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Rammohun Roy

Greater, however, than the influence exercised on the philosophical thought of modern Europe, has been the impulse which these same Upanishads have imparted to the religious life of modern India. In about the same year (1774 or 1775) when the first MS. of the Persian translation of the Upanishads was received by Anquetil Duperron, Rammohun Roy[24] was born in India, the reformer and reviver of the ancient religion of the Brahmans. A man who in his youth could write a book “Against the Idolatry of all Religions,” and who afterwards expressed in so many exact words his “belief in the divine authority of Christ[25]” was not likely to retain anything of the sacred literature of his own religion, unless he had perceived in it the same divine authority which he recognised in the teaching of Christ. He rejected the Purânas, he would not have been swayed in his convictions by the authority of the Laws of Manu, or even by the sacredness of the Vedas. He was above all that. But he discovered in the Upanishads and in the so-called Vedânta something different from all the rest, something that ought not to be thrown away, something that, if rightly understood, might supply the right native soil in which alone the seeds of true religion, aye, of true Christianity, might spring up again and prosper in India, as they had once sprung up and prospered from out the philosophies of Origen or Synesius. European scholars have often wondered that Rammohun Roy, in his defence of the Veda, should have put aside the Samhitâs and the Brâhmanas, and laid his finger on the Upanishads only, as the true kernel of the whole Veda. Historically, no doubt, he was wrong, for the Upanishads presuppose both the hymns and the liturgical books of the Veda. But as the ancient philosophers distinguished in the Veda between the Karma-kânda and the Gñâna-kânda, between works and knowledge; as they themselves pointed to the learning of the sacred hymns and the performance of sacrifices as a preparation only for that enlightenment which was reserved as the highest reward for the faithful performance of all previous duties[26], Rammohun Roy, like Buddha and other enlightened men before him, perceived that the time for insisting on all that previous discipline with its minute prescriptions and superstitious observances was gone, while the knowledge conveyed in the Upanishads or the Vedânta, enveloped though it may be in strange coverings, should henceforth form the foundation of a new religious life[27]. He would tolerate nothing idolatrous, not even in his mother, poor woman, who after joining his most bitter opponents, confessed to her son, before she set out on her last pilgrimage to Juggernaut, where she died, that “he was right, but that she was a weak woman, and grown too old to give up the observances which were a comfort to her.” It was not therefore from any regard of their antiquity or their sacred character that Rammohun Roy clung to the Upanishads, that he translated them into Bengali, Hindi, and English, and published them at his own expense. It was because he recognised in them seeds of eternal truth, and was bold enough to distinguish between what was essential in them and what was not—a distinction, as he often remarked with great perplexity, which Christian teachers seemed either unable or unwilling to make[28].

The death of that really great and good man during his stay in England in 1833, was one of the severest blows that have fallen on the prospects of India. But his work has not been in vain. Like a tree whose first shoot has been killed by one winter frost, it has broken out again in a number of new and more vigorous shoots, for whatever the outward differences may be between the Âdi Brahmo Samâj of Debendranath Tagore, or the Brahmo Samâj of India of Keshub Chunder Sen, or the Sadharan Brahmo Samâj, the common root of them all is the work done, once for all, by Rammohun Roy. That work may have disappeared from sight for a time, and its present manifestations may seem to many observers who are too near, not very promising. But in one form or another, under one name or another, I feel convinced that work will live. “In India,” Schopenhauer writes, “our religion will now and never strike root: the primitive wisdom of the human race will never be pushed aside there by the events of Galilee. On the contrary, Indian wisdom will flow back upon Europe, and produce a thorough change in our knowing and thinking.” Here, again, the great philosopher seems to me to have allowed himself to be carried away too far by his enthusiasm for the less known. He is blind for the dark sides of the Upanishads, and he wilfully shuts his eyes against the bright rays of eternal truth in the Gospels, which even Rammohun Roy was quick enough to perceive behind the mists and clouds of tradition that gather so quickly round the sunrise of every religion.



[24] Born 1774, died at 2.30 A.M., on Friday, 28th September, 1833.

[25] Last Days of Rammohun Roy, by Mary Carpenter, 1866, p. 135.

[26] M. M., History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature, p. 319.

[27] The adoration of the invisible Supreme Being is exclusively prescribed by the Upanishads or the principal parts of the Vedas and also by the Vedant.” Rammohun Roy, Translation of the Kena-upanishad, Calcutta, 1816, p. 6. M. M., History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature, p.320.

[28] Last Days, p. 11.


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