
Raja Ram Mohan Roy had a broad vision and instead of confining himself to the religious problems of India felt the need for synthesis of various religions and civilizations to overcome the state of confusion and chaos prevailing all over the world.
He himself imbibed the spirit of various religions and tried to bring a compromise between materialism of the West and transcendentalism of the East. He fought against rigidity and formalism because he wanted to regulate life on the principles of humanity.
In his a present to the believer in one God, he advised people not to believe in the dogmas preached by religious leaders, but believe in one God who created the world.
It was this ideal which led him to organize ‘Atmiya Sabha’ in 1815 for the free discussion on religious matters. Replying to his wife on the question of differences in religion he once said that religions differ in colour and not in the colour of their milk.
Ram Mohan Roy was against idol worship. According to him idolatry in Hinduism was the main cause of useless and costly ceremonies. It was the source of prejudice and superstition and led often to the total destruction of moral principles and gave rise to evil social customs.
He complained that by abandoning the pure worship of spirit and in adopting idol worship as well as rites connected with it the Hindu community suffered general moral degradation, and this ultimately deprived them of all human feelings and oneness of the spirit.
Ram Mohan Roy believed that superstitions in the matters of dress, diet and worship subjected the Hindu community to entire separatism from the rest of the world. On the basis of his personal studies of the Hindu scriptures he said that Hinduism was different from what was interpreted by the priests.
According to him the Upanishads sought to liberate the soul from the chains of superstitions. In his desire to purify Hinduism he wanted to remove the barriers between it and other religions. He seriously considered a universal religion which would one day be accepted by the whole of mankind.
In order to realise his ideal Raja Ram Mohan laid the foundation of Brahmo Samaj on August 20, 1828. He wanted the Samaj to be a movement and an instrument for ideological revaluation and religious reforms. Brahmo Samaj was meant to be a society of the worshippers of one God of all religions and all humanity.
Its central conception is that of Formless God, the Eternal, Unsearchable and Immutable Being who is the author and preserver of the Universe. For His worship the first temple of the Samaj was opened in 1830.
It may be mentioned that the Eternal and Supreme Being was not to be worshipped under any designation or title used by any particular sect, and no name was to be given to it.
No image was to be placed in the temple and no sacrifice offered. Nothing sacred to any religion was to be reviled or contemptuously spoken of therein. The temple was open to all men without any distinction of caste or creed, colour or religion, to Hindus of all castes and denominations, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Parsees, Buddhists, etc.
This shows that Ram Mohan Roy wanted the Brahmo Samaj to be a tolerant body, devoted to the promotion of piety, virtue and benevolence, and the strengthening of the bonds of union between men of all religious persuasions and creeds. Its governing idea was to strengthen the social solidarity of the current religions of the day.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy was essentially and fundamentally a social and religious reformer. Rammohan Roy was moved by the considerations of humanity in solving social problems. He condemned the division of Hindu society into castes and sub castes.
Castes divided the Hindus in such a way that the community as a whole became weak. In a letter written on January 18, 1828, he wrote, “the distinction of castes, introducing innumerable divisions and subdivisions among them has entirely deprived them of patriotic feeling, and the multitudes of religious rites and ceremonies and the laws of purification have totally disqualified them from undertaking any difficult enterprise.”
He was the first great Indian reformer to advocate a plan for breaking down the barriers of the caste system by introducing inter-caste marriages and he cited authorities from the Hindus scriptures in support of his view. He justified widow remarriage, interacts marriage and inter-racial marriages on the basis of the Satya tradition.
The second great reform with which the name of Ram Mohan Roy will always remain associated is the abolition of the cruel and barbarous practice of Sati which means the burning of a widow on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband.
This inhuman custom had prevailed in the country for many centuries; and the few fitful attempts made to abolish it before the advent of the British regime had ended in failure.
In 1811, his brother Jag Mohan Roy died and the widow was forcibly burnt alive. This shocked Ram Mohan and he decided not to rest till the custom was totally banned. He said, “To bind down a woman for her destruction, holding out to her the inducement of heavenly rewards, is a most sinful act.”
In his view, ‘Female murder, murder of a Brahmin, patricide, and similar heinous crimes, cannot be reckoned amongst pious acts by alleging the custom of a country in their behalf; by such customs rather the country in which they exist is itself condemned”.
In spite of an organised opposition from the Dharma Sabha, Raja Ram Mohan came of it successful in getting the law passed in 1829 against the Sati practice.
He was thankful to God and the British Government “whose protecting arm has rescued our weaker sex from cruel murder, under the cloak of religion, and our character, as a people from contempt and pity with which it has been regarded, on account of this custom, all civil used nations on the surface of the globe”.
Ram Mohan Roy always fought single handed against the continuation of evil practices which subjected women to miseries, degradation and inferiority. He refuted the argument that women were inferior to men and morally weak. He argued, “as to their inferiority in point of understanding, when did you ever afford them a fair opportunity of exhibiting their natural capacity?”
He was of the opinion that owing to the general inferiority of women in bodily strength and energy they were denied even those rights which they possessed by nature. Women were kept ignorant by men because the latter wanted to monopolies the whole of social life.
A part from lack of education another cause of women’s miserable condition was polygamy among the rich people. The victims of polygamy after the death of their husbands had only three alternatives, namely to burn themselves, or to lead an immoral life, or to suffer the misery and insults at the home of the deceased husband.
Usually woman opted for the first course. Ram Mohan Roy condemned polygamy on the basis of the Sastras. As a champion of the cause of Indian women he published. The Modern Encroachment on the Ancient Rights of Females according to the Hindu Law of Inheritance, in 1833.
He always wanted equality between men and women in matters of education, social life and in property rights. As a humanist he thought that the human race could not advance if either sex remained in a degraded condition.
Ram Mohan Roy always emphasized that all human problems must be solved in humane ways. The social problems in India were only due to inhuman practices. He condemned religious sanctions attached with all social evils.
He was the first Indian to view the integrating elements of the existing social system and tried to encourage those elements by means of spiritual democracy as embodied in the Brahmo Samaj.
He waited to infuse Christian idealism in Hindu life and society for reforming the life of Hindus on basis of equality, service and truth. Among the means he suggested for solving various social problems were inter-caste marriages, widow remarriages and education for all, in the interest of a better humanity.
As it has been pointed out earlier Ram Mohan Roy was always proud of being an Indian and a Hindu but he was neither a narrow nationalist nor a dogmatic Hindu. He was very frank in his appreciation of Europeans.
He thought that India could learn much from the West, especially in the field of science, means of cultivation, their rational outlook, consciousness political, economic and social a sense of cooperation and fellow-feeling.
He condemned intellectual aloofness and aimed at acquiring the best from the other nationalities for creating in India the basis of international brotherhood.
He was the first great Indian who transcended all geographical barriers, who did not recognize any difference between the East and the West and fulfilled in his life the great ideal of universal brotherhood.
In his speeches in England Ram Mohan Roy emphasized the need for uniting the entire human race on the basis of national freedom and cultural unity of all the nations of the world.
He was among the few contemporary Indian thinkers who with wide outlook and erudition combined the knowledge of the East and West which be effectively applied against ignorance and superstition.
Few in the world after him had the advantage of combining Eastern and Western acumen against the background of ancient and modern thought, and very few used their knowledge so sincerely for the service of God and man.
In 1823, the Raja protested against the establishment of Sanskrit College by the British Government in India and demanded instead that the college might be utilized for imparting a liberal and enlightened system of instruction through the medium of English.
Raja Ram Mohan’s desire to combine the best of both East and West led him to advocate the introduction of the Western system of education for Indian students. For achieving this aim he founded an Anglo-Indian High School in 1922.
He went to the extent of requesting the British Government for deputing some men to impart education in English and Science to Indians so that they keep pace with modern knowledge as well as to defeat the false religion of Hindus, ultimately for comfort and happiness of all classes and sects. For whatever direct or indirect benefits of Western education, we are indebted to Raja Ram Mohan Roy.
Like other contemporary Indian leaders who followed him, Ram Mohan pleaded for the scientific basis of education. But his deep study of ancient Hindu culture despite his love for scientific education did not make him appropriate the materialism of the West.
He always exhorted that science must be used as an instrument for increasing human happiness and feeling of oneness among the people of the world.
Though nor a politician like Dadabhaii Nauroji, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Surendranath Banerjee who were to shine in the Indian firmament after him, Raja Ram Mohan Roy was a keen student of politics and thoroughly understood the politics of Europe, and particularly of England.
His contribution to the political awakening of India is immense; he is known as the Prophet of New India. Babu Surendranath Banerjee described him as the ‘Father of the Constitutional Agitation in India.’
Ram Mohan Roy broke fresh ground when he and five of his friends submitted a memorandum to the Supreme Court at Calcutta on the 31st of March, 1823, saying that the Ordinance issued by the acting Governor General, Mr. Adams, which placed serious restrictions on the freedom of the press be not accepted.
That was the first stand made by the people of India in defense of their civil rights. When this memorandum was rejected by the Supreme Court, Ram Mohan Roy presented a memorandum to the King in London which was also turned down by the Privy Council. Both the memorandums have been described as the Indian liberty.
In 1827 Ram Mohan Roy made a spirited protest against the illiberal, policy of the Government. The occasion was provided by the passing of the Jury Bill which came into operation in the beginning of 1827.
This measure sought to introduce religious distinctions in the administration of justice in the country by denying to Hindus and Muslims any seat in a jury even in a trial of fellow Hindus and Muslims. The nationalist aspirations of Ram Mohan Roy find adequate expression in his protest; he stands here as the prophet of a New India.
Among the political measures he advocated were the following: the substitution of English for Persian as the official language to be used in courts of law; the appointment of Indian assessors in civil suits; trial by jury; separation of the offices of the judge and revenue commissioner, and of the judge and the Magistrate; employment of Indians in the civil service of the Company on a larger scale; and consulting public opinion before the enactment of laws.
It max also be added that though himself a zamindars he was sympathetic towards the cause of the tenants; he demanded that the zamindars should not be allowed to increase the rent to be paid by the tenants. It should be evident from the above that Ram Mohan Roy anticipated some of the great political problems of a later date.
Coming to his political thought we may say that the notion of personal liberty stood at its very centre; Raja Ram Mohan Roy loved liberty in all its forms and especially the freedom of thought.
He combined in himself the finest thoughts of Eastern and Western culture. His study of Western thought and movements confirmed his belief in the value of liberty.
It was the idea of the indivisibility of freedom that led Ram Mohan Roy to take a keen interest in every political movement whose object was the advancement of popular freedom.
It also imparted to his teachings and writings a note of universalism which one finds in the prophets of New India like Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore and Sri Aurobindo.
A few words may be added about the views of Ram Mohan Roy on the scope of state activity. From the fact that he pleaded for state intervention in suppressing evil practices like Sati and held that it was the duty of the state to protect the tenants against the rapacity and greed of the landlords and also from the fact that he asked the Government to promote a liberal and enlighten Ned system of public instruction.
We can conclude that he was no believer in the theory of laissez faire. But neither was he a socialist. He believed in the right of the private property and held that it was the duty of the state to protect existing titles to property. He also believed in the necessity of a strong and prosperous middle class, and for this reason preferred the Zamindari to the Ryotwari system of land tenure.
In order to protect the cultivator against the oppression of the Zamindar he proposed that the right of the zamindar to increase the rent due from the riot should be abolished, and the benefits of permanent settlement should be extended to the riots.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy took interest in economic questions also. He wanted to stop the drain of wealth from India to England. He calculated that England took away from India nearly 110,000,000 between 1765 and 1820 in the form of dividends on the stock of the East India Company, profits from trade and commerce, and the sums earned and obtained by the servants of the Company in India.
With a view to stopping this great drain the Raja proposed the Europeans accumulating capital in India should be encouraged to make the country then home. In other words, he advocated European in India. In this he was supported by Dwarakanath Tagore.
His position was much misunderstood in this connection; he was accused of encouraging the entry of Europeans as tillers of the soil. This was far from his intention.
He wanted only such Europeans to come and make India their home as were in a position to bring about the industrialization of the country and help elevating the character of the people by their learning and manners. His motive was highly patriotic.
If he regarded British rule in India as a blessing and stood for permanent connection between India and England, it was again because he thought such a relationship necessary for the uplift of his country men.
He however envisaged a time when India might become strong and civilized enough to become independent, but desired that the separation from England should be peaceful.
In the end, we may state that Raja Ram Mohan Roy was a pioneer in the field of journalism also. He started the Bengali journal Sambad kumudi in F821 to rouse political consciousness among the Bengalis, and become a joint proprietor of an English paper, Bengal Herald, in 1829.
It was however soon discontinued, and another paper, Bangadut was started in its place, has been stated in a previous context he was instrumental in the. Setting up of an English school and a college for imparting English education to Indian boys.
In the words of Rabindranath Tagore, Raja Rammolian Roy “was the only person in his time to realise completely the significance: of the modern age. He knew that the ideal of human civilization does not lie in isolation or independence, but in the brotherhood or inter-independence of individuals as well as nations.
His attempt was to establish in our people the full consciousness of their own cultural personality, to make them comprehend the reality of all that was unique in their civilization and simultaneously to approach other civilizations in the spirit of sympathetic cooperation.
He is famous as the first thinker of modern India who urged social and religious reforms on rational principles. His place as the first builder of a new and renascent India is beautifully described by Miss Sophia Colet in the: following words:
“Ram Mohan Roy stands in history as the living bridge over which India marches from her unmeasured past to her incalculable future.
He was the arch which spanned the gulf that yawned between ancient caste and modern, humanity, between superstition and science, between despotism and democracy, between immobile custom and a conservative progress, between polytheism and theism.
He was the mediator of his people harmonizing in his own person, often by means of his solitary sufferings, the conflicting tendencies of imperial tradition and an inevitable enlightenment”.