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Ahead of his times

Ram Mohan is an outstanding personality who was not only the pioneer of modernity but also a visionary of liberal democracy not just of Bengal but of the whole world. He proved himself to be a religious, social, educational and cultural reformer who challenged traditional Hindu culture and indicated lines of progress for Indian society


Raja Ram Mohan Roy was an unforgettable name in the socio-economic, cultural and political history of India whose influence was quite apparent in the fields of social and religious reformation, public administration, free journalism and educational development in British-ruled 19th century India. He was born in a prosperous family of the Brahman class but developed an unorthodox religious ideology at an early age.
Ram Mohan (1772-1833) was a polyglot ~ he was proficient in Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, English, Bengali and Hindi. He also knew Latin and Greek. He was totally against idolatry. He was exiled from home and went to Murshidabad in 1803. In 1805, Ram Mohan joined the East India Company and worked for John Digby in the Rangpur collectorate; it was Digby who introduced him to western culture and literature.
The immobile structure of Indian society, beset with blind beliefs like the Sati system, caste excesses, untouchability and the oppression of women divided society. Ram Mohan began to protest against the Sati system and other social evils inside and outside his home. Not only that, being a strong advocate of equal rights for men and women he worked tirelessly for an end to practices like child marriage and Purdah system, dowry system and polygamy.
Ram Mohan Roy’s ground-breaking reforms in various spheres of life laid the foundation upon which future India’s values and principles were laid. An erudite scholar, a champion of the press and freedom of expression, a great reformer and above all, a pioneer of the national movement in India, Ram Mohan Roy is known as the “Father of Indian Renaissance”. He dedicated himself to the task of modernising India.
Sati was a historical Hindu practice in which a widow sacrificed herself by sitting atop her deceased husband’s funeral pyre. In 1811 Roy witnessed his brother’s widow being burned alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. Ram Mohan was severely hurt by the cruelty of the custom. In fact, he was the first Indian to protest against this custom. In spite of vehement protests from orthodox Hindus, he carried out his propaganda against this custom. Finally, Raja Ram Mohan’s effort became successful when in 1829 Lord William Bentinck banned Sati by law.
According to this law, the custom of sati became illegal and punishable as culpable homicide. Abolition of Sati was one of the significant turning points in the social development of modern India. While Ram Mohan is remembered by common people for the role he played in abolishing the evil of Sati, he was also a prominent name in educational reforms.
He supported English as a medium of teaching in India for he believed it was superior to the traditional Indian education system. He regarded education as an effective vehicle to achieve social reform and was a strong advocate of introducing western learning in India. Keeping this great purpose in his mind he set up the Hindu College at Calcutta jointly with David Hare in 1817; it later went on to become one of the best educational institutions in the country producing some of the best minds in India.
Before that, in 1816, he established India’s first English medium school. In 1822, he gave a big grant to start an English high school of the Unitarian Association that was led by the noted educationist David Hare and Reverend Adam. He established Vedanta college, City College and English schools where courses in both Indian learning and western social and physical sciences were offered.
In 1830, he assisted Alexander Duff in establishing the General Assembly’s Institution. Roy promoted and urged teaching of scientific subjects like Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and even Botany. He promoted technology, western medicine and English to be taught at Indian schools. He was also a great scholar who translated many books, religious and philosophical works and scriptures into Bengali and also translated Vedic scriptures into English. Not only that, he was the first Indian to make a passionate plea for women’s education and rights.
To educate the common people, Raja published magazines in different languages including English, Hindi, Persian and Bengali. Notable magazines published by him were the Brahmanical Magazine, the Sambad Koumudi and Mirat-ul-Akbar. He started the first Bengali language weekly newspaper and the first newspaper in an Indian language, called Sambad Koumudi in 1821 and in 1822 he published the journal Mirat-ul-Akbar.
Sambad Koumudi helped people to form an opinion about the issues affecting their daily life in British India and represented their grievances before the Government. He vehemently fought for the freedom of press. In 1823, when the British imposed censorship upon the then Calcutta press, Roy, as the founder and editor of two of India’s earliest weekly newspapers, organised a protest, arguing in favour of freedom of speech and religion as natural rights.
Ram Mohan’s spiritual devotion was not confined to the sphere of spirituality alone as social and religious reforms were inseparable to him. True religion was to him an antidote of political tyranny and social oppression. Ram Mohan’s ideology of Brahmoism derived from the Upanishads condemned polytheistic practises, idolatry and encouraged practise of the unity of God ~ formless, universal and omnipresent.
In 1815, he founded the short-lived Atmiya Sabha to propagate his doctrine of monotheistic Hinduism. From 1828, the Brahmo Sabha which was renamed as Brahmo Samaj in 1830, was formed for worship of the Single Divinity irrespective of caste, creed or sect and became one of the most important agents of religious and social change in 19th century India.
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in his book “The Indian Struggle” called him “the apostle of a religious revival” in India. Except it, his visions for a democratic, secular and rational society were carried forward by Brahmo Samaj. He also advocated larger association of Indians in the administration, the separation of the Judiciary from the Executive, disbandment of the Standing Army and the formation of militia composed of peasants.
He believed in social equality of all human beings, and thus was a strong opposer of the caste system. It was Roy who condemned oppressive practices of Bengali zaminders and demanded fixation of minimum rents. He also demanded the abolition of taxes on tax-free lands. He called for a reduction of export duties on Indian goods abroad and the abolition of taxes on tax-free lands.
He was perhaps the first feminist who wanted women to be educated and given the right to inherit property. Roy was the moving spirit behind empowering women and getting them a respectable position in society.
Ram Mohan was also the first to give importance to the development of the mother tongue. His ‘Gaudiya Byakaran’ in Bengali is the best of his prose works. He stood for cooperation of thought and activity and brotherhood among nations. His understanding of the international character of the principles of liberty, equality and justice indicate that he well understood the significance of the modern age. He was perhaps the first philosopher in the world to strengthen internationalism.
In his address entitled ‘Inaugurator of the Modern Age in India’, Tagore referred to Ram Mohan as ‘a luminous star in the firmament of Indian history’. Ram Mohan is an outstanding personality who was not only the pioneer of modernity but also a visionary of liberal democracy not just of Bengal but of the whole world. He proved himself to be a religious, social, educational and cultural reformer who challenged traditional Hindu culture and indicated lines of progress for Indian society under British rule.
There is no denying the fact that without Ram Mohan’s intellectual stimulation and indefatigable campaigns against social evils, it is not possible to conceive of contemporary India. He was the symbol of freedom, equality, fraternity, tolerance, kindness and rationality. He was given the title of “Father of Modern India” by Gopal Krishna Gokhale.
At present we are suffering from religious intolerance. Our everyday life is beset with many severe social and moral problems. In this situation we are in dire need of following the ideologies of Raja Ram Mohan, the relentless crusader against all kinds of injustices as well as exploitative practices for making a modern India in the true sense of the term.