Raja Rammohan Roy

When I read about Raja Rammohan Roy in school, I was taught to believe that he preached a new religion that spoke of One God, making Hinduism in similar vein to Islam and Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. The ideas and intent of Rammohan is perhaps a little more complex that this. In many ways, Rammohan is akin to Socrates, he is more a manner of arguments and reasoning than saying anything specific. The troubles that Rammohan faced namely in the form of religious superstitions, the most vicious of which manifested in the burning of widows alive, were different from the troubles of Europe which were conflicts between science and religion. The European conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries were conflicts of Arabia of the 11th and the 12th centuries, each civilization trying to understand the innate causes of a timeless and a spatially infinite Universe and if it were at all run by the Will of God, and if so, then who was God? To summarize mercilessly volumes of speculation and scholasticism, we may say that the scientists thought of the Universe as inanimate matter, working through some absolute forces of inertia, mass, and motion while the theologists believed that there was a Supreme Being, God, the scientists believed that there was some essential force, which both called as the Final Cause. Amidst such conflicts, there emerged another set of philosophers who were concerned about the human mind that tried to think of both science as well as religion. These philosophers were David Hume, John Locke and others. Rammohan was from the last-mentioned tradition of European intellect.

I am not sure if Rammohan had access to such philosophical works, but he read the Koran and Arabic scholasticism, the Bible and its interpretations, and the Vedas, Upanishads, and the entire pantheon of the smritis. He also read Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas in one single sitting and had access to all the Vaishnav and Tantric texts from Bengal. With these, he identified the self-contradictory assertions in all religious texts and used these to establish that religion was a figment of human creation without any idea or experience of the Divine. This argument grew into the tract, Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin, his first tract published in 1804. The thoughts contained in Tuhfat went much beyond those of Hume or Locke and were taken up only 150 years later by anthropologists and sociologists like Bronislaw Malinowski, Alfred Radcliffe Brown, Marcel Mauss, Emile Durkheim and above all, by Claude Levi Strauss. This shows that Rammohan was not only the First Modern Man of India but also of Western Enlightenment!

Rammohan says that religion is universal to human societies and must therefore emerge from something which is also universal to the human mind. He finds that the idea of the sacred is innate to the human mind and this in turn comes from the species instincts to classify things. Humans classify things as opposites and creates a hierarchy between these to accept and reject stuff. Hence every society has its own sets of haram and halal. Religion uses such instincts to classify humans, customs, and beliefs into the pure and impure, setting up a group of believers and a group of non-believers. The religious leaders, or the Mujtahids claim to know the words of God and use their command over the language to use the support of the believers against the non-believers. The idea of jihad is none other than a calculated instrument of oppression using the believers against the non-believers. Religion is the use of nature to overwrite culture on it. Therefore, he prays to God saying O God, give me the strength of mind for making distinction between nature and custom

Every religion is thus divided between two classes; one is that of the Mujtahids, those who speak with an air of authenticity and the other is of the muqammals who are passive and uneducated, in fear of the mujtahids. The Mujtahid establishes truth in three ways; one through writing texts and epics which are then used as grounds of validating the truth. Secondly, the words of the the Mujtahid are repeated as part of socialization of children in families. Thirdly, the lot of passive muqammals are stunned by magic, miracles and by charismatic talks and when the believers grow in number, the ever-growing community is shown to be a ground of validity as if truth is proved by numbers.

Miracles are devises used by the Holy Men to show to the community of naïve and passive believers that they are the Creators of the Universe. Miracles seem to defy the natural law, so the mujtahid shows that by twisting the natural laws, or by obtaining contrary results to the working of nature, they are like the Creator who commands the natural laws. Since miracles stun too, they use this sense of wonderment to claim the inadequacies and limitations of reason to be able to explain things and instead replaces the mind with faith. Reason is obliterated to establish faith. Once faith is invoked, it is easy to see that this faith resides in the persona of the Holy Man, who is the repository of truth and the ground of validation because he is, he and he is He. Rammohan says that there is a difference between the magic shows of Europe and the belief in miracles in India is crucial. In Europe, people take magic as entertainment while people in India believe in miracles. Miracles in India turn the mind of the believers into faith and wipes out reason; in Europe, magic intrigues people to know more about the natural laws which they may have missed and turns them even further away from faith.

Like miracles, Prophets are false, says Rammohan Roy in his tract, Tuhfat. If Almighty is the Creator of all living things and can be accessed directly by every human without intermediaries like priests, then the Prophets have no reason to be around because they too are intermediaries. Believers say that the Prophet is a representative of God, sent by Him to guide the mortals. This makes Prophets like the very priests who they deny, also an intermediary and part of the same inventions by the Mujtahids. The Prophets say that they have been sent by God to guide the mortals and on such instructions of the Almighty Muslim invaders have persecuted Brahmins in India. But despite their torture and misery, Brahmins have said that even they are under injunction of the Almighty to adhere to their faith. Both claims to have received special instructions from the Divine; on what grounds do we say that one is right and the other is wrong if not upon the might of the sword? Surely, we are mixing logic.

Somewhere down the line, Muslim conquerors said that the Prophet says set your victims free through ransom or conversion. Ransom being money and loot also is not part of the Divine order, as it is manmade. Conversion too has no grounds for justification. How does one choose between religions if all religions say that they are the best only upon assertion and not logic? Prophetic religions ask us to follow them for a good afterlife, but so do all religions. Which religion to believe? Hence conversion has no logical ground. Prophetic religions teach us that the ways of our ancestors are sinful and that they are likely to descend to Hell. This creates disrespect for our ancestors and detach us from our socialization and social moorings. The human thus alienated from his past is anchorless and may seek recourse with the Mujtahid. Thus, on both counts, conversion is a means of recruiting into a tribe of believers which is itself motivated on non-religious reasons.

Rammohan classifies the society into four classes of people.

  1. The deceivers who fabricate things and attract people towards themselves.
  2. The deceived who without checking facts fall into charm of the deceivers.
  3. Those who are both the deceivers and the deceived.
  4. Those who are neither and stand free to contemplate on the powers of the Almighty.

Tuhfat -ul-Muwahhidin follows yet another Tuhfat-al-Falsafila written by Al Ghazzali that writes about the need to do away with speculation and totally surrender to the Almighty God through the full suspension of disbelief. Rammohan may have purposely called his tract as Tuhfat to combat Ghazzali. The Almighty, he would say elsewhere in his pieces on the Vedanta and in his exchanges with Christians is neither a Creator nor the Creation, but the “soul” of the Universe, without which the Universe would be inanimate. Religion, then would use yet another instinct of the human mind and which is to see the interconnectedness of things, and that set of interconnectedness for Rammohan is the Almighty. Tuhfat thus brings religion right into rationality and bridges the gap between a scientific disposition, speculation, intellectual doubt and spirituality.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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