Most people remember Raja Ram Mohan Roy as the man who fought to abolish sati (the practice of a wife immolating herself on her husband's funeral pyre) and also founded the Brahmo Samaj. But his contribution was a great deal more than that. In today's world of turmoil where religious dogma results in hatred, violence and alienation, Roy's universal approach to religion has much to offer.
Roy was born in Radhanagar village in Bengal's Hooghly district on May 22, 1772, to conservative Bengali Brahmin parents. Not much of his early life has been chronicled but what is known is that he had an eclectic education that sowed the seeds for his founding a universal religion, the Brahmo Samaj. Roy did his elementary education in the village school in Bengali, his mother tongue. At the age of 12, Roy went to a seat of Muslim studies in Patna where he mastered Persian and Arabic. His knowledge of Arabic enabled him to read the Koran in the original, as well as the works of Sufi saints. He also devoured Arabic translations of the works of Aristotle and Plato.
When he was 16, Roy clashed with his orthodox father - over the issue of idol worship - and left home. To acquaint himself with the Buddhist religion, he travelled across northern India and Tibet for the next three years. His questioning mind objected to the deification of the Buddha and this did not go down well with some of the lamas. He then visited Varanasi where he learnt Sanskrit and studied ancient Hindu scriptures.
In 1803, he secured a job with the East India Company and in 1809, he was posted to Rangpur. From the Marwaris of Rangpur, he learnt about Jainism and studied the Jain texts. Roy was drawn to certain aspects of Christianity that led some of the followers of the religion to suggest that he convert; but he politely declined. Though initially antagonistic towards British rule in India, Roy later began to feel that the country would benefit in terms of education and by exposure to the good points of Christianity. For this he was called a stooge of the British.
Roy's understanding of the different religions of the world helped him to compare them with Vedantic philosophy and glean the best from each religion. Sufi mysticism had a great influence on Roy. He loved to repeat three of their maxims: "Man is the slave of benefits"; "The enjoyment of the worlds rests on these two points - kindness to friends and civility to enemies"; and "The way to serve God is to do good to man".
Along with a group of like-minded people, Roy founded the Atmiya Sabha in 1815. The group held weekly meetings at his house; texts from the Vedas were recited and theistic hymns were sung. Roy was drawn to the Unitarian form of Christianity that resulted in him supporting a Unitarian Mission to be set up in Calcutta in 1824.
Roy's efforts to abolish the practice of sati were largely driven by his concern for the moral dimensions of religion. It was the sight of the burning of his brother's widow on her husband's funeral pyre and his inability to save her that spurred Ram Mohan into action. He delved into the scriptures in great detail and proved that the practice of Sati could not gain moksha (salvation) for the husband as each man was responsible for his own destiny. He also realised that very often it was greedy relatives interested in the property of the dead husband who were behind promoting the practice.
His relentless efforts in the form of petitions, writings and the organising of vigilance committees paid off when the William Bentinck administration passed a law in 1829 banning the practice of Sati. Roy also succeeded in starting a revolution for women's education and women's right to property. From the Hindu scriptures themselves, he argued that women enjoyed equal freedom with men.
Among Roy's other firsts was the publishing of a newspaper in an Indian language. The Atmiya Sabha brought out a weekly called the 'Bangal Gazette'. He also published a newspaper in Persian called 'Miratul-Akhbar' and a Bengali weekly called 'Sambad Kaumudi'. Roy placed a great deal of importance on the development of his mother tongue. His 'Gaudiya Vyakaran' in Bengali is rated highly among his writings in prose.
The founding of the Brahmo Samaj was among Roy's most important contributions. Beginning in 1828 as a small group, the Samaj played a major role in Renaissance Bengal of the 19th century by attracting luminaries like Keshub Chandra Sen and Rabindranath Tagore and other members of the Tagore family. The objectives of the Samaj were to follow a theistic form of Hinduism combining the best of what Roy inculcated through his exposure to other religions. Even today, in Brahmo prayer halls all over the country, people meet once a week, most often on Sundays, and worship the one God or Brahma. At these gatherings, discourses are offered, Vedic texts recited and hymns sung. Present-day followers try to inculcate his words: "Testing, questing, never resting, With open mind and open heart".
Roy felt strongly for the downtrodden and his belief in the universal brotherhood of man led him to support many causes and reform movements. A 100 years before the establishment of the League of Nations, Roy expressed the need for a similar institution. He said that just as two individuals resorted to a court of law to settle major disputes, there should be an organisation that could help to settle differences between two countries.
Roy made his first and only trip to England in November 1830 where he lived until his life was tragically cut short on September 27, 1833 after a brief illness.