Ram Mohan Roy was a Bengali man from the 19th century. After watching a widow burnt alive as part of a Hindu funeral ceremony, he dedicated his life to improving women's rights and restoring pride in Indian identity.
He faced steep opposition from both the Hindu and Christian elite, but remained unflinching in his cause.
Ram Mohan Roy is widely celebrated by Bengali people worldwide.
The English Works of Raja Rammohoun Roy by Jogendra Chunder Ghose
Biography of Raja Ram Mohan Roy by Readers Delight, New Delhi
The Precepts of Jesus: The Guide to Peace and Happiness by Ram Mohan Roy
Neo-Hindu Views of Christianity by Arvind Sharma
Rammohan Roy and the Unitarians By Alan D Hodder
The life and letters of Raja Rammohun Roy - Sophia Dobson
A young, well-educated Bengali man returns home to his village of Redhanagar, India after
spending years abroad.
As the weather was mild, he decided to take the long route back to his home.
Dawdling through the streets, the smells of cumin, nutmeg and ghee took him back to a
Walking through the central drag of the main street, a wedding procession passed him by.
In the middle of the noise and clamour, sat a grey hair and wrinkled old man, lustfully
eyeing off his new wife.
The girl he was marrying could not have been a day older than 13.
Though she forced a smile, her red eyes were a dead giveaway that she had been crying.
Leaving the procession behind him, he headed for a building site.
A new church was being built on the site of an old Hindu temple.
The man remembered how his father had always told him this was one of the oldest temples
in the state.
When it had been torn down, he wondered.
A beggar was leant up against one of the stone pillars.
As the man leant to give him some change, a passerby scolded him.
Don't waste your money on that man, he is of the Dalit caste.
All of a sudden, it began to feel like he hardly knew this place at all.
He needed to clear his head, so he made for one of the rivers he used to swim in.
When he reached the mouth of the river, he heard screaming, and as the scene came into
view he noticed a funeral was taking place.
Surrounded by family, a dead man lay atop a bundle of burning logs.
His wife, who was very much alive, was being burnt with him.
Her shrieking cries rang out as she desperately tried to escape the blaze, but family members
with long wooden sticks prodded her back in and scolded her for trying to escape her duties.
The man felt a combination of disgust and horror at the site.
What had happened to his country?
Had it always been this way and he was just not used to it anymore?
Europe had given up ridiculous superstitions and traditions like this centuries ago.
Why couldn't his country do the same, he thought?
But as he looked around and saw how many of his countrymen now dressed like Europeans,
or how many modern buildings had replaced the beautiful old Indian ones that once stood
there, he realized that the tide of European nationalism was threatening to whitewash the
uniqueness of his homeland.
The Christian faith had seeped deep into the Indian subcontinent and the Hinduism still
being practiced was corrupted and barbaric.
He was at a loss of what to do, how to feel.
Surely there was a way to absorb the advancements of Europe without becoming a pale copy of
There were some overdue changes to be made and he was going to make them.
You're listening to Anthology of Heroes and this is the story of Ram Mohan Roy, the
maker of modern India.
Ram Mohan Roy was born on the 22nd of May 1772 into the Bengali district of India.
Today that's just a little north of Calcutta in the east of India, near the borders of
India was, as this time, as is now, an incredibly diverse place, with many different ethnic
groups with their own language, culture and appearance.
Ram was one of the Bengali people.
But one thing that was common to all ethnic groups across India was the caste system.
Your caste was your ranking in society.
If you were born into a lower caste, tough luck, there was nothing you could do to escape
Your caste impacted how others treated you and what jobs were open to you.
Lucky for Ram, he was born as a Brahma, the very top caste in all of India.
In his youth, he had a first-rate education, designed for someone of his social standing.
It focused on international business, commerce and the like.
But it was his study of languages where this man really shined.
He showed exceptional promise by mastering Persian, Arabic and even Sanskrit within four
This of course on top of Bengali, Hindi and English, which he had already learnt to speak.
With such a comprehensive understanding of the languages of old, the secrets of ancient
philosophy revealed themselves to him.
Starting with ancient Persian scripture, he soon moved into something closer to home,
ancient Hindu philosophy.
He became particularly interested in the Vendata school of thought, a large portion of which
stresses the importance of a single supreme being with no equal.
This belief was known as monotheism and became the cornerstone of all his future ventures.
To Ram, there could be no compromise on this.
He noticed several distinct differences between the society he lived in and the society described
in these ancient texts.
To him, the modern Hinduism he saw practiced had drifted into worshipping idols that represent
God rather than worshipping God directly.
But more pressing was polytheism or worship of multiple gods, which seemed to be in complete
opposition to what he was reading.
To give some frame of reference, some of the sources Ram would have been reading would
have already been three and a half thousand years old.
This is ancient, ancient stuff.
So while it's no surprise there have been changes since these days, he felt that Hinduism
at its core was pure and beautiful, but whatever was being practiced around him had spiralled
far from it, like a diamond covered in a layer of dirt and filth.
Once the veil was lifted, for him there was no putting it back on.
He made it clear, first to his family, then to his friends and then to the governor, that
the lifestyles practiced here were corrupted and wrong.
In fact, you wouldn't shut up about it.
Ram's family were concerned about their standing in the community.
No one could question their son's intelligence, but the way he was living his life was so
different to what they had planned for him.
The young man found himself at a crossroads.
He could live his life as his father wanted to, enjoying a comfortable existence while
watching the culture of his country seep away.
Or he could go against the grain, his parents and society, but managed to look himself in
the mirror, knowing what he was doing was right.
And to him, the choice was obvious.
Soon he'd become the town pariah, a kind of loudmouth outcast, and after a heated debate
with his father one night, he was thrown out of the family home.
Friendless and penniless, Ram wandered the wastes of India for years, scraping by on
the charity of others and odd jobs.
As a member of the Brahma class, this was incredibly out of character.
Imagine a well-known politician stumbling down the street looking disheveled.
Eventually he ends up in Tibet and is taken in by a kindly Buddhist monk.
The monk encourages the young teenager to learn the doctrines of Buddhism, and studious
as ever, Ram learns them exceptionally quickly.
Although grateful for the hospitality of the monks, Ram's dislike of the Buddhists'
veneration of the Lamas, that's a kind of Buddhist pope, put him at odds with many in
the temple, and eventually to keep the peace, he takes his exit.
After four years away from home, Ram's father wanted him back.
He had never stopped loving his son, but the boy just refused to see reason.
Ram and his family unite in his early 20s, but it doesn't last long.
His father finds out quickly that time had not softened up his son's resolve.
If anything, it had hardened him.
And soon he is pressured to leave once more, this time by Hindu elders, unhappy that this
young start is once again messing up their status quo.
By this point in his life, Ram had seen so much of the world.
He would have mixed with people from all walks of life, all religions and all cultural backgrounds.
His exile had made him into an incredibly worldly young man.
He stood just under 5 foot 8, or 1.75 meters, had curly black hair, a chubby rounded face
with a thick black mustache.
His ideas were unpopular, but it didn't matter.
He had all the proof he needed in his cherished ancient Hindu texts.
And so it's not hard to believe that he found a job fairly easily within the Indian
court system which had him moving around the Bengali area for the next 12 years.
The Bengali area was one of the newest colonial acquisitions of the British Empire.
The Mughals, the now archaic dynasty that ruled India, was in a death spiral, losing
province after province to the European powers who hungrily snatched up the riches of the
India was in a transitory phase.
New European weaponry, medical practices, religion and theology flattered the general
populace and the traditional power holders, religious or otherwise, clung on desperately
in an attempt to stay relevant.
It was not all innovation and sunshine though.
With the arrival of the British in some parts came new and sometimes crippling taxes and
oppression such as the Great Famine of Bengal which was caused by British policy changes
and came to kill 10 million people, or a third of the population of Bengal.
It was into this turbulent and crowded stage Ram would have the difficulty of forcing his
With what we've just covered with Ram's dedication to the orthodox Hindu faith, it
might surprise you to know he was not against Christianity.
Ram's beliefs were complex, but he thought there was a place for Christianity alongside
the quote real Hinduism he had studied.
He understood the European's feelings about Hinduism as barbaric and backwards, and he
agreed with them.
But unlike the Europeans, he believed Hinduism in its purest form could exist in harmony
with the new India that was forming around it.
In Ram's own words, he says quote, I expect to prove to my European friends that the superstitious
practices which deform the Hindu religion have nothing to do with the pure spirit it
He felt that India had room for both Christianity and Hinduism, and wrote frequently that the
nature of God was beyond the means of conception for a human being.
So to him, it made no difference as God was worshipped in a temple, a mosque, or a church.
As long as they were worshipping a single divine being, this was okay.
This came to be known as universalism.
While these changes may seem unimportant in 2021, it's important to remember that as
European colonisation swept across the world, languages, cultural practices, and religion
were washed away either by force or were made redundant with time.
While India had a huge population, there was still a definite risk for many aspects of
the culture to be quote whitewashed as European ideals took root in their society.
Making use of the multiple languages he spoke, Ram soon found employment within the East
India Trading Company, an enormous multinational conglomerate.
An intelligent and hardworking man, Ram advanced himself in the company, earning a significant
amount of money working as a moneylender and flipping real estate when profitable.
While his day job kept the money rolling in, wealth did certainly not dull his yearning
to advance his people.
During these years, he mixed with an entirely different crowd of people to his earlier life,
and through rubbing shoulders with the high society of Europe, he gained a greater understanding
of European administration, religion, politics, and language.
Interestingly, he took an interest in the Freemason fraternity as well.
While many in his position would have turned their back on their own upbringing, Ram was
proud of who he was.
He had poured over his old texts and knew that just like any other European nation,
his people's history was vast, complicated, and prestigious.
And with so much local knowledge and language prowess, he naturally became a link between
the educated Europeans and the local Bengali people.
As Ram learned more about Christianity, he began to realize that Christ's method of
teaching was more approachable and easier to understand for the common man.
In his own words, Ram said, quote, I have found the doctrines of Christ more conducive
to moral principles and more adapted to the use of rational beings than any other of which
that have come to my knowledge, end quote.
To this end, he began to help local missionaries work to translate the Bible into Bengali.
The missionaries were initially thrilled to have such a willing and intelligent member
of the population spread their message.
However, the project stalled when Ram reached passages of the Bible that spoke of the Trinity,
that is of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
He wanted his translation to make it clear the Father was superior to the Son and the
Disputes exactly like this had plagued early Christianity, and these missionaries were
not about to open up that can of worms again.
Heated words were exchanged with the missionaries telling Ram that heathens like him should
not stick their nose into complicated doctrinal issues such as this, but Ram refused to relent,
and so the project was called off.
But this would not be the last argument he would have about the nature of the Trinity.
So we've got a well-educated Indian circulating in the highest rungs of European society,
disagreeing with both Hindu and Christian elite, and calling shots on what he will and
will not translate.
He really did like to rock the boat.
However isolated he was though, Ram found his first real supporter in a Scottish Baptist
minister, William Adam, who he worked closely on the original Bible conversion project with.
William was moved by Ram's dedication and stubbornness and took the bold step of agreeing
with him, a decision that made him an outcast forevermore among his colleagues.
With one translation project failed due to conflicting influences, Ram began to circulate
his own works.
He translated his own heavily cut-down version of the Bible that focused on the practical
lessons Jesus gave, completely omitting books he saw no relevance with or disagreed with.
The book was published and distributed for free at his expense.
He called it The Precepts of Jesus, or The Rules of Jesus.
This was pretty much the crib notes of the Bible.
Criticism of this was quick and fierce, and names such as pagan were thrown around in
papers and publications, but it made no difference to Ram.
While his translated papers made their way through Indian society, Ram moved his target
back onto the Hindu elite.
Eager to show the populace the error of their ways, he worked tirelessly, day and night,
to translate a collection of the ancient texts referred to as the Vedas into modern Bengali.
From the ancient languages of Sanskrit and Old Arabic, he tried to summarize a humongous
amount of information into a more modern and practical form.
Ram used the justification he found within these holy texts to speak about the most servile
and downtrodden in Hindu society, women.
Pulling no punches, he lashed out at the Hindu elite for allowing and forcing women to burn
themselves alive following the death of their husband, a practice known as Sati.
He brings to life the horrifying image of a widow being tied down to a funerary boat
by members of her family, so that she will not bring shame on them by trying to escape
as she literally roasts alive in front of them.
And in the event the woman did manage to free herself, there is someone on hand with a bamboo
rod to prod her back into it.
Ram goes on to condemn the lack of education women receive and their generally miserable
place in society.
He says, quote, At marriage, the wife is recognized as half of her husband, but in after contact
they are treated worse than inferior animals.
For the woman is employed to do the work of a slave in the house, such as, in her turn,
to clean the place very early in the morning, whether cold or wet, to scour the dishes,
to wash the floor, to cook night and day, to prepare and serve food for a husband, father,
mother-in-law, sisters-in-law, brothers-in-law, and friends and connections.
He concludes with, What I lament is that, seeing women thus dependent and exposed to
every misery, you feel for them no compassion that they might exempt themselves from being
tied down and burnt to death.
Over the next two years, he publishes various leaflets, focused mainly on women's education
and the banning of sati, but also child marriages and dowry payments, that's the payment from
a bride's family to the groom's family in exchange for marriage.
Ram's message was clear.
All concepts degrading to women are keeping India from advancing globally because with
only half the population capable of learning, the country itself is severely handicapped.
The notion of a woman's place in the world being equal to her husband's is historically
very modern, and considering that even today that this is not accepted in all countries,
this was highly controversial indeed.
While the Brahma elite predictably scorn his publications, he finds allies in the European
community who were particularly keen to wipe away the practice of sati.
Distributing works in the Bengali language was one thing, but for his countrymen to sit
equal with the Europeans, they needed to speak English.
In 1817, Ram opened a school where young Bengalis could learn to speak it.
The schools were heavily focused on a Western-style education but with a distinct Indian flavour
to them, a very different approach to what the European schools were offering.
He wanted the children of his community to be worldly but also to not forget their origins.
Due to them being relatable, the classes were very popular and as soon as they filled up,
he was forced to open another school, all of which he ran at his own expense.
By 1828, Ram was in his late 50s, and finally his efforts of improving education and of
the social standing of ethnic Indians had started cranking the gears of what historians
would later refer to as the Bengali Renaissance, or the Indian Renaissance.
The spreading of Western ideals, tinged with a Bengali underpinning, was hugely successful
in motivating his countrymen to challenge the status quo.
Old superstitions began to be challenged, redundant bureaucrats were questioned, and
outdated customs began to fall out of practice.
Sati, the ceremony where widows were burned alive, had been banned under strict consequences
in all British administrative provinces across India.
Ram's willingness to say what was needed had initially made him unpopular and ostracised,
but now had earned him tremendous prestige.
Europeans admired his ability to transcend cultural barriers and the Brahma elite feared
the power he had over the population, who were waking up to the hold that they had over
But his most ambitious project was yet to come.
Ram's core beliefs were a monotheistic religion, coupled with Western education, delivered
in a way that was practical.
The books he had distributed were good, and the schools were useful, but he wanted a way
to tie it together and make it all stick.
Brahmo Samaj was the name that came to be associated with this reformation of the Hindu
Ram wanted a regular gathering where Christians and Hindus from any caste could gather and
It was a huge endeavour, injecting elements of European enlightenment into one of the
oldest religions in the world.
It was no easy feat, but despite the apprehension of the community, the first few sessions saw
a surprisingly high attendance from high caste Brahmas like himself.
Although religious in nature, Ram's insistence of a shared place of worship tied him with
his vision of a country where Europeans and Indians could stand shoulder to shoulder as
equals, two faiths worshipping one god.
Later that year, his presence in India had grown to such an extent that the Mughal emperor
Shah Akbar II requested that he travel to England as his envoy to request an increase
in the allowance allotted to him.
When he returned successful, Shah Akbar bestowed the title of Raja, meaning Lord or Sir, on
Two years later, he set sail for England again.
I hope as his ship pulled out of the harbour, he looked back with pride on the seeds of
advancement he had planted through sheer determination and patriotism.
Although he didn't know it, he would never again return to India.
Over the next two years, Ram travelled between England and France, where he eagerly took
part in cultural exchanges, always wanting to advance his knowledge.
He published a few books in England around the Indian economic models in hope that a
better understanding of the country would mean it would be governed better.
He also met and befriended Sophia Dobson Colette, a free-thinking feminist who also happened
to be a journalist.
Sophia took an interest in Ram's life, particularly his Brahmo-Samaj Reformation, and she would
go on to write his biography, proving to be one of the most valuable contemporary accounts
on his life.
On the 27th of September, 1833, Raja Ram Mohan Roy passed away from a bad case of meningitis.
He was 61 years old and had been in Europe for about three years.
Ram Mohan Roy was cut from a different cloth compared to other men, and since his death,
he has been compared to titanic Indian figures like Ashoka the Great or Akbar the Great,
both of which fought hard to unify India and advance its development.
There are few others that could be so steadfast in their course despite opposition on all
The seeds of liberalism that he had planted over his life would bloom over the next centuries,
as many other Bengalis would follow his example—poets, sculptors, scientists, artists, and philosophers
would create work celebrating the uniqueness of Bengali culture, a culture that had previously
slumbered for decades under a backwards and destitute Mughal rule.
Ram's reformation, the Brahmo-Samaj, would dissolve soon after his death, but elements
of it would live on, particularly the rebellion against the caste system of India which would
be incorporated into many future movements later on.
While today it's easy to dismiss what we think of as minor religious differences as
meaningless, but it's these differences that inspired him.
If we dismiss these, do we also need to dismiss the vast societal changes that resulted from
Today, Ram Mohan Roy's body lies in the Arnus Vale Cemetery in Bristol in the United
Every year since his death, and continuing to this day, a commemoration is held at his
It is attended by the Indian High Commission of Bristol and the mayor.
Christian Unitarian hymns are sung followed by the Brahmin Hindu hymns, and after celebration,
the inscription on his tomb is read aloud.
Beneath this stone rests the remains of Raja Ram Mohan Roy Bahadur, a conscientious and
steadfast believer in the unity of the Godhead.
He consecrated his life with his entire devotion to the worship of the divine spirit alone.
Of great natural talents, he united through mastery of languages and distinguished himself
as one of the greatest scholars of his day.
His unwearied labor to promote the social, moral, and physical conditions of the people
of India, his earnest endeavors to suppress idolatry and the rights of sati, and his constant
zealous advocacy of whatever tended to advance the glory of God and the welfare of man, live
on in the grateful remembrance of his countrymen.
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