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The Father of Modernism /The Lost Icon of Modernism

By Argha Kr Banerjee

‘Our futility will be in the measure of the greatness of Rammohan Roy’— Rabindranath Tagore

In his lecture as President of the Preliminary Meeting of the Rammohan Roy Centenary held at the Senate House, Calcutta on 18th February 1933, Rabindranath Tagore, hailed Raja Rammohan Roy as the inaugurator of ‘Modern Age in India’. Extolling his immense contribution, Tagore observed: ‘He was born at a time when our country having lost its link with the inmost truths of its being, struggled under a crushing load of unreason, in abject slavery to circumstance. In social usage, in politics, in the realm of religion and art, we had entered the zone of uncreative habit, of decadent tradition and ceased to exercise our humanity. In this dark gloom of India’s degeneration Rammohan rose up, a luminous star in the firmament of India’s history, with prophetic purity of vision and unconquerable heroism of soul’. Yet in the post independence era, Rammohan Roy’s quest seems to be by and large ignored except the limited confines of the Brahmo Samaj.  With religious extremism and brutal acts of terrorism raising its nasty head around the world perhaps Raja Rammohan Roy’s liberal moderate philosophy and life has never been more relevant. Today when bloggers are being targeted for airing their views, crime against women is on the rise, caste and identity claiming precious lives, the   predicament of the state is evident given its interference with the social and moral conduct of the polity

Rammohan’s contribution as a socio-political and religious reformer is today merely a subject of educational texts but the efficacy of his ideas is yet to move beyond routine texts and percolate down to the inner recesses of the society at large. Rammohan’s vehement protest that ultimately led to the abolition of the sati system in the country was not his lone accomplishment. His championing of the cause of monotheism, rejecting polytheism and idol worship was not only unique but extremely relevant even today, especially the obduracy against reforms. A staunch advocate of western education, he vehemently opposed caste system, championing the cause of women’s liberation and internationalism.

Born into a traditional Brahmin family, Rammohan’s potency as a free thinker evolved largely because of his enlightened education in Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit and Bengali. He even journeyed to Tibet to study Buddhism. His enlightened thinking and opposition to idolatry frequently incurred the wrath of numerous quarters, including his family members and other conformist dogmatic religious leaders. Published in 1805, Rammohan’s treatise in Arabic, Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin or a ‘Gift to Monotheism’ ran into a lot of controversy. After settling down in Calcutta, he founded the Atmiya Sabha, which provided a unique forum for free discussions on theological issues. In recurrent debates, Rammohan vanquished his adversaries on the issue of idol worship. Rooted in the purity of the Upanishadic doctrines Rammohan upheld the purity of monotheism and rooted for a universal religion. Referring to his own self as a Hindu Unitarian,  he denounced all false rituals and corrupt practices present in the society: ‘Because Unitarians believe, profess, inculcate the doctrine of divine unity, a doctrine which I find firmly maintained both by Christian scriptures and by our most ancient writings commonly called the Vedas.’ As most of us aware, Rammohan’s indefatigable efforts contributed to the abolition of the custom of Sati on 4th December 1829 by Lord William Bentinck. This culminated in a stiff social resistance led by the traditional Hindus under the guidance of Raja Radhakanta Deb, who advocated the repeal of the Sati act.

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose hailed Rammohan Roy as ‘the apostle of a religious revival’ who tried to purge Hinduism of social impurities and paved a way for regeneration on the true principles of Vedantism. Dr Brajendranath Seal celebrated Rammohan as ‘the father of Modern India’ who fought for a ‘Universal Religion’.  In straight denouncement of caste system, child marriage, dowry system, sati, polygamy, animal sacrifices, Brahmo movement also espoused the cause of women’s emancipation through reforms in law, education, besides advocating widow remarriage.

Today when so called intolerance and religious fundamentalism is one the rise, no other personality is more relevant in the current socio-political scenario as Raja Rammohan Roy. In the words of Tagore, Rammohan ‘knew that the ideal of human civilization does not lie in isolation of independence but in the brotherhood of interdependence of individuals and nations.’ As Indians, Tagore reminds us, we have a greater responsibility: ‘We in this country, however, owe a special responsibility, not only of bringing to light his varied contributions to the Modern Age, but of proving our right of kinship with him by justifying his life, by maintaining in every realm of our national existence the high standard of truth which he set before us.’ The apathy of governments at the state and central level is not only shocking but enigmatic, as ideals or role models of tolerance and liberalism offering panacea to most pressing socio-political ills plaguing the world are being sadly ignored.

(The writer is Dean of Arts, St Xavier’s College, Kolkata)Phone: 09874624978   Email: banerjeeargha@hotmail.com

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