Just Like That | Raja Ram Mohan Roy and his many contradictions - Hindustan Times
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Just Like That | Raja Ram Mohan Roy and his many contradictions reflect the schism between scripture and reform

Feb 24, 2024 04:06 PM IST

The 19th C. Hindu reformist and religious scholar sought to abolish Sati and rid society of fanatic orthodoxy. British colonialism would enlighten us, he felt

The other day, at a dinner at my home, there was an animated discussion with a good friend, on Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833). We were in agreement that he was a towering figure of the Indian Renaissance, and a person who sincerely sought to rid India of some of its past evils, and make it a modern and scientific country.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy, painted by Rembrandt Peale in 1833. (Wiki Commons)
Raja Ram Mohan Roy, painted by Rembrandt Peale in 1833. (Wiki Commons)

Perhaps the most celebrated cause espoused by Roy was for the abolition of Sati. It is said that the sight of his brother’s widow being burnt alive on her husband’s funeral pyre created a sense of deep sorrow and revulsion in him. In 1818, he issued his first pamphlet denouncing the custom, and cited sacred Hindu literature as sanction for his viewpoint. Two years later, he issued another polemic, this time quoting Hindu law. This was followed by the publication of a booklet entitled Brief Remarks Regarding Modern Encroachments on the Ancient Rights of Females According to the Hindu Law of Inheritance.

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The Bengali paper he brought out, Sambad Kaumadi, was equally vocal in its condemnation. On this issue, Roy was an eloquent and very genuine social reformer, seeking to rid society of inhuman practices for which the fanatically orthodox claimed religious sanction. Naturally, the British supported this campaign, not the least because it reinforced their claim that they were dealing with a barbaric and depraved people who needed to be saved from themselves.

For his own society and religion, Roy was a scriptural non-conformist, a brave and enlightened man. In 1820, he set up the Brahmo Samaj, founded on the principles of one God and universal brotherhood beyond distinctions of caste and creed. Such an approach was nothing short of revolutionary in the times in which he lived, and credit must be given to him for his strong courage of conviction.

The discussion arose about whether in pursuing this much-needed reformist agenda, he compromised his independence and individuality in dealing with the British, and let himself be co-opted into endorsing the vision they wanted the natives to have of themselves. The historian R.C. Mazumdar wrote that "Rammohan Roy had an unbounded faith in the sense of justice and goodness of the British government and accepted the British rule as an act of Divine Providence…and glorified the role played by them for civilizing the Indians".

To a great extent, this assessment is true. On December 15, 1829, in a meeting at the Calcutta Town Hall, Roy publicly stated that "the greater our intercourse with the European gentlemen, the greater will be our improvement in literary, social and political affairs". Around the same time, he also wrote to the French botanist and geologist Victor Jacquemont: "Conquest is very rarely an evil when the conquering people are more civilized than the conquered, because the former brings to the latter the benefits of civilization. India requires many more years of English civilization so that she may not have many things to lose while she is reclaiming her political independence."

Perhaps, in so emphatically praising the British, Roy’s intentions were laudable. He wanted the study of western mathematics, chemistry and anatomy, clearly more advanced at this time than Indian science, to be available to students. He argued for European teachers and for educational institutions to have the necessary books and scientific instruments for this new curriculum. But the point of our debate was whether, in asking for this, was it necessary for him to so spectacularly ridicule his own civilization and heritage?

About the sublime philosophical doctrine of Vedanta, he derisively asked what improvements could arise from themes such as the ultimate nature of Atman and Brahman. "Nor will youths," he wrote, "be fitted to be better members of society by the Vedantic doctrines which teach them to believe that all visible things have no real existence". This from a man, who only a few years before had authored scholarly works on the Upanishads, and brought out a compendium of the Vedanta doctrines, Vedantasara.

On July 14, 1832, Roy, on a visit to England, was given the privilege to speak at the Select Committee of the House of Commons. In his remarks, he strongly argued for the settlement of Europeans in India, the cultivation of the English language throughout the country, and a permanent connection between Great Britain and India. But that was not all. Roy actually went so far as to advocate "a mixed community of India", mixed with European stock, so that there would be "no disposition to cut off its connection with England".

Many of the contradictions that colonialism creates are mirrored vividly in the life of the Raja. He was a scholar of Hindu thought and philosophy, yet publicly ridiculed its contents. A master of the Sanskrit language, he openly condemned its learnings and teaching. His stated aim was to revise the fortunes of his countrymen, yet he wanted Indians to be ruled in perpetuity by the British.

In his personal life too, Roy was caught in the not unfamiliar existential dilemma of the colonized. It is said that he had two houses in Calcutta, one in which everything was western except him, and the other in which everything was Indian except himself.

Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha). Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences. The views expressed are personal

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