We are witnessing a cultural revolution in the country which, in its breadth and implications, may prove larger and more far-reaching than the political. This revolution appears to be based on the premise that anything ‘not Hindu’ in origin or practice is suspect and ought to be wrenched off the Indian public mind.
Recently, sinister charges were levelled against Raja Ram Mohan Roy – of playing a ‘stooge’, more colloquially, a ‘chamcha’ to the British and of subverting Hindu culture by aiding the legal abolition of Sati. A tweet from a well-known scholar even hints at the title of Raja being conferred on Roy for unthinkingly playing up to the machinations of the British. The author of this message also found Roy guilty of misleading the Bengalis as a community, now allegedly ‘going down the slope’.
Though a Hindu Bengali by birth, my own penchant is to see Roy not as a Hindu, not even as a Bengali, but as a truly cosmopolitan figure, a global citizen, who argued for political liberty, civic freedom and social justice for all humanity using the Enlightenment tool of universal reason. When travelling to France in 1832, he was puzzled by the official requirement for a visa and argued instead for a world without borders, for free trade in men and ideas.
Some ten years earlier, he had hosted a party in Kolkata upon hearing of Neapolitan rebels wresting control from Austrian rule. Roy was against press censorship, also protesting against the East India Company’s Juries Bill in 1826 (which came into effect in 1827), which unjustly precluded the recruitment of Indian jurors when trying European offenders. In 1809, he petitioned the then Governor General of India for redressal against a high-ranking British official, Sir Frederick Hamilton, who had subjected him to indignity using a racial slur.
Roy was a fearless and self-respecting man, but he had greater respect for women, making it a point to stand up whenever a lady entered the room. He also advocated for a woman’s share in ancestral property. He was, perhaps, the first feminist in India. This quality, I dare say, arrived neither from his exposure to the West nor from his alleged kowtowing to the English ruling class. It came very largely from his training as a tantrik, a tradition hinging on revering the ‘female principle and her manifestation’ in every woman. This was subsequently bolstered by his copious reading of monistic Vedanta and his larger interest in world-historical events.
The trouble with recent tweets calling to question Roy’s anti-Sati campaign is that they are not even based on established historical facts. There is a reference to the practice of Sati even in the Mahabharata; to call it an institution meant to counter ‘Mughal’ maltreatment of Hindu women is utterly baseless.
Likewise, so is the allegation of Roy being an anti-Hindu reformer and a champion of Unitarian Christianity. Together with some Christian evangelists, Roy was perhaps among the first to confer upon a loose collective of religious ideas and practices the label of ‘Hinduism’. In colonial India, this eventually made possible – at least in theory – a unified Hindu identity.
His siding with Unitarianism had two important dimensions: his doctrinal critique of Trinitarianism represented by the Baptists of Serampore and acknowledging Unitarianism as a more rational and responsible religion with its active involvement in social reform issues. Rather than side with orthodox Christians, Roy produced three tracts (1820-22) which portrayed Christ more as a moral figure than the religious. This so angered the Serampore Baptists that they stopped publishing Roy’s tracts. An interest in Christ and Christianity, one has to say, proved to be quite pervasive among the modern Hindu intelligentsia. Vivekananda translated Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ and M.K. Gandhi had a life-long interest in the ethical discourse of Christ.
Roy was very much a Hindu but a Hindu of a kind different from those now claiming to more authentically represent Hinduism.
Amiya P. Sen is a historian with an interest in the intellectual and cultural history of modern India, and has written extensively on figures from colonial Bengal, including Rammohun Roy: A Critical Biography (Penguin, 2012).