Raja Ram Mohan Roy (sometimes also referred to as Rammohun) was a journalist, editor, writer, social reformer and scholar. He is widely regarded as the ‘father of Indian renaissance’. His extensive study, analysis and understanding of religious texts, propagation of reformist ideas for the betterment of society and crusade for change in government policies earned him the epithet. A man who used journalism and editorship for worthy causes, Ram Mohan Roy rightly earned respect from global intelligentsia and was truly a social visionary. The reverence for his work is, thus, not limited to India but finds mention in the history and consciousness of the world. Mrinal Chatterjee describes the man and his life
“Born to Ramkanta Roy and Tarini Devi at Radhanagore, Arambagh Subdivision, Hooghly District in Bengal Presidency (now West Bengal) on 22nd May 1772, Ram Mohan Roy began his education with the study of Bengali language. He was subsequently sent to Patna (now the capital city of Bihar state) where he learnt Persian and Arabic. His next educational stint was in Benaras (now in Uttar Pradesh), studying Sanskrit.
Within a short span of time, Ram Mohan became well-versed in Sanskrit literature, particularly the Upanishads (religious texts of the Hindus). It was this knowledge that helped him to comparatively analyse and point to the evils prevailing in the religion during that time. These, he reasoned, had no basis in the original writings of Hinduism. The idea germinated with 16-year-old Ram Mohan publishing his famous work, Idolatry. The teenager made history since this was the first literary work in Bengali prose.
In his 22nd year, Roy commenced the study of English and it took him six years to master it. It is believed that he acquired some knowledge of French, Latin, Greek and Hebrew as well. In 1800, he took service as a clerk in the Collectorate of Rungapore headed by Digby of the East India Company and earned lavish praises for his abilities. After 13 years, Roy retired as a sheristadar to follow his heart. After vacating office, Digby noted, “By perusing all my correspondence with diligence and attention, he acquired so correct a knowledge of the English language as to be enabled to write and speak it with considerable accuracy.”
While working at the East India Company, Roy extensively studied Christianity. This made him realise that some Hindu traditions and superstitions required reformation. In 1816, he founded Atmiya Sabha to propagate his doctrines of monotheistic Hinduism. He translated the Vedanta philosophy and the Vedantasara into English. He followed it up by rendering the Upanishads in Bengali and English in 1816 and 1817, respectively. He is credited with introducing the word, Hinduism, in the English language in 1816.
Roy published Precepts to Jesus, the Guide to Peace and Happiness, a book in Bengali and Sanskrit in 1820. He argued that Jesus Christ was a religious preacher and not of divine origin. This irked the Christian Missionaries of Serampore no end. To defend his views, he printed his first and second Appeals. When the Baptist Mission Church refused to print his final Appeals, he established his own press and had it printed citing Greek and Hebrew quotations backing his stand.
The books gained attention in America and England, and this was the view of one Carpenter with reference to the second Appeals, “The excellent author is distinguished by the closeness of his reasoning, the critical accuracy of his scriptural knowledge, the comprehensiveness of his investigations and the acuteness and skill with which he controverts the positions of his opponents.” Countless controversies erupted and Roy started a periodical called Brahminical Magazine to safeguard the religious books of Hindus. Atmiya Sabha published a weekly called Bengal Gazette, a newspaper in Persian, Mirat-ul-Akbar, and a Bengali weekly, Sambad Kaumudi.
The editorials of Sambad Kaumudi often carried editorials against the practise of sati daha (forced burning of the widow in the flames of her husband’s funeral pyre) and other reformist ideas. Roy through his weekly spoke fervently on issues he held dear: abolishing the practices of sati, polygamy and child marriage; advocated widow remarriage and property inheritance rights for women.He used the might of his pen to spread forth his ideas to rid Hinduism of its evils and dogmas, superstitions and elaborate rituals.
The orthodox Hindus did not take kindly to these suggestions. An association formed by the orthodox party, the Dharma Sabha, started a periodical, Samachar Chandrika, to counter Sambad Kaumudi. The editorial face-off between them became the order of the day, where the former batted for the status quo and the latter for reforms with Roy basing his arguments on the shashtras. He was the first great Indian reformer to advocate a plan for breaking down the barriers of the caste system by introducing inter-caste marriages and he cited authorities from the Hindus scriptures in support of his view. He justified widow remarriage, inter-caste and inter-racial marriages on the basis of religious scriptures and tradition.
Roy’s efforts bore fruit as his fight against sati daha (bride burning) caught the attention of Lord William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck. After Roy wrote vigorously professing his vehement disapproval of the inhuman tradition, Lord Bentick had several conferences with him on the subject. His twelve years of persistent endeavour against vehement opposition triumphed. On December 4, 1829, an act was passed abolishing the rite.
In 1828, Roy founded the Brahmo Samaj in Calcutta. It was an influential movement that did not discriminate between people belonging to different religions, castes or communities. Roy, who was against idol worship, propagated the oneness of God through the Brahmo Samaj. It was a movement of reformist high-caste Bengalis to fight against social evils.
Roy was the first Indian to raise voice against curbing of press freedom. He and five of his friends submitted a memorandum to the Supreme Court in Calcutta on the 31st March, 1823, saying that the ordinance issued by the acting governor general, Adams, which placed serious restrictions on the freedom of the press, be not accepted.
When the East India Company continued to muzzle the press, Roy composed two memorials (a sort of written appeal signed by some of the progressive intellectuals of the time) against this in 1829 and 1830, respectively. He championed the freedom of press through these. His memorial for the repeal of the draconian press ordinance of 1823 has been called the Aeropagitics of Indian History. Roy was a devoted educator and believed holistic social reform was essential. In 1817, in collaboration with David Hare and Sir Edward Hyde, he set up the Hindu College in Calcutta. Roy founded the Anglo-Hindu school in 1922 and Vendanta College four years later. At the latter institution, he aimed at courses as a synthesis of Indian and western learning.
Roy married three times. As a custom during those days, he was married as a child. When his child-bride died, he was married again. With the second wife, he had two sons: Radhaprasad in 1800 and Ramaprasad in 1812. One of his sons was appointed as the first Indian judge on the Calcutta High Court bench, though unfortunately he passed away before assuming office. His second wife passed away in 1824. Roy’s father got him married for a third time to Uma Devi, while his second wife was alive.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy died of meningitis on September 27, 1833 in Bristol. Uma Devi outlived him.
(The author, a journalist-turned-media academician, presently heads the Eastern India campus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication located in Dhenkanal, Odisha. This is the second in a series of profiles of great Indian newspaper editors who have, through the course of their work and career, made a signal contribution to India’s Freedom Movement, to the development of society and to the development of Journalism.)