Given the plethora of essays and writings on Raja Rammohun Roy, there appears little cause for another critical biography on the social reformer. But Prof. Amiya P. Sen presents a refreshingly different approach to the portrait of the free thinker who founded the Brahmo Samaj, played a key role in the abolition of Sati, and fought for the rights and education of women.
This biographical presentation is experimental and short. It does not fall into the stereotype of repeating all the known facts. Rather, the author uses relatively unexplored sources to focus on the life and work of one of the lead architects of modern India.
It contains excerpts from Rammohun’s writings and analyses and draws on research, comments, monographs and sundry writings by contemporaries.
Much of the early writings on Rammohun, writes Sen, were based on anecdotes and hearsay gathered from friends and co-workers. The earliest biographical writings on Roy were short sketches in English by people known to him. These were thin in details and suffered due to inadequate use of Bengali-language sources and relied only on Rammohun Roy’s religious thought. Among Indians, the first biographical essay was by Kissory Chand Mitter who was also the first to dispute Rammohun’s credentials as a Vedantist and projected him as a culturally neutral and philosophical theist.
Gaps in information
“Due to substantial gaps in information”, says Sen, “scholars have remained undecided on whether Roy visualised a free India or remained a captive of the development chronology of the Empire.”
This is where Sen’s critique fills in by taking into account the works of other Bengali literary scholars and historians like Brajendranath Bandopadhyay in particular who published 35 essays and articles on Rammohun’s early life, assets and career. These help cast doubt upon several legends and anecdotes commonly ascribed to Rammohun Roy.
For instance, though Roy admired certain virtues in the British like their powers of rational thinking, their orderliness and organisation and strongly supported the idea of India remaining under the political tutelage of the British, he eventually turned hostile to the political revolution in Bengal.
This biography is an essential work about the legendary man whose power, passion and peculiarities influence and fascinate people. It is divided into four distinct parts — his early life; stirrings of new Hinduism and battling orthodoxy; erecting the pillars of modernity through education, economy, law and polity; and his last years.
Sen gives a riveting account of Rammohun’s visit to distant lands at 15 with the intention of studying other religions. The travelogues reinforce Roy’s images as a fearless crusader, a wanderer in search of authentic information.
The biography not only examines Roy’s public image but also looks into his family equations, the strained relationship he had with his father Ramakanto Roy, a Vaishnavite and his mother, Tarini, from a Shakta background. He enraged them by veering away from traditional forms of Hindu worship and exposing the religious hypocrisies through Brahmo Samaj.
When his father passed away, spending his last days in considerable distress due to his inability to clear his debts, Rammohun refused to stand by his family members even while his brother Jagmohun was still in jail. The differences escalated to the extent that his father’s obituary rites were performed at three different places by three different people. Rammohun’s service under the government helped him amass properties and his income allowed him the luxury of a settled life. His uncompromising attacks on Hindu idolatry, his preference for Muslim dress and mannerisms, his befriending Europeans and bringing them home made him unpopular with the orthodox.
Was Rammohun truly universal in his religious views? The book quotes Ashish Nandy who claims Roy focussed on Vedic texts as a ploy to secure an audience for theological debates and make religious reformism more acceptable. Philosopher Brajendra Nath Seal suggests Roy took all religions to follow their own distinct paths of social and historical development until they converged at some point.
Contrary to general perceptions, writes Sen, Rammohun’s polemical work Tuhfat is not harsh on Hinduism or on Brahmins as a devious and self-seeking class though he opens with a dramatic statement that falsehood is common to all religions. Rather, says the author, it takes certain general observations about the nature and function of religions and explains what helps to keep them alive and useful to society. Sen finds Rammohun’s views on God and religion marked by a penetrating rationalism manifest in his writings after 1815, when he founded the Atmiya Sabha.
The campaign he led for abolition of Sati best qualifies him as a reformer. With his pragmatism he was quickly able to spot the correlation between law and social conduct and fought for widow remarriage and the right of women to hold property.
Sen also feels Rammohun did not insist on English alone as the medium of instruction. His concern really was to make available to young minds knowledge that was advanced and useful and that is why he strongly advocated the study of science, western medicine and technology. In the heat of controversy, writes Amiya Sen, what is also often overlooked is the selflessness with which Rammohun took on the task of spreading modern education and never advocated cultural cloning.
Pleasures of life
Various key moments and events in Raja Rammohun’s life, lead Sen to depict him as a man given to the pleasures of life and who revelled in the company of people he liked and handled his opponents with disarming grace.
Though much of Roy’s work in India faded from public memory shortly after his death, his fame or reputation never declined with age. He commanded respect to the extent of veneration in renaissance India. It was so, says Sen, because Rammohun remained firmly rooted to his culture and simultaneously absorbed the richness of human experiences. His openness was both resented and respected even as he remained a true cosmopolitan, visualising a world without borders.
Those comfortable with Rammohun Roy’s interests, activities, triumphs and losses, will enjoy some of the more modern concerns that Sen highlights in this book.
(Soma Basu is a feature writer with The Hindu in Madurai)