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Rammohan Roy biography

Rammohan Roy

(1772-1833)

biography

Rammohan was born in 1772 (or 1774) at Radha nagar, district Hooghly fifth of seven sons of Ramakant and Tarini Devi. His father was a Zamindar and was quite well-to-do. After learning some Bengali in a village ‘pathshala’ (school), some Sanskrit from his mother and Persian from his father, he was sent to amadarsa in Patna in his ninth year to learn Persian and Arabic, (the former still being the court language). He stayed there for a little more than three years, became proficient in the two

Rammohan Roy
Rammohan Roy
languages and could read and recite works of famous poets. Coming from a Brahmin family he was supposed to learn Sanskrit and was sent to Banaras (Kashi), the seat of Sanskrit learning. He stayed in Banaras till his sixteenth year and while studying the shastras was influenced by the monotheistic tenets of Vedanta and Upanishads which made him a determined enemy of idolatry Thus, he returned home quite a transformed man, one who was destined to upset the traditions of his family.
He was outspoken in his views about idolatry and expressed these in a pamphlet Tuhfatul Muuahhiddin (A Gift to Monotheists) in Persian in 1803, which offended his orthodox father. A dispute arose in the family and Rammohan left home and started travelling to various places in the country reaching as far as Tibet where he studied doctrines of Buddhism and offended the Lamas by stating his views about monotheistic doctrines. This nomadic life lasted for four years. His father, disturbed by the separation of his son sent out men to trace him. They brought him home, where he was received with Warmth. Soon after he was married, but it did not divert him from acquiring knowledge and learning languages.
Early in life he saw his sister-in-law perform sati after the death of his elder brother Jag Mohan, who had died young. This tragic event made a deep impression on him and in later years he devoted his energies for the abolition of sati. He continued preaching against several evils in Hindu society including idolatory, sati, and caste system and once again he was expelled from his house in 1800. He came back home only after the death of his father. By then time he had become a father of a son and to support his family he got a job as a clerk in Rangpore collectorate. Due to his ability and diligence he soon rose to become Dewan and wielded significant power. He served as Dewan for ten years. He had saved enough money, which was supplemented by what his father had left for him, resigned from service and came and settled in Calcutta in 1814. He bought a garden house built in European style on Circular Road and another house at Chowringhee Road. This was when Rammohan was forty. He lived like an aristocrat, throwing parties for his European as well as Indian friends thus widening his social circle. He started studying English in his twenty-second year while his study of the Hindu shastras continued. He came into Contact with some Europeans also and from them he started learning Hebrew, Greek and Latin, such was his knack for learning languages. While learning English, he had come in Contact with several Englishmen especially one Mr. Digby under Whom he worked for several years till 1814 and started admiring much equality in the Britishers.
His reforming zeal now asserted itself and he decided to devote his life towards reforming the Hindu society and to remove the evils which had crept in. He believed that to remove superstitions and gross and meaningless rituals people must be taught Vedanta, and the Upanishads. As very few people knew Sanskrit, he started translating Vedas and Upanishads in Bengali and English. ‘Within a year he had brought out an abridgement of Vedanta and had translated the Kena and Isha Upanishads with the help of some friends. These and other publications antagonized the orthodox Hindus. But he withstood the turmoil boldly and did not budge from the path of reform which he had undertaken. At the same time he established ‘Atmiya Sabha’ (Friendly Society) to preach the unity of God.
In Calcutta he also came in contact with Christian missionaries. He studied the Bible in original Greek and Hebrew and liked some of the precepts contained in it. He wrote a small book The Precepts of Jesusthe Guide to Peace and Happiness in Bengali and Sanskrit in 1820. It contained 11 only the precepts and omitted other irrational concepts like Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost) which brought upon him the ire of missionaries especially those of the Serampore Baptists. But his views were appreciated d in Britain and America by liberal thinking people and he became famous for his learning, especially by the Unitarians, who also did not believe d in Trinitarianism.
Rammohan Roy is generally known as a religious reformer, but he was a social reformer as well. Indeed, religious and social matters are so intermixed that it is difficult to determine where religion ends and social d reform begins. This is especially true of sati which had been given a 1S religious sanctity by selfish predators. The English initially, though horrified, did not want to interfere as the practice had religious overtones. Rammohan Roy published his first tract against sati in 1818, originally written in Bengali but later translated into English. A second essay on d the subject was published in 1820. In these, Rammohan had proved that there was no sanctity for this horrible practice in the Vedas or Manu Smriti. Convinced of the argument, Governor General Lord William Bentinck passed a regulation in 1829 declaring the practice of sati as illegal, and declared that persons taking part in it were punishable in the criminal courts. It was a moral victory for Rammohan against the Hindu orthodoxy. Polygamy was rampant during the time of Rammohan. He wrote an essay on ‘Rights of Females' as prescribed by the scriptures. Citing authorities, he revealed that a Hindu is not legally free to take any number d of wives. However, he did not pursue the matter as vigorously as he did in the case of sati but the custom gradually died down, economic considerations being one of the reasons. He also advocated widow marriage d but, as in the case of polygamy, did not hotly pursue the matter.
His contribution to Indian education is somewhat unique. Though Sanskrit scholar of merit, he appealed to the Indians to study English so that they could learn the science, philosophy and literature of the West which had made them the leaders of the world. With the active cooperation of David Hare (who donated his land for the purpose) the Hindu College was established in 1817 in Calcutta, to spread English education among the natives of the country. In a way, his views about English education were similar to those of the much maligned Thomas Babington Macaulay, the only difference being in the purpose of learning English. Rammohan also started an English school of his own in 1822.
His fight against idolatory and polytheism took a concrete shape when he established Brahmo Samaj in Calcutta on 20 August 1828. It was to be a cosmopolitan house of prayer without any idol. His fame as a religious and social reformer rests with the establishment of Brahmo Samaj. A house was built for it at Jorasanko, where it was shifted on 23 January 1830, and the first meeting was attended by five hundred Hindus. The main purpose of the Samaj was to revive monotheism in India on the basis of the Vedanta and Upanishads. He tried to reconcile individual reason with the ancient scriptures. The aim of his new church was described in the trust deed of 1830: This new theism aimed at the calm worship of the Deity, the practice of virtue and charity, reverence for all that is sincere and helpful in every faith, and active participation in every movement for the bettering of mankind." He looked upon idolatory as degeneration from the pure monotheistic doctrine of Vedanta and the Upanishads. He also fought an extended battle with the Christian missionaries who were active in proselytizing Indians. The missionaries were already upset by his publishing Precepts of Jesus in which he had debunked the concept Trinity. Now they were faced with his opposition to conversion. Rammohan argued with the missionaries, quoting from the original Bible in Hebrew and Greek, baffling the ill-educated and dogmatic missionaries. He published three pamphlets: "Appeal to the Christian Public one after another and finally, The Missionary and the Brahmin: being a vindication of the Hindu Religion against the Attacks of Christian Missionaries. His efforts to save Hinduism from the onslaught of Christian missionaries saved thousands of Hindus from being converted.
Through his writings and preachings Rammohan had was known all over the world. In all he had written two books in Persian, three in Hindi, thirty-two in Bengali and Sanskrit and forty-seven tracts and books in English. Rammohan also tried his hand at journalism. He started Mira-tul-Akhbar (1820) in Persian and Sambad Kaumudi (1826) in Bengali. However, none of these survived for long. But he fought for the freedom of the press and launched a spirited protest against the Press Ordinance of 1823. His chance to go abroad came in 1830 when the phantom Emperor Akbar II asked him to go to England to represent his case for the restoration of his authority on some villages around Delhi, and bestowed the title ‘Raja’ on him. Rammohan also wanted to plead with the people and the parliament not to accept the petition filed by orthodox Hindus in the Prime Council for the repeal of the ordinance passed by the Indian government declaring sati as a criminal act. Besides, he wanted to appear before the Select Committee of the House of Commons.
He left for England on 19 November 1830 and reached Liverpool on 8 April 1831. His name and fame had preceded him. His personality added to his scholarship, wisdom and concern for social upliftment. The stately figure of Rammohan caught the eye of king and commoner alike. The Raja, in the outer man, was caste in nature’s finest mould; his figure was manly and robust; his carriage dignified; the forehead towering, expansive and commanding. To ladies his politeness was marked by most delicate manner, and his felicitous mode of paying them a compliment gained him many admirers among the high-born beauties of Britain. In conversation with individuals of every rank and of various nations and professions, he passed with the utmost ease from one language to another, suiting his remarks to each and all in excellent taste, and commanding the astonishment and respect of his hearers." The Unitarians awaited the arrival of the ‘Apostle of the East’ with eager anticipation. A meeting was arranged in his honour. After staying for a few days at Liverpool, he left for London.
An intellectual celebrity who called on him the very first night of his arrival in London was the venerable philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Another celebrated Londoner whom Rammohan engaged in discussion was Robert Owen, The father of British Socialism. There was a steady stream of visitors at 125 Regent Street where Rammohan was staying and a constant state of excitement drove him to a state of exhaustion. The highest honour paid to Rammohan was his presentation to the King of England, making him the first Indian to be received at the British Court. In 1832, he visited France and was received there by King Louis Philippe. He returned to England after a few days. He was happy to see the petition against the abolition of sati being rejected, and passing of the India Bill by the House of Commons in 1833. The same year at the invitation of Dr. Carpenter he went to live at Bristol and soon after died of fever there on 27 September 1833 with the sacred syllable ‘Om’ on his lips; sacred thread of the Brahmins was also found on his body. In spite of his criticism of the evils which had crept in Hindu society he was proud to be a Hindu. Rammohan was buried at Stapleton Grove. But later Dwarkanath Tagore, his disciple and companion made a pilgrimage to Bristol and built a beautiful mausoleum in the cemetery Arno’s Vale. The mausoleum is shaped like a Hindu temple carrying the following description:
Beneath this stone rests the remains of Raja Rammohan Roy Bahadur. A conscientious and steadfast believer in the unity of the Godhead; He consecrated his life with entire devotion to the worship of the Divine Spirit alone. To great natural talents he united thorough mastery of many languages, and early distinguished himself as one of the greatest scholars of his day. His unwearied labours to promote the social, moral and physical condition of the people of India, his earnest endeavours to suppress idolatry and the rite to suttee, 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. This tablet records the sorrow and pride with which his memory is cherished by his descendants. He was born in Radhanagore, in Bengal, in 1774, and died at Bristol, September 27th, 1833."
Was Rammohan really the harbinger of renaissance in the country, especially in Bengal? Scholars have recently cast doubt on the advent of renaissance in India in the nineteenth century. There is nothing comparable to the renaissance of the fourteenth-seventeenth century of Europe. Rammohan seems to have succeeded only partially in what he tried to do through his writings and Brahmo Samaj. While sati and polygamy have been abolished, idolatory and even child marriages (though outlawed) are still rampant in the country. Idolatory has indeed increased manifold since the time of Rammohan. Even Dayanand, who later fought the idolaters more vigorously, could not succeed. Miles long queues of worshippers, hoping to have a glimpse of the deity at the Tirupati temple in the south and Vaishno Devi in the north are ample proof the failure of Rammohan in eradicating idolatory the main plank of the Brahmo Samaj. When the 200th anniversary of the birth of Rammohan was celebrated in 1972, there was a growing disillusionment over the prospects of modernization, and frustrated scholars, unable to perpetuate the heroic view of history held by their forbears, challenged the so-called myth of the “Renaissance and “Ramadan’s role in it as a modernizer”. This has been the fate of most of the reformers the world over in every age.

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