This article provides a close view on the role of Ram Mohan Roy as the New Spirit in India.
The new spirit of the age was remarkably illustrated by the life and thought of Ram Mohan Roy who began his reforming activities by preaching the unity of Godhead.
He was the first of the modernises of Hinduism. In his revulsion at the superstitions which drowned the original beliefs of Hinduism, Ram Mohan turned to other religions including Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity for aid.
He, however, did not accept any of these faiths.
He had developed a peculiar hatred for idolatry yet found the basis of an ethical monotheism in classical Hindu Scriptures, particularly in the Upanishads which he translated into Bengali.
Ram Mohan’s views stirred the Hindu society to its depths and a bitter controversy with the orthodox Pandits like Sankar Sastri, Mrityunjay Vidyalankar, Subramanya Sastri began.
The movement founded by Ram Mohan Roy was originally called Brahmo Sabha (1828) but the name was changed to Brahmo Samaj in 1830. An indirect result of his movement was the impetus given to the Bengali prose literature and Bengali journalism.
Ram Mohan was no mere religious reformer, but a stout social reformer who sought to eradicate the prevalent social evils and to introduce what was good for the society and the people. He was a great pioneer of English education and he not only founded institutions for the purpose, but stretched his helping hand to whosoever had wanted it.
It was with his assistance (?) and the support of the Chief Justice Sir Hyde East that the Hindu College was founded in 1817, the later Presidency College. When steps were taken to establish a Sanskrit College in Calcutta, Ram Mohan made a spirited protest in the form of a petition to the Governor-General Lord Amherst.
This historical document admirably sums up the views of the advanced and progressive minds of the time. Although the appeal in the petition for promoting a liberal and enlightened system of instruction “embracing mathematics, chemistry, anatomy with other useful sciences which may be accomplished with the sum (one lac) proposed, employing a few gentlemen of talents and learning, educated in Europe, and providing a college furnished with necessary books, instruments and other apparatus”, was rejected, yet the new ideas were soon to make their influences felt by the Committee of Public Instruction which was spending its resources in printing Sanskrit, Arbic and Persian works and in maintaining Sanskrit College and the Madrasa.
The missionaries helped by the liberal minded Indians set up schools and colleges on Western lines and established the School Book Society for selling English books which in two years sold out 31,000 copies of English books while the Committee of Public Instruction failed even to realise their expenses for printing of Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian books in three years. The process, needless to say, was started by Ram Mohan, who was a pioneer in the introduction of Western education in India.
It was only natural that Ram Mohan who sought dissemination of Western ideas as a part of his campaign for reforms should turn to Press as a vehicle. His journal Sambad Kaumudi (1821) expressed Ram Mohan’s liberal ideas powerfully. Ram Mohan also established two papers named Mirat-Akbar and Jame-Jahan Numa in Persian.
Ram Mohan was an ardent believer in the freedom of the Press and when John Adam, the officiating Governor-General promulgated a Regulation which restricted the freedom of the Press by providing that no news papers, books, or pamphlets could be published without a licence and no criticism of government measures and proceedings could be made and un-licenced publication carried a penalty of Rs. 400, Ram Mohan protested against the measure and submitted a petition to the Supreme Court for the rejection of the Regulation. “He pointed out that the Regulation would not only obstruct diffusion of knowledge, but preclude the people of the country from making the Government acquainted with the errors and injustices committed by its officers.”
The Supreme Court, however, rejected the petition. Undeterred, Ram Mohan addressed an appeal to the King-in-Council in which he wrote. The local executive authorities… abolished legal privilages of long standing, without the least pretence that we have ever abused them and made an invasion on our civil rights such as is unprecedented in (he history of the British Rule in Bengal”. But this well-reasoned appeal met with the same fate as did his petition to the Supreme Court. Miss Collet’s remark in regard to Ram Mohan’s petition is worth quoting: “It may be regarded as the Aeropagitica of Indian history. Alike in diction and argument, it forms a noble landmark in the progress of English culture in India”.
Ram Mohan also drew up a petition against the Jury Act of 1827. Mr. Wynn, President of the Board of Control in his famous Jury Act (1827) rendered every Hindu or Muslim subject to trial by Christian Jurors either European or Indian, but the Christians including the native Christians were made exempt from trial by non-Christian Jurors, whether Hindus or Muslims.
Ram Mohan’s liberal mind desired to rid the Hindu society of irrational observances and evil customs, and social oppressions to which the British fulers were apathetic as well as in favour of following the policy of leaving the existing customs un-disturbed out of the fear of repercussions. The most glaring example of the social evil of the time was the inhuman practice of burning the Hindu widows in the funeral pyre of their deceased husbands, known as Suttee. Between the short span of thirteen years (1815-28) as many as 8000 widows were burnt.
Ram Mohan denounced the practice in strongest terms and showed from the Scriptures that it was contrary to religion. The British were hesitant at first but at last Lord Bentinck suppressed the practice in 1829 in the opposition of the Hindu orthodox section in Bengal. Obviously, Bentinck’s hands were strengthened by Ram Mohan’s advocacy for the suppression of the inhuman practice. In 1830 a similar measure was passed in Madras and steps were taken to make it effective in Bombay as well. The Regulation abolishing the Suttee aroused considerable agitation in Bengal and a petition was submitted to Bentinck strongly protesting against the measure.
The petitioners even appealed to the Privy Council in London. The Directors, however, put up a strong defence of the measure, on the basis of well reasoned arguments. Their hands were strengthened by Ram Mohan who took a petition to England supporting the abolition of the Suttee. He presented the petition personally to the Parliament and the appeal made by the orthodox Hindus in support of the practice of the Suttee, was dismissed.
Ram Mohan’s contribution to Bengali prose has already been referred to. Although the work had been started by the missionary William Carey who was responsible for not only a Bengali Dictionary and a Grammar, a book named Book of Dialogue and a weekly named Samachar Darpan (1818), Ram Mohan pushed the work further by his contributions. His translations of the Upanishads, his pamphlets and tracts, his use of English punctuation in Bengali language, his authorship of a Bengali Grammar added much to the efforts of the Serampore missionaries.
Ram Mohan’s political ideal had nothing less than political independence of India as its goal. Mr. Arnot who was Ram Mohan’s Secretary in England has recorded Ram Mohan’s opinion that “India would be free within forty years and in the meanwhile under British tutelage, India would attain the level of civilised and free countries of the world”. He sincerely believed that India required many more years’ English domination” so that she might not have many things to lose while she is reclaiming her political independence”.
Ram Mohan was a Benthamite in his political views and leanings and was a keen observer of the British methods of political agitation. He showed the Indians the way of conducting political campaigns for redressing wrongs. His first agitational movement was against the Press Regulation of John Adam. Ram Mohan believed intensely in the political freedom for India but he was not in favour of an immediate demand for freedom for he knew the weaknesses of the Indian society.
But he claimed that the Government of the Company should be organised on more rational principles. In the constitutional Government the rule of law ought to be supreme, and civil liberties and individual rights guaranteed. Among them must be included right to life and liberty, freedom of expression of opinions, and of religious worship. Ram Mohan Roy was also a believer in Separation of Powers.
Ram Mohan’s idea of freedom embraced all countries of the world. To him humanity was one family and the sorrow or happiness of one nation constituted the sorrow or happiness of the rest of the world. Austria’s suppression of Neapolitans grieved him so much that he refrained from attending a party given by a, friend. When a constitutional government had been established in Spain he threw a public dinner in Calcutta Town Hall.
The July Revolution in France in 1830 was a matter of great pleasure for him. In a letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of France, he stated “All mankind are one great family of which numerous nations and tribes existing are only various branches.”
Ram Mohan Roy was also a champion of the peasants and he pointed out that the Permanent Settlement had while increased the wealth of the zamindars, impoverished the peasants and made their lot miserable. He advocated reduction of rent paid by the tenants and the loss in revenue to be made up by levying tax on luxury goods and by appointing low salaried Indian Collectors in place of highly paid Europeans. He also suggested fixation of the highest rent to be paid by the ryots.
Indianisation of the British Indian Army, separation of the judiciary from the executive, codification of criminal and civil laws, consultation of the Indians before initiating any law and substitution of English for Persian as Court language were the other measures advocated by Ram Mohan Roy.
Ram Mohan’s English biographer rightly observes that he “presents a most instructive and inspiring study for the new India of which he is the type and pioneer. He embodies the new spirit, its freedom, its large human sympathy, its pure and sifted ethics, along with its reverent but not uncritical regard for the past and prudent disinclination towards revolt”. “Ram Mohan Roy laid the foundation of all the principal movement for the enervation of the Indians.”