Raja Ram Mohan Roy exemplified the new English educated class of Indians who emerged in the late 18th century. He came from a distinguished Brahman family in Bengal—the headquarters of the British East India Company. Feeling somewhat alienated from his orthodox family, he eventually became an employee of the British East India Company.
After a few years, Roy left the company to pursue humanism and religious reform. Influenced by contemporary European liberalism, he challenged traditional Hindu beliefs. In 1803 he produced a tract that denounced religious superstition and segregation. By 1815 he had begun translation of ancient Sanskrit texts such as the Sutras and various Upanishads (philosophic writings) into modern Hindi and Bengali.
He was also the progenitor of many modern secular movements in India. He actively campaigned against suttee (the burning of widows). He also argued for reform of Hindu law, upholding the rights of women, freedom of the press, more just land laws, Indian participation in the government of India, and establishment of an English-style education system in India. He opposed the founding of Sanskrit College, which he viewed as too traditional.
Roy backed his writings and views with action. In 1815 he founded a publishing house that translated the New Testament into Bengali. In 1820 he published a work on the “Precepts of Jesus, the Guide to Peace and Happiness,” the beginning of a pantheistic approach that would combine Christianity and Hinduism, eventually adopting a Unitarian anti traditional position. In 1823 Roy founded two newspapers. In 1827 he founded the Anglo-Hindu School and a college in 1826. However, the act for which he is best remembered is establishing the Brahmo Samaj in Calcutta in 1829. This society rejected idol worship and the multiple deities of traditional Hinduism. The emphasis was on a more nationalist monotheist interpretation of Hinduism.
Roy was famous for his learning and general erudition. He spoke several languages and was a scholar in both Sanskrit and Arabic. He was much admired by Western intellectuals for his breadth of knowledge and intellectual curiosity. He became one of the first Hindus to visit Europe in an official capacity. He came to England in 1831 as the ambassador of the Mughal emperor. In 1832 he visited Paris and then returned to England, where he died the following year.
His most enduring legacy, apart from the educational institutions he founded and his writings, were satellites of the Brahmo Samaj, which spread throughout India and then via Indian communities throughout the world. A believer in the Western method of living for India as the path for the future, Roy is considered by many Indian scholars as the founder of modern India.
Norman C. Rothman