Ram Mohun Roy

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Ram Mohun Roy

Ram Mohun Roy (1772-1833) was a Bengali social and religious reformer thoroughly identified with the cultural self-image of the people. He has been called the father of modern India.

Ram Mohun Roy was born to a Kulin Brahmin family at Radhanagar, Hooghly District, West Bengal. According to early biographers, as a result of wanderings over Asia in search for religious truth, he became a gifted linguist in Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Greek before he was 22. New evidence suggests that his father, a zamindar (landowner) of the traditional ruling class of Bengal, lost his property in 1800, went to jail, and died a ruined man in 1803.

It appears that between 1799 and 1802 Ram Mohun lent money to British civil servants in Calcutta as a livelihood. In 1804 he joined the East India Company as a subordinate official and was evidently employed in that fashion until 1814, when he retired from government service with a lucrative income from landed property.

After settling in Calcutta in 1815, Ram Mohun challenged the orthodox defenders of the contemporary religious and social systems. In the Abridgement of the Vedanta (1815), Translation of the Cena Upanishad (1816), and the Defense of the Monotheistical System of the Vedas (1817) he condemned such common practices as caste distinction, idolatry, Kulin polygamy, and sati (or suttee; burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands) as excrescences upon the authentic Hindu tradition. Scripturally, that authentic tradition consisted of the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Vedanta Shastras. Historiographically, his differentiation between a pure Hinduism of a remote past and the aberrational form in existence during his own time contributed to a new historical outlook among the intelligentsia, who increasingly divided the Indian past into a golden age and a subsequent dark age.

In the 1820s Ram Mohun's aim was to provide the means for awakening India and to guide it back again into the mainstreams of world progress. He sought an ideology of religious modernism which would be compatible with India's authentic tradition and equally in line with the dynamic and progressive forces shaping contemporary western Europe and America. He chose Christian Unitarianism for its rationalism and liberalism. With the assistance of a former Baptist named William Adam, Ram Mohun actually formed a Calcutta Unitarian Committee. In 1828 he and his followers founded the Brahmo Sabha, precursor of the Brahma Samaj (Society of God), which for most of the century was India's most effective indigenous agency for social and religious reform.

From 1830 Ram Mohun lived in England. In 1833 in Bristol a meeting was arranged of Unitarian leaders representing three continents: Ram Mohun of Asia, Joseph Tuckerman of the United States, and Lant Carpenter of Great Britain were the delegates. Ram Mohun died before the conference took place.

Further Reading

Perhaps the best book on Ram Mohun Roy is the 1962 Sadharan Brahma Samaj edition of Sophia Dobson Collet's The Life and Letters of Raja Rammohun Roy (1962), originally published in 1900. Dilip Kumar Biswas and Prabhat Chandra Ganguli coedited the volume, updating it with extensive supplementary notes. The most useful collection of Ram Mohun's writings in English is The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy (6 vols., 1945-1951), edited by Kalidas Nag and Debajyoti Burman. See also U. N. Ball, Rammohun Roy: A Study of His Life (1933), and Igbal Singh, Rammohun Roy (1958). □