Early life and education (1774 - 1796)
Roy was born in Radhanagore, Bengal, in 1774. His family background displayed an interesting religious diversity. His father Ramkanta was a Vaishnavite, while his mother Tarinidevi was from a Shivaite family. This in itself was unusual for Vaishanavites did not marry Shaivites at the time.
Rammohun's early education was controversial. The common version is
The period in which the Raja was born and grew up was, perhaps, the darkest age in modern Indian history. An old society and polity had crumbled down, and a new one had not yet been built in its place. Devastation reigned in the land. All vital limbs of society were paralysed; religious institutions and schools, village and home, agriculture, industry and trade, law and administration, all were in a chaotic condition. An all-round reconstitution and renovation were necessary for the continued existence of social life and order. But what was to be the principle for organisation? For there were three bodies of culture, three bodies of civilisations, which were in conflict, - the Hindu, the Moslem, and the Christian or Occidental; and the question was, - how to find a rapport, of concord, of unity, amongst these heterogeneous, hostile and warring forces. The origin of Modern India lay there. The Raja by his finding of this point of concord and convergence became the Father and Patriarch of Modern India, an India with a composite nationality and a synthetic civilisation; and by the lines of convergence he laid down, as well by the type of personality he developed in and through his own experiences, he pointed the way to the solution of the larger problem of international culture and civilisation in human history, and became a precursor, an archetype, of coming Humanity. Brajendra Nath Seal
His faithful contemporary biographer writes,
Christian and Company period (1795 - 1828)
During these overlapping periods, Rammohun acted as a political agitator and agent, representing Christian missionaries whilst employed by the East India Company and simultaneously pursuing his vocation as a Pandit. To understand fully this complex period in his life leading up to his eventual Brahmoism is not easy without reference to his peers,
"In 1792 the British Baptist shoemaker William Carey published his influential missionary tract "An Enquiry of the obligations of Christians to use means for the conversion of heathens".
In 1793 William Carey lands in India to settle here. His objective is to translate, publish and distribute the Bible into Indic languages and convert the Hindus thereby. Astutely he realizes that the "mobile" (i.e. service class) Brahmins and Pundits are best situated to help him in this endeavour, and he begins cultivating them. He learns the Buddhist and Jain religious works that expose chinks in the armor of Hinduism's doctrine.
In 1795 Carey makes contact with a Sanskrit scholar - the Tantric Hariharananda Vidyabagish - who later introduces him to Rammohun Roy who wished to learn English. Roy is already a colourful character in his own right.
Between 1796 and 1797 the trio of Carey, Vidyaagish and Roy fabricate a spurious religious work known as the "Maha Nirvana Tantra" (or "Book of the Great Liberation") and palm it off as an ancient religious text to "the One True God" actually the Holy Spirit of Christianity masquerading as Brahma. (The explanation later given by Rammohun to his family concerning his whereabouts during this period is that he went to "Tibet" then as far away as "Timbuktoo"). For the next 2 decades this amazing document is regularly and conveniently added to. Its "judicious" translations are used in the law courts of the English Settlement in Bengal as Hindu Law for adjudicating upon property disputes of the zamindari. However a few British Magistrates and Collectors begin to suspect its "convenient" forgeries and its usage (as well as the reliance on Pundits as sources of Hindu Law) is quickly deprecated. Hariharananda has a brief falling out with Carey and separates from the group to go about his mendicancy but maintains lifelong personal and familial ties to Rammohun. (The Maha Nirvana Tantra's significance for Brahmoism lies in the wealth that accumulates to Rammohun Roy and Dwarkanath Tagore by its "judicious" application, and not due to any religious wisdom within although it does contain an entire chapter devoted to "the One True God" and his worship).
In 1797, Rammohun reached Calcutta to become a "banian" (ie. moneylender) mainly to impoverished Englishmen of the Company living beyond their means. Rammohun also continues his vocation as Pundit in the English courts and starts to make a living for himself. He begins learning the rudiments of Greek and Latin.
In 1799, Carey is joined by missionary Joshua Marshman and the printer William Ward at the Danish settlement of Serampore, after the news of his great triumphs in India reach back home.
From 1803 till 1815, Rammohun served the English Company's "Writing Service" commencing as private clerk "munshi" to Thomas Woodforde, Registrar of the Appellate Court at Murshidabad (whose distant nephew - also a Magistrate - later made a rich living off the spurious Maha Nirvana Tantra under the pseudonym Arthur Avalon). Roy resigned from Woodforde's service shortly due to allegations of corruption. Later he secured employment with John Digby a Company collecor and Rammohun spent many years at Rangpur and elsewhere with Digby, where he renewed his contacts with Hariharananda. William Carey by this time is well settled at Serampore and the old trio renew their profitable association. William Carey is also aligned now with the English Company, then headquartered at Fort William, and his religious and political ambitions were increasingly intertwined. At the turn of the 19th century the Muslims, although considerably vanquished after the battles of Plassey and Buxar, still posed a formidable political threat to the Company. Rammohun was now chosen by Carey to be the agitator among them. He thus embarked on a remarkable new career described by the contemporary biographer as,
Under Carey's secret tutelage in the next 2 decades, Rammohun launched his spirited attack against the bastions of Hinduism of Bengal, namely his own Kulin Brahmin priestly clan (then in control of the many temples of Bengal) and their priestly excesses. The social and theological issues Carey chose for Rammohun were calculated to weaken the hold of the dominant Kulin class (especially their younger disinherited sons forced into service who constituted the mobile gentry or "bhadralok" of Bengal) from the Mughal zamindari system and align them to their new overlords of Company. The Kulin excesses targeted include - sati (the concremation of widows), polygamy, idolatory, child marriage, dowry. All causes equally dear to Carey's ideals.
In the final analysis of Rammohun's life in this extraordinary period, we find that Rammohun's religious reform is but a tool to implement his powerful social reform agenda which lays the foundation for modern India.
Here is what Roy's contemporary biographer records for this period,
Middle "Brahmo" period (1820 - 1830)
This was Rammohun's most controversial period. Sivanath Sastri commenting on his published works alone writes:-
"The period between 1820 and 1830 was also eventful from a literary point of view, as will be manifest from the following list of his publications during that period
Second Appeal to the Christian Public, Brahmanical Magazine^ Parts I, II and III, with Bengali translation and a new Bengali newspaper called Sambad Kaumudi in 1821;
An Urdu paper called "Mirat-ul-Akkbar" a tract entitled Brief Remarks on Ancient Female Rights and a book in Bengali called Answers to Four Questions in 1822;
Third and final appeal to the Christian public, a memorial to the King of England on the subject of the liberty of the press, Ramdoss papers relating to Christian controversy, Brahmanical Magazine, No. IV, letter to Lord Arnherst on the subject of English education, a tract called "Humble Suggestions" and a book in Bengali called "Pathyapradan or Medicine for the Sick," all in 1823 ;
A letter to Rev. H. Ware on the " Prospects of Christianity in India" and an "Appeal for famine-smitten natives in Southern India " in 1824 ;
A tract on the different modes of worship, in 1825 ;
A Bengali tract on the qualifications of a God loving householder, a tract in Bengali on a controversy with a Kayastha, and a Grammar of the Bengali language in English, in 1826;
A Sanskrit tract on " Divine worship by Gayatri " with an English translation of the same, the edition of a Sanskrit treatise against caste, and the previously noticed tract called " Answer of a Hindu to the question &c.," in 1827 ;
A form of Divine worship and a collection of hymns composed by him and his friends, in 1828 ;
"Religious Instructions founded on Sacred Authorities" in English and Sanskrit, a Bengali tract called "Anusthan," and a petition against Suttee, in 1829 ;
A Bengali tract, a grammar of the Bengali language in Bengali, the Trust Deed of the Brahmo Samaj, an address to Lord William Bentinck, congratulating him for the abolition of Suttee, an abstract 'in English of the arguments regarding the burning of widows, and a tract in English on the disposal of ancestral property by Hindus, in 1830.
The struggle against Suttee
Rammohun is best known abroad for his agitation against suttee, the practice of burning a widow alive on her husband's pyre. Seeing his brother's widow cruelly forced to commit suttee in 1812, and unable to stop it then, Roy set his mind to abolish the practice.
Life in England (1831- 1833)
In 1831 Ram Mohan Roy travelled to the United Kingdom as an ambassador of the Mughal Empire to ensure that the Lord Bentick's regulation banning the practice of Sati was not overturned. He also visited France.
He died at Stapleton then a village to the north east of Bristol (now a suburb) on the 27th September 1833 of meningitis and is buried in Arnos Vale Cemetery in southern Bristol.
Religious Reform of Rammohun
He believed in one Supreme Being - "Author and Preserver of Existence".
He denounced idolatry and vowed to erase it from India.
He denounced rituals, which he deemed meaningless and giving rise to superstitions.
Social Reforms of Rammohun
Crusaded against social evils like sati, polygamy and child marriage etc.
Demanded property inheritance rights for women.
In 1828, he set up the Brahma Sabha a movement of reformist Benali Brahmins to fight against social evils.
Roy believed education to be an implement for social reform.
In 1817, in collaboration with David Hare, he set up the Hindu College at Calcutta.
In 1830, he helped Alexander Duff in establishing the General Assembly's Institution, by providing him the venue vacated by Brahma Sabha and getting the first batch of students.
He supported induction of western learning into Indian education.
He also set up the Vedanta College, offering courses as a synthesis of Western and Indian learning.
Roy published journals in English, Hindi, Persian and Bengali.
His most popular journal was the Samvad Kaumudi. It covered topics like freedom of press, induction of Indians into high ranks of service, and separation of the executive and judiciary.
When the English Company muzzled the press, Rammohun composed 2 memorials against this in 1829 and 1830 respectively.
"To great natural talents, he united through mastery of many languages and distinguished himself as one of the greatest scholars of his day. His unwearied labour to promote the social, moral and physical condition of the people of India, his earnest endeavours to suppress idolatry and the rite of sati and his constant zealous advocacy of whatever tended to advance the glory of God and the welfare of man live in the grateful remembrance of his countrymen."
1. Tombstone affixed by his descendants and also the diary of Dwarkanath Tagore 1839
2. page 8, Raja Rammohun Roy - The Renaissance Man, H.D.Sharma, 2002
3. ibid:2002, H.D.Sharma
4. Brajendra Nath Seal Address delivered on the occasion of the death anniversary of Raja Rammohun Roy, held at Bangalore on 27th September 1924.
5. Nabble - Origins of Brahmoism - Part 2
6. Sivanath Sastri, History of the Brahmo Samaj, 1911, 1st ed. pg. 44-46
7. Sivanath Sastri, History of the Brahmo Samaj, 1911, 1st ed. pg. 47