Portraits of World Citizens.
       

Rammohun Roy: Morning Star of the Indian Renaissance
Rene Wadlow

India's special genius has been to acknowledge the divine in human affairs, to offer hospitality to all that is imperishable in human civilization, regardless of racial and national divergence.

Rabindranath Tagore for the centenary of the death of Rammohun Roy, 1933

It is still too early to know how the newly elected Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will promote Hinduism as the national faith and ideology of India. For the moment, more attention is being given to his economic ideas with the hope that his rule will be a motor for India's economic growth. However, the BJP has Hindu militant roots, in particular with the R.S.S. There are concerns that his government will promote a nationalistic Hinduism to the detriment of other faiths in India. This fear is particularly strong among Muslims in India. Pakistan and Bangladesh are also watching closely what Modi's cultural policies will be and how it might impact international relations.

Thus, it is with hope that on 22 May we recall the birth in 1722 of Rammohum Roy, an Indian religious, cultural and political reformer who stressed the oneness of the human family and the positive common core of the spiritual life.

In his tribute to Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, whose father Devendranath Tagore (1817-1905) ,had been a co-worker with Roy said “Rammohun Roy inaugurated the Modern Age of India. He was born at a time (1772) when our country having lost its link with the inmost truths of its being, struggled under a crushing load of unreason, in abject slavery to circumstances. In social usage, in politics, in the realm of religion and art, we had entered the zone of uncreative habit, of decadent tradition and ceased to exercise our humanity. In this dark gloom of India's degeneration, Rammohun rose up, a luminous star in the firmament of India's history, with prophetic purity of vision and unconquerable heroism of soul.”

Like Rabindranath Tagore, Rammohun Roy was a Bengali who played an active role in the revival of Bengali literature and worked for the development of education in Bengal, especially for women. But, like Tagore, his vision took in all of India and much of the world. He had contacts with intellectuals and religious reformers in England. He died in 1833 while on a visit to England and is buried there.

Rammohun Roy was widely read in Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit and English and had spent time in Tibet learning from Buddhist lamas. In 1820, he published a remarkable book entitled The Precepts of Jesus: The Guide to Peace and Happiness. He recorded the moral precepts of Jesus, but omitted all mention of Jesus' divinity, a theme often highlighted in the teachings of Christian missionaries in India. In 1828, he established an association the Brahma Samaj to “worship the Eternal, Author and Preserver of the Universe” devoted to a reformation of Indian society and religious practice.

He worked for the abolition of caste distinctions and against sutte, the practice of widows committing suicide on the funeral pyre of their husband. The motto of the group was “The true way of serving God is to do good to man.” The group attracted intellectuals and reformers and played an important role in the renewal of Indian culture, starting on the path which later led to the independence of India.

However, reforms are never permanent. Indian society faces many of the same issues of caste, of the the role of women and their education, of social domination by the few, and corruption in government. As one poet asked “In this dark night of total falsehood, How shall deliverance be secured?” To honor the legacy of Rammohun Roy, we need to identify ourselves with the spiritual aspirations of humanity which are universal in their scope and outreach.