Roy, Ram Mohan

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ROY, RAM MOHAN (17721833), important early nineteenth-century reformer of Indian religion and society, founder of the Brāhmo Samāj. Roy's lasting influence has earned him the epithet "father of modern India."

Ram Mohan Roy was born into an orthodox Hindu brahman family on May 22, 1772, in Radhanagar, a small town in modern West Bengal. He was sent at an early age to Patna, then a center of Islamic learning, to study Persian and Arabic, the languages of social and political advancement at that time. At Patna, Roy became acquainted with Islamic thought, particularly Islamic monotheism and views on Hindu image worship, which was to have a lasting influence on his own religious beliefs. His new ideas and subsequent criticism of Hinduism caused such conflict with his parents that he left their home to travel around northern India, perhaps venturing as far as Tibet, to study the religions of those areas firsthand. Encouraged by his mother, he then settled down in Banaras (Varanasi) for a few years to study Sanskrit and the Hindu scriptures. At this time he also began to study English, which eventually enabled him to secure an appointment in Bengal under the East India Company in 1803.

Success as an administrator and an assured income from landed estates permitted Roy to retire at the age of forty-two and settle permanently in Calcutta, then the political and intellectual capital of India. There he launched an active career calling for reforms in Indian religion and society. There too he began to develop close ties with the Unitarian missionaries of Calcutta. Roy was attracted to the Unitarian doctrine of divine unity, and for a time (18241828) he regularly attended Unitarian services and considered himself a "Hindu Unitarian." Later, he and his followers rejected Unitarianism as unsuited to their views and principles; in 1828 they founded their own movement, which came to be known as the Brāhmo Samāj, a society organized to provide for the proper worship of brahman, whom Roy considered to be the one true God of the Hindu scriptures. In 1830 he set sail for England to realize a long-held dream of visiting Europe, the land of the scientific rationalism to which he had become so attracted. He was, unfortunately, never to return to India, for his life was cut short by a serious illness; he died at Bristol on 22 September 1833.

Roy's first work of major importance was the Tufat al-muwāidīn (A gift for the monotheists). This work, written in Persian and Arabic at an early date but not published until 1804, argues that, by natural reason, all human beings believe in one being who is the source and governor of creation, but by habit and training at the hands of deceitful religious leaders, they stray from this virtuous belief. In 1815 Roy published a major study of Hindu Vedanta, Vedāntagrantha (also abridged as Vedāntasāra ), and from 1816 to 1819 he published translations of five major Upaniads in both Bengali and English. He hoped to show by these efforts that the belief in and worship of the one brahman was the only sensible religious practice for Hindus. Roy published The Precepts of Jesus in 1820, which presented Christianity as a simple, virtuous moral code, avoiding mention of miracles and opposing the doctrine of the Trinity in favor of the unity of God. This publication upset both the orthodox Hindu community and the Baptist missionaries of Calcutta.

The two primary tenets of Roy's religious reform were the establishment of a Hindu monotheism and the abolishment of what he called Hindu "idolatry." He wrote in his English introduction to the Vedāntasāra :

My constant reflections on the inconvenient or, rather, injurious rites introduced by the peculiar practice of Hindoo idolatry, which, more than any other pagan worship destroys the texture of society, together with compassion for my countrymen, have compelled me to use every possible effort to awaken them from their dream of error; and by making them acquainted with their scriptures, enable them to contemplate, with true devotion, the unity and omnipresence of nature's God. (de Bary, 1958, p. 575)

Roy believed that the pure Hinduism of an earlier age had become encrusted with degrading customs, of which it had to be purged. Although his appreciation of monotheism began with his exposure to Islamic thought and was strengthened by Christian Unitarianism, Roy was born a Hindu and would not be satisfied until he had found approval for his monotheistic ideas in the Hindu scriptures. He found this confirmation in his study of Vedantic thought, particularly that of the Upaniads. The Upaniadic brahman, according to Roy, is not a static absolute but rather the sole "author and governor of the universe." As for Hindu image worship, he contended that the scriptures recommend it only for the feebleminded and he therefore declared it inferior and unworthy of practice.

Much of what Roy criticized in Hinduism was precisely what was condemned by the Christian missionaries in Calcutta. His reform program had two essential purposes: to convince the Hindus that many of their beliefs and practices were not sanctioned by their own scriptures and to demonstrate both to the adherents of other religions and to the British rulers that, contrary to common understanding, the Hindu scriptures did not advocate polytheism and idolatry but in fact contained a lofty and rational message. These efforts, of course, caused deep resentment and outrage among many orthodox Hindus.

Roy also campaigned vigorously for certain social reforms. He promoted modern education and struggled ceaselessly for women's rights. Roy's influence was particularly conspicuous in the official British proscription of satī (the self-immolation of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre) in 1829.

Many scholars place Roy at the head of a reformation of Indian religion and society that was to change Indian culture significantly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The most important and lasting event in his career was the establishment of the Brāhmo Samāj. Through this religious society, which nurtured such figures as Rabindranath Tagore and Keshab Chandra Sen, Roy's continuing influence was assured. Roy shaped the Brāhmo Samāj with his ideas, and many scholars will argue that it was the Brāhmo Samāj that shaped modern Indian culture.

See Also

Brāhmo Samāj.


A reliable source for the life of Ram Mohan Roy is the first chapter of Sivanath Sastri's History of the Brāhmo Samāj, 2d ed. (Calcutta, 1974). Two recent biographies are B. N. Dasgupta's The Life and Times of Rajah Rammohun Roy (New Delhi, 1980) and M. C. Kotnala's Raja Ram Mohun Roy and Indian Awakening (New Delhi, 1975). The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy, 6 vols., edited by Kalidas Nag and Debajyoti Burman (Calcutta, 19451951), is the sourcebook of Roy's works for the English reader. A good study of Roy's religious ideas is Ajit Kumar Ray's The Religious Ideas of Rammohun Roy (New Delhi, 1976). For the lasting influence of Ram Mohan Roy and the Brāhmo Samāj, see David Kopf's The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind (Princeton, 1979).

Extracts from Roy's introduction to the Vedāntasāra, including the quotation that appears above, can be found in Sources of the Indian Tradition, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary (New York, 1958), pp. 573575.

New Sources

Datta, Bhabatosha. Resurgent Bengal: Rammohun, Bankimchandra, Rabindranath. Calcutta, 2000.

Mazumder, Durga Prasad. Dimensions of Political Culture in Bengal, 18141857: With Special Reference to Raja Rammohun Roy. Calcutta, 1993.

Mitra, Saroj Mohan, ed. The Golden Book of Rammohun Roy. Calcutta, 1997.

Robertson, Bruce Carlisle. Raja Rammohan Ray: The Father of Modern India. Delhi, 1995.

David L. Haberman (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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