“Raja Ram Mohan Roy was a great reformer, a great scholar. He tried to create a new Hindu religious philosophy and enfolded in it the existence of one God and other beliefs which were then not the predominant features in Hinduism. He attacked some Hindu traditions and features among them caste system, child marriages, Sati – burning of the live wife over her dead husband’s pyre, idolatry and other beliefs. He tried to change the popular Hindu traditions and claimed that the popular Hindu traditions were different from the real Hindu beliefs.”

Raja Ram Mohan Roy was born in Radhanagar village in Bengal’s Hooghly district on 22nd May 1772, to conservative Bengali Brahmin parents. Ram Mohan’s parents, Ramakanta Roy and Tarini Mukherjee, were devout Hindus. His father worshipped Vishnu. Ram Mohan showed a religious disposition from an early age. At the age of 14, he wanted to be a ‘sanyasi’, a hermit, but his mother persuaded him otherwise. Another example of his devoutness was his habit of not having even water each morning until he had recited a chapter from the Bhagvata Purana. Ram Mohan was reputed to have a ‘tenacious memory’, and showed signs of intelligence at an early age. He learnt Bengali at school first. He also went to Tibet to learn about Buddhism. He learnt Persian, which was the court language. This gave him the ability to read the mystic poetry and philosophy of the Persian Sufis. He also learned Arabic. During this period, he came across the translations of Aristotle and Euclid, and of the Koran. On his mother’s prompting, he went to Banaras to learn Sanskrit. He started to learn English when he was 24 years old.

In 1803, he secured a job with the East India Company and in 1809, he was posted to Rangpur. He learnt about Jainism and studied the Jain texts. Roy was drawn to certain aspects of Christianity that led some of the followers of the Christianity to suggest that he should convert; but he politely declined.

Roy’s understanding of the different religions of the world helped him to compare them with Vedantic philosophy and glean the best from each religion. Sufi mysticism had a great influence on Roy. He loved to repeat three of their maxims: “Man is the slave of benefits”; “The enjoyment of the worlds rests on these two points—kindness to friends and civility to enemies”; and “The way of serving God is to do good to man”.

Roy resigned from the East India Company a few years later and came to Calcutta in 1815. He was a humanist and a religious reformer. He left the company to devote his time to the service of the people. Profoundly influenced by European liberalism, Ram Mohan came to the conclusion that radical reform was necessary in Hinduism and in the social practices of the Hindus. He founded the Brahma Samaj at Calcutta in 1828, which was initially known as the “Brahma Sabha.”

Raja Ram and his organization ‘Brahma Samaj’ tried to change the social order in India. He established newspapers and schools all around India. He convinced the British in 1829 to outlaw Sati. But, during that period there wasn’t yet an Indian ethos among the Indians. Indians were never one nation but always a collection of different entities. They were under different rulers including non- Indians. From their point of view the British were just another ruler over them. But, the main contribution of the Brahma Samaj to the Indian society was that it evoked issues that were common to people all around the Indian sub-continent. The notions of this organization were the inspiration for other organizations and various secular political parties, like the Indian National Congress, which were later on created in India.

Roy’s efforts to abolish the practice of Sati were largely driven by his concern for the moral dimensions of religion. It was the sight of the burning of his brother’s widow on her husband’s funeral pyre and his inability to save her had spurred Ram Mohan into action. He delved into the scriptures in great detail and proved that the practice of Sati could not gain moksha for the husband as each man was responsible for his own destiny. He also realized that very often it was greedy relatives interested in the property of the dead husband who were behind promoting the practice.

His relentless efforts in the form of petitions, writings and the organizing of vigilance committees paid off when the William Bentinck administration passed a law in 1829, banning the practice of Sati. Roy also succeeded in starting a revolution for women’s education and women’s right to property. By delving into Hindu scriptures, he showed that women enjoyed equal freedom with men.

Among Roy’s other efforts was the publishing of a newspaper in an Indian language. The Atmiya Sabha brought out a weekly called the ‘Bengal Gazette’. He also published a newspaper in Persian called ‘Miratul-Akhbar’ and a Bengali weekly called ‘Sambad Kaumudi’. Roy placed a great deal of importance on the development of his mother tongue. His ‘Gaudiya Vyakaran’ in Bengali is rated highly among his writings in prose.

The founding of the Brahma Samaj was among Roy’s most important contributions. Beginning in 1828, as a small group, the Samaj played a major role in Renaissance Bengal of the 19th century by attracting luminaries like Keshub Chandra Sen and Rabindranath Tagore and other members of the Tagore family. The objectives of the Samaj were to follow theism of Hinduism combining the best of what Roy inculcated through his exposure to other religions. Even today, in Brahma prayer halls all over the country, people meet once a week, most often on Sundays and worship the one God or Brahma. At these gatherings, discourses are offered, Vedic texts recited and hymns sung. Present-day followers try to inculcate his words: “Testing, questing, never resting, with open mind and open heart.”

Roy felt strongly for the downtrodden and his belief in the universal brotherhood of man led him to support many causes and reform movements. A 100 years before the establishment of the League of Nations, Roy expressed the need for a similar institution. He said that just as two individuals resorted to a court of law to settle major disputes, there should be an organization that could help to settle differences between two countries.

However, ten days after arriving in Bristol, he fell ill with meningitis and died on 27th September, 1833. He was initially buried in the grounds of Beech House, but ten years later his friend Dwarakanath Tagore had him reinterred at Arno’s Vale. A chattri was designed by William Prinsep and built with sponsorship from Dwarakanath Tagore. In 1997, a statue of Raja Ram Mohan Roy was also built at Bristol.