27th September 1833: Raja Rammohan Roy, educationist and social reformer passes away


The Bengal Renaissance was a unique socio-cultural movement in India, where intellectuals and social activists in Bengal, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, attempted to reform the educational, social, and cultural aspects of life in the state. They succeeded in bringing about a revolution in social thought, not only in Bengal but also across India. Raja Rammmohan Roy, the Father of the Bengal Renaissance, passed away on 27th September 1833.


Raja Rammohan Roy was born on 22nd May 1772 to a Bengali Brahmin family whose surname was Bandyopadhyay. A keen observer and quick learner from a young age, he showed an interest in study and learnt Bengali, Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic. The wide scope of his reading led him to become a free thinker who questioned all forms of oppressive behaviour. Due to his disagreements with this orthodox father Rammohan travelled to Tibet and spent some time there studying Buddhism However his questioning of traditional practices such as idol worship and advocacy of free thinking ideas led to his moving back to Bengal.


He took up employment with the East India Company and was sent to Murshidabad. In 1805 he published his first book in Persian "Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin" or "A Gift to Monotheism". This shook-up the Muslim clergy of the time. Rammohan attempted to find a synthesis between traditional Hindu thought and modern Western ideas of individual freedom and the rights of the individual. He developed a deep knowledge of the Hindu scriptures and Vedic literature as well as the holy books of Jainism. He also learnt Tantrism from the tantric Hariharananda Tirthaswami. Parallely he began to study English further and kept up-to-date with developments in European politics and the revolutionary changes occurring in France as a result of the French Revolution. As the Dewan of Rangpur district he organized informal discussions between the heads of different religious communities. He also established good friendships with some of the British missionaries of the time such as Joshua Marshman, William Carey and William Ward.


Rammohan Roy returned to Kolkata in 1814 and founded the Atmiya Sabha in 1815. This social organization was devoted to the promotion of discussion between the faiths and the search for universal truths across the religions. Rammohan also composed songs which were sung at the meetings of the Atmiya Sabha, which were attended by the leading thinkers and intellectuals of the time. Impressed by the simplicity of the monotheistic ideas of the Upanishads, Rammohan published his own translations of these ancient works. Their publication made the principles of these texts available to a much larger audience. He also published a book on Bengali grammar and played a leading role in establishing the Hindu College in 1817 (later renamed Presidency College). In 1825 he opened the Vedanta College to impart learning the ancient wisdom of the Vedas. He tried hard to repeal the Press Censorship Act of 1823, which curtailed free speech and finally saw it happen in 1835.


Rammohan felt strongly about the burning of Hindu widows in the practice called Sati and campaigned to raise awareness in society as well as get the British government to ban this practice. The Brahmo Samaj which he founded in 1828, soon developed a large following who were also keen to see social reforms take place. The Brahmo Samaj had a significant impact on the social and cultural fabric of Bengal at the time because of its fusion of Indian culture with Western concepts of education and individual rights. Lord William Bentinck, the Governor General of India promulgated the 'Abolition of Sati' Act 1829 which made it a crime to coerce, aid or abet anyone in the process of committing Sati.


In 1830 the Mughal Emperor Akbar II asked Rammohan Roy to plead his case before the British Government. He received the title Raja from the Mughal Emperor so that he could be a suitable ambassador for the Emperor when he visited England. Raja Rammohan Roy was the first educated Indian to cross the seas and travel to England. While he was there he also worked to ensure that the Abolition of Sati Act was not overturned. He also visited France to see for himself how the French Revolution and its aftermath had changed the lives of the French people.


Raja Rammohan Roy fell ill with meningitis while in England and passed away while on a trip to the city of Bristol in south-western England on 27 September 1833. He was interred in the Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol. A statue of Raja Rammohan Roy stands tall in the middle of the College Green at Bristol University in recognition of this pioneer of social change.


This year a miniature bust of Raja Rammohan Roy, carved in ivory has been displayed in the UK, at a ceremony on the occasion of the 180th anniversary of his passing away. Hundreds of people attended the ceremony, including Councillor Faruk Choudhury, the Lord Mayor of Bristol.


Raja Rammohan Roy's legacy lives on in the form of his books which reveal the forward-thinking and progressive nature of his thoughts. His influence remains prevalent in India even today in the fields of education, social justice and politics. He was truly one of the 'Makers of Modern India'.


Also on this day:

1953: Mata Amritanandamayi, spiritual leader and humanitarian was born.


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