The central figure in this awakening was Ram Mohan Roy, who is rightly regarded as the first great leader of modern India. Ram Mohan Roy was moved by deep love for his people and country and worked hard all his life for their social, religious, intellectual and political regeneration.
He was pained by the stagnation and corruption of contemporary Indian society which was at that time dominated by caste and convention. Popular religion was full of superstitions and was exploited by ignorant and corrupt priests. The upper classes were selfish and often sacrificed social interest to their own narrow interests.
Ram Mohan Roy possessed great love and respect for the traditional philosophic systems of the East; but, at the same time, he believed that modern culture alone would help regenerate Indian society.
In particular, he wanted his countrymen to accept the rational and scientific approach and the principle of human dignity and social equality of all men and women. He also wanted the introduction of modern capitalism and industry in the country.
Ram Mohan Roy represented a synthesis of the thought of East and West. He was a scholar who knew over a dozen languages including Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, English, French, Latin, Greek and Hebrew.
As a young man he had studied Sanskrit literature and Hindu philosophy at Varanasi and the Quran and Persian and Arabic literature at Patna. He was also well-acquainted with Jainism and other religious movements and sects of India.
Later he made an intensive study of Western thought and culture. To study the Bible in the original he learnt Greek and Hebrew.
In 1809 he wrote in Persian his famous work Gift to Monotheists in which he put forward weighty arguments against belief in many gods and for the worship of a single God.
He settled in Calcutta in 1814 and soon attracted a band of young men with whose cooperation he started the Atmiya Sabha.
From now on he carried on a persistent struggle against the religious and social evils which were widely prevalent among the Hindus in Bengal.
In particular he vigorously opposed their worship of idols, the rigidity of caste, and the prevalence of meaningless religious rituals. He condemned the priestly class for encouraging these practices.
He held that all the principal ancient texts of the Hindus preached monotheism or worship of one God. He published the Bengali translation of the Vedas and of five of the principal Upanishads to prove his point. He also wrote a series of tracts and pamphlets in defense of monotheism.
While citing ancient authority for his philosophical views, Ram Mohan Roy relied ultimately on the power of human reason which was in his view the final touchstone of the truth of any doctrine, Eastern or Western.
He believed that the philosophy of Vedanta was based on this principle of reason. In any case, one should not hesitate to depart from holy books, scriptures and inherited traditions if human reason so dictates and if such traditions are proving harmful to the society.
But Ram Mohan Roy did not confine his application of the rational approach to Indian religions and traditions alone. In this he disappointed his many missionary friends who had hoped that his rational critique of Hinduism would lead him to embrace Christianity.
Ram Mohan Roy insisted on applying rationalism to Christianity too, particularly to the elements of blind faith in it. In 1820, he published his Precepts of Jesus in which he tried to separate the moral and philosophic message of the New Testament, which he praised, from its miracle stories.
He wanted the high moral message of Christ to be incorporated in Hinduism. This earned for him the hostility of the missionaries.
Thus, as far as Ram Mohan was concerned there was to be no blind reliance on India’s own past or blind aping of the West. On the other hand, he put forward the idea that new India, guided by reason, should acquire and treasure all that was best in the East and the West.
Thus he wanted India to learn from the West; but this learning was to be an intellectual and creative process through which Indian culture and thought were to be renovated; it was not to be an imposition of Western culture on India.
He, therefore, stood for the reform of Hinduism and opposed its supersession by Christianity. He vigorously defended Hindu religion and philosophy from the ignorant attacks of the missionaries.
At the same time, he adopted an extremely friendly attitude towards other religions. He believed that basically all religions preach a common message and that their followers are all brothers under the skin.
All his life Ram Mohan Roy paid heavily for his daring religious outlook. The orthodox condemned him for criticising idolatry and for his philosophic admiration of Christianity and Islam. They organised a social boycott against him in which even his mother joined. He was branded a heretic and an outcaste.
In 1828, he founded a new religious society, the Brahma Sabha, later known as the Brahmo Samaj, whose purpose was to purify Hinduism and to preach monotheism or belief in one God.
The new society was to be based on the twin pillars of reason, and the Vedas and Upanishads. It was also to incorporate the teachings of other religions. The Brahmo Samaj laid emphasis on human dignity, opposed idolatry, and criticised such social evils as the practice oisati.
Ram Mohan Roy was a great thinker. He was also a man of action. There was hardly any aspect of nation-building which he left untouched. In fact, just as he began the reform of Hindu religion from within, he also laid the foundations for the reform of Indian society.
The best example of his life-long crusade against social evils was the historic agitation he organised against the inhuman custom of women becoming sati. Beginning in 1818 he set out to rouse public opinion on the question.
On the one hand he showed by citing the authority of the oldest sacred books that the Hindu religion at its best was opposed to the practice; on the other, he appealed to the reason, humanity and compassion of the people.
He visited the burning ghats at Calcutta to try to persuade the relatives of widows to give up their plan of self-immolation. He organised groups of like- minded people to keep a strict check on such performances and to prevent any attempt to force the widows to become sati.
When the orthodox Hindus petitioned Parliament to withhold its approval of Bentinck’s action of banning the rite of sati, he organised a counter- petition of enlightened Hindus in favor of Bentinck’s action.
He was a stout champion of women’s rights. He condemned the subjugation of women and opposed the prevailing idea that women were inferior to men in intellect or in a moral sense.
He attacked polygamy and the degraded state to which widows were often reduced. To raise the status of women he demanded that they be given the right of inheritance and property.
Ram Mohan Roy was one of the earliest propagators of modern education which he looked upon as a major instrument for the spread of modern ideas in the country.
In 1817, David Hare, who had come out to India in 1800 as a watchmaker but who spent his entire life in the promotion of modern education in the country, founded the famous Hindu College.
Ram Mohan Roy gave most enthusiastic assistance to Hare in this and his other educational projects. In addition, he maintained at his own cost an English school in Calcutta from 1817 in which, among other subjects, mechanics and the philosophy of Voltaire were taught.
In 1825 he established a Vedanta College in which courses both in Indian learning and in Western social and physical sciences were offered.
Ram Mohan Roy was equally keen on making Bengali the vehicle of intellectual intercourse in Bengal. He compiled a Bengali grammar.
Through his translations, pamphlets and journals he helped evolve a modern and elegant prose style for that language.
Ram Mohan represented the first glimmerings of the rise of national consciousness in India. The vision of an independent and resurgent India guided his thoughts and actions.
He believed that by trying to weed out corrupt elements from Indian religions and society and by preaching the Vedantic message of worship of one God he was laying the foundations for the unity of Indian society which was divided into divergent groups.
In particular he opposed the rigidities of the caste system which, he declared, “has been source of want of unity among us”.
He believed that the caste system was doubly evil: it created inequality and it divided people and “deprived them of patriotic feeling”. Thus, according to him, one of the aims of religious reform was political uplift.
Ram Mohan Roy was a pioneer of Indian journalism. He brought out journals in Bengali, Persian, Hindi and English to spread scientific, literary and political knowledge among the people, to educate public opinion on topics of current interest, and to represent popular demands and grievances before the government.
He was also the initiator of public agitation on political questions in the country. He condemned the oppressive practices of the Bengal zamindars which had reduced the peasants to a miserable condition.
He demanded that the maximum rents paid by the actual cultivators of land should be permanently fixed so that they too would enjoy the benefits of the Permanent Settlement of 1793. He also protested against attempts to impose taxes on tax-free lands.
He demanded the abolition of the Company’s trading rights and the removal of heavy export duties on Indian goods. He also raised the demands for the Indianisation of the superior services, separation of the executive and the judiciary, trial by jury, and judicial equality between Indians and Europeans.
Ram Mohan was a firm believer in internationalism and in free cooperation between nations. The poet, Rabindranath Tagore has rightly remarked: “Ram Mohan was the only person in his time, in the whole world of man, to realise completely the significance of the Modern Age.
He knew that the ideal of human civilisation does not lie in the isolation of independence, but in the brotherhood of interdependence of individuals as well as nations in all spheres of thought and activity”.
Ram Mohan Roy took a keen interest in international events and everywhere he supported the cause of liberty, democracy, and nationalism and opposed injustice, oppression and tyranny in every form.
The news of the failure of the Revolution in Naples in 1821 made him so sad that he cancelled all his social engagements. On the other hand, he celebrated the success of the Revolution in Spanish America in 1823 by giving a public dinner.
He condemned the miserable condition of Ireland under the oppressive regime of absentee English landlordism. He publicly declared that he would emigrate from the British Empire if Parliament failed to pass the Reform Bill.
Ram Mohan was fearless as a lion. He did not hesitate to support a just cause. All his life he fought against social injustice and inequality even at great personal loss and hardship.
In his life of service to society he often clashed with his family, with rich zamindars and powerful missionaries, and with high officials and foreign authorities. Yet he never showed fear nor shrank from his chosen course.
Ram Mohan was the brightest star in the Indian sky during the first half of the nineteenth century, but he was not a lone star. He had many distinguished associates, followers and successors.
In the field of education he was greatly helped by the Dutch watchmaker David Hare and the Scottish missionary Alexander Duff. Dwarkanath Tagore was the foremost of his Indian associates.
His other prominent followers were Prasanna Kumar Tagore, Chandrashekhar Deb, and Tarachand Chakravarti, the first secretary of the Brahma Sabha.