One of the most influential social and religious reformers of the 19th century, Ram Mohan Roy, born on May 22, 1772, in what was then Bengal Presidency’s Radhanagar in Hooghly district, would have turned 250 years today.
Born into a prosperous upper-caste Brahmin family, Roy grew up within the framework of orthodox caste practices of his time.
Roy knew Bengali and Persian, but also Arabic, Sanskrit, and later, English.
His exposure to the literature and culture of each of these languages bred in him a scepticism towards religious dogmas and social strictures.
He spent considerable time studying the Vedas and the Upanishads, but also religious texts of Islam and Christianity.
He was particularly intrigued by the Unitarian faction of Christianity and was drawn by the precepts of monotheism that, he believed, lay at the core of all religious texts.
Rammohun did not quite make a distinction between the religious and the secular. He believed religion to be the site of all fundamental changes
In 1814, he started the Atmiya Sabha (Society of Friends), to nurture philosophical discussions on the idea of monotheism in Vedanta.
It aimed to campaign against idolatry, casteism, child marriage and other social ills.
The Atmiya Sabha would make way for the Brahmo Sabha in 1828, set up with Debendranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore’s father.
His actions finally led to the abolition of Sati under the governor generalship of William Bentinck in 1829.
Roy argued for the property rights of women, and petitioned the British for freedom of the press (in 1829 and 1830)
He campaigned for the modernisation of education, in particular the introduction of a Western curriculum, and started several educational institutions in the city.
In 1817, he collaborated with Scottish philanthropist David Hare to set up the Hindu College (now, Presidency University).
He followed it up with the Anglo-Hindu School in 1822
Perils of non-conformism
Roy, who was given the title of Raja by the Mughal emperor Akbar II, was no exception to the societal enmity.
Roy was also often attacked by his own countrymen who felt threatened by his reformist agenda, and by British reformers and functionaries, whose views differed from his.
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