From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Raja Ram Mohun Roy
Mains level : His contributions
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.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Roy, the first among liberals
- Even though British consolidation of power was still at a nascent stage in India at the time, Roy could sense that change was afoot.
- Confident about the strength of his heritage and open to imbibing from other cultures what he believed were ameliorative practices, Roy was among India’s first liberals.
- He was simultaneously interested in religion, politics, law and jurisprudence, commerce and agrarian enterprise, Constitutions and civic rights, the unjust treatment of women and the appalling condition of the Indian poor.
Establishment of Atmiya Sabha
- In 1814, he started the Atmiya Sabha (Society of Friends), to nurture philosophical discussions on the idea of monotheism in Vedanta.
- It aimed to campaign against idolatry, casteism, child marriage and other social ills.
- The Atmiya Sabha would make way for the Brahmo Sabha in 1828, set up with Debendranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore’s father.
Abolition of Sati, educational and religious reforms
- 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.
Perils of non-conformism
- Roy, who was given the title of Raja by the Mughal emperor Akbar II, was no exception to the societal enmity.
- Roy was also often attacked by his own countrymen who felt threatened by his reformist agenda, and by British reformers and functionaries, whose views differed from his.
- Roy’s work in the sphere of women’s emancipation, modernising education and seeking changes to religious orthodoxy finds new relevance in this time.
- He was among the first Indians to gain recognition in the UK and in America for his radical thoughts.
- 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.
- 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.