Raja Rammohan Roy has come to be called the ‘Maker of Modern
India’. Without giving up what was good and noble in the past, he
laid the foundations for a great future. He put an end to the horrible
custom of burning the living wife with the dead husband. He was a
great scholar and an independent thinker. He advocated the study of
English, Science, Western Medicine and Technology. He spent his money
on a college to promote these studies.
Rammohan was born in a village named Radhanagar in the district of
Mushidabad in Bengal on the 22nd of May 1772. In his 14th
year he was about to become a monk. But his mother came in his way.
Rammohan had been educated in Sanskrit, Bengali, Arabic and Persian
in his own village. Though his father Ramakanto was very orthodox,
he wanted that his son should have higher education. For this purpose,
he sent him to Patna in his ninth year. The boy was very intelligent.
He studied Arabic and Persian under famous Muslim scholars in Patna.
Aristotle and Euclid were two great thinkers who lived in Greece,
hundreds of years ago. Rammohan read their works in Arabic. By studying
their books, Rammohan developed the ability to think for himself.
Many people in India who believed in God worshipped pictures and idols
of God. Rammohan wondered if God had any form. He was not interested
in idol-worship and in festivals at home. He opposed idol-worship.
But his father, who was a very firm believer in idol-worship, felt
he was doing wrong. Owing to differences between Rammohan and his
parents, he left the house. He joined a group of monks. They wandered
about the foot of the Himalayas, and went to Tibet. The Tibetans were
Buddhists. They used to worship their teacher. Rammohan understood
the principles of Buddhism. He came back to his parents.
The parents lovingly received their son who had gone away. But even
now, the father and son could not agree on many matters. Ramakanto
celebrated his son’s marriage, hoping that he would change. But the
son did not change. Rammohan went to Benaras and studied the Vedas,
the Upanishads and Hindu philosophy deeply. When his father died in
1803 he returned to Murshidabad. Rammohan admired this spirit of freedom.
He proclaimed that simple living and high thinking should be a man’s
motto in life. And he lived accordingly.
Rammohan joined service in the Revenue Department of the East India
Company. He was an assistant to Mr. John Digby, an English officer,
from 1809-14 at Rangpur. Digby appreciated his efficiency. Though
he held a high post on a handsome salary and had property in his village,
he did not seek a life of luxury. Rammohan began the study of English
in his 22nd year. He used to read books. He also used to
read English newspapers received by Digby from England. Therefore,
he knew much that many Indians knew nothing about. He knew about the
French Revolution (1789 to 1795) which had just then ended. He knew
what the people and the Scholars of Europe felt about the ideals of
liberty, equality and democracy. Digby used to have visitors from
several foreign countries. Rammohan mixed with them freely and learnt
how to converse fluently and how to write good English. He developed
an elegant and forceful English style.
Rammohan loved knowledge. With the help of Jain scholars, he studied
books on Jainism. From Muslim scholars, he learnt Sufism. He was already
well versed in the Vedas. He used to arrange meetings of learned men
in his house and exchange ideas. This widened his knowledge. Rammohan
spent his leisure in learning new subjects and doing social service.
He translated the Upanishads and other sacred books into English and
Bengali and got them printed. He wished to go abroad and learn more.
But his own relatives filed a suit in the court. This came in the
way of his visit to other countries.
The marriage of girls five or six years old. Burning the wife with
her dead husband whether she is willing or not. Meaningless observance
of festivals and worshipping for show. The worship of several gods
and ranking gods as high and low. Rammohan was sick of these practices.
He had a high regard for Hinduism. But he felt that the Hindus had
yet to understand their religion correctly. There should be equality
between men and women. People should give up superstitious beliefs.
Many of Rammohan’s friends accepted his line of thinking. An association
of such close friends was formed. It was called ‘Aatmiya Sabha’ (The
Society of Friends). Religious discussion took place there. The members
had to give up idol-worship. They had to spread the Society’s views
on religion among the people. Many scholars opposed Rammohan. Rammohan
wrote articles in reply. The people read them and understood what
was said in the sacred books. Some Christian priests were overjoyed
at Rammohan’s interest in and enthusiasm for Christian doctrines.
They suggested that he should become a Christian. These priests did
not understand the mind of Rammohan, who was a staunch believer in
Hinduism. He had great respect for the Vedas and the Upanishads, which
he had studied deeply. Some men spoke lightly of the Vedas and the
Upanishads. Rammohan gave them a very clear answer: "There is
only one God in the universe. He has no form and qualities which men
can describe. He is full of joy. Every living being has an element
of God. These noble ideas sparkle in the Upanishads. Moreover, these
books encourage people to think for themselves, they strike out new
paths. They do not chain man’s intelligence." Just as he condemned
the bad customs of the Hindus he condemned the superstitions of the
followers of other religions.
Rammohan came to Calcutta in 1815. He formed an association of English
and Hindu scholars. He started a college also and arranged for the
teaching of modern subjects like Science, Political Science, Mathematics,
and English. One of the members of the association was rich and educated
man called Radhakanto Dev. He had some followers from the beginning.
He did not like Rammohan. He obstinately said that he would not help
the association, if Rammohan were a member. To Rammohan, the prosperity
of the association was more important than his status. So, he did
not become a member of the association, though he himself had started
it. During 1816-17, Rammohan started an English College with his own
money. Today it is difficult even to believe that he spent so much
money for the spread of education. He understood the condition of
the country; he saw that the students should learn the English language
and scientific subjects. Rammohan criticized the government’s policy
of opening only Sanskrit schools. ‘Because of this, Indians would
have no contact with Western civilization. They would lag behind without
studying modern subjects like Mathematics, Geography and Latin were
held in high esteem in Europe.’ He argued that the government should
examine this point. Government accepted this idea of Rammohan and
implemented it after his death. Rammohan was the first to give importance
to the development of the mother tongue. His ‘Gaudiya Byakaran’ in
Bengali is the best of his prose works. His Bengali was terse, simple
and elegant. By translating the scriptures of the Hindus into Bengali
he gave Bengali a new dignity. Rabindranath Tagore and Bankimchandra
followed in his footsteps. Rammohan wrote lyrics also.
Rammohan’s brother Jagmohan died. His wife Alakamanjari had to observe
‘Sahamaran’ (that is, she was to be burnt alive with the dead body).
All arrangements were made for cremation. All the relatives gathered.
Alakamanjari put on a laced-sari and there was ‘Kumkum’ on her forehead.
(A mark of 'Kumkum’ or vermilion on the forehead is considered sacred
by a Hindu wife; it is an indication that her husband is alive.) Her
hair was disheveled. Fear was written upon her face. The corpse was
brought to the cremation ground. Rammohan begged his sister-in-law
not to observe ‘Sati’. Relatives objected to Rammohan’s words. They
bound her to the corpse and placed her on the funeral pyre with the
corpse. The pyre was set on fire. Alakamanjari screamed and cried
in fear, but she was not set free. She was burnt to ashes along with
her husband. All the relatives praised her shouting ‘Maha Sati! Maha
Sati!’ (a great wife) and went back. This heart-rending sight of his
sister-in- law’s ‘Sati’ made a deep impression on Rammohan’s mind.
Then and there he took a vow to put an end to this dreadful custom.
Some people believed that the scriptures said that the wife should
die along with her husband. Rammohan referred to all the sacred books.
But, nowhere was it laid down that the wife should perform ‘Sati’.
This custom had come into practice in some age. Some people who knew
it was wrong did not have the courage to condiment. The brave Rammohan
took up this difficult task. But his task was not easy. Lakhs of people
had faith in 'Sati' system. Many people opposed Rammohan and abused
him. Some even tried to murder him. But Rammohan did not flinch. Even
the people of the West, who saw all this wondered, when even the government
was afraid to interfere in this matter, Rammohan risked his life and
fought against this evil practice. In the end, he won and the government
made ‘Sati’ a crime. Along with fight for the abolition of ‘Sati’,
Rammohan started a revolution for women’s education and women’s right
to property. He showed that woman enjoyed equal freedom with man according
to Hinduism. It was Rammohan Roy who first published a newspaper
in an Indian language. ‘Atmiya Sabha’ used to publish a weekly called
‘Bengal Gazette’. Besides, Rammohan was himself bringing out a newspaper
in Persian called ‘Miratul- Akhbar’ (the Mirror of News) and a Bengali
weekly called ‘Sambad Kaumudi’ (the Moon of Intelligence). In those
days, items of news and articles had to be approved by the government
before being published. So, there was no freedom of the press. Rammohan
protested against this control. He argued that newspapers should be
free and that the truth should not be suppressed simply because the
government did not like it. It needed much courage to speak out like
this 150 years ago, when India was under the British rule. The press
secured freedom by the constant efforts of Rammohan. In his articles
in the papers, Rammohan explained his views and replied to his opponents.
He made his words very carefully. He made his comments with tolerance
and without wounding anybody’s feelings. He thus set a good example
to later editors of newspapers. In those days, courts conducted trials
by jury. Some persons were invited to attend the proceedings of the
court. At the end, these persons gave the judges their opinions regarding
the case. These men were called ‘the Jury’. Indians were invited only
to lower courts. But Englishmen were invited to higher courts. Rammohan
wrote to the government against this practice; he argued that it was
an insult to Indians. Finally, the government ended this discrimination.
Rammohan and his followers used to attend prayers in the church of
a Christian sect. Chanrashekar Dev, a disciple of Rammohan, and others
wondered why they should not have a prayer hall of their own. Rammohan
approved this idea. They hired a building belonging to a man called
Ram Kamal Basu and opened a Prayer Hall called ‘Brahma Samaj’. The
members used to meet every Saturday. Vedic hymns and hymns from the
Upanishads were chanted by scholars. Religious discussions were held.
Rammohan recited the religious poems composed by him. Christian and
Muslim boys sang songs in English and Persian. Many Hindus and foreigners
used to attend these meetings. ‘There is only one God. None equals
Him. He has no end. He is present in all living beings’ - this was
the faith of the Brahma’s. This was the message of Rammohan. The Brahma
Samaj did not recognize differences of caste, creed, race or nationality.
It emphasized the idea of universal brotherhood.
It is wrong to cross the ocean and go to the other countries! Such
a view appears laughable today. But, a hundred and fifty year ago,
it was believed that it was wrong and irreligious for a Hindus to
cross the seas. Rammohan was one of the first Indians who rejected
this idea and went to England. The allowances granted by the British
to the Mughal King of Delhi, Akbar the Second, was very small. He
had to submit a representation to the King of England to increase
it. The Mughal King decided to send Rammohan to England at his expense.
Before he left for England, the King gave him the title of ‘Raja’.
The second reason for Raja Rammohan Roy’s visit to England was to
plead for the abolition of ‘Sati’ before the Parliament. Many people
objected to Rammohan’s visit to England. Some British officers also
opposed his going to England. But his fame had already reached England.
When Rammohan landed at Liverpool, the leading citizens were there
to welcome him. The famous historian William Rathbone who was laid
up with paralysis, sent his son. He fulfilled his last desire by inviting
him to his house and by talking to him. Several associations honored
him. He visited France also. Everywhere scholars appreciated his learning.
Though the allowances of the King was not finally settled, it was
decided that he could be given three lakhs rupees annually. Rammohan’s
efforts for the abolition of ‘Sati’ were also successful. On the day
when the Bill was passed by the Parliament, the joy of Rammohan knew
Rammohan passed away on 27th of September 1833.
A friend of Rammohan visited England in 1843. He removed the coffin
of Rammohan from Stapleton Grove to Arno’s Vale, the commentary on
the outskirts of Bristol, and buried it there. A memorial in Indian
style was raised over his tomb.
This article is in courtesy of
Author - C.N.Jayalakshmidevi