The Life & Reforms of
Raja Ram Mohun Roy Bahadoor

[1772 - 1833]

Ram Mohun Roy, who is sometimes called the father of modern India, founded a movement for a renaissance of Hindu culture in 19th century Bengal. He challenged traditional culture by organizing religious dissenters and championing educational, social and political reforms.

1612 Map of Bengal from Amsterdam in German - click to learn about Bangladesh, the modern Bengali nation in eastern India
His Early Life

He was born on May 22, 1772, in the village of Radhanagar, Hoogley district, in British ruled Bengal. His family, which was properous and of the Brahmin caste, was in the service of a prominent landholder. His father, Ram Kanta Roy, claimed descent from Narottama Thakur, a follower of the 16th century Bengali Vaisnava (sect of Visnu) reformer, Caitanya. His maternal forebears were of Bhattacharyas of Chatra, chief priests of the Sakta sect (mother goddess sect), with whom the Vaisnavas, historically, had few dealings.

Little is known of his early life and education, but his home life was marked by active religious conflict. He seems to have developed unorthodox ideas at an early age. After the death of his father, his mother unsuccessfully attempted to disinherit him of the grounds of apostasy.

Setting Out On His Own

Alienated from his family, Ram Mohun supported himself by moneylending, managing his small estates, and speculating in British East India Company bonds. In 1805 he was employed by John Digby, a lower company official. Through Digby, he was introduced to Western culture and literature. For the next ten years Ram Mohun drifted in and out of British East India Company service as Digby's assistant.

Ram Mohun Roy Natural Religion & Sanskrit Translations

Ram Mohun continued his religious studies throughout this period. In 1803 he had composed a tract denouncing religious divisions and superstitions and advocating "natural religion" in which reason guides to "... the Absolute Originator who is the first principle of all religions." By 1815 his spiritual roots were more clearly discernible, when he composed a brief summary of the Vedanta Sutras (an ancient Sanskrit religious treatise), in Bengali and Hindi, entitled Vedantagrantha. In the same year he published vernacular and English translations of his abridgment of an unknown compendium of Vedanta doctrines, the Vedantasara. There followed Bengali and Hindi translations of the Kena and Isa Upanishads (1816), the Katha and Mandukya Upanishads (1817), and the Mundaka Upanishads (1819). The central theme of these texts, for Ram Mohun, was the worship of the Supreme God, beyond human knowledge, who supports the universe. These publications established Ram Mohun, in the eyes of his comtemporaries, both as a modern exponent of the Vedanta school of Hindu philosphy and as a scriptural nonconformist. He rejected the label of reformer. By translating the sacred Sanskrit Upanishads into modern Bengali, Ram Mohun violated a long standing tradition. In Appreciation of these translations, however, the French Societe Asiatique, in 1824, elected him to an honorary membership.

In 1815 Ram Mohun Roy founded the short lived Atmiya Sabha (Friendly Society) to unite his growing following. These activities attracted the attention of Baptist missionaries, with whom be began work on a new Bengali translation of the New Testament. This lasted long enough for a dispute to arise over the divinity of Christ. For Ram Mohun the issue was the same as with his Hindu critics: the unity of the godhead. Yet he published in 1820, the ethical teachings of Christ, excerpted from the four Gospels, under the title, "Precepts of Jesus, the Guide to Peace and Happiness." A vigorous debate with the missionaries followed, centering upon the authority of the Bible and the doctrine of the Trinity. Ram Mohun closely argued the Unitarian anit-trinitarian position, publicly challenging christian spiritual supremacy.

From Religious to Political Activist

In 1823, when the British imposed censorship upon the Calcutta press, Ram Mohun, as founder and editor of two weekly newspapers, organized a protest, arguing in the spirit of the American and French Revolutions, in favor of freedom of speech and religion as natural rights. This protest marked a turning point in Ram Mohun's life, away from preoccupation with religious polemic toward social and political action. In 1822 he founded the Anglo-Hindu School and four years later, the Vedanta College. When the Bengal government proposed a more traditional Sanskrit college in 1823, Ram Mohun protested that classical Indian literature would not prepare the youth of Bengal for the demands of modern life. He proposed, instead, a modern, Western curriculum of study. Ram Mohun, furthermore, led a protest against the outmoded British legal and revenue administration, advocating the separation of the legal and revenue functions, and the adoption of the pancayat system, the Indian jury-trial system.

Ram Mohun's opposition to sati (ritual death of widows upon the funeral pyres of the husbands) placed him in the center of the biggest public contraversy of his generation. In 1818 he had issued his first pamphlet denoucing the rite from sacred literature. He followed in 1820 with another, arguing from Hindu law. Two years later he published "Brief Remarks Regarding Modern Encroachments on the Ancient Rights of Females According to the Hindu Law of Inheritance." His newspaper Sambad Kaumudi joined in the already growing outcry against sati. Ram Mohun's actual influence on the passage of the 1829 act prohibiting sati is not clear, though there were many afterward who remarked upon his role in the debate. it has been widely accepted that he had the effect of emboldening the government to act decisively, though he himself favoured caution in governmental interference in public religious life.

In August 1828 he formed the Brahmo Samaj (Society of Brahma). The deed of the first Samaj building declared its purpose to be "... a place of public meeting of all sorts and descriptions of people, without distinction, as shall behave and conduct themselves in an orderly, sober, religious and devout manner: for the worship and adoration of the Eternal, Unsearchable and Immutable Being, who is the Author and Presever of the Universe...." The Brahmo Samaj was to play an important part, later in the century, as a Hindu movement of reform.

Raja Ram Mohun Roy

In 1929 Ram Mohun Roy journeyed to England as the unofficial representative of the titular King of Delhi, to petition the East India Company for an increase in the royal pension. The king granted him the title "Raja," though it was unrecognized by the British. Ram Mohun's personal objectives for the visit were to lobby for reforms in Indian government and to support the abolition of sati. He was received with adulation, especially by English Unitarians and by King William IV. During the summer of 1833 he traveled to Paris, where he was received by King Louis-Philippe. But his health had declined in Europe, and on Spetember 27, 1833, he died in the care of Unitarian friends at Bristol, England.
Tomb Inscription for Raja Rammohun Roy Bahadoor

Historical Impact

Ram Mohun Roy's importance in modern Indian history rests upon the fact that he revived interest in the ethical principle of the Vedanta school as a counterpoise to the western assault on Indian culture and contributed to the popularization of the Bengali language, while at the same time he was the first Indian to apply to the Indian environment the fundamental social and political ideas from the American and French Revolutions.
Tomb of Raja Rammohun Roy Bahadoor with Alan Ross

Our Descent from Ram Mohum Roy

Arthur E. Merton was born on May 16, 1834, near Bristol, England, eight months after Ram Mohun passed away. We do not know who his mother was; only that she was a Merton. Arthur emigrated to America sometime before 1859. There he married Josephine Evans of Pennsylvania, who was one of the first lady doctors in America. They had three children, all born in Ohio. They both taught at Oberlin College in Ohio. In 1870 he married his student, Louisa Annette Wolf. They had four children. Leona Merton, their daughter (my great-grandmather) is said to remember well sitting in the lap of Mark Twain when he came to visit their home. Arthur Merton's pen name was Alesha Sivartha. He settled down near Bayard, Kansas, where he died on April 8, 1915.

More on the Life of Arthur E. Merton, Ph.D. by Zaida Marie Worden Ross

Written in 1990 by Don Ross. Unfortunately I did not write down my sources, but I do remember finding articles in two or three different encyclopedias with information on the life of Ram Mohun Roy, plus the research of my grandmother, Zaida Marie Ross.
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