Raja Rammohun Roy: India’s gentleman reformer

(My column in Mint, June 3 2017)

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When Raja Rammohun Roy landed in England in April 1831, among those who disembarked with him were his servants, an adopted son rumoured to be his bastard from a Muslim woman, a Brahmin cook and a milch cow. The cow and cook were essential to the enterprise—Roy had already been written off in Bengal for defying rules of caste and custom, and needed to demonstrate some degree of ritual conformity to support his venture across forbidden seas. But while adversaries at home resented him, in England he became a celebrity, received to cheers of “Long Live Tippoo Saheb”, with the police being summoned in Manchester to moderate public enthusiasm. The Times hailed him as a poster child of the West’s civilizing mission, calling him “a harbinger of those fruits which must result from the dissemination of European knowledge” in the exotic darkness that was the East.

There was good reason for such romanticization. On the one hand, Roy came on a mission from Akbar II, who sought a more generous pension from the East India Company. But on the other, Roy, whose works on Indian philosophy earned him a reputation as Hinduism’s Luther, also wished to acquaint the British with his homeland. As he remarked, “One of my objects in visiting this country has been to lay before the British public a statement, however brief, of my views regarding the past conditions and future prospects of India.” He was the Mughal emperor’s envoy, but he saw himself also as an ambassador for India itself, and indeed as the urbane face of a reforming society that would soon rise to find its destiny (though of course this did not stop him from telling Victor Jacquemont that India needed “many more years of English domination” to get there).

It was this presumption that made him enemies, including in his household. Roy was born to the junior wife of a junior son, into a Brahmin line that had served the Mughal state. His father, with whom he disagreed uncompromisingly, had brought upon the family the ignominy of going to prison by failing to honour his debts. His formidable mother was even less pleased with Roy, when at “about the age of sixteen, I composed a manuscript calling in question the validity of the idolatrous system of the Hindoos”. He went away from home very young, and in Patna upset Muslim leaders with his observations on their faith, while his The Precepts Of Jesus rubbed Christian missionaries the wrong way. Some called him a lapsed Hindu and threw bones and garbage into his yard, while others created obstacles at work during the years he served the Company government.

Roy, famous mainly for his campaign against widow-burning and for founding what would become the Brahmo Samaj, was educated in Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic, and is said to have ventured as far as Tibet in his quest for learning. He was suave and polished but acutely conscious that his recommendations on reform were seen as the toyings of a dilettante. As one biographer notes, “Rammohan was an anomaly to many of his Bengali contemporaries. In his…English language skills and European tastes, he was the image of the prosperous nineteenth century Calcutta babu. Yet in private he hankered for distinction as a shastric scholar.” His Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin (A Gift To Deists) was seen as an effort to flaunt his Persian, while his first Vedantic essay in 1815 invited scorn from traditionalists as far away as Madras.

But local disdain did not mean unpopularity. Roy owned several newspapers and stood up to the colonial state when censorship was attempted, while explaining Hindu scriptural concepts in English to the very same Western audiences. He persuaded them of the value India’s past held even if its present had been corrupted by foolish custom. There was conviction here—he refused to participate in his father’s funeral rites because he thought them meaningless. He produced such texts as Questions And Answers On The Judicial System Of India even as he expounded A Tract On Religious Toleration. He had a curious mind, vision and clarity of expression, all united in a desire to be the spokesperson for a more pristine Hinduism in a reinvigorated India.

In this he succeeded—a fascinating intellectual movement was born through his and his contemporaries’ efforts in Bengal, while his two years in England saw him impress individuals from King William IV down to Benjamin Disraeli. Lord Macaulay waited hours one evening hoping to introduce himself to Roy, while Jeremy Bentham began a campaign to elect him to parliament. There was also a christening where the infant was named Thomas Rammohun Roy, and stories floated of a romance in Bristol. There was no doubt that Roy was immensely popular in English society, for he was also on the side of introducing Western education in India—Sanskrit schooling, he argued, “would be best calculated to keep (India) in darkness”. Reform was the need of the hour, and the language of such reform did not matter to him, even if it threatened orthodox elements who preferred the security of tradition.

The Brahmin had no place in Roy’s Hinduism—“If in doubt,” he recommended, “consult your conscience,” not your priest. He rejected Brahmin domination, calling them “self interested guides, who, in defiance of the law as well as of common sense, have succeeded…in conducting (ordinary people) to the temple of idolatry”, hiding “the true substance of morality”. Roy, whose birth anniversary it was two weekends ago, would have had even more to express had he not died in 1833. It took 120 days for the news to reach India but his message had already taken root: that Indians “are capable of better things” and “worthy of a better destiny”. Indeed as one obituary put it, despite the “extreme interruption and inconvenience” his views caused him, Roy remained true to his convictions and that which he believed was right for the good of India and his fellow Indians. And for this alone he deserves to be remembered.

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