The current year marks the quarter-millennial anniversary of the birth of Raja Rammohun Roy (1772 – 1833). That’s 250 years since he was born, and though, much has already been said about the life and deeds of this trailblazing 18th century Brahmin from the Gangetic plains of Southern Bengal, one hopes that it won’t be entirely irrelevant to revisit his historical role, both in the context of his own times and that of ours, to properly judge the significance of this historic occasion. In part, this revision also assumes significance at a personal level, as I attempt to make sense of primary material from Raja’s oeuvre (especially his Bengali writings) that I had occasion to access in recent months, and as, in consequence of this perusal, my own erstwhile limited understanding of Raja’s role, vis-à-vis the making of Modern India broadened out.
In order to get the drift of public opinion on Raja Rammohun Roy’s life and works, when one surveys the present-day mainstream media, as well as the supposedly more democratic social media platforms, one feels compelled to take statements like “already much has been said about the life and deeds” of the Raja with a pinch of salt. Such statements are not far from the truth. As academic output on the subject is concerned, one cannot but admit that not nearly enough has been said or done in order to raise public awareness, beyond the narrow confines of the academia, about Raja’s contribution to our country and religion up to a decent level. Thanks to partisan positions entrenched on both ends of the ideological-political spectrum, views on the Raja and his contributions to the making of Modern India as well as the modern Hindu society, are found to vary widely. From being dubbed a ‘pioneering champion of liberal reformism in India’ to the allegations of being a ‘British stooge who destroyed India’s indigenous Sanskrit education system’, Raja, over these 250 years, has earned as many haters as he has gained admirers. To complicate matters further, several half-baked stories, one-sided takes on life events, statements and incidents taken out of their proper context, and some purely imaginary thesis with regard to Raja’s life and works are often touted by both camps as irrefutable, objective historical verities. Caught in the crossfire of these warring ideological camps, each issuing forth a flurry of the overblown, almost caricaturesque portrayal of Raja, India’s history as well as the fairness of assessment for the figures and events associated with the country’s recent past continues to suffer heavy casualties.
The historical as well as the cultural significance of what remains unreported in the flurry of opinion pieces or popular books coming from either of these camps, each of them deadly opposed to the other’s barely concealed ulterior political motives, is immense. For starters, take the fact that Raja Rammohun Roy happens to be the first person who translated the Upanishads into a modern Indian language. Between 1816 and 1819, he brought out in print his path-breaking translations of five principal Upanishads – Kena, Isha, Katha, Mandukya, and Mundaka (in that order) – along with his commentaries on each, prepared in accordance with those by Adi Shankara’s, in lucid Bengali prose. Interestingly, in the texts of these translations, Raja refers to Adi Shankara as Bhagavan Shankaracharya, Bhagavan Bhaashyakaara, and Bhagavan Pujyapaada Shankaracharya. In addition to rendering these five Upanishads accessible to the readers of the Bengali language for the very first time, he is also rightly counted among the earliest group of English translators of the Upanishads, for, in the year 1816, he produced the very first English translation of the Kenopanishad. Prior to this, the only Upanishads available in English translation were, to follow a chronological sequence, the Ishopanishad by Sir William Jones (1799), the Aitareyopanishad by H.T. Colebrooke (1805), and once again a fresh translation of the Ishopanishad by William Carey (1806). As a consequence of the publication of Raja’s translations, wider sections of the Indian readership as well as foreign readers became familiar with a much larger body of Vedantic texts, even as they had little to no training in Sanskrit – a language that was learnt by only a small section of the population at the time, and from among them an even smaller minority managed to master it to a level of advancement that would do justice to the terse and technical style of the Vedanta.
Moreover, in 1815, Raja had produced a Bengali prose translation of the Brahma-Sutras of Badarayana Vyasa. This was yet another first-of-its-kind work of translation, the earliest in any modern Indian language. Issued from the press of Ferris and Co. in Calcutta, this epoch-making translation of the ancient Vedanta Sutra text (which, along with the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita, constituted the most vital component of the traditionally venerated scriptural triad or Prasthaana-Trayee of the Vedanta) was perhaps the first to be brought out into any modern language of the world, Indian or otherwise. The earliest printed edition of this translation bore an elaborate title, that sought to succinctly describe the contents and objective of the text. The title read: The Bengali translation of the Vedant [sic], or Resolution of all the Veds [sic]; the most celebrated and revered work of Brahmanical theology, establishing the unity of the Supreme Being and that He is the only object of worship. Over the years, the translation came to be popularly known as Vedanta-Grantha in Bengali.
Raja followed it up with an abridgement of the Brahma-Sutras as well as the principal Upanishads, writing once again in his native Bengali tongue, in the next year (1816), styling the work as Vedanta-Saara or the essence of the Vedanta Darshana. In it, he included copious references to various Upanishads and the Brahma-Sutras and sought to establish that the highest ideal of the Hindu religion consisted in the worship of the Absolute Principle or Supreme Reality is called Para-Brahma. To this Bengali work, he soon appended his English translation of the same, and the new enlarged edition containing both Bengali and English versions was brought out in print in the following year (1817). This new edition had an English title page, which read: An apology for the present system of Hindoo worship: written in the Bengalee language and accompanied by an English translation. What strikes as interesting is the attempt by Raja to establish the worship of Para-Brahma as the essential or defining feature of the Hindu religion, and left no stone unturned to defend this mode of worship and this interpretation of Hinduism through his original and translated tracts in both Bengali and English languages. Raja’s painstaking endeavours in this regard become explicable when we notice that he was operating at a time when the Christian missionaries-led condemnations of Hinduism as an ‘idolatrous and superstitious religion’ were at their severest. Even some of the Christian men like the Baptist missionary William Carey, with whom Raja once shared cordial terms, had ultimately come down heavily on the Hindu religion, attacking it with a barrage of unfair charges that pained and angered Raja, and consequently, he took up his pen to defend the religion and customs of his ancestors.
It should be borne in mind that all these translations and original works on the Vedanta Darshana in particular, and Hinduism in general, that Raja Rammohun Roy produced in his lifetime, appeared almost instantly in print, and were in circulation through an open market for the public as well as institutional libraries to acquire them, and were easily available for private collections too. The publication of the Bengali and English translations of the five principal Upanishads as well as the Brahma-Sutras along with commentaries in Bengali can be safely described as a momentous event in the history of the world for the wide-ranging impact they had upon subsequent generations. With their appearance, for the first time ever, the Upanishads were made available in print and mass circulation in a modern Indian language (Bengali), and the mantras of the ancient Vedic Rishi, so far kept from an overwhelming majority’s access, were finally rendered accessible, at least in a potential form for the future. Like Acharya Ramanuja before him, Rammohun stood in a public square and freely gave away the coveted mantra of salvation to all, as it were.
Thus, with the cooperation of the printing press, the availability of these works of Raja was made easy. This made Vedantic ideas and passages more widely and more directly known to the general readership in his time and afterwards than ever before. The ground for a resurgence in public awareness of the truths of the Vedanta, as well as for a consequent renascence of the Hindu religion, was now prepared for a future that was not very far.
Upon being harshly criticised – even threatened with dire consequences for his social life and reputation – for bringing forth the Sacred Shruti or Vedic texts into a contemporary spoken tongue, Raja defended his action by citing the examples of his illustrious predecessors in the field of translation: Krittibas Ojha’s Bengali Ramayana (Sriram Panchali), Kashiram Das’s Bengali Mahabharata (an abridged translation), and Tulisdas’s Ramacharitamanasa in ‘Hindosthani’; and he also highlighted the instance of the Manusamhita being available in European languages by the collaborative endeavours of British scholars and Brahmin pundits.
Due mainly to these literary undertakings of the Raja – and their great impact on the thinkers of his time as well as those who followed in the subsequent decades – one can justifiably assert that he pioneered the 19th-century revival of interest in Vedanta, not only across his native Bengal but all of India and, in turn, indeed the whole world. There are more works on the Vedanta by Raja, both critical-polemical and creative kinds, but an exhaustive listing of all his written works will turn this piece into an awkwardly long tract. Moreover, the nuanced details of how he achieved the great feat of Vedantic revival, and its far-reaching implications for his own country in particular and the world at large, can be brought to light by undertaking a close reading of Raja’s translations and commentarial work on the Vedantic corpus, a task which is beyond the limited scope of a single article.
For the subject at hand, another question of import is: what sort of men did Raja inspire through his works on the Vedanta and its revival? None but the very best that Bengal and Mother India had borne – foremost among whom were Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, and Sri Aurobindo. What did Vivekananda, the ‘Revolutionary Monk’ of India think of Raja? In the summer of 1895, while speaking before his disciples at The Thousand Islands Park, New York, USA, Swami hailed Raja Rammohun Roy as a “great Hindu reformer”. Here are Swami’s own words, as recorded by his disciple Miss Sara Ellen Waldo: “The great Hindu reformer, Raja Rammohun Roy, was a wonderful example of this unselfish work. He devoted his whole life to helping India. It was he who stopped the burning of widows. It is usually believed that this reform was due entirely to the English; but it was Rammohun Roy who started the agitation against the custom and succeeded in obtaining the support of the government in suppressing it. Until he began the movement, the English had done nothing. He also founded an important religious society called the Brahmo-Samaj and subscribed a hundred thousand dollars to find a university. He then stepped out and told them to go ahead without him. He cared nothing for fame or for results to himself.” (Inspired Talks, 1909)
On another occasion, Swami Vivekananda’s most illustrious disciple Sister Nivedita recorded her guru’s observations on Raja. In the month of May 1898, Vivekananda gave a long talk on Raja Rammohun Roy in Nainital, while travelling in the Himalayas with his Indian and foreign disciples. Recalling this talk, Nivedita reports, “It was here, too, that we heard a long talk on Rammohun Roy, in which he [i.e., Swami Vivekananda] pointed out three things as the dominant notes of this teacher’s message: His acceptance of the Vedanta, his preaching of patriotism, and the love that embraced [the followers of all religions] equally…In all these things, he claimed himself to have taken up the task that the breadth and foresight of Rammohun Roy had mapped out.” (Notes of Some Wanderings with the Swami Vivekananda, 1913)
It follows from the above instances that not only did Raja’s embracing of the Vedanta and his contributions to its revival inspire Vivekananda, but the latter was also equally influenced by Raja’s patriotism. The history of Raja’s patriotic and nationalistic ideas and actions is a long chapter in its own right; it belongs to an early but critical stage of the gradual unfolding of the Indian Renaissance, and for that reason, it deserves to be treated in a separate article. For now, let us get back to narrating the story of the Vedantic revival in 19th-century India and its reception by the chief architects of Modern India.
Rabindranath Tagore, who expressed the aspirations and eternal characteristics of India in the clearest possible prose and in deeply moving poetry, extolled Raja Rammohun Roy as ‘Bharat-pathik’ – a pilgrim of Eternal India, one who has not only traversed the length and breadth of the country, but one who has, in a more profound sense, caught a glimpse of the one ultimate destination after having also traversed the myriad paths of India’s historical and spiritual progression through her many ups and downs, rises and falls, her moments of disgrace and triumphal glory. Speaking at a congregation commemorating Raja, the poet said: “Unless we have a life pulsating through our bodies, we cannot assimilate other life forms into ourselves. Had we lacked life, other animals like plants, animals, birds, insects etc. would have devoured us. In this world, the dead cannot last, it dissolves into the living. Had Rammohun Roy found that we no longer showed a trace of life, he would have thrown us onto the Tower of Silence like the Persians do with their corpses, and he would have let Christianity and other living organisms devour us. But instead of doing that, he started the necessary treatment to resuscitate us.” (“Rammohun Roy”, 1884; translated from the original Bengali by the present author)
And what about Sri Aurobindo – a great chronicler and interpreter of India’s Renaissance, and the grandson of Rishi Rajnarain Bose who was one of Raja’s true spiritual inheritors – in what light did Aurobindo see Raja and his role in shaping India’s history and her society? He described Raja as “that other great soul and puissant worker, who laid his hand on Bengal and shook her — to what mighty issues — out of her long, indolent sleep by her rivers and rice fields…” In Aurobindo’s eyes, Raja Rammohun Roy was “a great man in the first rank of active genius”, one who “set flowing a stream of tendencies which have transformed our national life.” (Sri Aurobindo: His Life Unique, 1971) So much for the reception of Raja’s ideas and works by the great thought leaders subsequent to his times.
What is most remarkable in regard to Raja’s English and Bengali translations as well as his original works in the field of Vedanta is that he never went to an English/European school, college, or university. The only formal education that Raja received came from three sources in the main: preliminary lessons at the local pathshala of his native village, instructions in Arabic and Persian at a madrassa in Patna, and training in Sanskrit and the shastras at Kashi. In those days, it was quite normal for young Hindus, irrespective of caste, to take up training in Arabic and Persian if they could afford it (and this kind of training was usually given at madrassas), in order to become employable in a country which still had Persian as its official language. It was only when he started associating and working with Englishmen in various capacities that he learned English. He must have been 23 years of age at the time. Therefore, by no means can Raja be described as a product of the English or even a European system of education. He certainly benefitted from his interactions with the Englishmen and the Europeans in India and abroad and even sought instructional help from some like William Carey, but in large part, he was self-taught as far as his mastery of the English language and English works are concerned. This gave him a unique perspective, whereby he could observe and evaluate the historical and political churnings occurring in his times around the whole world, while being firmly attached to his home soil and native cultural moorings by virtue of his Shastric training in Sanskrit and his literary talents in Bengali (he wrote a number of melodious devotional songs in the genre of dhrupad that have come to be categorised as Brahma-sangeet). This exposure to the external world and a deep cultural commitment to his own country and traditions made him a pragmatic man, one who understood the dynamic movement of the historical process in India, and precisely knew what role he was to play in it. He, therefore, allowed himself to become an instrument of the changes that were made inevitable by technological innovation, scientific advancement, and socio-political emancipation around the globe at the turn of the 19th century. Accordingly, he immersed himself in an innovative project of assimilating new political, cultural, and historical realities into the spacious scope of the Hindu – and more specifically the Vedantic – worldview. Seen in light of this pioneering project, Raja’s activities with regard to social and religious reforms, as also the warm appreciation that he received from many of his illustrious contemporaries as well as successors, become much more clearly understandable.
In conclusion, let us look back at what sort of hopes were cherished by Raja in his heart – hopes for the possible impact of having exercised his visionary foresight and its mandates on the lives of his fellow countrymen. He did not live long enough to see the flourishing of his ideas on more fertile grounds of history and religion – but it is not merely fortuitous that in his native Bengal arose, shortly after his passing, giants one after another in quick succession helped Hinduism rise like a phoenix from the ashes and rescued it from the very brink of total ruin. Raja Rammohun Roy was followed in this endeavour to save, dynamise, and supercharge the Hindu religion by spiritual titans like Sri Ramakrishna, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, and Swami Vivekananda – individuals who, through their original interpretation of the Eternal Dharma and by virtue of their great assimilative power, sought to absorb all mighty expansionist foreign influences working upon the country, the ones that antagonised and threatened the very existence of the ancient Vedic faith of India. In other words, they gave Raja’s project fuller maturity and a greater magnitude. A man who vehemently maintained Dharma-raja Yudhishthira’s thesis on who can be called a Brahmin, a man who meticulously observed throughout his life the customs, eating habits, and marks of being a Brahmin himself – by wearing the Upaveeta or the sacred thread till his last day, by taking along a cook and even a cow on board when he travelled to England, and by chanting the name of Para-Brahma with his final breaths – Raja, through his eventful and yet deeply spiritual, contemplative life, demonstrated what greater heights a dynamic Hindu of the future could aspire to achieve. He wrote the following words with regard to his faith in the future of humanity and his faith in the Antaryamin, the Knower of All Hearts: “Perhaps a day will arrive when my humble endeavours will be viewed with justice – perhaps acknowledged with gratitude. At any rate, whatever men may say, I cannot be deprived of this consolation: my motives are acceptable to that Being who beholds in secret and compensates openly.” (Introduction to translation of An Abridgement of the Vedant, 1815)
Sreejit Datta is an educator, researcher and social commentator, writing/speaking on subjects critical to rediscovering and rekindling the Indic consciousness in a postmodern, neoliberal world. Views expressed are personal.
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