When I recently, which is just about a year, started to study Raja Rammohan Roy both as a scholar and philosopher I realized that our history books had mistakenly written about him as being the first Indian to be fully influenced by the western education, an influence which he processed and then transmitted through to his fellow beings via the social reforms on Sati. Nothing can be a greater misunderstanding of the man and his mind than the above. Rammohan was not influenced by the West, he was the Western influence. He was not one to be modernized, he was the modernizer. He was not a spirit of an Indian Renaissance; he was the very spirit of the Western Renaissance. Jeremy Bentham and James Stuart Mill were fascinated by his intellect, so were the intellectuals of France and Spain, Rammohan’s contributions to Western philosophy itself and especially to what a 100 years later would emerge into Claude Levi Strauss’s structuralism was evident within the first tract he published in 1804 called Tuhfat-ul-Muwahiddin.
Rammohan stands together in the line of David Hume and Descartes, of Mill and Locke if his slim volume of about 40 pages which literally translated means A Gift To Monotheists is analyzed deeply. We were given to believe in our school texts that this monograph was an invitation to the commonality among all religions through the worship of One God. Far from it, the monograph was an attack on religion itself, more so those religions which worshipped Prophets, specifically Islam and Christianity. Yet, in this tract, he resolves the most vexing question of Western philosophy and which is the debate between science and religion, especially climaxed around the question, Who Created the Universe. Despite theories of self-evolving matter and self-revolving planets, from Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motions to Descartes’s expanding substance that holds the Universe to the breakthrough of Newton in his Laws of Motion coming out of inertia, the rational philosophy could not crack the metaphysical question, then Who is it who has created the inertia, the substance of the Universe, the innate laws of planetary motions and so on. In other words, the issue of the Creator and His Creation remains unresolved through secular science, leaving the conflict between science and religion unresolved and secularism as insecure. Religious fundamentalism often tended to erupt in this unresolved gap. Despite the claims of modernity that it could and would relegate religion to the backdrop, Rammohan realized that unless the question of Creation was answered the matter would not rest.
Rammohan’s seminal idea in the tract is his question which the Western philosophy had not yet asked and would not do so in the next hundred years that followed and which is that religion being universal to human societies must be an innate property of the human mind and its consciousness. The root of religion lies, not in the human need to have a sacred as perhaps anthropologists like Henry Maine or Emile Durkheim suggested, but in the species nature of the human mind to classify and categorize objects in the external world. The idea of the sacred emerges from this classification. Classifications are done in opposites, where eventually the opposites are classified as one being better than the other of the pair, for instance, white and black, tall, and short, strong, and weak, where white is better than black, tall better than short, strong is better than weak. The sacred is the preferred term in the pair, and the sacred emerges from a set of dualities, sacred and profane.
The principle of classification itself creates the notion of the sacred. Anything which is higher than the human being, exhaustive of its powers of comprehension can thus be classified as being sacred. Hence, as more and more things that start to make sense in the human mind and which happens through education, these get increasingly classified and hence profane. The sacred then is the way humans think about things which are not in their realm of understanding. Suppose, some men, seeking powers were to use this innate tendency of the sacred to emerge as the source of knowledge, then they are likely to have great many followers. This is where Prophets and the Holy Men come. The holy men manipulate the minds of lay persons by claiming that they have answers to questions; Prophets with their stories of origin are part of a huge human conspiracy to control human minds.
Those who seek power by manipulating the idea of the sacred of human minds take to miracles; obviously, miracles play with natural forces only those which are known only to the miracle maker and not to others. The magician does this too, but his art is to entertain and not to overwhelm and hence he inhabits the realm of the profane. When one is educated one understands more things and many more laws of the Universe and the wonderment of the miracles dissolve into the entertainment of the magic. The amazement of miracles is easily transferred to the person of the miracle maker and this is what Rammohan calls as Idolatory. We were made to understand that the worship of idols by the Hindus was what he called as Idolatory and Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, in his mode of fast thinking thought that as well. But in Tuhfat, Idols mean Prophets, Idolatory means those who worship Prophets, the pamphlet is about the deep lies of Islam and Christianity.
Education is then the only thing to fight religion. As people know more, the ignorance which leads to the attraction for Prophets and holy men decline. Yet, when the Hindu College decided that no religion should form a part of its curriculum, Rammohun objected. He said that religion must be studied. Why this contradiction? This is exactly where he moves into the core of Western philosophy and settles the conflict between science and religion.
In more precise terms, he identifies that the desire for certainty of the human mind as the culprit. Religion seeks certainty and therefore it so rapidly concocts fiction where facts are beyond its reach while science in providing the facts undermines its fiction. But then religion turns around and says, well we know about the inertia and laws of motion but who is the force behind it all? Rammohan says that such a thought is Idolatory because the mind seeks “Someone” or an “Agent” who is behind the causation. The search for “Someone” is Idolatory.
Instead, if we accept that the Universe is driven by inanimate laws and worship those laws and we surrender to the fact that there is a Universe we know nothing of and submit to this world of the unknown and the uncertain in all our humility, then it is possible for us to worship the principle of Uncertainty as the Divine, to imagine that such Uncertainty is the Wonderment of Divine Forces. We will then worship in Heavens our own search for knowledge knowing that its horizons can manifest every moment into newer experience. Then religion and science would both be doubts, and doubt will be our cherishment, it will keep us shy and reconciled to worlds those which are larger than us, Forces which are yet beyond our cognition but with surrender and submission may reveal Themselves to us. Therefore Rammohan, who never read the Vedas till much later in life started to regard the RgVeda for such a consciousness that those which are Unknown may be worshipped, not because of certainty but because of their tentativeness that more about Them will be eventually known by us. Religion must be studied because it is instinctive to humans; but its intolerance for doubt must be fought with the awareness that there is more to know in heaven and earth.
Rammohan’s education was mainly in Persian and Arabic and some Bengali because he went to the royal schools. He learnt no Sanskrit because he did not attend the village school where Sanskrit and not Bengali was taught. When he finished his kindergarten, he was sent off to Patna to study the Koran and other Arabic texts. Here he read what the people of the European Renaissance did a few centuries before him, namely texts written by Arab scholars defending science and attacking religion and vice versa. Among them was Ghazali’s tome on faith called Tahfat-al-Falasafa or call to skeptics; Falasafa resembling both falsification and philosophy. Ghazali suggests rather conclusively that the domains of science based on logic and doubt can produce mental anxiety for want of certainty and thus it would be a better idea to give up such endeavours and sink into faith alone and that too in the Prophet. Rammohan’s starting point has been this text, the name of his own tract remarkably like that of Ghazali’s.
The poet Sunirmal Basu says that the Muslims were the most attacked by Rammohan and yet appreciated him and gave him the laudatory title of Zabardaast Maulavi in Patna. The Christians were upset with him and the missionaries at Sreerampore broke ties with him. The Buddhist monks in Tibet planned to murder him and the Hindus attempted assassination. Perhaps the Muslims still being the ruling class during Rammohan were tolerant due to their unchallenged social position. Rammohan’s battles were not the defense of Hinduism against Christianity, nor of an Indian identity against the British; his intent was very clear and crisp and which is to rid the desire of religion to define everything assertively and finally and to raise the spirit of science itself to the sacred so that the two warring parties are reconciled. Through Heisenberg and Einstein and every other relativist in science, through the post structuralists and post modernists questioning the fixedness of arrangements of institutions in the society, we are only seeking what Rammohan sought and found, a way to elevate to the sacred, the greatest wonder of the Universe, namely the human mind’s ability to doubt and know.