By Ramananda Chatterjee
Of the three maxims in politics, in ethics, and in religion, which Rammohun Roy often repeated, the one on religion was from the Persian Poet Saadi, and runs thus in English translation :—
“The true way of serving God is to do good to man”.
This puts us on the track of the mainspring of his multifarious activities for the welfare of his countrymen and of mankind in general. It was his religious faith. As I have observed elsewhere, earnest attempts at reform, whether religious, social, political, of any other description, are based on faith in the ultimate triumph of truth and justice and humanity, which is synonymous with a belief in the moral government of the universe. This is an essential element in religious belief. One would, therefore, expect to find Raja Rammohun Roy, the first all-rounder reformer in modern India, the first to act on the principle of the interdependence of different kinds of reform,— “above all and beneath all, a religious personality. The many and far—reaching ramifications of the root of his life was religion. He would never have been able to go so far or to move his countrymen so mightily as he did, but for the driving power of an intense theistic passion”. He “made no secret of the theistic passion which ruled his life”.
Yet at the many meetings held on the occasion of the anniversaries of his death during a long course of years, and on the occasion of his Centenary also, speakers and writers have, for the most part, dwelt on his achievements as a social reformer, a political worker, a literateur, a linguist, and an educationist, – very often not even mentioning the fact of his having been a religious reformer, one who worked hard to uproot polytheism and idolatry.
This neglect of the religious side of his personality led the late Dr. Mohendralal Sircar, a great physician, and founder of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, to observe at the Rammohun Roy Anniversary held in Calcutta on the 27th September, 1889 :—
“In connection with the versatility of the late Raja Rammohun Roy, I hope I shall be permitted to take this opportunity of saying that it is a matter of great rejoicing that he should be claimed by all sections of the community as a man who ought to be admired. Gentlemen, while it is a matter of rejoicing, I must at the same time raise my warning voice that we should not lose sight of the great central truth to the propagation of which the late Raja Rammohun Roy devoted his whole life; and that was the unity of Godhead. The great aspiration of the late Raja Rammohun Roy was to enable the human mind to acquire the highest truth which it was capable of acquiring, and that was to have a just, correct, and true idea of the unity of the Godhead, I need not dwell and dilate upon the various reforms which he inaugurated; those reforms are going on rapidly enough. But I must say, – and say with the greatest regret, – that the greatest reform at which he aimed, namely, to instruct his countrymen in the unity of the Godhead, has not made adequate progress. Of course, you will rejoice at the establishment of Brahmo Samajes throughout India as evidence of the progress of the great central truth which the late Raja Rammohun Roy tried to inculcate. But compared with the masses of the country, who are deeply ignorant of the very fact of the unity of the Godhead, these various charges are but infinitesimal drop to propagate that noble idea. We have not done sufficient to propagate this idea and to do real homage to the Raja. With all our boasted education we are, gentlemen, practically atheists. I am an outspoken man, and may be blamed for making these remarks; but still, when I recollect what the late Raja Rammohun Roy did for the abolition of idolatry, and what we have since been doing towards the same object, I must say that we cannot congratulate ourselves upon our energy”.
At present there is little or no open advocacy of such idolatry as involves sexual immorality, at least among the educated classes, – though widely prevalent idolatry of certain kinds in the South involves the immoral and degrading Devadasi system. Among an appreciable section of the educated public there is condemnation-at least in theory- of such idolatry as involves cruelty to animals, though it is practiced over wide areas on a large scale. But opposition to and condemnation of idolatry as an error, a superstition, and an irrational practice unworthy of and unnecessary for civilised human beings are practically confined to the Brahmo Samaj and some members of the Arya Samaj.
The discussion of the topic is not merely of academic interest. There is a great diversity of opinions on various matters of vital interest to the nation. But perhaps the greatest measure of agreement that exists, relates to the elevation of the political status of the people of India. Opinions differ as to what that status ought to be in the immediate future, or ultimately; and opinions differ also in relation to the methods to be adopted for winning that status. But all agree that a change for the better is necessary. It is also agreed that for effecting that change the people of India ought to unite and be better organised. What stands in the way of such unity and organisation? I shall not here refer to all the obstacles that hinder unity or make unity difficult for all religious communities. I shall take only the case of the Hindu community, and refer to an obstacle or two which stand in the way of their unity.
It is a matter of common knowledge that caste and ‘touchability‘ and ‘untouchability‘ keep the Hindu community divided. But it is not always borne in mind that the worship of some particular god or goddess in preference to or to the exclusion of others, is or at least has been, another dividing factor. Sectarian quarrels, sometime of a sanguinary character, between Vaishnavas and Saktas, Saibas and Vaishnavas, worshippers of the Siva and worshippers of the snake goddess Manasa, and so on, used to disturb the mutual relations of different Hindu sects to a great extent in the not distant past. Perhaps they have not yet disappeared from all parts of the country among all strata of Hindus. To the extent that they have disappeared, the result may be due to religious indifferentism or to the fact that present-day worship of some deity or other is not as sincere and ardent among all sections of the Hindus as it used to be in days goneby. In any case it cannot be denied that the Hindus would be a more united and better organised people, if they individually and collectively worshipped One God in spirit and truth, than they are now. lf loyalty and obedience to one supreme political leader make for the solidarity and strength of a people or political party, can it be doubted that devotion to the one True God would make a people united and strong? That the feeling is growing among Hindus that there ought to be collective of congregational worship among them, and the growing practice of Sravajanina or all caste Durga Puja among Bengalee Hindus, indirectly prove that unity of worship makes for national solidarity.
Faith in the supreme spirit has an energizing and strengthening effect, as it implies belief in the moral government of the universe and faith in the ultimate triumph of truth, justice and righteousness. Hence, worship of the One True God and meditation on His attributes cannot but make for the vigorous conduct of all righteous national struggles and lead to their ultimate success.
For these and other similar reasons, Walter Bagehot wrote in his Physics and Politics – “Those kind of morals and that kind of religion which tend to make the firmest and most effectual character are sure to prevail, all else being the same; and creeds or systems that conduce to a soft limp mind tend to perish, except some hard extrinsic force keep them alive… Strong beliefs win a strong man, and then make them stronger. Such is no doubt one cause why Monotheism tends to prevail over Polytheism; it produces a higher steadier character, calmed and concentrated by a great single object; it is not confused by competing rites, or distracted by miscellaneous deities. Polytheism is religion in commission, and it is weak accordingly”
Whether literate or illiterate, Hindus of some education will readily admit that the worship of the formless Parabrahma is the highest religion taught in the Hindu Sastras. At the same time the vast majority of Hindus, including many persons of remarkable intellectuality, will urge that the worship of Parabrahma is meant only for the great sages, and the image worship is necessary for the generality of men, who cannot grasp the idea of the formless supreme deity. But it is found that among some sects of Hindus, the Bauls for example, even illiterate peasants are found to be great devotees of the Formless Supreme Spirit. So it is hard to believe that those classes of Hindus who continue to produce successful students of Metaphysics, higher mathematics, higher science, etc., some of whom are able to do very abstruse original work in philosophy and science, — must be confined to the worship of image, and must not aspire to worship the Formless Oversoul in spirit and in truth, which is man’s highest privilege, duty and bliss.