Ram Mohan Roy: A biography on the social reformer of India
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.
During the 1965 Indo-Pak War, the tiny ‘Gnat’ manufactured by the ‘Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.’ chased away the powerful bombers supplied by the United States of America to Pakistan.
Sri C.V. Raman won the Noble Prize for Physics. Indian scientists, technologists, and teachers are working in different parts of the world. We have the ‘Hindustan Machine Tools Ltd.’ which manufactures machines.
When we think of such facts, we feel overjoyed. We feel confident that we shall equal Western nations in the 20th century. But suppose we knew nothing of modern science, medicine, and engineering? How difficult it would be for us to compete with countries like America, Russia, Japan, and Germany!
Suppose we had to depend upon foreigners to teach subjects like English, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Engineering-all subjects, except Samskrita (Sanskrit) and Kannada in our colleges! How much more difficult it would have been for us.
About 150 years ago, only Sanskrit and Persian were taught in our schools. There were very few to tell us anything about western inventions and discoveries.
Birth And Boyhood
It was the last part of the 18th century. Foreigners had invaded India again and again and India has suffered at their hands for centuries.
The rule of the Muslims, which had lasted 800 years, was coming to an end. India was filled with poverty and ignorance. The English who came to India for trade gradually conquered kingdoms. Many Indians did not understand their great religion and culture. There were many castes and creeds. The glorious tradition of Vedic times was like a mirror covered with dust.
All round, there was the darkness of ignorance.
It was at such a time that Raja Rammohan Roy was born.
Radhanagar is a village in the District of Murshidabad in Bengal; Rammohan was born in this village on the 22nd of May 1772. His father was Ramakanto Roy, an orthodox Brahmin.
Rammohan’s parents were devoted to God.
They had great faith in their religion. They performed strictly the duties set down by their religion.
Rammohan was very much devoted to Lord Vishnu. Every day he would not put down the ‘Bhagavatha’ without completing the reading of Valmiki Ramayana. But when he came to know that his mother also was fasting, he had his food for her sake. In his 14th year, he was about to become a monk. But his mother came in his way.
Persian was the language of the government during the Muslim rule. Knowledge of Arabic and Persian was necessary to get employment or to correspond with the government. Rammohan had been educated in Sanskrit, Bengali, Arabic, and Persian in his village. Though 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 festivals at home. He opposed idol-worship. But his father, who was a very firm believer in idol-worship, felt he was doing wrong. He advised him. The son did not change his mind. Owing to differences between Rammohan and his parents, he left the house.
It was the great Raja Rammohan Roy, who realized that India would be a backward country if her people did not learn English, Mathematics, and Science. He spent his own money and started a college to teach English and Science.
That is why he is called the ‘Maker of Modern India’.
He had high regard for India and Hinduism and was proud of them.
Rammohan was sensible, though young. The boy who left his house did not wander.
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 condemned the worship of the teacher. Therefore, the teacher and his disciples grew angry. There was even a plot to kill this bold boy. But the women there took pity on him and saved his life. They cleverly managed to send him back to India.
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 (read more about Veda Vyasa here), the Upanishads, and Hindu philosophy deeply. When his father died in 1803 he returned to Murshidabad.
Rammohan And Religion
His differences with his father regarding idol-worship and how he conducted himself in Tibet show one thing. Rammohan was a man who thought for him. In the Vedas and the Upanishads, we see great freedom of thought. 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.
Once a man brought a conch for sale. He wanted a price of Rs 500. He said: “This conch can give anything a man wants. He can get all prosperity by possessing it.” Kalinath, a friend of Rammohan, wanted to buy it. He asked Rammohan for his opinion. Rammohan laughed and said, “If this conch can give all the wealth of the world, it must be Goddess Lakshmi herself. I can’t understand why this poor fellow wishes to sell Goddess Lakshmi!” As soon as the man heard this, he disappeared.
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 was six feet tall. He had a well-built body and a handsome and bright face. He was a highly cultured man. He had an exceptional personality.
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 saw that the stock of knowledge was growing rapidly in Europe. 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 learned how to converse fluently and how to write good English. He developed an elegant and forceful English style.
Rammohan loved knowledge. How much knowledge he amassed! With the help of Jain scholars, he studied books on Jainism (read more on Mahavir here). From Muslim scholars, he learned 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 relatives filed a suit in the court. This came in the way of his visit to other countries.
Digby, who had gained the confidence of Rammohan, returned to England in 1814. Rammohan resigned from his post and settled in Calcutta.
He devoted the rest of his life to public service.
That India should prosper was Rammohan’s ardent desire. But the people had to be cured of ignorance, they needed education. He dedicated himself to this task.
A mighty task calls for earnest mighty preparation, does it not? Rammohan prepared himself in every way to undertake this big task. He had understood the essence of all religious books.
He had first to remove the dirt of superstitions and bad customs, which had dimmed the brightness of Indian culture. Then he had to learn how the educational system had developed in other countries, the ways of life there and what efforts were made to put an end to poverty. What was good in other countries had to be learned and to be followed here. In this way, Rammohan began the work of reformation.
But he did not believe that all old customs in India should be given up and that Indians should blindly imitate the foreigners. He did not condemn all the religious customs, but he said that they should use their discretion in following them. Many times people do wrong things without knowing what has been said in the scriptures. They can read these holy books if they are available in the language of the people. When other people say ‘This is what the scriptures say, that is what the scriptures say’, people can find out for themselves what these books say.
The holy books of the Hindus were in Sanskrit.
Rammohan translated them into Bengali. In his preface, he said, ‘We should understand correctly what is said in our religious books and what is relevant to our times.’
Rammohan was a firm believer in truth. He would admit his faults. He used to quote the words of Vasishta: Words of wisdom should be accepted even if they come from a child; but even if Lord Brahma utters unwise words, they should be ignored as a blade of straw.
The marriage of girls of 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 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 ‘Atmiya 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.
Regard for Hinduism
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.
Education for the Progress of the Country
If we are to be happy we must have good crops. For this purpose, we must learn how to use good manure and machinery. We must build dams and dig canals. We must have good roads, bridges, hospitals, and factories to manufacture medicines. Thus, the list of ‘musts’ is very long.
To fulfill all our needs, we need education, don’t we? We need persons well versed in the Arts and the Sciences. We should learn how knowledge is expanding in foreign countries.
Today, if a county is to prosper, it is not enough if it merely recalls its ancient history and culture.
Without forgetting them, the country should develop the knowledge and strength suited to the world of today.
Of course, there were schools in Rammohan’s age also. But they used to teach Arabic and Persian needed for the work of the government.
Some people use languages like Bengali, Marathi, Kannada, and Telugu, aren’t there?
These languages also should grow. There was no scope for this. The methods of teaching were also old-fashioned. Much emphasis was laid upon memorization. If children did not memorize, they were punished cruelly. The subjects taught in the schools were very few. Mathematics, History, Geography, Physics, and Botany were not at all taught.
Some people were running English Schools.
Even there, the System of education was not satisfactory. English words were taught to children.
Those who had memorized them felt proud that they had learned much.
Rammohan came to Calcutta in 1815. He formed an association with 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 a 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 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 on the spread of education. He understood the condition of the country; he saw that the students should learn the English language and scientific subjects. But in his college, besides Sanskrit also were taught.
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 without studying modern subjects like Mathematics, Geography and Latin were held in high esteem in Europe.
But, are the students in England learning only Latin, Greek and the Bible? If Science and Mathematics are necessary for us?’ He argued that the government should examine this point.
The government accepted this idea of Rammohan and implemented it after his death.
With The Poor
When Rammohan was in Calcutta, he used to go for walks all alone at night. He wished to find out for himself the difficulties of the poor.
It was very cold in a slum. Mosquitoes swarmed. People were sweating profusely. There was a stinking smell from the dirt all around. Dirty water was flowing nearby. The laborers were returning home after the day’s work.
A man was following them.
“Brothers!” he said.
The laborers turned back in wonder.
“How many people live here?” he continued.
The wonder of the laborers increased.
Who was this man? Why had he come there?
“How much do you work in the days?” How many families are here?” So the question followed the question.
The laborers said, “Why does he want to know all these things? He may be mad. He may be an idle fool.” They said to Rammohan, “Have we nothing else to do? Let us go home.” Rammohan bore their mockery and contempt. He followed them. He found out much about their way of life.
Service To Literature
Rammohan was the first to give importance to the development of the mother tongue. His ‘Gaudiya Vyakaran’ 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.
“Suttee System’ Or ‘Sahagamana’
Rammohan’s brother Jagmohan died. His wife Alakamanjari had to observe ‘Sahagamana’ (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 ‘Suttee’. 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. Poor woman! 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 ‘Suttee’ 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 ‘Suttee’. This custom had come into practice at 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 the Suttee 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 ‘Suttee’ a crime.
Along with the fight for the abolition of ‘Suttee’, Rammohan started a revolution for women’s education and women’s right to property. He showed that women enjoyed equal freedom with men according to Hinduism.
Love Of Independence
Rammohan was an exceptional patriot and lover of freedom. ‘I do not think I shall be fortunate enough to see freedom reign supreme all over the world’, so he used to lament. Like Tilak, Rammohan believed that Liberty was every man’s birthright.
Rammohan was intensely patriotic, but he was generous and broadminded. In 1823, the Spanish colonies in South America became independent. He invited his friends to a party to celebrate this joyous event. A friend of his asked him, “Why are you so elated if people in South America become independent?” Rammohan said, “What! They may be in South America, but are they not our brothers? Their language and religion may be different. Should we not sympathize with them in their troubles?” Have you heard of ‘The League of Nations’?
The First World War was fought from 1914 to 1918. The object of starting the League of Nations in 1920 was to see that another such war did not break out. Any dispute was to be settled by peaceful methods. (As this did not function effectively, the United Nations Organization was set up in 1945.)
A hundred years before the League of Nations was started, Rammohan had said that such an organization was necessary. If there is a difference of opinion between two persons, they do not fight; they go to a court and accept its decision.
If there is a difference of opinion between the two countries, their dispute must be settled without a fight. An organization is necessary to see that all nations cooperate with and help each other.
The First Editor
As soon as we get up in the morning, we eagerly wait for the newspaper. No sooner is the paper delivered then everyone wants to read it. Times were when the number of newspapers was very small. And even those few were in English. There was not a single newspaper in any Indian language!
It was Rammohan Roy who first published a newspaper in an Indian language.
Newspapers are necessary to reform the people. It is possible to make thousands of people understand many things in their language. Rammohan made the newspaper a means of bringing home his views to many people.
‘Atmiya Sabha’ used to publish a weekly called ‘Vangal 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. Newspapers should have the right to uphold the truth.
It needed much courage to speak out like this 150 years ago when India was under 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.
For Justice and Equality
In those days, courts conducted trials by jury.
Some persons were invited to attend the proceedings of the court. In 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 English-men 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 dis-crimination.
We now hear the slogan, “Land to the tiller,” don’t we?
In those days, the landlords had much freedom and authority. Some used to exploit the farmers. There was no limit to their luxury, pomp, and arrogance. The farmers had to give almost all the produce to them in the shape of rent. The poor farmers shed tears of blood. Rammohan, who had seen al this exploitation, had said, even so long ago, that the land should belong to the tiller.
Rammohan and his followers used to attend prayers in the church of a Christian sect. Chandrashekar 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.
Rammohan in England
It is wrong to cross the ocean and go to other countries! Such a view appears laughable today. But, a hundred and fifty years 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 the ‘Suttee’ 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 ‘Sahagamana’ were also successful. On the day when the Bill was passed by the Parliament, the joy of Rammohan knew no bounds.
Rammohan was very rich. He was a great man who spent his money on other people and for his country. In Calcutta, even foreigners borrowed money from him in times of need. Such a rich man was reduced in England to total dependence upon others, even for food. His health broke down. The main reason for his financial difficulties was that the firm in which he had invested his capital became insolvent.
Out of spite, some people filed a suit against Rammohan and his son accusing them of misusing money. Rammohan had to spend money like water to prove that he was not guilty. Though he got justice, he lost his entire honor and status in England. Even the financial help from his son stopped. Moreover, one or two persons in England cheated on him. He became worried. He fell ill and became bed-ridden.
Some people, who had respect for him looked after him, like relatives. Reputed doctors treated him. But his health did not improve. Rammohan passed away on the 27th of September 1833. A friend of Rammohan visited England in 1843. He removed the coffin of Rammohan from Staple-ton 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.
It is a hundred and forty years since Rammohan died. But his memory is still green in the minds of Indians. He was an intellectual who tried to lead India to modernity. He taught the Hindus to give up meaningless beliefs and customs. He was the lamp that led Hindus to the essence of Hinduism. His memory itself guides us to a noble life.
Google remembered Ram Mohan Roy’s birthday by publishing the below doodle on its home page.