Hinduism Rammohun Roy
Polly Hazarika
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0052


Born in 1774 to a family of Brahmins from Radhanagar, Bengal, Rammohun Roy was one of the earliest supporters of the colonial restrictions on sati, Roy was known among the colonials as an “enlightened native,” and later as “the father of modern India.” During his own time, his business ventures made him one of the most prosperous natives of his time, and his reform activities generated many controversies within native society. Roy’s English writings and translations however, brought him into the public eye. He was considered an “educated” native because he could participate in public debates over matters of colonial interest, especially regarding native religion and practice. Hagiographic accounts of Roy’s life suggest that a disagreement with his father over the “idolatrous” practices of his family led to his departure from the family home. Roy is said to have travelled to Tibet in search of spiritual “truth.” Iqbal Singh argues that, given the time it took to travel, Roy could not have traveled as far north as Tibet since his business affairs show that he periodically resurfaced in Calcutta to sign business documents (see Singh 1958, cited under Biographies). Singh argues that it is much more likely that the young Roy traveled as far west as Benaras to his maternal grandfather, and from there he managed his fast-growing business empire spreading across the neighborhood of Calcutta, which was fast becoming the first city of the British Empire. Roy’s father, in the family home in Radhanagar was charged with embezzlement by his former employers, the Raja of Burdhwan. The Roy family’s fortunes were on the decline and this, Singh argues, precipitated Rammohun’s rift with his father. Roy’s father and elder brother were sent to debtors’ prison for financial irregularities at almost the same time that the increasingly prosperous Roy bought vast properties in Calcutta. Several missives were sent from Roy’s mother Tarini Devi—said to be a pious woman of firm character—during the period of financial difficulties, but she received no reply (see Roy 1901, cited under Primary Sources). On the death of Roy senior, Tarini Devi refused to invite Rammohun for the ceremony involving the last rites. Roy held a lavish parallel ceremony at his Calcutta home. Roy is remembered for his writings against sati, which generated much controversy during his lifetime, and for his formation of the Brahmo Samaj. One of the first natives to own a printing press, he published two newspapers and innumerable pamphlets and translations. Roy wrote on a wide range of subjects such as social practices, women’s rights, economic policies, and religion. For about 150 years after his death, he was the most prominent figure in the history of reform. Toward the end of the 20th century, in the light of critiques of Orientalism and colonialism, there has been a reassessment of Roy’s legacy. His position as a “true informant” has come under pressure in the light of his extensive use of colonial strategies and Christian hermeneutics.

General Overviews

Roy was a businessman, trader, and money lender in his own right. He also worked indirectly for the British government, with an East India Company official named John Digby. His desire for an official position seems to have been for reasons other than a livelihood, since throughout this entire period he continued to amass enormous wealth through moneylending and trade. This proximity with the colonial made Roy one of the first natives to engage with the colonial discourse on native religion. Roy’s arguments against sati were often cited by administrators in their discussions on legislation. Roy specifically argued that the Hindu “Shasters” (shastras) enjoined women to live as chaste widows, rather than to burn themselves as satis. In this he became among the earliest natives to engage positively with the colonial proposition that the key to native religion lies in a correct interpretation of his ancient texts. Pursuing this colonial thesis, that ancient Sanskrit texts held the key to Hindu religion, Roy published interpretations, commentaries and translations of many of these texts in English and Bengali, for a native and colonial audience. His contemporaries dubbed his translations “works of fiction” (Majumdar 1941, cited under Primary Sources). With Roy’s passing in 1833, contemporary native critics who objected to his works on Hinduism became entirely silent. For almost 150 years thereafter, works on reform in general, and Roy’s writings in particular, have been trapped in a largely hagiographic discourse; see, for example, Majumdar 1934 and Seal 1933, Early texts such as Sarkar 1946 discuss the “Bengal Renaissance,” as the period of reform was called in the first half of the 20th century, and Roy emerges from these works as part saint and part Renaissance man. While discussions on Roy have been almost mandatory in relation to reform studies (Sarkar 1948, Natarajan 1959), very little in this period has been new or original.

  • Majumdar, B. History of Political Thought from Rammohun to Dayananda (1821–84). Calcutta: n.p., 1934.

    An account of reform leaders and their interactions with the ruling colonial government. Majumdar looks at reform through a “humanist” framework, suggesting that the colonial values of reform have a “universal” reach and impact.

  • Natarajan, S. A Century of Social Reform in India. New Delhi: Asia Publishing House, 1959.

    Discusses the issues of reform in terms of the “progress” made and the “improvement” to the social fabric of the nation.

  • Sarkar, Sushobhan. Notes on the Bengal Renaissance. Bombay: Peoples Publishing House, 1946.

    This is an early, introductory work on the period of social reform, a period which was also briefly referred to as the Bengal Renaissance. It has a chapter on Roy as well as a discussion of his various contributions to the cause of the Renaissance.

  • Sarkar, Jadunath. History of Bengal. Calcutta: M. C. Sarkar, 1948.

    A comprehensive history of Bengal, one of the more prominent, during a period that spawned a great many histories, due to its priority as well as its wide scope. It ends with the period of reform, giving it a historical context.

  • Seal, B. N. Rammohun Roy: The Universal Man. Calcutta: Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, 1933.

    A view of Roy that focuses on positive personal values such as “rational” thinking and “broadened views” from a “questioning mind.” These humanist values cast him as the “universal man.” An example of the uncritical discourse employed by the early studies on Roy.

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