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Raja Ram Mohan Roy

Focus: GS I- Personalities in News

Why in News?

Recently, A two-day vibrant performance of dance based on life of Raja Rammohun Roy at Kartavya Path concluded.

About Raja Ram Mohan Roy:

  • He is one of the most influential social and religious reformers of the 19th century.
  • He was born on May 22,1772 in what was then Bengal Presidency’s Radhanagar in Hooghly district.
  • As India grapples increasingly with changing social and religious circumstances, Roy’s work in the sphere of women’s emancipation, modernising education and seeking changes to religious orthodoxy finds new relevance in this time.

Early Life

  • 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.
  • A polyglot, 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.
  • In particular, he chafed at practices such as Sati, that compelled widows to be immolated on their husband’s funeral pyre.
    • Roy’s sister-in-law had been one such victim after his elder brother’s death, and it was a wound that stayed with him.
  • His education had whetted his appetite for philosophy and theology, and 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.
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.
  • In 1814, he started the Atmiya Sabha (Society of Friends), to nurture philosophical discussions on the idea of monotheism in Vedanta and 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

  • During the course of his time in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), a period of about 15 years, Roy became a prominent public intellectual.
  • 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.
  • During the Bengal Renaissance, it ushered in sweeping social changes and birthed the Brahmo religion, a reformed spiritual Hinduism that believes in monotheism and the uniformity of all men, irrespective of caste, class or creed.

Perils of non-conformism

  • As many modern liberals discover to their peril, non-conformism brings with it its own share of infamy.
  • Roy, who was given the title of Raja by the Mughal emperor Akbar II, was no exception to this.
  • Among the first Indians to gain recognition in the UK and in America for his radical thoughts, in his lifetime, 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.

June 2024