On the occasion of his 245th birth anniversary on May 22 this year, Ram Mohan Roy was ritualistically hailed as the pioneer of modernity in India, and all other things worth celebrating, from the familiar Hindu-bashing left-liberal quarters.
Like every year, there has been an outpouring of laudatory articles on news portals, journals, magazines and papers, recounting and accentuating various feats of Roy:
1. Successfully convincing the British Parliament and the East India Company of the inferiority as well as worthlessness of Sanskrit education while at the same time championing the cause of English schooling for Indians;
2. Making a case against several ‘defects’ of Hinduism such as the custom of sati (thanks to which Hinduism is still viewed, by the less enlightened commoner in the West, as a religion and culture which burns its widowed womenfolk – a notion popularised by Roy’s relentless campaign against what was, by any measure, a statistically insignificant phenomenon in India), and
3. The “idolatrous system of Hindus” that eventually paved the way for a supposed ‘reformation’ of Hinduism, etc.
These sanctimonious, glorificatory accounts of Roy’s achievements could achieve anything but a critical survey of the life and work of a major figure from the 19th century precisely due to the uncritical verve of their devotion and fascination for Roy as the harbinger of (protestant) liberalism in India. (Note that the 19th century was a time that has been dubbed by many as the period of reawakening or renaissance of Bengal and of India in turn.)
Nowadays many acknowledge it for a fact that Thomas Babington Macaulay, whose passionate, long-drawn and scathing attack on Hindu knowledge systems in particular and the Hindu culture in general – popularly known as “Macaulay’s Minute on Education” – was the ultimate instrument that sealed the fate of India as an essentially westernised nation and society in its post-independent republican avatar.
As a member of the Council of India, Macaulay had presented his minute on education before the Committee on Public Instruction, on February 2, 1835, decisively altering the mood of the Council and Committee members in his favour and clearing the path for the English Education Act 1835.
So far the story of the paradigm change in Indian education systems is quite a common knowledge. However, what many may not know is that even before Macaulay could present his infamous Minute, Raja Ram Mohan Roy had already written a lengthy memorial to Lord Amherst, the then Governor-General of India on December 11, 1823 (12 years before Macaulay’s Minute made its appearance in the scene), launching a vicious attack on the traditional Sanskrit education system prevalent at that time in India.
The General Committee on Public Instruction had allocated funds for the establishment of a Sanskrit College in Calcutta, finally opening the same in the year 1823 on the grounds opposite to the Hindoo College (now Presidency University), bastion of European education that used English as its medium of instruction and where the maverick teacher Henry Derozio was leading a band of young students, in thought and deed, towards radical thinking which made their parents fear, not without good reason, that their wards would eventually “reject the Hinduism of their forefathers convert to Christianity or join the Brahmo Samaj” (Seely 2004).
This Hindoo College was founded mainly by the enthusiasm and efforts of a few prominent Hindus of Calcutta – the foremost among them was, undoubtedly again, Raja Ram Mohan Roy. He was at the forefront of all talks and petitions made to influential British officials in Calcutta for the establishment of the college, and it was only after well-to-do Hindus of influence came out against Roy’s involvement in the enterprise that Roy cut all ties with it, apparently to make things easier for the college to be materialised. (Tagore 1972)
In his memorial to Governor-General Lord Amherst, Roy attacked the policy of the General Committee of Public Instruction, which, led by H. H. Wilson, had established a Sanskrit College in Calcutta in January 1824. Roy, on the other hand, batted for founding a college devoted completely to the European system of learning instead of a spending the government’s money on yet another Sanskrit college (the first of its kind had already come up in Varanasi in the year 1791).
Roy questioned the effectiveness of imparting traditional education through the Sanskrit language. He contended that the amount of funds (which was somewhere around one lakh rupees at that time) channelized for educating Indians (in accordance with the Parliament’s agreement in the East India Company’s charter, 1813) should instead be invested in employing “European gentlemen of talents and education to instruct the natives of India in mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry, anatomy, and other useful sciences which the nations of Europe have carried to a degree of perfection that have raised them above the inhabitants of the other parts of the world” (Roy’s letter to Amherst, 1823). Surely, Roy’s fascination with European learning and the English system of education in particular knew no bounds.
This petition to the Governor-General failed to bear much fruit. Undeterred, Roy pitched in for another campaign against Sanskrit education and for English education, this time carrying himself all the way to England. This was another daring task in itself, as according to the customs of the time, going on a voyage across the seas was seen by orthodox Hindus as crossing the kalapani – something of a deplorable task. Elmer H. Cutts informs us (Cutts 1953; p 828) of Roy’s activities in England:
“Ram Mohun Roy appeared in 1831 before a parliamentary committee in England studying the renewal of the company’s charter. While giving testimony on the question of free European emigration to India, Roy expressed the opinion that English emigration should be unrestricted since English settlers in India ‘from motives of benevolence, public spirit, and fellow feeling toward their native neighbors, would establish schools and other seminaries of education for the cultivation of the English language throughout the country, and for the diffusion of a knowledge of European arts and sciences.’”
The questions that still remain unanswered, and thus haunt Indians of the 21st century, are:
1. Why would Roy, a polyglot, even described by some as a “linguist”, and a fine scholar in Sanskrit and Bengali – who even wrote a grammar of the Bengali language – strive to import not just the Western and English system of education into this land, but in doing so vouch for a foreign language (i.e. English) to be accepted as the medium of instruction?
2. If English was indeed an all-important tongue in his temporal and cultural milieu, why wouldn’t he strive to make sure a separate but compulsory training in English language finds its rightful place in the school/university curricula so that Indians are both well-rooted in their indigenous culture, language and worldview and at the same time thoroughly conversant in the colonizer’s tongue, making them well prepared to deal with the colonial ruler, to hoist them by their own petards?
3. Why could Roy not realise, if he indeed was the “brilliant mind that anticipated the future well ahead of his time” for which he is highly revered by our left-liberal historians, academics from other disciplines and journalists, that the import and imposition of a foreign language would eventually erode the spiritual-cultural ethos of the country Because after all, language is the chief vehicle of ideas – humans think in terms of language, it shapes their thinking, molds their worldview and colors their vision.
4. What made Roy, a “linguist” and the foremost “thinker” among 19th century Indian intelligentsia, not take these things into consideration at all?
5. Did his role in promoting the cause of the native language stop at writing a few Bengali books in the fashion of today’s popular science genre and a grammar of the Bengali language? Or are these efforts, some here and yet others there, get eclipsed by his prostration before the altar of the English language and the English system of education, the glamour and exoticism of which seems to have been his lifelong fascination?
In the final analysis, when Western liberalism has proven to be directly counterproductive to the young Republic of India – by producing such forces within its fold who vouch for its death on a regular basis, who ridicule anything and everything traditional, not stopping for a moment to give it its due in at least allowing it a voice, Ram Mohan Roy’s complicity in Macaulay’s (who wanted to produce “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”) cause looks impeccably complete.
Perhaps it is time (though much belated) that Roy’s ideas and actions are started to be analysed for what they are worth for the Hindu, for once putting aside the lenses of awe-filled reverence, and in light of his problematic relationship with his family and the society where he comes from, too.
Ram Mohan Roy has always maintained a consistency in beleaguering his parents – especially his father – by his disrespectful speech and actions towards the Hinduism that was so dear to his parents. His father was a devout Bengali Vaishnav and his mother hailed from a Shaiva family. Those who are not closely acquainted with Roy’s life may feel surprised to know that he was driven out of his father’s house in his teens, thanks to his recurring and deliberate attempts to offend his family’s tradition and faith.
One story goes like this: once Roy was given the sacred Bael leaves after the usual puja of the deity, which Roy ended up eating, thereby irking his family. His father could not ignore Roy’s unnatural intolerance towards Hindu traditions any more when he started to write a book against “Hindu idolatry”, vocally preaching about the same. Roy was driven out to save the family from further ignominy.
What did Roy do next? In a hilarious repetition of history, after roaming around the country for quite a few years he ended up being in Tibet, where he encountered Tibetan Buddhism first hand and again, somewhat compulsively, launched a severe criticism of the idol-worshipping tradition of the lamas. The result: he was driven out of Tibet. He could finally return to his native place only after the demise of his father.
The compulsive intolerance of idol-worshipping in Roy’s behaviour tells us something about his nature in general. It is the same mentality that spawns intolerance (of the Abrahamic kind) towards idol-worshippers, which had inspired the Islamic and Christian colonizers of India to devote entire lifetimes and armies, either of the military or the missionary/administrative/orientalist academic kind, to the ‘holy’ cause of destroying all temples of the idolater.
If not in practice, in theory the Brahmo ‘religion’ – that grew out of Roy’s monotheistic, Unitarian Church-inspired theology – has been as intolerant and as violent toward the idol-worshipping Hindu as any Christian or Muslim zealot would be. One of the victims of this zealotry of the Brahmo-s was none other than Swami Vivekananda, who was ridiculed, maligned, and obstructed in every possible way during his mission to the USA in 1893, both in the USA and back at home. Swami ji writes in one of his letters: “I could do much more work but for the Brahmos and missionaries who have been opposing me unceasingly.” (Vivekananda, Volume 6, Epistles – Second Series)
It is quite understandable that a man who has earned the enmity of his family, his society and his countrymen may turn out to be a deeply resentful figure, and as such he would be insecure of his position within that society, surrounded by those whose ideas, traditions and worldview he cannot tolerate. In such circumstances, to secure his position and life from possible sanctions imposed upon himself, it is natural that he would try to forge new alliances, often finding amiable company within the folds of those who are inimical towards the same society/culture which our man seeks to secure himself from, by the very nature of their religious and racial ideology.
It won’t be far from truth to assert that Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s case was something similar to what has been outlined above. In fact it becomes apparent in the very language that he has often employed to describe the Hindu society and Hindu traditions in his correspondences with his European friends, colonial officials, and in his public speeches and writings. We can detect Roy’s anxiety to distant himself from Hindus and Hinduism – the society that he was born in and which tolerated his idiosyncrasies till he started speaking in the same cursing tongue and tone that the Christian missionaries and Muslim clerics used to decry Hinduism – in his self-defense, written in response to being dubbed “an intelligent Heathen, whose mind is as yet completely opposed to the grand design of the Saviour’s becoming incarnate” by Joshua Marshman, Christian missionary and editor of the Baptist periodical “The Friend of India”. Roy wrote:
“I should hope neither the Reviewer nor the Editor [i.e. Marshman] can be justified in inferring the heathenism of the Compiler [i.e. Roy himself], from the facts of his extracting and publishing the moral doctrines of the New Testament, under the title of a “Guide to Peace and Happiness” his styling the “Precepts of Jesus” a code of Religion and morality, his believing God to be the Author and Preserver of the Universe, or his considering those sayings as adapted to regulate the conduct of the whole human race in the discharge of all the duties required of them. . . Although he was born a Brahman he not only renounced idolatry at a very early period of his life, but published at that time a treatise in Arabic and Persian against that system; and no sooner acquired a tolerable knowledge of English than he made his desertion of idol worship known to the Christian world by his English publication a renunciation that, I am sorry to say, brought severe difficulties upon him, by exciting the displeasure of his parents, and subjecting him to the dislike of his near as well as distant relations, and to the hatred of nearly all his countrymen for several years. I therefore presume that among his declared enemies, who are aware of those facts, no one who has the least pretension to truth, would venture to apply the designation of heathen to him.” (Collet and Sarkar 1914)
Such was the tragedy of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who was censured by his own family and people, that he could not find complete acceptance even within the European Christian missionaries for which he strived so hard. Ironically enough, he was called all sorts of derogatory names that the Christian missionaries reserve for all Hindus, idolaters or otherwise, rewarding him for all his praises of Unitarian Christianity and monotheism with rejection. That is, until the Indian and Western left-liberals rediscovered him through the Hindu-hating Brahmo quarters in the late 19th to 20th century, and started projecting him as the “Father/Maker of Modern India”.
Roy died abroad; his body was interred in Arno’s Vale cemetery in Bristol, England, followed by a Unitarian church minister’s funeral sermon. His fate denied him a place in his motherland, even at death.
Cutts, Elmer H. “The Background of Macaulay’s Minute”, The American Historical Review, Vol. 58, No. 4 Jul., 1953, p. 828
Seely, Clinton B. “Introduction.” In The Slaying of Meghanada, by Michael Madhusudan Datta and Clinton B. Seely, 9. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Tagore, Saumyendranath. Raja Rammohun Ray. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1972.
Vivekananda, Swami. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Volume VI). Mayavati: Advaita Ashrama, 2016.