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Admirers, followers 'scandalised': Rammohun Roy 'rejected' Sanskrit, even Vedanta

By Bhaskar Sur* 

Rammohun Roy (born May 22, 1772) lived in many worlds -- Hindu, Islamic and the European. Though deeply imbued with the late Mughal culture, he nevertheless had a feeling that it was a vanishing world giving way to a more vigorous, varied and profound European way of life. It was not a starry eyed view of a colonized 'native' but one who had developed a deep sense of history and a comparative view of civilizations.
He was critical of Christianity as also of Islam and his own religion. He became a rationalist much before he was introduced to European learning. It came from Aristotle in Arabic translation which he had discovered at the library of an Islamic seminary in Patna where he studied. It was further nourished by Mutazilite lore. 
In his Tohfat 'l Muwahhidin (1803) written in Persian with an introduction in Arabic, he critiqued all religions for their blind faith, mental servility and opposition to reason. Hindus ignored his book but Muslim clerics got furious. He was for a religion within the limits of Reason which would leave no space for miracles, superstitions and cruelties.
Like Asoka and Akbar before him, he felt the urge to unite the Hindus first on the basis of a reformed religion which ultimately would bring them closer to other faiths, provided they also followed the same course. He was thinking of a universal religion drawing upon different spiritual and cultural traditions. His Precepts of Jesus(1820) brings out the abiding features of Christianity disentangled from myths and superstitions. This was denounced by Serampore Missionaries and Scottish Presbyterians.
Rammohun took his position on the Vedas and even more firmly on Vedanda embodied in the Upanishads, as Luther or Zuingli of the Reformation who took theirs on the Bible. In the Upanishads he found the One who permeates and upholds the whole universe. He translated all the major Upanishads with much erudition and care. He was fighting polytheistic, hardened Hinduism divided and subdivided in hundreds of castes and sub castes with the profound metaphysical and moral meditations of the Upanishads.
Roy was also defending Hinduism against the hostile and often uninformed attacks of the Christian missionaries, being all the time aware that the Christian criticism contained a large measure of truth. But the upper caste Hindus were not taken in by this self-appointed Defender of the Faith as they could see Roy was out to dismantle much of the traditional religion and replace with something which would undermine their position.
His fight against the horrid custom of sati or widow burning further antagonized the traditional Hindu elite. His modern biographer Robertson has put it admirably, "...these positions assured him of pariah status in Bengal for the rest of his life. This was a bitter draught that was never quite assuaged by celebrity abroad. He may have been the Lion of the season in London but he was a scandal in Calcutta."
His fight against horrid custom of sati or widow burning particularly antagonized traditional Hindu elite
Rammohun wanted India to grow along the lines of the modern European states, particularly the US, to become a front ranking nation scientifically advanced and industrialized. His letter to Lord Amherst (1823) requesting him to spend the allocated money on a science education through English language which alone, he argued, would be the proper utilization of the sum.
What may scandalize his admirers and followers is not only his rejection of Sanskrit but also the Vedanta. His observations on Sanskrit is both perceptive and heretical:
"Sanskrit language is so difficult that almost a lifetime is necessary for it's perfect acquisition, is well known to have been for ages to reward the labour a lamentable check on the diffusion of knowledge and the learning concerned understand this almost impervious veil is far from sufficient to reward the labour of acquiring it". 
His trenchant remarks on Vedanta remains as valid as it was in his time:
"Neither can much improvement arise from such speculations as following which are the themes suggested by Vedanta -- In what manner is the soul absorbed into the Deity? What relation does it bear to the divine essence nor will youths be fitted to be better members of society by the vedantic doctrines which teach them to believe that all visible things have no real existence; that father and brother have no actual entity, they consequently deserve no real affection and sooner we can escape from them and leave the world the better."
This life denying philosophy had no appeal to him. For Roy, spirituality is not something separate but a part of the human existence to be realized through actions inspired by love and directed by reason. One may wonder two centuries on, if any Muslim intellectual can make such an appraisal about the Quran and Hadith!
In his letter he compares Sanskritic learning, particularly its philosophy with the pre- Baconian scholastic philosophy that had such a hold on the universities as well as intellectual life. It was stagnant, moribund and useless. He believed in, what Karl Popper called "evolutionary knowledge" that advances through conjectures and refutation, intellectual quest and experiments. He was therefore all for a science education.
This should not be taken to mean he was averse to the humanities. He himself was a great connoisseur of literature and music. But if India was to catch up with the West by making a great leap, only science can provide the imagination and strength. As one reads his dismissal of Vedanta one cannot help feeling he had overgrown it. It is a pity his squeamish followers will cling fast to what he discarded.
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Source: Author’s Facebook timeline

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