Thus says the illustrious Manu: “The great immutable words (bhooh, bhoovah, swuh) preceded by the letter OM and also the Gayatri, consisting of three measured lines, must be considered the entrance to Divine bliss.” — Prescript for the offering of supreme worship by means of the Gayatri, the most sacred text of the Vedas. By Raja Rammohun Roy, 1827

A half-truth is a full lie.

Recently the volatile world of Twitter and Facebook erupted with a controversy wherein a Bollywood actress made a claim that was picked up many others including Twitter historians and right-wing propagandists like Rajiv Malhotra that the 19th century reformer and social activist Raja Rammohun Roy was a British agent and a Christian convert who was part of some grand plan to subvert Hinduism, notwithstanding his contribution, accepted begrudgingly, in helping abolish that abomination of widow burning called Sati. Malhotra even went on to make a short video quoting from a letter by Rammohun Roy that asked the British to establish English education in India while rejecting all the old Sanskrit schools and tolas.

On the surface of it, this seems like very solid evidence, the only problem being it is half-truth at best. Rammohun Roy’s opinions on various topics changed with time and circumstances as it happens to many human beings. Only the divine or a fool is always sure.

The era of Raja Rammohun Roy

Rammohun was born in May 1772 in Bengal to parents who were Vaishnavite and Shaivite. He completed his education in a local village pathshala where he learned Bangla, some Sanskrit and Persian.

The Battle of Plassey had just been concluded in 1757 that ended the Islamic rule in Bengal and landed the Company in a sure footing. Yet, for the initial period, the East India Company worked on the premises of being a trading post, and as such they were quite mindful of not disturbing the social and religious culture of the land, lest it should provoke a reaction from the Indians.

Bengal, especially the upper layer of society, had been reeling under an oppressive Muslim rule, and the victory of the British over Siraj was heralded as the ushering in of a new and more enlightened reign. Thoughts of independence and freedom were naturally quite far off. Such was the effect — not only in Bengal but also in other parts — of the Company’ victory that Raja Nabakrishna Deb of the Shobhabazar Rajbari in Kolkata started the first grand public Durga Puja as a mark of celebration. Robert Clive and his soldiers used to participate in the feast on Durgashtami; they even allowed a grant of Rs 60 to the Kalighat temple every year for its upkeep, and even visited Kalighat after defeating Tipu Sultan and gave a puja with Rs 5,000 dakshina. [1]

Not surprisingly, many of the top Hindu thinkers of that era, at least in the initial phase, considered the coming of the British as a great boon for India. Rammohun was a product of this age and he too looked at the British with great admiration. During his younger days, his vehement protest against idol-worship — which, by the way, he had self-acquired even before he was introduced to any Christian text — resulted in him being thrown out of his home. He was also declared a heretic so that, some texts claim, the share of his property could be taken over by others.

Anyway, Rammohun continued his voluntary study, touring the length and breadth of India, going up to Tibet to learn Buddhism, and then going to Benaras (Varanasi) and spending 12 years in the study of the Vedas and Vedanta under tradition pundits.

It is after this phase that he started learning English and joined the service of the East India Company and, thereafter, become acquainted with the Christian scriptures. In his mind, he considered English education to be of great importance in the uplift of Hindus and thus vociferously argued, even pleaded, with the British to send teachers who could teach the language to Indians.

Not only Rammohun even thinkers like Pt Madan Mohan Malaviya, founder of the Benaras Hindu University, would later on unhesitatingly believe that the British education [English education] and rule brought in a much-needed change in Indian society, ridding us of evils like sati and child marriage.

Sanskrit, anti-idolatry stance of Rammohun Roy

Malhotra, in his superficial video message, considers this to be a proof of Rammohun’s subservience to the English. If that were the case, it begs the first question as to why Malhotra’s own videos are in English and not in Sanskrit. More importantly, the case for Sanskrit came up during the Constituent Assembly debates and Bhimrao Ambedkar and LK Mitra moved a resolution for making Sanskrit the national language of India, which was stringently opposed by others.

Some of those who opposed the move included stalwarts whom today’s Hindutva champions consider to be their hero like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The opponents’ belief was that Hindi was what needed to be implemented forcefully across India and this would automatically make Sanskrit popular! Clearly, this was a massive misconception; else Malhotra would have learned Sanskrit organically by now from his knowledge of Hindi.

In 1957, a thorough study by the Sanskrit Commission headed by linguist Suniti Kumar Chatterjee gave its fantastic recommendations on how to popularise Sanskrit and those have been made to gather dust even by the pro-Hindutva NDA sarkar. However, the most revealing factor that comes out in the debates was that almost everyone agreed that English had to run parallel to an Indic language for India to grow. How then is it Raja Rammohun Roy’s fault, whose point of view is no different from that of Indic political and cultural stalwarts nearly a century or more after his times? Any video of Sanskrit that missed out these factors is a joke at best or vile propaganda at worst.

We can safely disagree with Rammohun today after having consumed the benefits of a modern education that includes studies in mathematics, chemistry, anatomy, natural sciences, natural philosophy, etc, which, by the way, constitute the biggest chunk of middle-class Indians of all castes, including NRIs like Malhotra, which was what Rammohun was trying to implement at that nascent stage, but what excuse is there for a shoddy investigation into the subject and glossing over the more serious crimes of side-lining Sanskrit by the earliest stalwarts of Indian politics?

Coming back to Rammohun, was he, in action, always opposed to Sanskrit education? Not really. Quoting from the letters and life of Roy published in 1913,

Equally important was the Raja’s contributions to the revival of Sanskrit study in Bengal. In his time Sanskrit was at a very low ebb in the province. Sanskrit learning was mainly confined to mechanical cramming in grammar and the Smritis, The Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Vedant were almost forgotten. Though an earnest advocate of modern scientific culture, Rammohun Roy was no less ardent in his admiration for and insistent on the revival of the ancient Aryan culture. At the discussions of the Atmiya Sabha as to the best means for the elevation of the Indian people, at which David Hare was present, Rammohun Roy seriously contended at first that “they should establish an assembly or convocation in which what are called the higher or purer dogmas of Vedantism or ancient Hinduism might be taught.” But later when he came to stand in favour of western scientific education, he did not altogether abandon his plea for the revival of ancient Hindu learning but persevered single-handed in his scheme and at last in 1826 succeeded in establishing a Vedanta college. He appears to have built a house and spent every month a considerable sum of money for it.

To convince people of the excellence of the ancient Hindu religious literature he, further, published some of the masterpieces of the early times with translations in Bengali, English and Hindi. This had, of course, the desired effect; others, following in his footsteps, laboured in this rich field; and there has grown a lively interest in the study of ancient Hindu religious literature of which Rammohun was the inaugurator. Eminent scholars of the present day have borne testimony to the value of this phase of the Raja’s labours, Pandit Kalibar Vedantabagish, a well-known Vedantic scholar of recent times, observed at a public meeting in commemoration of the 63rd anniversary of the Raja’s death that “a great boon had been conferred on the country by Raja Rammohun Roy in reviving the study of Vedanta philosophy in Bengal and acknowledged in feeling terms how he was himself indebted to the Raja for having been first led to the study of the Vedanta by the Raja’s writings on the subject in the Tattwabodhini Patrika.”

Well, at least Rammohun spent 12 years under traditional teachers to learn Sanskrit and the Vedanta Shastra at the holiest city of Hindus. How many of his modern-day egg-faced Twitter detractors or self-appointed NRI Ayatollah’s of Hindutva, who casually throw epithets like ‘traitor’, have done that or even willing to do so? In ancient debates, qualification of the opponent was mandatory and that itself would debar most anti-Rammohun crusaders from being taken seriously.

In 1815, Roy published a translation of the Brahmasutras into Bengali called Vedantasutra and the following year, in 1816, Rammohun wrote a translation of the Kena and Ishaopanishads into Bangla, Hindi and English. In 1817, he engaged in the translation of the Katha, Manduka and the Mandukya Upanishads into Bengali. It was during this phase that his belief in extreme monotheism and anti-idol worship stance developed.

As soon as the title was published, the first response came from Madras by an English master in the Madras Government College, Sankara Sastri, and later from the head pundit of the Government College at Calcutta, Mrityunjaya Vidyalankar, who published a tract entitled Vedanta Chandrika.

Rammohun published both these criticisms in his publication and then went on to engage them in a lengthy debate, quoting copiously from the shastras to further his point of view.

It is perfectly okay for us to disagree with him, but it is facile to state that he had no knowledge of the Hindu texts, least scholarship in them. In fact, a learned pundit from Madras named Subrahmanya Sastri, renowned for his erudition, challenged Rammohun to an open debate, which the latter accepted and then, in the presence of a large gathering moderated by one Radhakanta Deb, silenced his opponent quoting extensively from the earliest Vedantic literature.

Rammohun
The celebrated debate between Raja Rammohun Roy and Subrahmanya Shastri

It may be of interest to note here that Rammohun had a strange fidelity towards the Vedas. To him, the pantheism of the Vedas was the actual monotheism; whatever came later in the Pouranika age was but allegorical and shallow. This fact was even noted by Christians who interacted with him during the last part of his life in England.

Not satisfied with debating him and unable to stop him this way, Rammohun’s opponents filed a court case against him in order to disinherit him from the ancestral property by establishing that he was a heretic. Rammohun argued the case for two years at his own expense and eventually won.

Rammohun Roy, Christianity and Bengal

Rammohun collaborated with a Baptist missionary William Carrey and did join the Unitarian Church. But let’s stop for a moment and see what exactly is the Unitarian Church. A cursory reading of their beliefs say they look at Jesus as an inspired savior but do not consider him a deity or God incarnate; they reject the idea of the original sin, and they do not consider the Bible infallible. So, what kind of Christians are these in the scheme of inter-religious politics and conversions? Last religious denomination figures in India from 2016 say about 10,000 Unitarians Christians are present, which is perhaps the second smallest group of Christians after Born Again Believers whose numbers are about 1,000.

In fact, the reality is more complex than what appears through the biased lenses of selective readers. After dissolving the Unitarian Church in Kolkata, Rammohun formed the Brahmo Samaj, which was inspired by his own understanding of what pristine Hinduism should be, based on the Upanishadic texts.

In 1827, Roy wrote a brief booklet on the Gayatri mantra, compiling the various praises of this mantra sadhana from different Hindu texts starting with the Manusmriti to the Upanishads, and recommended that people, at least the Brahmo followers, must carry on this prayer. Rammohun, Kesab Chandra Sen, even Swami Vivekanada kept a steady personal reverence for the figure of Jesus, but none of them were Christians.

The missionaries, particularly the more aggressive ones (not the Unitarians who were/are negligible), were initially very pleased by this respect for Christ and thought these would be easy catch — only to soon find out that the Brahmos considered the Upanishadic monotheism (ekam Brahma dvitiya nasti neha na nasti kinchana: There is only one God, not the second; not at all, not at all, not in the least bit) more evolved and sophisticated than the Christian religion.

In 1846, a letter from Rev James Long shows that, after speaking to many natives of Calcutta, he concluded that a “momentous change has taken place in Bengal” and then goes onto explain that a decade ago it was easy to convince a Hindu that Christianity was the better religion, but now they quote “Vedantaism” without admitting any Divine origin to Christianity. [2]

What Brahmos did was co-opt the sermon and Church routine of the missionary while using the Vedantic doctrine of the Upanishads. That was an age before Hindu preachers had become mainstream and famous. And like many prominent Hindu thinkers of that era, including Dayanand Saraswati, they were furiously against idol worship. They wanted to go back to what seemed to them to be a more pristine form of Hinduism taken from the Upanishads and the Brahmasutras. It was the flavour of that era. One may not agree to it but nobody can call them anti-Hindu, which is absurd and rubbish, at best another sect with the Sanatana Dharma.

Speaking about another Brahmo stalwart, on 13 June 1870, the Times newspaper in England published an article with the insinuation, “While Babu Keshubchandra Sen is creating an interest in London, which surprises many here who know the antipathy of his community of Brahmos to Christianity, and while he himself is most sincerely urging the duty of England to send out teachers to India, a relation of his, a widow, has excited the animosity of the whole class of Brahmos by being baptised by the Church Missionaries.“

In fact, responding to the said report, some comments were published, which clearly shows that the Christians did not consider Brahmos anything but Hindu.

But the further question arises… why were they [Brahmos] arrayed against Christian Missionaries, unless from a bigoted repugnance to a native’s conversion?

Roy converts a missionary

During his years in Calcutta, Rammohun interacted with the missionaries, particularly two from the Baptist Mission in Serampore, Rev William Yates and Rev William Adam, discussing Christianity until he was able to inject doubt in Adam regarding the divinity of Jesus or the concept of the Christian Trinity.

Rev Adams wrote on 7 May 1821,

It is now several months since I began to entertain some doubts respecting the Supreme Deity of Jesus Christ, suggested by frequent discussions with Ram Mohun Roy, whom I was endeavouring to bring over to the belief of that Doctrine, and in which I was joined by Mr Yates, who also professed to experience difficulties on the subject. Since then I have been diligently engaged in studying afresh the Scriptures with a view to this subject, humbly seeking divine guidance and illumination, and I do not hesitate to confess that I am unable to remove the weighty objections which present themselves against this doctrine.

This incident caused quite a furore in that era. This would rank as one of the first known cases where a missionary was converted out of his faith by a ‘pagan’ Hindu!

Many such incidents and quotes can be produced regarding the position that Rammohun held with respect to Christianity, and that is why he chose to be a Unitarian, which is, as we had seen, is a practically toothless denomination. Given his rejection of some of the core ideas of majoritarian Christianity, he and his followers were equally attacked by the missionaries as by the orthodox Hindus for rejecting murti puja.

The effect that the Brahmos started by questioning Christianity, yet not betraying any animus against the figure of Christ, was carried on with greater force by Swami Vivekananda. This resulted in conversions to Christianity coming to a dead end among the middle class. It had just become unfashionable to convert to Christianity when one can turn into a Vedantin, the newer version of it at least!

Today, in spite of the huge amount of money that Teresa’s organisation Missionaries of Charity attracts, which is centred around the city of Kolkata — or the fact that Kolkata was the centre of British India and missionary activity — the impact of conversions have been negligible in Bengal.

The last census says that the percentage of Christians in Bengal is a measly 0.72. More ‘pure Hindutva’ States score much higher (in other words, worse). Maybe Hindutva propagandists would do well to ponder why they keep failing to arrest conversions when a poor Bengal sails through smoothly, and it is certainly not because the missionaries did not make an attempt. In life, advice is good only if it is backed by experience’ those who cannot halt the tide of conversions in their respective States are the least qualified to pass any judgement on Rammohun’s ‘cosiness’ with Christians or why Swami Vivekananda had a love for Christ even though he spared no attempt at berating the Church.

Death of Roy

Raja Rammohun Roy died in Bristol, the United Kingdom. During his days in England, he carried a Brahmin cook with him, and his upaveeta was carefully placed on his dead body. His burial was done privately because cremation was not allowed in England in that era.

Interestingly, as he advanced in age, Rammohun’s opinions about religion too underwent a change. His Christian friends in England note:

As he advanced in age, he became more strongly impressed with the importance of religion to the welfare of society, and the pernicious effects of scepticism. In his younger years, his mind had been deeply struck with the evils of believing too much, and against that, he directed all his energies; but in his latter days he began to feel that there was as much, if not greater, danger in the tendency to believe too little. He even developed a revulsion towards the Unitarian Christians, the very denomination which appealed to him during his youth.

Even the Unitarian denomination was no more appealing to him during his older years.

“He perceived the same defect in the Utilitarian philosophy, and ridiculed the notion that man, a being governed by three powers, reason imagination and the passions, could be directed by those who addressed themselves only or chiefly to the first of these powers, overlooking the importance of the two other elements.”

And then this from the accounts by his friends in England:

“The Rajah seemed to pass much of his waking time in prayer. What special burdens weighed on his mind and pressed out his entreaties, we have no means of knowing. His utterance of the sacred “AUM” one of the last words ( he was heard to utter suggested that at the solitary gate of death as well as in the crowded thoroughfare of life the contemplation of Deity was the chief pre-occupation of his soul. Soon he began to lose all power of consciousness and speech, and yet he occasionally recovered sufficiently to express his deep thankfulness to the kind friends about him.”

Given his rejection of certain core doctrines of Christianity, even the papers referred to him as the Hindu Brahmin. The epitaph, whose images have flooded the internet, was made 40 years later by his admirers and Dwarkanath Tagore. But no one can say what Rammohun himself would have chosen to write if his death had not been sudden.

Some may call him confused, other may think he is heretical; still others may wonder at his social work, which was quite exceptional, yet his missionary friends could not call him Christian at the end. That was Raja Rammohun Roy. Complex and grey.

Debates

Intense debates are a hallmark of dharmic civilisations. Bauddhas versus Nyayas versus Mimamsakas versus Jainas versus Charavakas went on till the 8th century. Then Islam arrived and a new existential threat landed in this soil.

But debates again resurfaced between the Advaitins and Dvaitins or Bhakti Vedanta groups, between Tantrikas and Mimasakas. There were no holy cows and, ideally, there ought not be any; nothing or no one is above being questioned, no doctrine is untouchable.

The language in those debates was anything but civil and each group would use the choicest invectives (don’t believe the propaganda in some circles that in olden times our arguments were all verbal flower petal exchanges) but in Sanskrit, of course. Only the leaders or stalwarts of the sampradayas would debate the other after a thorough study of the opponent’s point of view using primary sources.

Today, it is different. Everybody has a confident opinion, which they feel is good enough to pass sweeping assessments, but rarely spend enough time in the study of the original texts and primary sources. The effect of the internet era. Propagandists thrive on these. History cannot be learned from 280-character selective pickings. Conclusions are to be drawn only after taking all evidence into account, with neither favour nor bias.

Finally, Malhotra accuses all Bengalis of closing ranks and using ethnic solidarity to defend Rammohun Roy. Terrible example. If one goes into a room and shouts 2 + 2 = 5, and people protest, is it a case of some group bias or the fact that the answer is plainly wrong? Like many impactful men in history, Raja Rammohun Roy had his own ideas, and shades of grey, not all of which need be taken seriously today, but accusing him of Hinduphobia or being a “traitor” or having inferiority complex based on selective pickings is merely half the truth.

And a half-truth is a full lie.


References

  1. Sati by Swapan Basu: Historical Study of the Origin and Abolition of the Hindu custom of Suttee
  2. The Development of Aryan Invasion Theory in India: A Critique of Nineteenth Century Social Constructionism by Subrata Chattopadhyay.
  3. Miss Mary Carpenter’s The Last Days in England of the Rajah Rammohun Roy

Peshwas had outlawed Sati when Roy wasn’t even born