Bharat Ek Khoj

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The Bengal Renaissance
and Raja Rammohun Roy

(Episode 41)

Nehru observes that as the British become dominat in India as the formost global power they represented a new historic force that ushered in many changes inducted from the West. Bengal witnessed and experienced these agrarian, technical, educational and intellectual change long before any other region of India, as it had a clear 50 years of British rule before it spread over wider areas. In the 18th century, a towering personality arose in Bengal, Raja Rammohan Roy, who combined in himself the old learning and the new. More than a scholar he was a reformer and tried to reforms his own faith, ridding it of evil practices like Sati, that were associated with it.

The drama opens with a hapless girl being dragged to the funeral pyre of her ded husband. Rammohun discovers to his horror that it was his sister-in-law, just widowed, who had committed Sati with his mother's tacit approval. Revolting against the cruel custom, he calls for a gathering of scholars, where he forcefully argues against it and calls it murder quoting religious treatises. They vow to spread the message to school widows at one stroke. There is immediate social repercussion from the orthodox community, forcing Rammohan to resign from the membership of Hindu College, which he had founded. The movement, however, spreads and the British educational evangelist, Derozio supports it along with protests against child-marriage.

Deeply versed in Indian thoughts and philosophy, a scholar in Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic and adept in Greek, Latin and Hebrew besides English, Rammohun proves a formidable force against the diehard orthodoxy spearheaded by Radha Kanta Deb and forges ahead against idolatry of Hinduism and resolves to establish a monistic Brahmo Sabha. He also persuades a reluctant William Bentinck, the British Viceroy, to persuade the Press to support the reformist movement. We hear the new Brahmo Sabha singing choral Dhrupad to praise one God and to profess egalitarianism against all castes and creeds. Rammohun proceeds to translate the Upanishads into Bengali to spread religious awareness.

Against stiff resistance, even from within his family, Rammohun carries on with the reformist movement, when Radha Kanta Deb's group puts up contrary petitions to the Privy Concil. Derozio's drive from modern education, with readings from his inspiring poetry in the Hindu College also gathers momentum, but he himself gets expelled. Rammohun decides to travel to England to carry his message in the teeth of opposition against sea-voyage. Meanwhile, Bentinck legally prohibits Sati and Rammohun has the task of countering the mass petitions. He never returns from England, dying there in 1833.

Nehru concludes that the spread of new knowledge continued till the 20th century and Bengal played a dominant role in British Indian life.