Today, i.e., on the 22nd of May 2022 Raja Rammohun Roy’s existence completes 250 years. He died on the 27th of September 1833 in Bristol. His contributions can be measured by the extent of our forgetfulness of him; he must have been very successful that he has created conditions for us so comfortable that we no longer need his services. He would indeed have taken this to be his greatest achievement; so effective, so effectual, so vital that he is no longer needed to run the show. His success can also be measured by the fact that he has made the world which he inhabited wholly incomprehensible to us, so deep are the changes he brought about. That is why there are absolutely no celebration of the Rajah’s life and contributions worthy of note. The various outfits of the Brahmo Samaj are putting up poorly rehearsed songs, factually incorrect and incoherent talks and all the wrong prayers on the occasion.
Rammohun is an interesting person, far too big to be comprehended in a consistent and coherent frame. That he knew many languages, that he wrote religious books as well as legal, administrative and even school texts, that he raised Bengali to the level that Bankim Chandra and Tagore could write about it and infused Hindustani classical music to the Bengali song and was a social reformer who changed Hinduism to such an extent that even the Sanghis cannot return to conservatism and that he was sought by Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Macaulay, Robert Owen in England, by Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Emerson in the US, that the Cadiz Constitution in 1812 was especially presented to him, that the German institutions translated his works on Christianity and that Louis Phillipe threw a dinner in Paris in his honour, also do not help us to understand the man holistically as he single handedly wrote the script of modern India as the later generations was to imagine it, Constitutionalize it and live in it.
If Rammohun must be resurrected today it is due to the polarization that is happening in the Indian society. Interfaith harmony should at least be pursued if not interfaith unity. Let us examine Rammohun’s ideas on religion.
I think that the book Tuhfat ul Muwahhidin which he wrote at the age of 16 and did not publish till he was 32 because he did not wish to annoy his father any further than he was already angered by his views on religion. The source of this book was his education in Patna where he was sent at the age of 9 for “higher studies” which meant Persian literature and Arabic texts. Here he passed the examinations of the Koran and earned the title of Zabardast Maulavi. He had learnt a smattering of Sanskrit at home because of his caste and priestly professions of his family before they came into Imperial Services of the Mughals. Rammohun went to the nawabi school and because of this he had also learnt Bengali better than most. In village schools, Sanskrit was taught, and Shubhankari was the only way that Bengali was instructed; Bengali was a rude language and hence looked down upon. The knowledge of Bengali stood in great stead when later he developed this language to the present high point. Persian learning was quite common as it was the English of the times, necessary to obtain a government job. But his learning of Arabic was important for he read in this language, translations of Greek works of Aristotle and Euclid, Heraclitus and Aurelias, Plato and Socrates; in short, those texts which had created the European Renaissance that generated thinkers like David Hume, Francis Bacon, Lucretius, and others. Rammohun did not learn English till he was in his 30’s; he could not have been influenced by Western liberalism. He was the western liberalism, teaching the Mintos and the Hamiltons, the Middletons and Tylters, the importance of reason over religion.
Tuhfat must be read by modern sociologists and anthropologists for published in 1804, it preempted the ideas of Emile Durkheim and Claude Levi Strauss who were to write a hundred years later. He writes that religion is an invention of the human mind, universal to all societies to mark as sacred those which are incomprehensible, unattainable, unreachable, and uncontrollable. As science progresses and magic develops for the stage as entertainment, the scope of the comprehended, attained, and controllable expands, pushing the sacred to ever more newly discovered areas of the unknown. The beauty of reason is that it not only knows but also can mark what is there to be known but is presently not known. Hence, reason’s language crashes religion. So far, Rammohun speaks like Europe. But where he diverges his path is his recognition that religion is an innate need of the human. Wars and violence brace the human society when religion vacates leaving a moral vacuum. To fill this, one must raise reason to the level of religion, with its ideology, its principles, cannons. Thus, was born liberalism, in his hands through his various publications and the Atmiya Sabha. Western liberalism spoke only of the redemption of the individual, refashioning polities that guaranteed such freedom of action; Rammohun’s liberalism lay upon a contract between the ruler and the ruled, and among the people to respect each other’s freedom and hence to desist from thinking one as wholly free willed and without responsibilities. This thought has been the primary focus of Bollywood since the birth of the star in its movies; many scenes and dialogues of Deewar are directly from episodes of the Rajah’s life. This is what makes us as Indians, freedom to exercise responsibility, freedom to realize the higher opportunities in politics and society through taking on roles of responsibility. When eventually the Congress went to Gandhi, the imagination of the free citizen became this; in the Constitution of India, the imagination of the individual is also this.
The intellectual source of the Raja unfortunately not noticed by most, lay in Ain I Akbari. He was particularly close to the Mughals as his family was, inhering most of the Mughal values in institutions and as his notes show, in the system of their justice. For this reason, he hated the British in his youth. But later as he came to know them and despite his tiffs and arguments with the Christian missionaries, he admired the new civilization and saw in it a path to escape into the future. Hence, he delves into our homes, packs up our bags, leaving behind the baggage of superstitions, suspicions for other faiths, useless rituals in Hinduism, buys a ticket for us in the Upanishads and helps us evacuate the now irrelevant medieval institutions into the land of the modern and rational. That’s why, his stay in Varanasi where he learnt Sanskrit in a structured manner and read the Upanishads and classical music is such an important part of his life. It is this journey that we are now on to, it is a new land that he has brought us into; the land of the yore lies far beneath us, we are above the clouds of medievalism.
Rammohun’s religious views were split between Debendranath and Keshub Sen; the former took God as the manifestation of the natural laws of the Universe to be deeply realized within us and help us align to such rules and eventualities while Keshub Sen opened the New Dispensation to worship of all faiths, Islam, Christianity, Jews, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, and others. For the 250 years of the Rajah, we perhaps need the New Dispensation again.