Raja Ram Mohan Roy: Remembering the legacy of the Father of Modern Indian Renaissance

One of the most influential social and religious reformers of the 19th century, Ram Mohan Roy, born on May 22, 1772 in what was then Bengal Presidency’s Radhanagar in Hooghly district, would have turned 250 years today. As India grapples increasingly with changing social and religious circumstances, Roy’s work in the sphere of women’s emancipation, modernising education and seeking changes to religious orthodoxy finds new relevance in this time.

In Makers of Modern India (Penguin Books, 2010), a book that profiles the “work and words of the men and women who argued the Republic of India into existence”, its editor, historian Ramachandra Guha, writes, “Roy was unquestionably the first person on the subcontinent to seriously engage with the challenges posed by modernity to traditional social structures and ways of being. He was also one of the first Indians whose thought and practice were not circumscribed by the constraints of kin, caste and religion.”

Born into a prosperous upper-caste Brahmin family, Roy grew up within the framework of orthodox caste practices of his time: child-marriage, polygamy and dowry were prevalent among the higher castes and he had himself been married more than once in his childhood. The family’s affluence had also made the best in education accessible to him.

A polyglot, Roy knew Bengali and Persian, but also Arabic, Sanskrit, and later, English. His exposure to the literature and culture of each of these languages bred in him a scepticism towards religious dogmas and social strictures. In particular, he chafed at practices such as Sati, that compelled widows to be immolated on their husband’s funeral pyre. Roy’s sister-in-law had been one such victim after his elder brother’s death, and it was a wound that stayed with him.

The waning of the Mughals and the ascendancy of the East India Company in Bengal towards the end of the 18th century was also the time when Roy was slowly coming into his own. His education had whetted his appetite for philosophy and theology, and he spent considerable time studying the Vedas and the Upanishads, but also religious texts of Islam and Christianity. He was particularly intrigued by the Unitarian faction of Christianity and was drawn by the precepts of monotheism that, he believed, lay at the core of all religious texts.

He wrote extensive tracts on various matters of theology, polity and human rights, and translated and made accessible Sanskrit texts into Bengali. “Rammohun did not quite make a distinction between the religious and the secular. He believed religion to be the site of all fundamental changes. What he fought was not religion but what he believed to be its perversion… (Rabindranath) Tagore called him a ‘Bharatpathik’ by which he meant to say that Rammohun combined in his person the underlying spirit of Indic civilisation, its spirit of pluralism, tolerance and a cosmic respect for all forms of life,” says historian Amiya P Sen, Sivadasani Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, Oxford, UK, whose Rammohun Roy: A Critical Biography (Penguin, Viking, 2012), remains a definitive work on the man who was a key figure in India’s journey into modernism.

Abolition of Sati, educational and religious reforms

During the course of his time in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), a period of about 15 years, Roy became a prominent public intellectual. He campaigned for the modernisation of education, in particular the introduction of a Western curriculum, and started several educational institutions in the city.

In 1817, he collaborated with Scottish philanthropist David Hare to set up the Hindu College (now, Presidency University). He followed it up with the Anglo-Hindu School in 1822 and, in 1830, assisted Alexander Duff to set up the General Assembly’s Institution, which later became the Scottish Church College.

It was his relentless advocacy alongside contemporaries such as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar that finally led to the abolition of Sati under the governor generalship of William Bentinck in 1829. Roy argued for the property rights of women, and petitioned the British for freedom of the press (in 1829 and 1830).

His Brahmo Sabha, that later became the Brahmo Samaj, evolved as a reaction against the upper-caste stranglehold on social customs and rituals. During the Bengal Renaissance, it ushered in sweeping social changes and birthed the Brahmo religion, a reformed spiritual Hinduism that believes in monotheism and the uniformity of all men, irrespective of caste, class or creed.