Raja Rammohun: Father of modern India

Raja Rammohun Roy was the spirit of freedom incarnate. His was a life that knew no fear; he commanded a patience that knew no despair. His was the high resolve to brave all the storms of life, to turn all curses of destiny into blessings. Verily, he is one of those great souls who are hooted in their own age and supremely honoured in the next. Equal-minded towards scorn and praise, he fought his battles all alone. His life-history is a message of freedom and a gospel of luminous works.

A versatile genius was he. He was at home in Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, Urdu, Bengali, English, French, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. No hyperbole, he could pass with the utmost ease from one language to another. As his learning was varied and profound, even so his achievements were vast and wonderful.

It was the Raja who inaugurated the Modern Age in this great subcontinent. His personality was at once many-sided and perfectly balanced. By virtue of his freedom of spirit he dynamised our national being. He was the pioneer path-maker who removed teeming obstacles that impeded our steady progress within and without at every step. It was he who, for the first time, understood the true significance of the Modern Age. He fully realised the truth that an isolated independence can never be the ideal of human civilisation. No sphere of our national existence did he leave untouched. The spirit of self-assertion in the light of the all-pervading Brahman was his slogan. Right from his adolescence he sacrificed his life, his everything, to bring to the fore the true gems of India's civilisation which were scattered, unnoticed and uncared for. He gave the death-blow to the idolatry of our ancestral faith. Also, he clearly observed that blind superstition was reigning supreme in Hindu society.

Naturally this rebel soul became a cause of worry to his venerable father. Soon his father could not help asking the son to quit his house. The proud son did listen to his father. He undertook a fateful journey, crossed the Himalayas, and found himself on Tibetan soil to learn the significance of Buddhism. Strangely enough, here too he had to face the same problem of idolatry. With his indomitable will he criticised it thoroughly. Soon his life fell under the shadow of grave danger.

But for some kind-hearted Tibetan ladies he would have been put to death by the Lama-worshippers. Throwing dust in the eyes of his foes he returned home safe.

Rammohun had three kinds of friends: those who wanted to honour themselves by association with the Raja, so distinguished a personality; those who frequented his residence in season and out of season to have his advice and get their desires fulfilled; and the rare ones who came to sympathise with him and his highly elevating principles.

The Raja had already become an object of contempt in his country for his anti-idolatry attitude. And when he opened the "Brahma Sabha" (The Theistic Association) and brought about the anti-suttee agitation, his antagonists simply let loose a full flood of abuse on him. But history bears witness to the fact that Rammohun, the hero of heroes, with the help of Lord Bentinck successfully abolished the dreadful custom of Hindu widows burning on the funeral pyres of their husbands.

It was quite natural that the misery and degradation of women in Bengal should have appealed strongly to the ever-sympathetic heart of the Raja. Both his genuine sympathy and high admiration for the women of Bengal were striking:

"Women are in general inferior to men in bodily strength and energy; consequently, the male part of the community, taking advantage of their corporeal weakness, have denied to them those merits that they are entitled to by nature, and afterwards they are apt to say that women are naturally incapable of acquiring those merits… You charge them with want of resolution, at which I feel exceedingly surprised; for we constantly perceive, in a country where the name of death makes the male shudder, that the female, from her firmness of mind, offers to burn with the corpse of her deceased husband; and yet you accuse those women of deficiency in point of resolution."

Tagore's admiration for Rammohun is unique. He describes the Raja as "A Universal man." The world-renowned scholar Max Muller addressed Rammohun Roy as the Father of Comparative Religion. Vivekananda calls him "the first man of the new regenerate India." "Rammohun Roy," says Sri Aurobindo, "was a great man in the first rank of active genius who set flowing a stream of tendencies which transformed our national life."

The politician and the philanthropist in the Raja, too, deserve ample praise:

"If religion is from God, is politics from the Devil?"

"The true way of serving God is to do good to man."

The Raja was almost consumed with the desire to visit Europe. After his arrival in England he met William Roscoe, the historian of the Medicis, and Jeremy Bentham, the Utilitarian philosopher. Roscoe is reported to have observed after seeing him, "Deeply grateful am I to God for keeping me alive to witness this blessed day." Bentham addressed him as his "intimately admired and dearly beloved collaborator in the service of mankind."

The Raja had an intense longing to visit America. America, too, sincerely wanted him. Dr. Kirkland, ex-President of Harvard University, exclaimed, "The Raja was an object of lively interest in America and he was expected there with the greatest anxiety."

Rammohun cherished a great admiration for France. Hence he did not fail to visit that country. According to him, France is a "country favoured by Nature and richly adorned by the cultivation of the arts and sciences and, above all, blessed by the possession of a free constitution." Napoleon had conquered his heart even when he was in his teens. The French King, Louis Phillippe, invited him to dinner several times.

It was at Bristol that he breathed his last on May 27, 1833. His longtime home in Arno's vale has been a hallowed place for both his eastern and western admirers. Rammohun's ideas were far ahead of his age, but by virtue of his tremendous toil in the cause of regenerating India he will live forever.

Finally, let me conclude this homage of mine with the glowing tribute paid to him by Mary Carpenter, the author of The Last Days in England of Raja Rammohun Roy:

Thy Nation sat in darkness, for the night
Of pagan gloom was o'er it, — Thou wast born
Midst superstition's ignorance forlorn:
Yet in thy breast there glowed a heavenly light
Of purest truth and love, and to thy sight
Appeared the day-star of approaching morn.