Rammohun Roy's 'Against Hindoo idolatory' (1820)
I know next to nothing about Rammohun Roy’s writings or life apart from what was taught to us in school (his role in abolishing Sati, and his work fighting against superstition). I was quite excited when I picked up a yellowing book with the intriguing title “A treatise against the prevailing system of Hindoo idolatory” attributed to Raja Rammohun Roy at the sale at Rodney’s 1. Finding this book now is excellent timing, and goes well with our broader discussions of Indic identity and colonial consiousness.
The author of this version, one Stephen Hay, discusses the nature of Roy’s work, and weighs the evidence that this Tract was indeed written by Rammohun Roy. (The book is signed Brajmohanashya/ब्रजमोहनस्य, 1820, two centuries ago! According to Hay, there is enough evidence to suggest that even if a Brajmohan was a real person, the writing style and content leaves little doubt about the authorship.) Some interesting observations that Hay mentions about Roy’s relationship with missionaries.
One Deocar Schmidt is excited in 1820 to meet Roy, who had seemed sympathetic to Christianity at that point, and is trying to convert him. In a letter from Schmid:
God grant that my fear may be unfounded, and that he may still become a living document of the power of divine grace in humbling even the proudest sinner.
Roy’s own project is still unclear to me because he was so prolific. Hay has this to say of Roy’s viewpoint
It is a common fallacy among both Indian and Western intellectuals to say the Rammojun borrowed all his ideas from the English. … He also advocated the introduction of modern scientific education, not indeed because it was English but because it was more useful than the Sanskrit system. In the field of religion, Rammohun championed vigorously the ethical teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, but denounced as inconsistent the theological doctrine of the Trinity. In many other ways it could be shown tha Rammohun did not accept uncritically the whole of European culture, just as he did not blindly reject it in toto.
Closer to the book at hand, and in line with the common characterization of Roy’s efforts, Roy’s own words:
The ground which I took in all my controversies was, not that of opposition to Brahminism, but to a perversion of it; and I endeavored to show that the idolatry of the Brahmins was contrary to the practice of their ancestors, and the principles of the ancient books and authorities which they profess to revere and obey.
Notes from the book
The book is structured as a conversation, where Roy first presents a (often defensive) stance taken by the Idolator/Hindoo, which he then refutes. Frequently, Roy reduces the Idolator’s position to a strawman, insisting on rituals as being absurd and embarassing, without outlining why he considers them to be absurd. It is interesting to see how Roy cites contradictions within the ‘Poorans’ and ‘Shasters’ to claim their invalidity in the face of the supreme ‘omnipresent and omniscient God’. The book rambles a little, with the Idolator bringing up similar arguments multiple times only for Roy to point to his own previous refutations. The arguments weave back and forth between the validity of idolatory (Roy dismisses it as superstition and a money making gimmick by Pundits) and the ‘true’ teachings of the Shasters. The second half of the tract has clear indications of Roy’s monotheistic leanings, which I think are very interesting.
I am unqualified to say if Roy’s overall stance aligns with any Indic school. The first three sections which focus on idolatory have a shallow Advaitic feel to them, with multiple refutations of the existence separate gods like Shiva, Vishnu or Kali, and how the claims of their respective Puranas is supposedly at odds with the Shastras. (I am not sure what bodies of text Roy considers part of the Shastras).
Here are some of the more interesting positions that Roy brings up, starting from Section 4 (P 117).
How can the worshippers of Brahmu perform worship without having a visible object before thir own eyes?
By beholding the skilful and wonderful construction and disposition of the world and the human body… a watch… constructed with extraordinary skill can never owe its origings to chance, or to a cause devoid of inelligence. Therefore seeing the excellency of a perfect work we are convinced of the perfection of the great author thereof.
Here already we see Roy presenting his God as the Creator in rather Cartesian terms.
Roy’s main charge is that idolatory leads to worshipping a false or lesser God, also a central objection to Christianity. Stripped of idols, the Idolator asks how one can know that God exists if God is formless, Roy denies the knowability of God-hood.
We are persuaded of the existence of the superme God; but if we endeavour to find out his nature we can only determine so much, that his nature can neither be comprehended by the mind, nor expressed by language.
There is an overarching theme of the Wise man (Roy) lifting the ignorant fool (the Idolator) from his misled rituals. This saviour complex has an additional tone of disdain to Pundits
There are sensible men and fools… most householders are opulent people, accordingly these Pundits derive much profit from their worshipping images.
As a result of his self-appointed wisdom, Roy considers himself immune to accusations of false belief in the Brahmu, with a decidedly Christian flair of sensory deprivation.
Our religion consists in this to consider the Supreme God as one omnipresent and omniscient being, and to take care not to hurt ourselves or others by giving way to sensual inclinations.
In the same vein, he denies the legitimacy of the Idolators right to worship on the basis of inappropriateness of the object of worship
… if this person [object of worship] is not the author of the world, then your worship is without effect, but /our worship can in no case be in vain/.
because the Idolators’ object of worship is a lesser thing (the rock or the wood),
…the faith which the believer is possessed of cannot alter the nature of another thing.
One final observation: Roy at one point argues for the mentions the roles that we play in our lives, much like actors under direction, where the director is God.
This short book is a fascinating look into Roy’s work. There are glimpses of his anti-Sati stance in this book, and also anti-Christian stances when it comes to idol worship (He mentions the Protuguese here). According to Hay, this tract marked the end of Roy’s anti-Hindu writings, after which he focussed on engaging with the Christian missionaries directly. I would like to read more of his correspondences with missionaries, and also the responses to this Tract. (Hay mentions one Sastri from Madras wrote a scathing rebuttal which I am very curious about).