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 no bounds.
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.