By S. Arshad, New Age Islam
26 June 2019
Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772 -1833) was a great scholar and reformer of Bengal. He was a scholar of Persian, Arabic, Bengali, Sanskrit and English. He was a philosopher and had studied Islam and Hinduism deeply. He wrote a number of books on comparative religion and tried to bring reform in Hindu society.
The main area of Ram Mohan's interest was the Vedanta or the Upanishads.
Through an in-depth study of the Vedanta, he realized that the central message
of Vedanta or Upanishads was Monotheism or Unity of God: Ekamevadvitiyam (He is One without a second) which in Arabic can be
translated as La ilaha illAllah. The
Upanishads or the Vedas do not preach or promote idol worship. But he observed
that the Hindu community had become idolatrous and instead of professing
monotheism they professed polytheism. They had also invented many rites and
customs which were not mentioned in the Vedas or Upanishads.
Therefore, he set out to purify Hindu religion from the 'absurdities' that had crept into it. For this purpose he launched a movement both on theoretical and practical level.
During his stay in New York, he had set up Vedanta Centre there in 1793. Back home ha founded Vedanta College where students studied Vedanta in detail and after they graduated from there, they became pure Vedantists.
During this period, Upanishads were not available in Bengali. Due to this, the Bengali masses were not aware of the monotheistic base of Hinduism. To make them aware of the true messages of the Upanishads, Raja Ram Mohan Roy translated the Upanishads into Bengali which were later translated into English. Since during that period Persian was the official language as well as the language of the masses, Ram Mohan wrote a book in Persian titled ‘Tohfatul Mowahhideen’ (A Gift to Monotheists). The preface to this book was written in Arabic. Later the book was translated into English. In this book Raja Ram Mohan Roy tried to establish the fact that, the Vedas, the foundation of the Hindu religion did not support or promote idolatry. Many then said that Ram Mohan opposed idolatry on the basis of Islamic teachings but the fact was that he wanted to remove idolatry from Hinduism on the basis of the Vedas. He was not a Muslim but a Vedic Hindu.
Though Sanskrit Pathshalas existed in 18th and 19th century Bengal, Vedas or Upanishads were not taught there. Instead Nyay, Vyakran and Kavya were taught in these Pathshalas. Through his translation of Kena, Mundak, Katha and Ish Upanishads, Ram Mohan revived an interest in Vedanta in Bengal and common Hindus became aware of the Monotheistic ideas of the Vedanta.
Ram Mohan wrote yet another book titled 'A Defence of Hindu Theism' in 1817. In this book he stressed the fact that the Vedanta advocated Theism and not polytheism. He wanted to prove that true Hinduism was the Theism of Vedanta. In the same year he wrote the book "A defence of the monotheistic system of Vedas. Here he stressed on the Momotheism of Vedanta.
Ram Mohan Roy also tried to find out the reason behind the origin and
growth of idolatry and absurdities in Hinduism. He wrote in the introduction of
"Many learned Brahmins are perfectly aware of the absurdity of idolatry and are well informed of the nature of purer mode of divine worship. But as in the rites, ceremonies and festivals of idolatry, they find the source of their comfort and fortune, they not only never fail to protect idol worship from all attacks but even advance and encourage it to the utmost of their power, keeping the knowledge of their scriptures concealed from the rest of the people."
However it is also a fact that apart from the community of Brahmins, a
section of learned saints and scholars also defended image- worship. For example,
the great Hindu saint of the 18th century, Shri Ramakrishna once said:
"What is wrong in image-worship? The Vedanta says that Brahma manifests itself where there is Existence, Light and Love. Therefore nothing exists but Brahman."
Ramkrishna found justification for image-worship right in Vedanta. Other scholars of Hinduism also believed that an idol helps new aspirants concentrate on God and this concentration later leads him to the Nirgu Brahman.
Many scholars of Vedanta are divided on the relation between the Supreme Existence and individual soul. They are Dualists and non-dualists. Shankara believes that Existence is one and all the rest is unreal. He finds the basis of his theory in the Vedanta. Again, those who believe in Dualism, that is, those who believe that the Supreme Being is one and the universe is his creation, also find justification for their belief in Vedanta. The non-dualists believe that through devotion and meditation, the individual self can merge into the Supreme self while the Dualists believe that the individual self can obtain salvation through worship and devotion while retaining his existence as a devotee.
The third category of Vedantists is those who believe that through the worship of a deity, as a mere symbol of the Supreme Being, they can attain salvation or union with the Supreme Being. This belief is called Qualified Monism. All of them however bring justifications for their beliefs from the Vedanta. Shri Ramakrishna, Ramanuja or Vaishnavites believe in Qualified Monism.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy dismissed these beliefs and said that the Supreme
Lord was formless and attributing form to Him was against the spirit of the
Vedanta. He believed that the creator, sustainer and supporter of the universe
was a wise uncreated Being. He also dismissed the belief of Shankara and the
other Advaitavadis that the Universe was unreal. He believed that the universe
was not unreal. Here Ram Mohan Roy comes closer to the Quran which declares
that the universe has a real and solid existence and is not an illusion.
Finally, Ram Mohan Roy founded Brahmo Samaj, a religious cult in 1828 based on the principles and philosophy of Vedanta and wrote it's Psalter. Brahmo Samaj believes in one God and envisages salvation through love and worship of God.
Therefore, Raja Ram Mohan Roy tried to bring religious reform in Hindu Society and spread the message of the Upanishads among Hindus of his time. He was responsible for a Hindu Renaissance in Bengal.
S. Arshad is a regular columnist for NewAgeIslam.com
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