Thoughts on economics and liberty

Tag: Raja Rammohun Roy

Raja Rammohun Roy’s incessant work for India

In 1826 a jury Bill for India was passed, which came into operation in the beginning of 1827. Rammohun Roy prepared and sent up to both Houses of Parliament petitions against it signed by Hindus and Mahommedans. On this occasion the Raja took his stand on the injustice and injudiciousness of making invidious religious distinctions in the administration of a country like India.

The circumstances of the case will be clearly understood from the following concise statement in a letter written by Rammohun Roy on the 15th August, 1828 to Mr. J. Crawford: “In his famous Jury Bill, Mr. Wynn, the late President of the Board of Control, has by introducing religious distinctions into the judicial system of this country, not only afforded just grounds for dissatisfaction among the Natives in general, but has excited much alarm in the breast of everyone conversant with political principles. Any Natives either Hindu or Mahommedan, are rendered by this Bill subject to judicial trial by Christians, either European or Native, while Christians including Native converts, are exempted from the degradation of being tried either by a Hindu or Mussalman juror, however high he may stand in the estimation of society. This Bill also denies both to Hindus and Mussalmans the honour of a seat in the Grand Jury, even in the trial of fellow Hindus or Mussalmans. This is the sum total of Mr. Wynn’s late Jury Bill of which we bitterly complain.” 

Rammohun Roy supported his contention by referring to the miseries of Ireland arising out of civil discriminations between different religious beliefs. With reference to this letter, the biographer of the Raja remarks: “There is here in germ the national aspiration which is now breaking forth into cries for representation of India in the Imperial Parliament, ‘Home Rule for India’ and even ‘India for the Indians.’ The prospect of an educated India, of an India approximating to European standards of culture, seems to have never been long absent from Rammohun’s mind, and he did, however vaguely, claim in advance for his countrymen the political rights which progress in civilisation inevitably involves. Here again Rammohun stands forth as the tribune and prophet of New India.” 

Indeed, the thoroughness and vigour of the Raja’s political efforts were astonishing. Even at that early age he carried his political agitations to the very centre of the seat of authority.

His visit to England … had a far-reaching effect on the politics of India. One of the main objects which he had in view in going to England was to lay before the British public the cause of India, and in this mission, he was remarkably successful.

“Rammohun Roy’s presence in this country,” says the English biographer of the Raja, “made the English people aware, as they had never been before, of the dignity, the culture and the piety of the race they had conquered in the East. India became incarnate in him, and dwelt among us, and we beheld her glory. In the court of the King, in the halls of the legislature, in the select coteries of fashion, in the society of philosophers and men of letters, in Anglican church and Nonconformist meetinghouse, in the privacy of many a home, and before the wondering crowds of Lancashire operatives, Rammohun Roy stood forth the visible and personal embodiment of our eastern empire. Wherever he went, there went a stately refutation of the Anglo-Indian insolence which saw in an Indian fellow subject only a ‘black man’ or a ‘nigger’, As he had interpreted England to India, so now he interpreted India to England. But it was not merely by his silent presence and personality in England that he advanced the cause of India; but during his three years’ stay in that country he worked strenuously and incessantly on her behalf.*

He lost no opportunity of pressing the claims of India on those who were responsible for her good Government. He went to England at a very opportune time. The Charter of the East India Company was to be shortly renewed. Rammohun Roy had purposely chosen this time for his European visit that he might influence the authorities in inserting, in the new Charter provisions for the better administration of his country. His hopes were amply realised.

He was asked to give his evidence before the Select Committee of the House of Commons appointed in February and reappointed in June 1831 to consider the renewal of the Company’s Charter, and he submitted his evidence in writing. His two papers on the Judicial and the Revenue systems of India, which appeared in the blue books and were subsequently reprinted by him, are masterpieces of political information and insight, and might be read with profit even at this day, while they must have largely influenced the decision of the authorities in his time. One cannot but be struck with the accuracy and exhaustiveness of the information and the soundness and breadth of the views of the writer. Among the principal measures he advocated were the substitution of English for Persian as the official language of the courts of law, the appointment of native assessors in the civil courts, trial by Jury, separation of the offices of Judge and Revenue Commissioner, of those of Judge and Magistrate, codification of the criminal law and also of the civil law in India, large employment of Indians in the civil service of the country and consultation of public opinion before enacting legislation.

It is remarkable that, though himself a Zamindar, Rammohun Roy earnestly pleaded the cause of the agricultural peasants as against the Zamindars. He showed that, though the Zamindars had greatly benefitted by the Permanent Settlement of 1793, the condition of the actual cultivators continued as miserable as ever, the Zamindars being at liberty to enhance the rent constantly. “Such is the melancholy condition of agricultural labourers, “he wrote, “that it always gives me the greatest pain to allude to it.” The remedy he asked for was, in the first place, the prohibition of any further rise in rent and, in the second, a reduction in the revenue demanded from the Zamindar so as to ensure a reduction in rent. Thus Rammohun was the champion of the people at large and not of the class to which he himself belonged, Many of the reforms advocated by him have already been carried out, and the political leaders of the present day are still working out the programme laid down by him.

Babu Surendra Nath Banerjee thus acknowledges in the address already referred to the political foresight of the Raja: “It is remarkable how he anticipated us in some of the great political problems of today.” 

Raja Rammohun Roy's social work (abolition of sati)

To turn next to the social work of Raja Rammohun Roy. The great reform with which his name will remain associated for ever is the abolition of Sati. But for his timely cooperation it is doubtful if the British Government could have suppressed this flagrant evil; it would certainly have continued for a much longer time. This inhuman custom had prevailed in India for many centuries and a few fitful efforts under the Hindu and Mahommedan rule to abolish it had ended in failure, At the time when Rammohun Roy turned his attention to this shameful wrong, it was, if anything, steadily on the increase. Though individual kind hearted officers looked upon the custom with abhorrence, the attitude of the Government itself was that of laisser faire; successive Governors declined to interfere with it for fear of wounding the religious susceptibilities of the people, which might lead to trouble. 

Rammohun Roy, by incessant agitation prepared the public mind on the one side and strengthened the hands of the Government on the other. By means of his writings and discussions he created a powerful public opinion in favour of the abolition of the cruel custom. He showed conclusively that the Hindu Shastras did not enjoin the burning of widows along with their husbands, and thus disarmed the objection of interference with the religious rites of the people. He removed all obstacles real or interposed, in the way of Government action. But even then the Government hesitated for a considerable time, and Rammohun Roy had to appeal to them in the name of humanity with all the earnestness of his nature, before they could be persuaded to take the momentous step. 

[Extracted from  The Life and Letters of Raja Rammohun Roy (Word version here)]

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Raja Rammohun Roy’s appeal to Hindus to abjure all forms of idolatory

In this section extracted from The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy (from sections of p.92-103) he appeals to Hindus to abjure idolatory. Accordingly, in the famous Trust Deed of the Brahmo Samaj he laid down that "no graven image, statue or sculpture, carving, painting, picture, portrait or the likeness of anything shall be admitted within the said building".

He warned against showing disrespect towards such idols, though. In that trust deed he noted, "that no object, animate or inanimate that has been or is or shall hereafter become or be recognised as an object of worship by any man or set of men, shall be reviled or slightingly or contemptuously spoken of or alluded to." This approach is a reflection of a tolerant Hinduism – that permits people to undertake religion in the manner they deem fit. 


My constant reflections on the inconvenient, or rather injurious rites, introduced by the peculiar practice of Hindoo idolatry, which more than any other Pagan worship, destroys the texture of society, together with compassion for my countrymen, have compelled me to use every possible effort to awaken them from their dream of error: and by making them acquainted with their Scriptures, enable them to contemplate with true devotion the unity and omnipresence of Nature’s God. 

By taking the path which conscience and sincerity direct, I, born a Brahmin, have exposed myself to the comphinings and reproaches, even of some of my relations, whose prejudices are strong, and whose temporal advantage depends upon the present system. But these, however accumulated, I can tranquilly bear; trusting that a day will arrive when my humble endeavours will be viewed with justice, perhaps acknowledged with gratitude. At any rate, whatever men may say, I cannot be deprived of this consolation: my motives are acceptable to that Being who beholds in secret and compensates openly!  

Some Europeans, endued with high principles of liberality, but not acquainted with the ritual part of Hindoo idolatry are disposed to palliate it by an interpretation which, though plausible, is by no means well founded. They are willing to imagine that the idols which the Hindoos worship are not viewed by them in the light of Gods or as real personifications of the divine attributes but merely as instruments for raising their minds to the contemplation of those attributes, which are respectively represented by different figures. I have frequently had occasion to remark, that many Hindoos also who are conversant with the English language, finding this interpretation a more plausible apology for idolatry than any with which they are furnished by their own guides, do not fail to avail themselves of it, though in repugnance both to their faith and to their practice. The declarations of this description of Hindoos naturally tend to confirm the original idea of such Europeans, who from the extreme absurdity of pure unqualified idolatry, deduce an argument against its existence. It appears to them impossible for men, even in the very last degree of intellectual darkness, to be so far misled as to consider a mere image of wood or of stone as a human being by much less as divine existence. With a view, therefore, to do away with any misconception of this nature which may have prevailed, I beg leave to submit the following considerations. 

Hindoos of the present age, with a very few exceptions, have not the least idea that it is to the attributes of the Supreme Being as figuratively represented by shapes corresponding to the nature of those attributes, they offer adoration and worship under the denomination of gods and goddesses. On the contrary, the slightest investigation will clearly satisfy every inquirer that it makes a material part of their system to hold as articles of faith all those particular circumstances which are essential to the belief in the independent existence of the object of their idolatry as deities clothed with divine power. 

Locality of habitation and a mode of existence analogous to their own views of earthly things are uniformly ascribed to each particular god. Thus the devotees of Siva, misconceiving the real spirit of the Scriptures, not only place an implicit credence in the separate existence of Siva, but even regard him as an omnipotent being, the greatest of all the divinities, who, as they say, inhabit the northern mountain of Kailas; and that he is accompanied by two wives and several children, and surrounded with numerous attendants. In like manner the followers of Vishnu, mistaking the allegorical representations of the Sastras for relations of real facts, believe him to be chief over all other gods, and that he resides with his wife and attendants on the summit of heavcn. 

Similar opinions are also held by the worshippers of Cali, in respect to that goddess. And in fact, the same observations are equally applicable to every class of Hindoo devotees in regard to their respective gods and goddesses. And so tenacious are those devotees in respect to the honour due to their chosen divinities that when they meet in such holy places as Haridwar, Pryag, Siva-Canchi, or Vishnu-Canchi in the Dekhan, the adjustment of the point of precedence not only occasions the warmest verbal altercations, but sometimes even blows and violence. Neither do they regard the images of these gods merely in the light of instruments for elevating the mind to the conception of those supposed being; they are simply in themselves made objects of worship. For whenever a Hindoo purchases an idol in the market, or constructs one with his own hands, or has one made under his own superintendence, it is his invariable practice to perform certain ceremonies, called Pran Pratishtha, or the endowment of animation, by which he believes that its nature is changed from that of the mere materials of which it is formed, and that it acquires not only life but supernatural powers. Shortly afterwards, if the idol be of the masculine gender, he marries it to a feminine one, with no less pomp and magnificence than he celebrates the nuptials of his own children. The mysterious process is now complete, and the god and goddess are esteemed the arbiters of his destiny, and continually receive his most ardent adoration. 

At the same time, the worshipper of images ascribes to them at once the opposite natures of human and of superhuman beings. In attention to their supposed wants as living beings, he is seen feeding, or pretending to feed them every morning and evening; and as in the hot season he is careful to fan them so in cold he is equally regardful of their comfort, covering them by day with warm clothing, and placing them at night in a snug bed. But superstition does not find a limit here: the acts and speeches of the idols, and their assumptions of various shapes and colours, are gravely related by the Brahmins, and with all the marks of veneration are firmly believed by their deluded followers.  

My reflections upon these solemn truths have been most painful for many years. I have never ceased to contemplate with the strongest feelings of regret, the obstinate adherence of my countrymen to their fatal system of idolatry, inducing, for the sake of propitiating their supposed Deities, the violation of every humane and social feeling. And this in various instances, but more especially in the dreadful acts of self-destruction and the immolation of the nearest relations, under the delusion of conforming to sacred religious rites. I have never ceased, I repeat,to contemplate these practices with feelings of regret, and to view in them the moral debasement of a race who, I cannot help thinking, are capable of better things, whose susceptibility, patience, and mildness of character, render them worthy of a better destiny. Under these impressions, therefore, I have been impelled to lay before them genuine translations of parts of their Scripture, which inculcates not only the enlightened worship of one God, but the purest principles of morality, accompanied with such notices as I deemed requisite to oppose the arguments employed by the Brahmins in defence of their beloved system. Most earnestly do I pray that the whole may, sooner or later, prove efficient in producing on the minds of Hindoos in general, conviction of the rationality of believing in and adoring the Supreme Being only; together with a complete perception and practice of that grand and comprehensive moral principle – Do unto others as ye would be done by. 

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The history of freedom in India from 1757 to 1947

This is an extract from the first chapter of Breaking Free of Nehru. Given my readings since 2005-07 when I wrote this book, I could perhaps improve this section if I were to get a chance to revise BFN, but this is still a reasonably good summary of the key facts of the history of freedom in India.

British influence in Bengal arose from Clive’s victory in the 1757 battle of Plassey. That period also coincided roughly with significant developments of political thought in England (e.g. John Locke in the 1680s, Edmund Burke who became influential from the mid 1700s and Adam Smith a little later) and in the USA (e.g. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton).
After the consolidation of Bengal by Robert Clive, the economic advantages of learning English started becoming increasingly obvious. As a result Indians started to show interest in learning the English language and its literature. By 1835, Indians were paying good money to be taught English. T B Macaulay noted in his famous ‘Minute’ that ‘the natives’ had become ‘desirous to be taught English’ and were no longer ‘desirous to be taught Sanscrit or Arabic’. Indians picked up English very well. ‘[I]t is unusual to find, even in the literary circles of the Continent, any foreigner who can express himself in English with so much facility and correctness as we find in many Hindoos.’[i]
While the British may have wanted to teach English only so that Indians could become their clerks, once the Pandora’s Box of knowledge is opened, its consequences are unstoppable. Indians quickly became aware of the enormous leaps made by Western political thought over the centuries. This awareness laid the seeds for subsequent demands for self-rule. But India faced a steep learning curve first. It had not paid the slightest heed to what had been going on elsewhere for centuries, if not millennia. But in the meantime the world had completely changed. People’s power was on the rise as never before in Britain. While British kings still existed, their powers had been dramatically truncated. In 1757, a young man of 24 years in Scotland by the name of Adam Smith was thinking about the entire world and examining how the wealth of nations was created. His ideas would convert the tiny island of England into the world’s most powerful nation by the mid-1800s.
It was not possible for Indians to advance straight to the forefront of the theory and philosophy of freedom given their late start. While people like Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833) started to internalize the political arguments of freedom, no one could yet articulate new insights. All that the Indians did in this period, and could have reasonably done, was to catch up with liberal ideas and start demanding self-governance in India. Lest we blame these Indians for lack of creative insight, we must remember that things like ‘independence’, ‘representation of the people’, and even ‘nationhood’ were completely new concepts for most parts of the world then. England had a head-start in freedom which would take many countries a long time to catch up. Apart from Raja Ram Mohan Roy, other contributors to the political discourse on freedom in nineteenth century India included Dadabhai Naoroji (1825–1917), Mahadeo Govind Ranade (1842–1901), Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866–1915) and Pherozeshah Mehta (1845–1915).
By the time the Indian mind finally caught up with the West by 1850, Western thought had moved even further on its journey. But also by now, a battle against liberty was under way in the West. A competing theory to the theory of freedom had arisen in the dying years of feudalism – the theory of socialism (or communism). Both liberalism and socialism agreed that kings were no longer needed. But on what would come next, they differed completely. These radically opposed Western world views, one founded on freedom, the other on equality, had begun a battle for the minds and hearts of people.
Socialism wanted us to revert to our tribal state without the aristocratic overlay of feudalism. It did not want anyone to become exceptionally wealthy or powerful. Its approach had to be implemented, where necessary, by chopping the heads of the rich. The socialist model did not agree with Adam Smith who saw wealth as an unlimited product of the human mind, a mere consequence of innovation. It saw life as a zero-sum game where people had to fight for a share of the fixed pie: capital versus labour. In the model of socialism individual effort, merit or enterprise was irrelevant, for the total wealth was fixed. Therefore redistribution of wealth was the primary purpose of life.
The vision of socialism held hypnotic sway amongst untutored minds. It was on the upswing by the mid-1800s. In a brave bid to foil socialism, Frédéric Bastiat wrote The Law in 1850 and John Stuart Mill his essay On Liberty in 1859. Thinkers of the Austrian school advanced further explorations on the economic impacts of freedom and created the science of economics. In the early twentieth century Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand advanced these ideas even further. While socialism overpowered parts of Europe by the late nineteenth century, England and USA remained the bastions of freedom and kept trying to improve their political and democratic institutions of governance. The greatest advances in freedom therefore took place only in the West, not in India. The Indian intelligentsia remained focused on its challenge of independence.
The Indian mind was distracted by another thing as well. Indians had suddenly come down from being supremely haughty and disinterested in the rest of the world to becoming ruled first by the Mughals and then by the British. A doubt arose in their minds that they were potentially racially inferior. The British encouraged this doubt through their own haughty behaviour, for when one is powerfully placed it is easy to be arrogant. British racism left little breathing space for Indians to focus on the broader global issues of justice and liberty. But British arrogance was clearly misplaced on two grounds:
First, the rapidly growing technological prowess of the British was not a product of racial superiority but the natural consequence of the freedom that its philosophers had propounded and its people fought for over many centuries. It was this freedom of thought which had enabled its society to become increasingly more creative and flexible, and thus technologically superior to other societies. Before the ideas of freedom improved the life of the common man in England, the British ‘race’ was actually quite ‘inferior’, being short-statured with mediocre intelligence. Normally, soldiers are the tallest and strongest representatives of any society, but British soldiers were very short till 1814, averaging only 5 feet 6 inches.[ii] But even these tiny fellows managed to conquer India because they rode the steed of freedom which gave them self-confidence and allowed them to innovate at each step. The rapidly developing sciences in Britain arising from this culture of freedom led to higher survival rates of its infants and consequently to rapid population growth. This excess population also fed into England’s international exploits. The virtuous cycles of freedom kept reinforcing themselves. Their superiority for 150 years or so had nothing to do with race.
Second, it was a great mistake for the British to think that there was nothing for the West to learn from India. That learning is a two-way street became apparent to them when some intrepid European scholars discovered the many-splendoured Indian past using methods of research and analysis hitherto not applied in India.
Such findings about glorious achievements in historical India brought some comfort, even a sense of renewed confidence, to English-educated Indians. Unfortunately, with the advent of European scholarship of Indian history, a lot of navel gazing started among Indians. The Indian mind, both Hindu and Muslim, began to spend most of its time looking backwards, in reconciling its multi-faceted and possibly exciting past with its unhappy present. A few Indians did raise broader issues in relation to freedom, such as Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) and M K Gandhi (1869–1948). However, that was incidental to the focus on self-rule and opposing racism.
This great mental energy led to the most awe-inspiring independence movement the world has ever seen. It was an exemplary movement – far ahead of its times in its principle-based standards of political protest. In addition, the British were gently taught a very important lesson in freedom by Gandhi. His exposition of the equality among peoples and of non-violent protest were significant contributions to the freedom of mankind as a whole. Through humane and dignified protest he demonstrated that all humans were equally worthy of regard. This was of course helped by allegiance of the British to their rule of law. It is unlikely that Gandhi would have made a difference with Japanese or German ‘masters’ of that era. His methods also reminded the people of Britain that they should not lower their own principles of liberty by diminishing the liberty of others. As a result of Gandhi’s actions the age of racial officially came to an end in many parts of the world. Oppressed peoples of the past, such as the blacks of the USA and South Africa, acknowledge the contributions of Gandhi. Gandhi has therefore brought about a fundamental shift in the world’s landscape of freedom. In that sense, Gandhi was without doubt the most influential proponent of individual liberty (and thus, indirectly, of classical liberalism) in India in the first half of the twentieth century.
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Clearing the mist around Max Muller

A few weeks ago, one of the commentators on this blog had very unpleasant things to say about Max Muller –  basically alleging that Max Muller had deliberately mistranslated the Vedas (and that Macaulay had set him up to this!).

I'm not an expert on such matters but even a casual look at the literature quickly allows us to reject such claims. Let's check a few texts:


First, the Hindu priests generally did not either want to teach Sanskrit to others nor translate ancient texts into other languages. When even Hindus themselves were not all allowed to read these texts, how would others be so permitted? This is evident from the following statement from Nehru's Discovery of India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981, paperback, p. 317) 

"If the British Government in India was reluctant to teach English to Indians, Brahmin scholars objected even more, but for different reasons, to teach Sanskrit to Englishmen. When Sir William Jones, already a linguist and a scholar, came to India as a judge of the Supreme Court, he expressed his desire to learn Sanskrit. But no Brahmin would agree to teach the sacred language to a foreigner and an intruder, even though handsome rewards were offered. Jones ultimately, with considerable difficulty, got hold of a non-Brahmin Vaidya or medical practitioner who agreed to teach, but on his own peculiar and stringent conditions. Jones agreed to every stipulation, so great was his eagerness to learn the ancient language of India. Sanskrit fascinated him and especially the discovery of the old Indian drama. It was through his writings and translations that Europe first had a glimpse of some of the treasurers of Sanskrit literature. In 1784 Sir William Jones established the Bengal Asiatic Society which later became the Royal Asiatic Society."


Later, in 1835, RRR, a Brahmin, translated many of the Upanishads into English. These included:

  • Translation of an Abridgment of the Vedant, or Resolution of all the Veds
  • Translation of the Moonduk Oopunishad of the Uthurvu-Ved
  • Translation of the Cena Oopanishad, one of the Chapters of the Sam Ved
  • Translation of the Kut h-Oopunishad of the Yajoor-Ved
  • Translation of the Ishopunishad, one of the Chapters of the Yajoor-Ved
  • Translation of a Sunscrit Tract on Different modes of Worship


Max Mueller came next in the series (I think!).

Nehru outlines Max Mueller's work in DOI (cited above, p.93):

"Max Muller says: "Schopenhauer was the last man to write at random, or to allow himself to go into ecstasies over so-called mystic and inarticulate thought. And I am neither afraid nor ashamed to say that I share his enthusiasm for the Vendanta, and feel indebted to it for much that has been helpful to me in my passage through life." In another place Max Muller says: "The Upanishads are the … sources of … the Vedanta philosophy, a system in which human speculation seems to me to have reached its very acme." "I spend my happiest hours in reading Vedantic books. They are to me like the light of the morning, like the pure air of the mountains – so simple, so true, if once understood."

Vivekananda considered Max Mueller a true Vedantin
Vivekananda wrote an extensive essay on Max Muller (here).He says:
  • What an extraordinary man is Prof. Max Müller!
  • Max Müller is a Vedantist of Vedantists. He has, indeed, caught the real soul of the melody of the Vedanta, in the midst of all its settings of harmonies and discords — the one light that lightens the sects and creeds of the world, the Vedanta, the one principle of which all religions are only applications.


Even if Max Muller made a few errors in his translation from Sanskrit, we must not forget that in his time there were not many Indians who understood both Sanskrit and English/German, to help him out in case of difficulties.
But more importantly, if there had been a major mistranslation then Vivekandana would have long picked up on it. But clearly he was happy with it. 
I am convinced that painting Macaulay and Max Muller with a black brush is totally unwarranted. Let's look at the facts dispassionately. Indeed, given the huge effort they put in, both Macaulay and Muller were India's great friends. 
I am loathe to have their memories blackened by commentators who use the lack of rigour of analysis, typical of internet commentary, to made highly inaccurate and biased claims against them. It is important that we study the outstanding scholars and leaders of the past with due diligence and not rush to conclusions either in favour or against them.
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