Rammohun Roy (A Critical Biography)

Rammohun Roy (A Critical Biography)

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Item Code: NAE916
Author: Amiya P. Sen
Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2012
ISBN: 9780670084272
Pages: 224
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 8.0 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 340 gm
About the Book

Raja Rammohun Roy (1774-1833) was a great champion of liberty and civil rights in colonial India. He was also a true cosmopolitan who envisioned a world without borders. A tireless crusader for religious and social reform, Rammohun attempted a progressive reinterpretation of Hinduism and tried to improve the lot of socially marginalized groups such as women.

Yet, in spite of his lofty public presence, Rammohun was a hugely controversial figure. He shocked the Hindu orthodoxy by his support to the abolition of sati, offended evangelists by separating the moral message of Christ from the purely theological, and was often dragged into legal disputes over family property. By the time of his death in Bristol, he was as much resented as respected, both at home and abroad.

Using relatively unexplored sources, this elegant and accessible new biography by Amiya P. Sen paints a fascinating portrait of one of the legendary makers of modern India.

About the Author

Amiya P. Sen is currently Professor of Modern Indian History and Hony. Director, Centre for the Study of Comparative Religion and Civilizations, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He has been Agatha Harrison Fellow at the University of Oxford and Visiting Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, and the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. He was also Tagore Professor at Rabindra Bhavan, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan. His research interests relate to the intellectual and cultural history of modern India.


There may appear little cause for putting together yet another biography of Raja Rammohun Roy. In the English language alone, we now have a number of excellent monographs detailing Roy’s life and works, not to speak of the numerous biographical sketches or sundry writings by contemporaries or near- contemporaries that started appearing within a few years of his death. This short biography does not claim to be as ample and authoritative a work as those mentioned above. All the same, it seeks to fulfil a need that often surfaces, especially outside the academia. It occurs to me that even when drawn to biographies, many feel discouraged when intellectual curiosity has to be considerably reinforced by patient indulgence. Lengthy and highly informative biographies hold the reader’s interest only if the narrative does not turn overbearing at any point. Often, critical generalization can be a useful surrogate for obfuscating detail and the average reader, as I have found from experience, is happier handling shorter works that are adequate without also being weighty.

The available English biographies of Rammohun Roy appear to suffer from one other shortcoming: they make inadequate use of the Bengali- language sources published both contemporaneously and by latter- day scholars who write (or wrote) almost exclusively in Bengali. Though a prolific translator of his own works, Rammohun came nowhere near translating all his Bengali tracts and pamphlets and, to complicate matters, his own English renderings are not always faithful to the Bengali original. This followed from the fact that, like Swami Vivekananda after him, Roy quite consciously pandered to two different sets of readers: the Hindu orthodoxy on the one hand and the English- speaking intelligentsia, on the other, that included both Indians and Europeans. Other than doing greater justice to Rammohun’s Bengali writings (some of which are known only to specialists), I have also used several essays and articles appearing in the Bengali language in recent times. This promptly brings to mind the work of the Bengali literary scholar and critic, Brajendranath Bandopadhyay, whose researchers on the early life of Rammohun have cast doubt upon several legends and anecdotes commonly ascribed to him. So far as I am aware, none of the recent biographical works on Rammohun has taken a serious note of such findings.

Further, there are works that appear to be biographies but are not actually so. Perhaps the best- known instance of this is the monograph by Bruce Carlisle Robertson. Robertson’s otherwise brilliant work focuses almost entirely on the religious and philosophical writings of Roy, quite inexplicably overlooking other important aspects of his life and work. This is ample indication of the way in which Rammohun remains enshrined in popular memory: either as a crusader encouraging the government to effect social legislation relating to the life of Hindu women or else as an innovative interpreter of the Hindu religious tradition. Only a few now seem to recall his abiding interest in some critical legal and political debates of the day. In any case, in this work I also suggest, however tangentially, the need to review critically Rammohun’s role even as a social and religious reformer.

Some fifteen years ago, my wife and I had the occasion to visit the shrine built in Rammohun’s memory by his close friend, Dwarkanath Tagore, in the Arnos Vale cemetery, Bristol. More recently, when visiting New England, I also had the opportunity to go around places and institutions with which Rammohun’s several American friends and correspondents were associated. In an old- fashioned way, I have come to look upon this book as marking the end to a sentimental journey begun many years ago.

I would be greatly remiss if I failed to thank the Librarian and staff at the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, Brown University, RI, for allowing me access to their holdings and for even arranging inter- library loans of some rare publications. To this must be added a loving thought for my son, Sujat, whose intervention made this possible. Thanks are due to the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, and the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, New Delhi, for helping me locate, and profitably use, some basic source- material on the life and work of Rammohun. I also take this opportunity to thank the Department of History and Culture, jamia Millia Islamia for providing me financial assistance under the DRS- SAP Programme.

Finally, a word of gratitude for Penguin books for their persistent faith in me as a biographer. Unless otherwise stated, all translations from the Bengali original are mine.


In 1921, in a speech delivered in Cuttack, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) remarked that, compared with pre-modern figures like Acharya Sankara, Kabir, Chaitanya or Nanak, men like Raja Rammohun Roy (1774-1833) and Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920) would appear as mere dwarfs. Gandhi’s allegation was rooted in the view that it was their modern, Western education, compelling them to think and write in the English language, that distanced Rammohun and Tilak from the masses, and hindered their natural growth as social and religious reformers. Such characterization drew protest, among others, from the poet, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). At the time it might even have appeared that the poet had taken greater exception to Gandhi’s remarks on Rammohun than on Tilak and that there was something partisan about this. After all, Tagore was associated, however tenuously, with a religious community (the Brahmo Samaj) founded by Rammohun, who, as is well known, was also a close family friend of the Tagores, a co-worker of the entrepreneur- philanthropist, Dwarkanath Tagore (1794-1846), and a father- figure to his son, Debendranath (1817-1905). In hindsight, however, this is obscured and overridden by the fact that, in the 1920s, the differences between Tagore and Gandhi were, in any case, frequent and touched on larger social and political questions.

Though somewhat apologetic over this issue in later years, Gandhi continued to view Tagore with ill- concealed irritation. Writing for Young India (5 November 1925), Gandhi addressed the poet as ‘Sir Rabindranath’, out of some mischief one must say, given the fact that the poet had renounced his knighthood shortly after the Jallianwallah Bagh incident in 1919. In this article, while taking note of Rabindranath’s objections, Gandhi claims to have commented on Rammohun’s stature only in relation to Upanishadic sages. This was clearly a manipulative change in the terms of reference, for none of the figures with whom Roy had been originally compared belo9nged to this category. In hindsight, the Mahatma’s critique and the subsequent back- tracking seem quite unnecessary, for, over the question of the alienating effects of Western education, there is really little to separate Gandhi from Tagore. Indeed, in his autobiographical fragment (Jeebonsmriti, 1912), Rabindranath had observed that Western education acted like a heady intoxicant which excited the mind without also producing enduring convictions that could meaningfully change people’s lives. Both Gandhi and Tagore bemoaned the fact that this education had led the new intelligentsia to look outside itself for strength and inspiration, rather than inward at its own intellectual and cultural resources. Here, it might even be added that the substance of Gandhi’s critique against modern Indian reformers had been voiced earlier. In the 1890s, Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) had rejected both political praxis and an elite-supported social legislation in favour of mass education and ‘root and branch reform’. Acts of reform that had come to pass till then had only addressed issues concerning the upper castes or classes, leaving untouched the everyday problems of the common people. Evidently, the Swami was keen to restore agency to the people and to re-establish mechanisms of change that were culturally more familiar to them.

Historically speaking, too, Gandhi’s critique appears to have suffered from certain misapprehensions. First, the Mahatma erred in assuming that his advocacy of the English language and Western-style institutions precluded Rammohun Roy from creatively using the vernacular. Quite to the contrary, for it is now established that Roy consciously used the vernacular to democratize knowledge that had hitherto been the captive of upper-caste society. In the process, he also contributed meaningfully to the development of modern Bengali prose. Rammohun was certainly the first to produce Bengali commentaries on the philosophical school of Vedanta and, perhaps, also pioneered the translation of canonical Sanskrit literature into a modern Indian language. Such works, no doubt, were meant for the consumption of a select few; however, in essence, they opened up new vistas of knowledge for those seeking to learn more about their tradition but felt handicapped on account of their lack of knowledge of Sanskrit. In a limited way, this is comparable to the rendering of the Bible into the vernacular in late medieval Europe. Second, Gandhi was also not entirely right in bracketing Sankara, Kabir and Nanak with Rammohun as ‘reformers’. The former were not self- conscious and self- proclaimed reformers of the type Roy was. It cannot be simply fortuitous that terms like sudhar/ sudharak or samskar/ samskarak, denoting reform/ reformer in the Hindi and Bengali languages, respectively, gained currency only in modern times. No contemporary of Kabir’s or Chaitanya’s, in so far as I am aware, called them by this name even while they were only too aware of the changes that these men were trying to effect in religion or society. In Rammohun’s days, by comparison, reform was perceived as an interventionist act in which a historical figure was acutely aware of his moral and social roles. He denied the charges of being an ‘innovator’ and yet saw himself as a reformer who could replicate a European- style reformation in colonial India.

Rammohun, importantly enough, was not the product of English- medium schools or colleges, and his felicity with that language, were not guided by purely professional or pecuniary concerns. Rightly or wrongly, he believed that modernity in India could arrive only through constructively adapting (and not merely adopting) the moral and material changes that had so significantly altered the face of Europe. For him, English was not simply a medium of everyday conversation (though that was not unimportant, given the number of Europeans or Americans he befriended) but also of self- understanding. Perhaps he was one of those to seize quickly upon the idea that translation from one language into another did not always result in a translation of ideas as well. Embracing the new, therefore, also implied a willingness to employ new categories of thought. Rammohun believed that his tradition incorporated the openness to accept what was good in other cultures. And his mind also reveals a wide range of interests, rarely paralleled in the history of Indian thought. He was simultaneously interested in religion, politics, law and jurisprudence, commerce and agrarian enterprise, Constitutions and civic rights, the unjust treatment of women and the appalling condition of the Indian poor. Not surprisingly, he visualized the unity of all reform just as he was to profess consistently our common origin in God. And he studied matters not in the abstract or in academic solitude but with the practical objective of securing human happiness and freedom.


2The Early Life of Rammohun Roy25
3Rammohun Roy and the Stirrings of New Hinduism49
4Battling Orthodoxy: Rammohun Roy and the Campaign Against Sati91
5The Pillars of Modernity: Rammohun on Education, Economy, Law and Polity118
6The Last Years150
Appendix I180
Appendix II198
Appendix III202
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