The Telegraph
Friday , October 19 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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EDITOR's choice

By Amiya P. Sen, Viking, Rs 450

In the Indian world of letters a blurred line distinguishes biography from hagiography. Hence, Amiya P. Sen’s inclusion of the word “critical” in the sub-title of this book. Sen has written a good and serious book aimed at the general reader.

Sen very deftly weaves into his narrative the relevant assessments and debates regarding Rammohun. He places the man’s thought and achievements in the given context. All this is done simply and lucidly. This is not an easy thing to do especially as some of the issues are complex. He assumes very little prior knowledge and this will help his non-Bengali readers who may not be all that familiar with Rammohun and his times.

Before Rammohun settled in Calcutta in 1814, he was a man of considerable wealth and learning. The wealth had accrued to him through landholding and moneylending. He was an autodidact. His mastery over Persian and Arabic made Islamic scholars in Calcutta describe him as a “zeburdust Maulavi”. He trained himself to be a Sanskrit and Vedantic scholar; and was initiated in tantra. He picked up English probably when he was in the service of John Digby and the English East India Company. Calcutta, in Rammohun’s time, was a city for those Bengalis who had money in trade in collaboration with the British and had then invested in landed estates. Rammohun was one of them and therefore he did not have to work for a living. He belonged to a new and emerging class that was aspiring to leadership in society. But this class had no organic links with the forces of production.

Calcutta was also intellectually a thriving city with a growing interest in ideas emanating from the West and in English education. Rammohun campaigned for the dissemination of modern Western knowledge. He was part of the small group that took up the initiative of setting up Hindu College (1817) but when the socially conservative patrons objected to his name, he voluntarily stepped aside.

This suggests that by 1817, Rammohun’s unorthodox religious and social views were well known. Rammohun was a strong advocate of monotheism; this was a function of his firm grounding in the adwaita strand of Upanishadic scholarship. He campaigned against the caste system and sati. The latter was based entirely on his reading of the scriptures which, Rammohun demonstrated, did not support sati.

In his very first book, the Persian tract, Tuhfat-ul-Muwahidin, Rammohun had argued that falsehood was an integral part of all religions. He had identified himself as a deist. In his later writings there was a retreat from the robust rationalism of the first tract. Sen does not highlight this but he is very good in tracing the Vedantic roots of Rammohun’s ideas.

This biography establishes the many facets of Rammohun without, in any way, diluting the complex nature of the issues.