Rammohun Roy (c.1772-September 27, 1833), a Hindu monotheist, who made early translations of Vedic scriptures into English, co-founded the Calcutta Unitarian Society, and later founded Brahmo Samaj. He successfully campaigned against sati, the practice of burning widows. He sought to integrate Western culture with the best features of his own country’s traditions. He promoted a rational, ethical, non-authoritarian, this-worldly, and social-reform Hinduism. Thus he has been called the “Father of Modern India.” His writings sparked interest among British and American Unitarians, inspired Unitarian missionary work in India, and influenced the Transcendentalists.
Rammohun (his Indian name was Rama Mohana Raya), son of Ramakanto Roy and Tarini Devi, was born in 1772 at Radhanagar in the Burdwan (now Hoogley) district of Bengal, India, a hundred kilometers north of Calcutta. His surname indicates that members of his family had been in royal service. A Kulin Brahmin, he was descended from Narottama Thakur, a Bengali Vaisnava reformer of the 16th century. By the age of ten, Rammohun had married three times, according to his polygamous caste’s custom. His first wife died in childhood. He had two sons, Radhaprasad, born 1800, and Ramaprasad, born 1812, with his second wife. She died in 1824. The third wife outlived him.
His father prepared him for government service by arranging for his instruction in Bengali, Arabic, and Persian. Having learned Arabic, he read the Qur’an and discovered monotheism. His mother’s family had him sent to Benares, where he studied Sanskrit, the Vedanta, and the Upanishads. His monotheism was reinforced by the teaching of the Vedas. Returning home, he was soon in conflict with his family. He ever responded to his father’s statements of opinion with a speech beginning with his favorite Bengali word, kintu (“but”). “When about the age of sixteen,” he later wrote, “I composed a manuscript calling in question the validity of the idolatrous system of the Hindoos. This, together with my known sentiments on the subject, having produced a coolness between me and my immediate kindred I proceeded on my travels and passed through different countries.”
Roy may have journeyed as far as Tibet. In 1791 he returned to live as part of his father’s extended family. There he learned to manage his father’s property, and, beginning in 1796, to speak English. In 1797 he moved to Calcutta where he became a moneylender. In 1803, a few months before the death of Ramakanto Roy, Rammohun entered the Bengal Civil Service as diwan (chief Indian revenue officer) of Thomas Woodforde, Collector of Dacca-Jalalpore. Later that year he became private munshi (clerk or language tutor) to Woodforde, who was then Registrar of the Appellate Court in Murshidabad.
In 1804 Roy published Tuhfat’ ul muhwahhiddin (A Gift to Monotheists), a tract in Persian criticizing existing religions as based upon irrationality, deception, intolerance, and other means of unjust social control. “Falsehood is common to all religions,” he wrote, “without distinction.” He advocated, instead, faith in “one being” and the universal morality of doing no harm to others. Every person, he wrote, “should exercise his own intellectual power, with the help of acquired knowledge, to discern good from bad, so that this valuable divine gift should not be left useless.”
In 1805 Roy left Murshidabad to serve with John Digby, a British East India Company officer he had known since 1801. Roy worked for Digby, as munshi, 1805-09, and as diwan, 1809-10, and 1812-15, when Digby was Collector at Rangpur. During the time he was several times part of a delegation to Bhutan to help settle border disputes between Bhutan and Cooch-Behar. Digby taught him about western culture and helped him to perfect his English. His money-lending, dealings in real-estate, and work for the East India Company made him a wealthy man.
Returning to Calcutta in 1815, Roy gathered an Atmiya Sabha (“Friendly Association”) for “the dissemination of religious truth and the promotion of free discussions of theological subjects.” The beraders (brothers) held theistic worship, studied the Hindu scriptures, and held discussions in which they called for abolition of the caste system, sati, polygamy, and dietary restrictions. In 1819 Roy, at a well-attended Sabha meeting, debated idol worship with Subramanya Sastri, a prominent Madras (now Chennai) Brahmin. His success in this, however, led to a campaign against Roy by his opponents that forced him to disband the society.
As the rules of the Atmiya Sabha prohibited members from supporting idol worship, Roy discontinued financial support of his family’s religious practices. This led to a series of lawsuits, 1817-19, filed by his nephew, Govindaprasad Roy, and his widowed sister-in-law, Durga Devi, who sought to confiscate Rammohun’s property on the grounds of apostasy. His mother was said to be the driving force behind these ultimately unsuccessful proceedings.
After the death of Roy’s older brother, Jagamohan, in 1812, the widow had been forcibly burned alive by his family. Deeply disturbed by her death, and believing that no human beings should ever be pressured to kill themselves for any reason, he ever afterwards preached that sati should be abolished. He visited Calcutta’s cremation grounds to persuade widows not to kill themselves, helped prepare a petition to the British government against sati, and wrote A Conference between an Advocate for, and an Opponent of the Practice of Burning Widows Alive, 1818 (published in Bengali and English). He based his reasoning on Hindu scriptures, tradition, and practical morality. In A Second Conference, 1820, he added arguments based upon women’s rights. That women were considered lesser creatures and unworthy of being trusted to survive their husbands, he thought, was not due to their nature, but to their inferior upbringing and education. In everyday experience, he contended, they lived harsher lives and, on the whole, behaved better than men. “What I lament,” reprimanded Roy, “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.”
In 1815 Roy published Vedantasara, an essay in Bengali, containing paraphrases of selected sutras of the Brahmasutrabhasya. He issued a version in English, Translation of an Abridgment of the Vedant, the following year. He wrote Bengali commentaries on Kena, Isa, Katha, and Mundaka Upanishads, 1816-19, and issued English translations as well. Responding to the publications of his orthodox Hindu critics, in 1817 he wrote A Defence of Hindu Theism, published 1820, and A Second Defence of the Monotheistical System of the Veds, 1820. Although in his Vedic studies he intended to establish Hinduism as a defensible, modern religion in the face of Christian challenges, his Hindu opponents called him an atheist, a “destroyer of religion,” and a “sinful modern.” They also objected to his Upanishad translations, which they felt most people were incapable of understanding. As some of his enemies tried to have him killed, he was compelled to hire bodyguards.
Roy had learned about Christianity around 1816 from Baptist missionaries at Serampore, near Calcutta. The missionaries hoped to attract an influential convert; Roy sought further support for his ethical theism. In a letter to his friend, Digby, he said: “The consequence of my long and uninterrupted researches into religious truth has been, that I have found the doctrines of Christ are more conducive to moral principles, and better adapted for the use of rational beings than any others which have come to my knowledge.”
In 1820 Roy wrote a book about Jesus emphasizing Christ’s moral and ethical sayings. In The Precepts of Jesus: The Guide to Peace and Happiness, Roy omitted theological passages and miracle stories, which he thought would discredit Christianity in the eyes of a Hindu, or would make Jesus appear to be just another Avatar. The book was immediately denounced as a perversion of the gospel by Rev. Joshua Marshman, editor of the evangelical publication, The Friend of India. Roy was disappointed by this response and hurt by having been labeled a “heathen.” He reproved Marshman for unchristian behavior and defended his distillation of Christianity vigorously in Appeal to the Christian Public in Defense of the Precepts of Jesus By A Friend of Truth. Citing the great commandments of Jesus and the behavioral prescriptions of Matthew 25, he contended that in such passages Jesus had laid out a complete path to salvation through service. Other passages, on dogma and history, he argued, “are rather calculated to do injury,” by fueling religious wars and holding Christians up to ridicule. He concluded the Appeal with a prayer: “May God render religion destructive of differences and dislike between man and man, and conducive to the peace and Union of mankind.”
In his Second Appeal, 1821, and Final Appeal, 1823, Roy used a historical-critical study of Christian scripture to show that Jesus was not divine and not part of the Trinity, that salvation came through the teaching of Jesus and not vicarious atonement, and that the Holy Spirit had no separate existence. He did not, however, assert that Jesus was a mere man, but a being with special powers and a status “superior even to the angels in heaven.”
Roy and Baptist missionary William Adam worked together in 1821 revising a Baptist translation of the New Testament into Bengali. Although the project foundered, in the process Adam was converted to Unitarianism and the two became friends. Later that year, with a number of prominent Brahmins, including Dwarkanath Tagore, and British merchants and civil servants, Roy and Adam founded the Calcutta Unitarian Committee. Adam was the organizer, promoter and institutionalist; Roy funded the Unitarian Press, publishing in English and Bengali.
British and American Unitarians first heard of Roy as a great Hindu monotheist in 1818. The following year his Abridgment of the Vedant and Upanishad translations and commentaries were reviewed in the British Unitarian Monthly Repository. He corresponded with Thomas Belsham, Harriet Martineau, Jeremy Bentham, and Lant Carpenter. News of the Precepts controversy and of Roy’s conversion of Adam arrived in America in 1822. Meanwhile, in Calcutta, Roy published William Ellery Channing‘s landmark sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” together with a critical review.
In 1824 Roy replied to a letter from Harvard Professor Henry Ware, Sr., who had asked “Whether it be desirable that the inhabitants of India should be converted to Christianity?” in his answer Roy hinted otherwise, saying that “I am led to believe, from reason, what is set forth in scripture, that ‘in every nation he that feareth God and worketh righteousness is accepted with him,’ in whatever form of worship he may have been taught to glorify God.”
Roy believed strongly in education for Indians, including women. He founded the English-language Anglo-Hindu School in 1822, which offered a Western-style curriculum, including science. He opposed British government-sponsored mass education in Sanskrit, claiming that this would marginalize Indians and keep them from joining the modern world. He did, however, also found the Vedanta College in 1826, to educate a few high-caste people to read Sanskrit texts. Adam was disappointed that Roy did not allow the Anglo-Hindu School to be used for Unitarian missionary purposes. Roy, on the other hand, believed that Indians, once educated to western culture, would develop the theistic ethical values he had long promoted.
Adam and Roy also disagreed over the use of Bengali in religious services. Roy believed that only Sanskrit, Persian, or English were acceptable as sacred tongues. When Adam reconstituted the Calcutta Unitarian Council in 1827 as the British Indian Unitarian Association, Roy and other Bengalis withdrew their financial support. The next year he founded a new group, the Brahmo Samaj, dedicated to one God and taking its scriptural authority from the Vedas. Brahmo Samaj allowed upper-caste Hindus to practice monotheism and universality within their own culture.
Adam reluctantly acquiesced to the creation of the Brahmo Samaj. He reported his analysis of Roy’s motives to Joseph Tuckerman, a leading American Unitarian supporter of Unitarian missionary work in India and a longtime correspondent with Roy. “Rammohun Roy, I am persuaded,” Adam wrote, “supports this institution [Braho samaj] not because he believes in the divine authority of the Ved, but solely as an instrument for overthrowing idolatry. To be candid, however, I must add that . . . in my mind . . . he employs Unitarian Christianity in the same way, as an instrument for spreading pure and just notions of God, without believing in the divine authority of the Gospel.”
In 1829 Lord William Bentinck, Governor-General of India, after consulting with Roy, declared sati illegal. Roy assured him that this would not violate religious liberty because it was, in his estimation, an optional rite and not a true part of Hindu religion. Roy supported the government decision, briefed Bentinck on how to respond to pro-sati petitions, and wrote a tract, Abstract of the Arguments regarding the Burning of Widows Considered as a Religious Rite, 1830. In this he called sati “cruel murder, under the cloak of religion.” His persuasive influence made the British ruling seem less coercive. There was, nevertheless, much opposition the new regulation. Roy’s opponents formed a pro-sati organization, Dharma Sabha, 1830-38, and sent representatives to England to argue against sati‘s criminalization.
In 1830-31 Roy sailed to England to provide Parliament with a native Indian perspective on judicial and revenue systems in India during the debate over the renewal of the East India Company charter, to oppose repeal of the Sati Act, to lobby for funds for the Moghul emperor (who granted him the title Raja), and to make a pilgrimage to understand the heart of European civilization. When he arrived in Liverpool, Roy was greeted with great fanfare, and was honored by aristocrats, reformers, and scholars. He made friends with English Unitarians, though he made it a point to visit Christian churches of all denominations. He was visited by Lucy Aikin, Jeremy Bentham, William Godwin, and Robert Owen.
Roy’s political career in England was fairly successful. The Emperor got an increase in his stipend, though not nearly as much as he had requested. Roy lobbied for equality under the law for Indian and English people, independent of religious affiliation. The Indian Jury Act was passed in 1832. He convinced Parliament to allow imported salt to compete with the salt monopoly in India. His testimony and Remarks on the Settlement in India by Europeans, 1832, led to the Charter Act of 1833, allowing Europeans to settle, without license, in certain areas of India. He was consulted by the lawyers in the sati case, and in 1832 was present during the entire three day’s hearing before the Privy Council, who upheld Bentinck’s law. “As we [Indians] can no longer be guilty of female murder,” he rejoiced afterward, “we now deserve every improvement temporal and spiritual.”
He briefly found Britain worthy as well. While in England Roy became a partisan of the 1832 Reform Bill. After it passed, he confessed that had it failed he would have renounced the country, and, writing to the Unitarian Liverpool merchant, William Rathbone, prayed that “the mighty people of England” might succeed at last in “banishing corruption and selfish interests from public proceedings.”
In 1833, his political work finished, Roy was physically exhausted and in financial difficulties. His Unitarian friends, including Bristol minister Lant Carpenter, provided support. They arranged for him to stay, with his Hindu servants and his adopted son Rajaram Roy, at the home of Carpenter’s daughter, Mary. Roy’s general health had been poor since 1825. While in Bristol he contracted meningitis. He died saying the sacred Hindu word Om, and wearing the Brahman thread. Carpenter preached a funeral sermon to a crowd of a thousand people at Lewin’s Mead Chapel. Since that time an annual remembrance service has been held at his grave in Arno’s Vale Cemetery on the outskirts of Bristol. The service is conducted by the Unitarian minister in Bristol, and attended by the Indian High Commissioner.
“I feel his loss deeply,” wrote William Ellery Channing. “I cannot name a stranger whom I so wished to see.” Roy’s poetic English translations of Vedic literature later fired the oracular imaginations of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. His greatest legacy was the dream of a universal religion based on the belief of a Divine Unity. Rabindranath Tagore declared that Roy “realized that a bond of spiritual unity links the whole of mankind.”
There is unpublished correspondence about Roy at Manchester College, Oxford. Roy’s own letters are in Dilip Kumar Biswas, The Correspondence of Raja Rammohun Roy, 2 vols. (1992, 1997). This includes his correspondence with British and American Unitarians and his 1832 autobiographical letter. Some government documents are found in Selections from Official Letters and Documents Relating to the Life of Raja Rammohun Roy, ed. Ramaprasad Chanda and Jitindra Kumar Majumdar (1938). Roy’s works are available as The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy, ed. Kalidas Nag and Debajyoti Burman (1945) and The Essential Writings of Raja Rammohan Ray, ed. Bruce Carlisle Robertson (1999). Two Brahman Sources of Emerson and Thoreau, ed. William Bysshe Stein (1967), contains a reprint of Roy’s Translation of Several Principal Books, Passages, and Texts of the Veds (1832).
Early memoirs of Roy include Lant Carpenter, A Review of the Labours Opinions and Character of Rajah Rammohun Roy; A Series of Illustrative Extracts from His Writings; And a Biographical Memoir (1833); Mary Carpenter, The Last Days in England of Raja Rammohun Roy (1866); and William Adam, A Lecture on the Life and Labours of Rammohun Roy (1879). The standard full biography is Sophie Dobson Collet, The Life and Letters of Raja Rammohun Roy (1900, 3rd revised edition edited by D.K. Biswas and P.C. Ganguli, 1962). More modern studies include Bruce Carlisle Robertson, Raja Rammohan Ray: The Father of Modern India (1995), which includes a biography and an evaluation of his Vedanta writings; S. Cromwell Crawford, Ram Mohan Roy: Social, Political and Religious Reform in 19th Century India (1987); James N. Pankratz, “Rammohun Roy,” in Robert D. Baird, Religion in Modern India (1981), a thematic analysis of Roy’s thought; and the essay collection, Rammohun Roy and the Process of Modernization in India, ed. V. C. Joshi, (1975). On Roy and Unitarians see Spencer Lavan, Unitarians and India: A Study in Encounter and Response (1977) and Alan D. Hodder, “Emerson, Rammohun Roy, and the Unitarians,” Studies in the American Renaissance (1988). On the Brahmo Samaj, see Spencer Lavan, “The Brahmo Samaj: India’s First Modern Movement for Religious Reform,” in Baird, Religion in Modern India and David Kopf, The Brahmo Samaj and the Making of the Modern Indian Mind (1979). See also Benoy Bhusan Roy, Socioeconomic Impact of Sati in Bengal and the Role of Raja Rammohun Roy (1987) and Dermot Killingley, Rammohun Roy in Hindu and Christian Tradition: The Teape Lectures 1990 (1993).