When Indians think of nationalism, cultural identity, one Indian name seems the starting print.
What is his relevance today?
We go back to Raja Rammohun Roy, who died this month 164 years ago, as he is the originator of modern India. Along with him came modern education. An assessment of the great man and his momentous times by Pradip Sen.
Anyone knows of the name or the significance of Rammohun Roy today? I asked these questions to myself recently. I live near a road in Bangalore called Raja Rammohun Roy road and a bust of the man sits, rather inelegantly at the end of the road. On the very road or just about are some of the reputed public schools in the city. I see the bright young boys and girls everyday and wonder: do these kids know Rammohun’s name or his contribution to India’s modernity? Yes, India’s modernity, cosmopolitanism, religious tolerance and the whole process of globalisation have all had thier seeds in Rammohun’s life and work. 27th September marks the 164th death anniversary of Rammohun Roy. In this 50th year of our independence it is fitting that we spare a thought for the man widely regarded as the father of modern India. A fascinating and controversial character in his lifetime, he remains elusive even in death. Many books have been written, eminent scholars and historians have studied his works and advanced different theories. Yet the last word remains to be said, to this day he remains somewhat of an enigma.
For example, the Vedantists claim him as their own, while the Unitarians consider him as one who believed in thier tenets. To an extent he was all things to all men; this is not to discredit him or his views – he was a true universalist. This is borne out by the wording of the trust deed of the Brahmo Samaj made on 8th January 1830 and I quote “… premises with their appurtenances to be used occupied enjoyed, applied and appropriated as and for a place of public meeting of all sorts and descriptions of people without distinction as shall behave and conduct themselves in an orderly sober religious and devout manner for the worship and adoration of the Eternal Unsearchable and Immutable Being who is the Author and Preserver of the Universe…” and the strengthening the bonds of union between men of all religions persuasions and creeds.”
Needless to say, Rammohun was the author of the thrust deed and the wording can therefore be regarded as reflecting his views. This led Keshub Sen to say many years later that the Brahmo Samaj was established to bring together the peoples of the world, irrespective of caste, creed, and country, at the feet of the One Eternal God.
Born in 1772 in an orthodox Brahmin family in a small village 100 miles from Calcutta, Rammohun had his early education in Patna where he learnt Persian and Arabic from Maulvis schooled in the madrassa tradition. This left an indelible impression on him. And his seminal work Tuhfat-ul-Muhwahhdin (A Gift to Diests) published in 1803 bears witness to this. He is a strong advocates monotheism and puts forward three basic ideas, features he considers as part of man’s natural religion, first belief in a single creator, second belief in a soul, and last, belief in an after world. All three, he felt were common to all religions.
Already in this early work Rammohun demonstrates with devastating logic the power of reason, when he wrote Tuhfat-ul he had mastered English-Rammohun was eventually competent in ten languages: Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Hindi, Bengali, English, Hebrew, Greek, Latin and French. Tuhfatul was written in Persian with a preface in Arabic-a worthy product of one steeped in the Indo-Islamic tradition. Someone secular India can look back to with respect. Or should I say look up to – a role model for us and for posterity.
At the time Rammohun was not familiar with the writings of European authors who were products of the Enlightenment, yet passages remind one of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. According to Prof. Hiren Mukerjee, the eminent historian, and I quote “He affirmed the intelligibility of phenomena and the inadmissibility of supernatural explanations, exposed the fallacy of relying on ancestral authority, declared that truth is to be followed although it happens to be against what the majority believe. Finally it should not be repugnant to reason”.
I have deliberately quoted these two extracts-one from the Trust deed of 1830 and the other to his earliest extant work written in 1803, to try and show how his thought evolved.
In his early years Islamic thought was a major influence, later he made a thorough study of the Vedas and the Hindu scriptures. Shankara’s Advaita philosophy made a deep impression on him. In his period in Calcutta he was exposed to Christianity and was particularly attracted to Unitarianism.
In the intervening years from 1803 to 1830 Rammohun not only read voraciously but was exposed to the latest currents of western thought. He became familiar with the works of Locke, Hume, Bentham, to name a few and of course, with the Bible, which he read in Hebrew and Greek. He engaged in several serious debates with Hindu pundits and Christian missionaries. All this is common knowledge. Despite his many preoccupations, a troubled personal life, his crusade in support of modern education and women’s rights and relentless battle against suttee, the study of comparative religion continued to fascinate him till the end of his days. In fact he is regarded as one of the pioneers in this field. In a perceptive essay Prof. Salahuddin Ahmed says that Rammohun believed that every religion had to be re-interpreted and revaluated in accordance with the needs of the age.
This, in my view, was the underlying idea which prompted him to draft the trust deed in the way he did.
While the Brahmo movement has gone some way in implementing his ideas, it is my submission that it has not gone far enough. In fact the factionalism that split the movement in the last century only demonstrated that it was as vulnerable as any other organised religion to divisive and fissiparous tendencies. A far cry from the universalism Rammohun had in mind. To him religious intolerance was the cardinal sin. Herein lies his relevance today.
The fact that we can rise above racial and religious barriers became evident recently at Mother Teresa’s funeral, when representatives of all faiths rallied to praise her and pray for her. This, I am sure, would have gladdened Rammohun’s heart. But must we wait for death or calamity to bring us together? Can this sort of unity in diversity not be achieved on a continuing basis? This is the challenge of Rammohun today. In this 50th year of Independence it is time for a little introspection. Confronted as we are by globalisation on the one hand and ethnicity on the other where are we heading? This is a question that must bother all thinking persons. What would Rammohun have to say, I wonder?
Let us not forget that he straddled two centuries – the 18th and 19th, just as we, who are about to enter the 21st. India in his time was going through a period of turmoil, of social and economic change, of great instability. To preserve your identity to accept change, and at the same time to take a positive view of the future must have been a gigantic task, lesser men would have despaired, not so Rammohun. Not only did he rise to the occasion but blazed a pathbreaking trail – which inspired all subsequent generations.
In our post modern, post colonial world, it is fashionable to debunk or belittle the great men of the past. This is especially prevalent among intellectuals. The rest of the populace are encouraged to deify such men of vision, to put them on a pedestal and forget what they stood for. The breakup of the Soviet Union has, if anything, exaggerated the former tendency. Today men of vision are rare but what is more disturbing is the absence of a world view. Any form of vision or ideology is suspect.
How do we survive in such a world, where divisive forces are rife and the stress is on difference rather than commonality? Is globalisation the panacea and market forces the cementing force, that will produce a homogenised consumer culture binding all of us? There is no ready made answer in Rammohun’s thoughts, only hints and guesses, as Eliot would have said.
In a sense he faced a similar situation – I think the trust deed holds the key – it envisages a continuing dialogue, among men and women, irrespective of caste, creed and religious persuasions, transcending all barriers and boundaries moving towards a composite culture transcending religion, constantly evolving, facing fresh challenges, adapting and assimilating. I have referred earlier to the way his thought was evolving, I would like to suggest now that in his last days he had moved from eclecticism to universalism. A truly open ended approach based on reason and reasonablencess – perhaps the only way to survive and shape a multi-cultural society.