The Legacy of Raja Rammohun Roy
The Legacy of
Raja Rammohun Roy

(E-Mail: [email protected])
Presented during his 2007 birthday function at Delhi.

An eulogy that adds to Raja Rammohun Roy's brief life story (Click here to see) by Ashit Sarkar

Above profile is also included in Ashit Sarkar's Homepage,
in his 'Published Articles' - "The Brahmo Samaj, and Raja Rammohun Roy"

We are well into the twenty first century. For India this is a great time of tremendous progress in many fields - scientific, social, industrial and political. Every so often it is worth while to remember and honour the man who made vast contributions to making us what we are today. I speak of Raja Rammohun Roy, born in 1772 in Bengal.

The world frequently remembers geniuses like Galileo, Newton and Einstein to name a few. We ourselves owe so much to people C. V. Raman, Jagadish Bose, Satyen Bose and Homi Bhaba - all of them home grown scientific geniuses.

But how often do we remember the multifaceted man born over two hundred years ago who started the ball rolling for the political, educational and social reforms in India, putting India on its road to progress? He achieved this when the country was politically fragmented by long years of misrule and exploitation. By the eighteenth century our Hindu society was petrified. It had accumulated rituals and superstitions it lived by.

Without Rammohun's foresight and perseverance, there would be none of the marvels and conveniences we take for granted today - such as freedom of speech, education, industrial progress, women's emancipation and a host of other things that brought us on par with our rulers.

Over the years the Indian nation is changing its way of thinking and working. For this we must thank Raja Rammohun Roy who goaded the British lawmakers into giving us the tools that had enabled them to gain prosperity, progress and power, tools which they were withholding from us. The British claimed they were allowing our culture and social traditions to continue without interference while they gave us no inkling of what we were missing, whether it was the industrial revolution by which they benefited enormously or in the social and political revolutions as well.

Women benefited the most from the social revolution that Rammohun spearheaded. In a land where some women of the Vedic times had been idolised - and many goddesses are still worshipped - normal, human, Hindu women had actually been deprived of nearly all their rights, including, at times, even the fundamental right to life. They were sometimes decorative, always useful. But they were virtual non-entities. Women had no right to property and were condemned to a terrible existence when widowed. Often the widow would prefer death to a life of servitude to a harsh family where her very appearance was considered an ill omen. If female infanticide had not claimed her at birth and if the funeral pyre of her husband gave her no succour, she was shorn of her hair and jewellery and all but the most basic, white clothes. Severe food restrictions are imposed and laxities severely punished even today. No wonder Benaras and Brindavan are full of widows, 80% of them Bengali, to whom society gives nothing and who are exploited by priest and lecher alike. Thankfully there are some N.G.O.s who have started helping these women, Mohini Giri's N.G.O. being one such group.

These days a widow is rarely burnt. Sometimes there are bride burnings for dowry, which is also reprehensible. But these have no pseudo religious sanctions as "Sati daha" did. Now-a-days we need not fear this atrocity. Unfortunately, there are a few rare cases of widow burning and these are applauded by some, but it is illegal. Now, our society supports bereaved women.

The law today protects a woman's right to property and inheritance. Service widows get pensions. We hear from N.G.O.s that in places like Benaras, even the pension cheques are often withheld from the poor women who have neither the legal knowledge, nor education, nor courage to fight for their rights and their money. Otherwise they remain dependent on alms and temple food. This is where the N.G.O.s help them, also helping them to have an income from selling their handicrafts.

While Raja Rammohun Roy helped abolish widow burning, he and people like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar advocated widow remarriage which is widely accepted today. In olden times many of the Hindu widows were very young, uneducated and helpless. Remarriage could give them some happiness and security. But it took a brave man to marry a widow defying social customs.

Rammohun believed in education being vital for all. Today besides Government and private institutions, many N.G.O.s provide that service as well as medical and legal aid specially to underprivileged women and children. Raja Rammohun pushed open the doors of European education in India. Thanks to him we ventured far beyond the limits of Sanskrit colleges and their focus on the intricacies of language and grammar in ancient texts and also the study of astrology. As long ago as 1823 the Raja wrote to Lord Amherst strongly recommending and requesting the teaching of science in India as they were taught in Europe. Thanks to that beginning we had access to the vast realms of knowledge where the Europeans had preceded us.

At first there was a stigma attached to education for women. It suited men and the priesthood to keep women and lower castes unlettered. But once the little fire was ignited, it burned bright and we benefit from it today. And at last our government is considering education to be a fundamental right.

Rammohun believed in doing everything thoroughly. It is well known that he learnt many Indian and foreign languages, both current and archaic, to study religious and other texts in the original and to speak to others in their mother tongues. He even learnt Telegu to enable him to reply to a letter he'd received in that language.

The Raja contributed greatly to simplifying his own mother tongue, Bengali. He developed its prose which was till then unknown to Bengali literature. He also introduced punctuation marks so vital to prose. Thanks to his efforts journalists became a power unto themselves as they were given the freedom of speech. He spearheaded the journalistic movement by writing articles in two magazines of his own to propagate his ideas. He translated religious texts for easy reading of the common man He wrote many books and composed hymns. And he operated his printing press himself. Now censorship of the press is considered a violation of a fundamental right and the breakdown of democracy.

Among Rammohun's religious and social reforms, that we are ourselves are a product of, is that he opposed a sanctified, often professional priesthood, because they exploited their positions. Despite major changes in Indian society, they do so even today to a great extent, whichever religion they may belong to. Orthodox families follow the priest's advice and demands through the intricate rituals for every occasion, from birth, through marriage and memorial services after death. Many grumble, but do not have the courage of their convictions to do otherwise. Today we should appreciate the courage of the non-conformists of Rammohun's time and each of our family's forefather and "foremothers" as each Brahmo has such ancestors. One gentleman was ostracised by his community for simply marrying a Brahmo. Another, a Brahmin with a fascination for leather tanning turned his back on his past and lived the rest of his life as a Brahmo amongst Chinese leather workers. Many others were influenced by the principles of the Brahmo Samaj and followed suit.

Unfortunately, even members of otherwise confirmed Brahmo families are reverting to the idol worship which Rammohun agitated against. The core of every faith is monotheism and worship should be by meditation and living by your beliefs. But some ex-Brahmos say they cannot concentrate on prayer without idols. So now they concentrate on fresh flowers for the statues and preparing 'prasad'. Rammohun himself wore the sacred thread of the Brahmins, because he had faith in its original significance and did not wish to unnecessarily hurt the feelings of the orthodox. Some of his ardent, hot-headed followers made a public display of discarding their sacred threads and earned the anger of their social peers. The ancestor of one Brahmo snapped his sacred thread along with his orthodox Hinduism when he was forbidden to dine with his non-Brahmin friends.

The custom of displaying symbols of one's faith and, in our country, caste, is totally manmade. It enables some groups to dominate and exploit others. Religious symbols and rituals overshadow the core meaning of the faith. Brush them aside and we return to square one, monotheism and true humanism.The Raja's "true humanism" extended to people of all countries. He pushed a reform bill for India which helped Scotland and Ireland as well. When he had to face a barrage of questions on his first attempt to get a "pass" to visit France, he expressed surprise to the French Foreign Minister at that "system of hindrance unknown to Asia but practised by a nation legendary for its courtesy!" He also suggested the establishment of a Congress of Nations. In 1832, only a few decades after the fanaticism of Aurangzeb, Rammohun was given the title of Raja by the Mughal Emperor Akbar II. He envisioned a global society which finally dawned on others more than a century later and we are the beneficiaries of it today in the form of the U.N.O.

Rammohun was so often embroiled in controversy; he had personal knowledge of laws and courts. He tried to improve the judicial system. He saw many of his reforms bear fruit while others were set in motion.

The Raja's contributions to humanity were recognised first by French and later by English scholars. Having poured himself heart and soul into the revitalisation of India, Rammohun was the first Hindu to defy the taboos of the Hindu doctrines to cross the seas and travel to England. He was honoured in England and France. He fell ill and died and was buried in England. But for him being buried there would not leave his soul restless. With his global perspective, believing in the brotherhood of man, "home" could mean any place in the world.

The changes the Raja struggled for, was ridiculed and persecuted for, are now accepted ways of life in India. Unfortunately, many Indians have not heard of the man who brought their forefathers onto the path of progress. Without his initiative we could not have had the schools and colleges that we have today nor an infinite variety of books and newspapers, Indian industries or eventually independence, leave alone women's rights, women in village panchayats, as doctors and engineers, C.E.O.s or Prime Ministers.

In his 61 years Rammohun made a greater impact on Indian life and thought than most men can pack in several lifetimes, if at all. Such an incredible man has sunk into some obscurity today. It was the Sindh Observer's tribute to Rammohun that "His great distinction was that he was NOT the product of his age, but rather the age was of his creation". We are still on the path to Rammohun's Utopia. We are the product of his creative, often iconoclastic efforts. And his soul keeps marching on.

And because of what the Raja started, I, an Indian woman, can speak as I do today, in English.

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