|Review of the Contributions of a Major Thinker
This issue of Samyukta highlights the contributions of Raja Ram Mohun Roy
“The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.”
Michel Foucault / ‘What is an Author’
Raja Ram Mohun Roy has multifariously and perhaps to a large extent correctly been labelled as a social and religious reformer, a voluminous writer and translator of the sacred literature of the Hindus, a magnetic speaker, a polyglot and a scholar. He founded the Atmiya Sabha and later the Brahmo Samaj and the significant journal Sambad Kaumudi. Known as a progressive Hindu, a universalist and a defender of natural religion, he was humanist and an advocate of reason. An ardent defender of a particular type of cultural nationalism that aimed at a synthesis of what was best in the East and the West, his views on many subjects often generated controversy. This happened because he attacked and defended several disparate ideologies simultaneously which included traditional Hinduism, Buddhism, colonialism, ‘missionary’ Christianity, Islam, ‘militant’ orthodoxy and ‘militant’ nationalism.
Speaking of his contribution to the field of women’s issues, it seems necessary to start by mentioning the much-repeated fact that he was instrumental in the banning of suttee. In this, he was in the forefront, along with the British government, other abolitionists, progressives, human rights thinkers and activists and Christian missionaries. He spoke for widow re-marriage and for women to have rights to education, property and employment and against the ill- treatment of widows. He advocated the banning of dowry, child marriage, female foeticide, female infanticide, polygamy, alcoholism and similar social evils in an age that was just beginning to wonder how to react to new historical interfaces and ideological structures. Unexamined bipolar oppositions like east/west, tradition/modernity, class differentiation/ class conflict, inter-racialism/racial discrimination, casticism/anti-casticism and nationalism/inter-nationalism were beginning to seep whole-scale into and make pronounced differences to the world view of the members of the colonial Indian states. This was brought about by a resurgence of interest in the ancient lore of India and the concrete encounter with colonial Britain and the vast reservoirs of knowledge in the West.
The Influence of the Other
Turning away from Hinduism, partly because of his insight into its inane superfluities like religious divisions and superstitions and partly due to the treatment meted out to him by his mother and by his people to his sister who had to commit suttee, Ram Mohun Roy went to Tibet to study Buddhism.
Raja Ram Mohun Roy learned Persian and Arabic from experts. He was able to study the Muslim religion even before his attempt to understand Buddhism. He garnered from the Koran its dual and central tenets of monotheism and its worship of the Almighty without pictures, symbols, icons and idols because the Godhead has no ‘describable’ form. Along with the common truth, held precious by all thinkers, that all human beings are the children of the Almighty and hence created equal in rights and deserving of equal opportunities, he held the two above mentioned truths, which he initially got from Islam, and never departed from them throughout his life. The result of his freely foraging amidst the riches of the Mohammedan and Sufi traditions was his writing of texts like Tuhfat – ul – Muwahiddin (1804).
The extensive influence of a certain John Digby of the East India Company for which he worked awhile led him to savour the English language and its literature. He read and translated some parts of the Bible. He met with the Baptists, the Unitarians and with William Carey. The knowledge he soon received of the doctrines and treatises that made possible revolutionary political and social movements like the American War of Independence and the French Revolution through writers like Tom Paine and his ability to move easily in the circles of British governance, with people like the then Governor General Lord William Bentinck are also noteworthy facts. These experiences led Ram Mohun Roy to continuously evolve and rethink his attitude and approach to women’s issues, politics, religion, Bengal, the future India and the world. His reactions to various people and experiences undoubtedly formed much of the content of his texts, letters and choice of translations.
Some Works of Repute
His important contributions to Indology and Orientalism are primarily translations. He translated the Vedanta Grantha, the Vedanta Sara, the Talavakara, Iso, Katho and Mandukya Upanishads, Gayatri Artha, Brahma Sangeet, Brahmopasana, and Kularnava Tantra from Sanskrit into Bengali, to name just a few of his important contributions in Bengali. He wrote three works in Arabic. He translated some of the Bengali works into English too along with further translations of the Kena Upanishad and from the Sama and Yajur Vedas. His didactic and polemical works were written mainly in English. They include, ‘A Defence of Hindu Theism in Reply to the Attack of an Advocate for Idolatry at Madras,’ ‘Translation of a Conference between an Advocate for and an Opponent of the Practice of Burning Widows Alive,’ and ‘An Apology for the Pursuit of Final Beatitude, Independently of Brahmanical Observances’. The list of significant works, letters, translations and essays are too long to be listed here. So abridgement has to be made and the works listed here have been chosen to show the mainstream of his thought rather than its entire range. As such, mention of various other equally significant works like “ Brief Remarks regarding Modern Encroachments on Ancient Rights of Females according to the Hindu Law of Inheritance” have been omitted.
In spite of the staunchness with which he questioned things, he remained within the Brahmanical framework to do so, always referring back to it for support even for his attempt to prove monotheism and displace idolatry, an attempt foredoomed to failure by the contradictions in the multiplicity of the Hindu texts considered divinely inspired. The glosses he used for his translations of the Upanishads remained mostly those of Shankaracharya. While he attacked what he considered degenerate Hinduism, he was against it being attacked by others of a different religion.
His espousal of women’s causes did not necessarily mean that he was always passionately involved in what he wrote or lived strictly by what he believed. He was a complex and complicated writer who was, for the age in which he lived, surprisingly polyphonic in his texts, an ecumenical quality that might have had something to do with his ability to live in the moment and write according to its behest, rather than cling on to a preconceived notion that a man of thought must have a consistent world-view. Emersonian in a sense, Ram Mohun Roy reveals to us through his works a multi-faceted personality that thrived on being many things at the same time without ever actually feeling the need to define himself as this or that specifically in the midst of such fluidity. Thus he appears alternately as a man of integrity and a hypocrite to a reader who may be bewildered at first by his protean nature. The titles of ‘originator of the Hindu renaissance’, ‘modern pioneer of India’ and ‘reformer of women’s and social issues,’ sit uneasily on him. B.D. Mahajan writes of him that the Muslims regarded him as a Muslim, Christians as a Christian, Unitarians as a Unitarian, and Hindus as a Vedantist. As a matter of fact, he was none of these in a conventional sense. Moving beyond the cult of his personality, some of the leading feminist – historians of the last decade have questioned the closure applied to his texts in traditional readings, since they seem to give leeway for tradition to be strengthened. instead, they try to explore the meanings of the strategic silences in his text. The discontinuities in his texts, after all, were what initially gave them the strength to assist in a concrete way oppressed women and their need for change.
The Debate on Suttee
The inherent obsessions that are played out again and again in reading Raja Ram Mohun Roy are found in the debate in which he was actively involved regarding the abolition of suttee. Hence, to concentrate solely on the debate around sutee would be appropriate in an essay which is about re-reading Raja Ram Mohun Roy’s texts that involve themselves with women’s issues. The history of the gradual fight for banning suttee in the province of Bengal, which was under British rule at the time, is well documented. Descriptions of suttee in its glory and its ghastliness abounded earlier itself. Even in a novel like Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days we find its horror being put to use as a means to add length to the plot’s tautness. The word, with its two meanings of ‘good woman’ and ‘widow burning’, is itself an ambiguous signifier like the discourse generated around it. The debate is full of minefields to the unsuspecting critical analyst and at the same time a gold mine to the prospective deconstructionist.
The two Socratic/Platonic dialogues on the ‘ethical’ nature of ‘suttee’, titled “A Conference between an Advocate for and an Opponent of the Practice of Burning Widows Alive”, Part I (1818) and Part II (1820), rehearse accurately the arguments of the so-called Dharma Sabha that supported suttee and counter them adroitly with the scholarly opinions of the Raja. They need careful perusal. The Advocate, who also calls himself a vidhayak or preceptor, represents the ‘reactionary’ force of Brahmin pundits and others who resented all the attempts made by various parties to ban suttee. Consequently he is ‘made’ to quote from Angira, Harita, Vyasa and the Rigveda in support of suttee. He also gives examples of voluntary suttee in the Puranas to buttress his untenable position that tradition, the race, country, ‘custom’ and ‘usage’ are more important than reason and correct interpretation in the matter of religious ceremonies, obsequies and rituals. The opponent, on the other hand, upholds Manu’s law for the Hindus as the final arbiter or authority on such matters. Manu states unequivocally that ascetic widowhood is preferable to voluntary suttee, offering the possibility of final beatitude/absolution i.e. release from the cycle of births and union with the Godhead to the devotee. He stands on the vantage ground of what he fully believes is the truth and dismisses all the other arguments as baseless. Manu does not suggest widow re-marriage as a solution and therefore Raja Ram Mohun Roy does not go into that issue in these tracts. That would probably have led away from his aim, which was to get rid of the evil practice of suttee. For that, he needed to stick exactly to the prescribed remedy for the sake of societal acceptance rather than go ahead into even more disputable areas of social reform for which the majority in his time was not yet historically prepared. By invoking Manu he stood on sacrosanct ground that no Hindu would then dispute with.
In the articles and letters of Raja Ram Mohun Roy on suttee of which five are significant, although practically speaking what is of more significance is the courage he had in those days to go to the Calcutta burning grounds to avert suttee — two instances are recorded in the Asiatic Journal, March, 1818. The best is his ‘A Conference between an Advocate for and an Opponent of the Practice of Burning Widows Alive,’ Part II. In this sequel, divided into various sections, the Raja shows his consummate skill in arguing for ‘common sense’, using quotations from precisely those same ancient sources and authorities considered indisputable by the opposing side, to expose their culpability in the crimes of murder and encouraging female suicide. However, in the last section he speaks from the heart, after having done a thorough expose of the sinfulness, guiltiness and heinousness of the pundits who lead common people astray using certain texts to justify their traditions, whether such practices are evil or not. He passionedly puts forward the issue of women’s rights, not as an abstraction to be discussed in the sanitized framework of man’s imperfect interpretations of the Vedas or as an image reflected through a Brahmanical prism of endless ceremonies, that shows no historical propensity to adapt to changing contexts in societies in which modernization was absolutely essential due to historical exigencies, but as a living cry and need of the women involved.
The Advocate: ‘…women are by nature of inferior understanding, without resolution, unworthy of trust, subject to passions, and void of virtuous knowledge….’
The Opponent: ‘… the male part of the community, taking advantage of their corporeal weakness, have denied to them those excellent merits that they are entitled to by nature, and afterwards they are apt to say that women are naturally incapable of acquiring those merits… as to their inferiority in point of understanding. When did you ever afford them a fair opportunity of exhibiting their natural capacity? How then can you accuse them of want of understanding?…in a country where the mention of death makes the male shudder, the female, from her firmness of mind offers to burn with the corpse of her deceased husband…. With regard to their trustworthiness,…if we enumerate such women in each village or town as have been deceived by men and such men as have been deceived by women, the number of the deceived women would be found ten times greater than that of the betrayed men…. One fault they have,… which is by considering others equally void of duplicity as themselves, to give their confidence too readily…. The accusation of the want of virtuous knowledge is an injustice…. How many Kulin Brahmins are there who marry ten or fifteen wives for the sake of money, that never see the greater number of them after marriage…. Still amongst these women, most, even without seeing or receiving any support from their husbands…continue to preserve their virtue…. At marriage the wife is recognized as half of her husband but in after-conduct they are treated worse than inferior animals…. The woman is employed to do the work of a slave… chastised as a thief… put …privately to death…. These are facts occurring every day and ought not to be denied….What I lament is, that seeing the women thus dependent and exposed to every misery, you feel for them no compassion that might exempt them from being tied down and burnt to death’ (Raja Ram Mohun Roy, 1997, 154-157).
The selective quotes given above will make the ambiguous nature of the discourse around suttee crystal clear. At one point even Ram Mohun Roy wavers regarding his position on suttee, a gap in the text that is pointed out by Lata Mani. Similarly, the question of the virtue of the women leads to lavish praise on the part of Ram Mohun Roy without his pointing out the fact that the majority in the male society was so stringent at that time that ninety nine percent of the women had no choice but to be ‘virtuous’ anyway. These points do not detract from the main argument and I am not trying even remotely to suggest that Raja Ram Mohun Roy was in any way for suttee or tempted to doubt the virtue of women. However, in the atmosphere of the twenty first century where women now enjoy the fruits of years of battle for equal rights in a much greater measure than in the preceding ages, key historians and feminist critics like Lata Mani, Radhika Singha and Uma Chakravarti do question, gently, Raja Ram Mohun Roy’s texts on women’s issues and his activism for not being sufficiently ‘involved’ in the question of justice, at a deeper empathetic level.
Three Historians and their Opinions
Lata Mani, in her essay, ‘Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Suttee in Colonial India’ deconstructs the British government’s official narratives of suttee, even as she rigorously examines Raja Ram Mohun Roy’s and the Dharma Sabha’s arguments, following Sumit Sarkar’s lead that colonialism was only a partially modernizing force because of its vested interests. She reports the sobering fact that during the debate, 8,134 instances of suttee were recorded, 63 per cent coming from in and around Calcutta city with the women belonging mainly to the upper castes. As the first legislation passed on suttee dealt only with questions of the intentions and motives of the women as to whether their deaths were voluntary or not, the suttees continued, although there was a slight fall in their ‘recorded’ number as Bentinck himself reports. The intervention of the leading reformers like Roy, Dwarknath Tagore and others and the efforts of missionaries like Carey to conscientize people led to a building up of pressure on the Government to act. This finally led to Bentinck’s ‘minute’ and legislation banning suttee in 1829, the challenging of it, Ram Mohun Roy’s letter supporting the ban, the second challenge ‘heard’ in Britain, Ram Mohun Roy’s journey to Britain in support with one more letter and the final decision in 1832 upholding once and for all Bentinck’s decision, in the presence of witnesses including Roy himself.
Lata Mani’s chief contention about this entire process whereby change occurred is simple but forceful. She insists that the whole debate was unsympathetic to women because it was carried out by men who were representatives in one sense or other of patriarchal structures of power and who preferred to ‘ground’ the argument either in the Vedas, Brahmanism, and Hindu tradition or in the colonial need to retain power and expand it politically, economically and socially. In short, women remain the site on which the battle is fought whereas they should have been the ground or centre. The result of this approach to the issue is lopsidedness of a damaging nature, since the subject(s) are given no voice. Their narratives remain unspoken, their names are lost to historians and their only existence is as ciphers in official statistical records. Silenced by their erasure, one brought about by their ‘littleness’ of stature in the eyes of the ‘mighty’ harbingers of revolutionary, political, historical and religious change like Bentinck and Roy, they seem to give us leave to form the extreme impression that suttee was banned more due to the disgracefulness of the barbaric ‘spectacle’ which had become an eyesore for the empire and for Indian men like Roy who were already thinking of the nation’s future, than because of a really concrete understanding of the ignominies heaped on the widows. No one knows what the widows who were burnt actually thought, or wanted to do but couldn’t, in the actual circumstances of their ‘imprisoned’ lives. Their mental subjection from childhood to the idea that women are meant to passively accept physical, mental and emotional torture and deprivation, being killed, being sacrificed etc., are not at any point in the discourse challenged, as long as such ideals are promulgated or prescribed either by texts considered divinely inspired by so-called gods or by the ruling authorities of the age/place in which the women live. This is a serious charge to lay at the door of the humanists who led the fight against suttee.
Radhika Singha goes a step further, exposing the doublespeak of the British government in Chapter III ‘The Privilege of Taking Life: Anomalies in the Law of Homicide’ of her book A Despotism of Law: Crime and Justice in Early Colonial India. The British government’s refusal to pass decisive legislation on suttee in Bengal on the principle that they would not interfere in religious matters was not an evenly held policy, for instance. This is borne out by Bentinck himself: Within the limits of the Supreme Court of Calcutta, not a suttee has taken place since the time of Sir John Armstruther. In the Delhi territory Sir Charles Metcalfe never permitted a suttee to be performed’ (William Bentinck, 1977, 338-340, 1828-1831). After bringing in questions of intention and motive as to whether the widow is compos mentis or not, then speaking of non-interference in religious matters, and finally banning it on the advice of people like Roy who Bentinck states, assured ‘them’ that the right interpretation of the Vedas did not support suttee are clearly stages of hypocrisy and consummate statesmanship, as Ms. Singha notes. The price paid, even according to Bentinck, by such policies and stratagems of evasion for retaining colonial power- brokering was that even as late as 1928, 463 suttees were reported in Fort William, and 420 in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa and of these 297 were in Calcutta alone. The suttee remained just numbers for the British; pawns in a much larger issue, dimly sensed as existing behind the scenes, of security while in power and the eventual smooth transfer of power.
Among those critiquing the kind of fight waged for women’s rights in the early colonial years in India, the most incisive name is perhaps that of Uma Chakravarti. In her essay ‘Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi: Orientalism, Nationalism and a Script for the Past,’ she raises several insightful questions. She remarks on the fact that whatever attention is given to Indian women, albeit negatively, in the early nineteenth century, is limited entirely to those who belonged to the upper castes. She puts Raja Ram Mohun Roy in parenthesis with Pandita Ramabai, another woman who was also born in a Brahmin family and converted to Christianity. Very few in India have heard of her these days. Ms. Chakravarti also comments on why she has been gradually erased from the Indian history books on reform. In the implicit comparison between the two and in her quotations from Ramabai’s writings, we find an edge missing in Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Ramabai reports the actuality of women’s sufferings and engages in a ground of conflict where she is foredoomed to failure by being ahead of her times. Her journey from Brahmanism to disillusionment with Hinduism, her initial founding of the Arya Mahila Samaj and her eventual founding of the Mukti Mission after her conversion, to look after girls who were destitute orphans and helpless widows, her unorthodox and indigenous interpretations of both the Vedas and the Bible which made her at odds with the Hindu orthodoxy and the British Government simultaneously, are eye-opening. Hers may be the only surviving significant native voice that narrates things from a woman’s viewpoint regarding some of the important women’s issues of that time, from the point of view of a reformer and not that of a conformist.
In her book The High Caste Hindu Woman Ramabai quotes Manu’s different rules for widows and widowers:
Commenting on this, Ms. Chakravarti points out a startling fact: ‘The miseries of widowhood were such that although suttee was gruesome and entirely the creation of “a wicked priesthood” it appeared to the widow that it was a sublime act as it was the only relief she had against a cruel world.’
In Ramabai’s view the momentary agony of suffocation in the flames was nothing compared to her lot as a widow…. While Ramabai recognized the value of social reform, she also saw how limited its reach was and its failure as a practical means of ending the widow’s humiliation…She pours scorn on the reformers who ‘took oaths that they would marry widows’ but no sooner were they confronted with actual situations than they went and married ‘pretty little maidens’(Chakravarti, 71). Pandita Ramabai was speaking of the plight of young widows.
Ramabai’s comments, entirely different in nature from that of the other women mentioned here because the fact that they emerge from the same milieu of extensive ferment as Roy’s, show not just her courage but question the entire fabric of what we are used to consider as the positive contributions of the Britishers to India as well as the basic motives of the reformers that she exposes as primarily nationalistic rather than springing out of an awareness of the ground reality of the three kinds of oppression and suppression women in India have had to face, i.e. from Brahmanic Hinduism, Middle-Eastern Islam and Western Christianity. As with the black women in America, who face a double hierarchy of oppression, here the women came to be under a triple hierarchy composed of the patriarchal Hindu family and religion, occasionally ruthless Muslim subjugation and hypocritical colonial and British Christian intervention, none of which necessarily had the best interests of the women at heart. Another woman, Rukmabai, who had been forced to go to her illiterate husband after being married to him as a minor, on her father’s death, lost a case she gave asking for permission to live separated from him. She wrote to Ramabai in anguish: There is no hope for women in India, whether they be under Hindu rule or British rule’ (Chakravarti, 74). Things have changed fortunately, at least in Kerala, to a great extent.
Raja Ram Mohun Roy’s Relevance Today
The reader of the twenty-first century may wonder what relevance a discussion of a ‘dead’ issue like suttee have to do with gender questions and women’s issues of today, in the context of reappraising a seminal figure of Indian history like Raja Ram Mohun Roy. Apart from the obvious answer that we need to keep remembering the past so that the same mistakes men made for centuries long gone may not be repeated again. Another reason is to remind ourselves that the incidents that happened in the early half of the 19th century in a climate in which India did not exist as a ‘sovereign, democratic, socialist republic’ were hewed out of controversies that are still of great relevance today to us because one of the urgent questions then as now is what shape should the future of India take? This is inextricably entwined with the future of Indian women as both Dayananda Saraswathi and Pandita Ramabai recognized. Taking into consideration all those involved in this continuing debate especially the main figures like Bentinck, Raja Ram Mohun Roy and the Pundits it now seems with hindsight that they all did a certain disservice to women and even perhaps to the birth of a young nation in that they foregrounded this significant discourse as a battle between tradition and modernity that could be satisfactorily mediated only by recourse to interpretations of the Vedas and Manu, rather than as a testing ground to examine the issue as a secular one in which women per se should be taken into consideration irrespective of whether it was high caste Hindus or others who were burnt. In speaking for a free press and introducing scientific western education and English as one of the mediums of instruction, Raja Ram Mohan Roy ameliorated this mistake to a slight extent. If more of such insight had existed then, the reference point for resolution of this problem of national import would not have been Hindu law reinforced by historically outdated texts or British law based entirely on convenience out of a desire to retain power; laws enforced after considering the strength of the religious majority or the possibility of continuance of power. Instead, a weighing of the pros and cons of justice based on articles of common sense, reason, trust and conscience, applicable to all men and women, whether Hindus of whatever caste, Muslims, Christians, tribals, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, immigrants, Marxists, atheists, the poor or Zoroastrians etc., would have brought about a new tradition of making laws that, even as it takes into consideration the cultural peculiarities of each social or religious group — majority or minority — would not compromise with what is not humane in the ancient systems of law, be it Manu’s, Moses’s, Hammurabi’s or Mohammed’s.
Thus Raja Ram Mohun Roy’s actual relevance to our times — as a parallel concomitant to that of the other marginalized personality mentioned here, i.e. Pandita Ramabai who preferred a more frontal approach to reform — is that he opened an avenue of attack by using weapons of logic, hermeneutics, subversion and subtlety in what he wrote and argued that can be profitably used again in the likelihood of a theocentric fascism descending on us in the near future. This is specially so because most of India seems once again in the grip of groups like the old Dharma Sabha who believe in antique systems of barbarism and unfortunately under the governance of political parties which seem to consider the making of laws as merely a necessity for their continuance in power, without reference to the common ethics or values that need to be upheld by humans for dignified survival. His polyphonic dialectic will help the women of India in its method, if not always in its content, to preserve what has been already gained and work on the same lines to further improve the lot of their sisters in this nation, till the day dawns when men and women will actually be ‘neither male nor female’, but that happy symbiotic society where liberty and equality flourish because justice has been more than partially implemented regarding women’s issues, rights, studies and initiatives. To hope for more may be unrealistic, knowing human nature.
Chakravarti, Satish Chandra. ed. (1935) The Father of Modern India: Commemoration Volume of the Ram Mohun Roy Centenary Celebrations 1933. Brahmo Mission Press, Calcutta.
Chakravarti, Uma. (1989) ‘Whatever happened to the Vedic Dasi? Orientalism, Nationalism and A Script for the Past’, Recasting Women Essays in Colonial History. ed. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, Kali for Women, New Delhi.
Mani, Lata. (1989) ‘Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Suttee in Colonial India’ Recasting Women Essays in Colonial History. ed. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, Kali for Women, New Delhi.
Moore, Adrienne. (1942) Ram Mohun Roy and America, Brahmo, Mission Press, Calcutta.
Roy, Raja Ram Mohun. (1970) Compiled and edited, Dileep Kumar Biswas, The Correspondence of Raja Ram Mohun Roy 1809-1831, Saraswat Library, Calcutta.
Roy, Raja Ram Mohun. (1992) Selected Works of Raja Ram Mohun Roy Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, New Delhi.
Roy, Raja Ram Mohun. (1997) Selected Works Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, New Delhi.
Singha, Radhika. (1998) A Despotism of Law: Crime & Justice in Early Colonial India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
Enter your email address below to subscribe to our newsletter