From the Archives: Modernity of Ram Mohan Roy

Raja Ram Mohan Roy.   | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Long resistance to change

Tributes to the memory of Raja Ram Mohan Roy have been paid in various parts of the country and they all show how modem Ram Mohan Roy was at the time of his death a hundred years ago. We may prophesy he may probably continue to be equally modern in some respects fifty years hence. The secret of this modernity of this great man lies partly in his comprehensive racial outlook and in the intrepid and resolute action that marked his remarkable career touching almost every aspect of life, and partly in the slow progress of events in social and political upheaval for the greater part of the century following his death. The mere abolition of Sati did not change many aspects of life and Sati was not followed with the same rigour in all parts of the country. The furtherance of the Brahmo Samaj movement by an advanced party of reformers who succeeded Ram Mohan Roy in the city of Calcutta – seceding from the orthodox fold – prevented no doubt conversions to Christianity on the part of those who desired greater freedom from the trammels of Hindu society; but the Brahmos virtually ceased to be regarded as a part of the bulk of the Hindu community and failed to influence it somewhat in the same way as converts to Christianity or Mohammedanism fail to do. There were many in Calcutta in the halcyon days of Brahmoism who wavered between the new dispensation, in a wider sense, and the old orthodoxy — and finally returned to the ancient order. Calcutta was not even all Bengal and even the Brahmos were not all Calcutta. So, Ram Mohan Roy’s ideas remained as such after the lapse of decades even in Bengal; and the bitter opposition to an amendment of the Indian Penal Code as demanded by Social Reform parties in Bombay and Madras, led by Mr. B. M. Malabai and Dewan Bahdaur R. Ragunatha Rao to discourage too early consummation of marriages showed how the Brahmos were like an engine that had disconnected itself from the rest of the train and sped away from it. It was then realised that all attempts at reform by secessions and cleavages of individuals from the main fold of the community was not the best method of hastening general social improvement in the community, and that to carry through changes while remaining within the fold was the better and wiser course. The Hindu Social Reform movement both in South and West India turned on this crucial idea and the energising effects of such a movement were realised within two decades. From 1833 to 1893, a period of nearly sixty years we have a comparatively barren period in the realm of social changes within the parent community itself, if we omit two notable movements which were in the nature of effecting a root and branch separation from the main trunk in Bengal and the Punjab. They showed no doubt the vitality of the sap that still circulated in the social order and their secessional nature was of course inevitable inasmuch as any other course was doubtless too much of an uphill task. But the result remains the same and throws some light on the modernity of Ram Mohan Roy.

Change without secession

Another great stimulus to change without secession came from the gigantic undertaking of Swami Vivekananda who showed that Hindu religion was not worship of stone and wood as images, and that there were some things even in Hinduism to be learnt by men of modern education. At the same time, he strove to liberalise Hindu society by sundering the leathern thongs of irrational customs and by letting in a flood of light in hoary crevices. He diverted fertilising streams to parched up areas of traditional barrenness, without running away from it. This was work of only a decade — from 1893 to 1903. Society has been moving onward consciously since these attempts to assert from within — without resorting to the formation of separatist groups. This process may be designated as one of the changes without secession and it began only as late as about sixty years after Ram Mohan Roy’s death. As observed so often, when an old order is confronted by a new ideal, the former tries to preserve itself and then tries to realise the new ideal and then come back to what was good in the old with what is good in the new. India is now still moving towards the new ideal, but with the influence of such master minds over it as that of Vivekananda it will neither become an unrecognizable stranger to its heritage nor will it consent to be condemned to a process of petrifaction bereft of life and adaptability. Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Dayanand Saraswathi amongst several others furnish proof of this statement in one aspect and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Vivekananda in another aspect. All these are modern in their own way and the good of India lies in the modernity of one type supplementing the modernity of another type.

Ram Mohan Roy in a Wider Frame

It may also be noted that Ram Mohan Roy cannot but be “modern” in Indian politics — when unfettered liberty of the Press is yet in the coming. In matters of administration would it be believed that a reform that he had advocated – separation of the judicial and executive functions – is still in the womb of the future! If Ram Mohan Roy appears to be modern it is not only because he was even so long ago a clear and rational thinker, a bold and consistent conformist to his conventions, but because the pace of reform within the bulk of the community was dead slow for decades after he had lived and died. But this is just the time when the liberalising influence of Ram Mohan Roy’s intellect should be brought to bear on all classes in India — as it has taken all these years for the theatre to be made ready for staging his great drama of a renovated India. He stands easily pre-eminent and first amongst those who may be described as “Indians first and foremost” and continues, even after a hundred years, the brightest in that brilliant constellation. In his outlook and ordering of life he was an unblemished cosmopolitan whom every part of the world might have been proud to count amongst its distinguished citizens. He was born with the stamp of modernity and was ahead of the times in his own country very easily indeed and would have been equally regarded so amongst westerners as well. If his countrymen will try not to visualise him all in all and almost entirely as the inspirer of an era of social and religious secession, however fruitful in many directions that movement has been, they will allot him a much larger space in their esteem and affection. If they will summon to their mind a great and consistent thinker, a resolute and courageous man of action, a valiant and sweet-tempered evangelist to reason and harmony in life, they will be doing him and themselves a greater service than by picturing a suffocating hall of Brahmo Samajists as soon as his name is mentioned. His many-sidedness has yet to sink in the minds of his countrymen and his memory has to be rescued from too close an association with later-day one-sided polemics. His culture and high character, his love of liberty and singular freedom from bias of all kind and his breadth of view as a citizen of the country will be of utmost value to a generation torn by dissensions on almost every conceivable pretext.

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Printable version | Jul 24, 2021 2:52:51 PM |

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