Raja Rammohan Ray was a Brahmin man born in a Brahmin family with an appetite to cure the social stigmas of Bengal. This paper tries to venture into the life of this social reformer and tries to determine whether he was truly a feminist and if he was, in what ways did he live up to feminism. The term feminism as a movement and as a concept has seen various stages of evolvement and over the many centuries has taken a shape that best resonates what feminism connotes in the present day. The purpose of this paper is to draw an analysis of the man who was conferred with the title of the father of the ‘Indian Renaissance’.
19th century India saw a tremendous progress for India in the sphere of social and religious field. Raja Rammohan Roy sought to reform Hindu society from its groundless and evil social practices. He was a crusader against the unscientific and illogical social evils and never tired to oppose the discrimination against women. Further, he advocated western education and was determined that it would help the evils lurking in the society. The relevance of the present paper is to ascertain whether he was a feminist or held traits of a different kind.
‘Major Trends of Feminism in India’ states that “the concept of feminism is very closely associated with women’s studies and women’s movements in various parts of the world…for a long time there was an accepted belief that all kinds of women’s activities should belong to the ‘private’ domain of the individual and family with no direct bearing upon the state and the society.
Hence women’s issues belong very much to the private domain also.” It is important that a clear exemplification is required to determine what shades and stages of feminism have transpired so that we may categorise the man in question, Raja Rammohan Roy. From that very strain of the concept of feminism, we go back to the time when Rammohan Roy was born.
Roy who grew up to be a modernist and hailed the concept of liberalism was born on 22 May 1772 in Radhanagore, Khanakul, and a district of Hoogly. Having been born to parents where the ideals of Vaishnavism and Shaivism were ingrained in him, he was brought up in an environment where one of them developed his scholarly background and the other secured for him all the advantages of the world that was needed to launch a career in the laukik or worldly sphere of public administration.
Moreover, his education played an impact on the way he grew up to be to hold principles and outlook of the kind that were different than the others. It is pertinent to understand as scholars of Political Science that Roy was influenced by the Upanishads and it was due to this reason that he wanted a revival of the Vedanta school of thought. There have been several accounts of people who have been greatly impressed by him and have been enlightened by his presence. One such among them was John Digby who as Collector of Rangpur succeeded James Morgan from 1809 until 1814. It was Rammohan who first came with Digby to Rangpur in 1809. Rammohan had been born in a wealthy family in 1174 and had entered Digby’s service in 1805. It has been recorded that Digby held him in high accord.
There are public records where he has sent letters to the Board of Revenue describing Roy as a “man of very respectable family and excellent education” and even sought the Board’s approval of his appointment as the diwan. It needs to be mentioned here that although Digby’s request had been rejected twice, he nonetheless came out in support of Rammohan and cited his excellent qualifications to hold that post.
A man from Bengal born at a time when the condition of women was deplorable due to all the social stigmas and fear of disgraces, he was able to hold the attention of the people who believed and shared his ideals. This small account of Digby’s having trust in Rammohan’s education might not have been just a chance case of holding the man in a grand stature but it was an example of how Rammohan had been able to truly impress this man with his progressive ideals.
What was liberalism and feminism when Rammohan decided to take the Brahmanical orthodoxy into his perview and charge against the ancient caste and superstitions? To put it succinctly, Rammohan was a cosmopolitan modernist who sought to bring about changes in the society with his seasoned arguments and his line of reasoning had flavours of both East and the West. No wonder Jeremy Bentham saluted him as an “an admired and beloved fellow worker in the cause of humanity.”
To dive deeper into the question whether Rammohan was a feminist or not, it needs to be kept in mind that he himself couldn’t escape Kulinism and had to bear witness to the traumatizing event of his sister-in-law’s Sati. This had an everlasting impact on his thought process and moulded the way he conceptualized the Hindu norms and customs.
Further, like John Locke, Thomas Paine and Hugo Grotius, he accepted the immutable sanctity of natural rights. Although his theory of natural rights was different from the natural rights that were so perceived by the other philosophers, it is undisputed that he was a liberal and chose to be defined as a reformer owing to his actions and understandings. A deeper analysis of his views confronts us when we try to define was feminism means and if Rammohan could be categorized as one.
Feminism has varied understandings by variegated individuals who live in a heterogeneous society. Also, feminism as a movement has seen different stages and has constantly evolved while its meaning has changed in proportion as well. How do we segregate Roy and classify him as? Feminism, as is known has various textures. A liberal feminist doesn’t necessarily hold the exact same views as a radical feminist and vice versa.
Liberal feminists can be put into words as “a form of feminist theory or a strand within the feminist movement that emphasizes working for women’s liberation and gender equality through removing explicit legal constraints” whereas radical feminism argues that “the universal concept of patriarchy is designed as the organizational oppression of women and aims for their subjection through sexual objectification, sexual exploitation, domestic violence, and the ideological gender/sex apparatus within society.” Over the decades and waves of feminism, these two theories of feminism have overlapped but the fundamental differences cannot be dismissed.
After having defined the two theories of feminism, where do we assign Rammohan Roy’s place? A case in point should be made here. He fought ardently to remove the ill practice of sati and was very vocal in saying that sati does not have a place in the society and should be banned, which was enforced by Lord William Bentinck, the then Governor General of Bengal. The Bengal Sati Regulation banned the Sati practice in all jurisdictions of British India was passed on December 4, 1829. As a campaigner for women’s empowerment and abolishment of unscientific and social evils prevalent in the traditional caste ridden Hindu society, an organization was created in North India.
A spiritual society, which in 1816, called ‘Atmiya Sabha’ was created by him for religious and social purposes. Having done all of this, it needs to be kept in mind that Rammohan didn’t want any immediate legal enactment for suppression of sati. What he fought for was that the practice ‘might be suppressed quietly and unobserved by increasing the difficulties and by the indirect agency of the police.’
Roy welcomed Bentinck’s decision to abolish sati but he wasn’t open to the idea of a legal enactment but would much rather have it quietly being observed with a little help of the police ‘indirectly’. He was more inclined towards liberalism and modernism and wanted to champion the cause of the downtrodden and the oppressed and believed in one God. And again, his efforts to uplift women from the deplorable condition cannot completely be sidelined.
Raja Rammohan Roy was a model social reformer and consistently revolted against the suppression of women. He spoke at length about the evils of child marriage and polygamy and fiercely voiced his support for widow remarriage. He was rightly given the title of the first modern man in India due to his modernist take at a time when the primary cry was to upload the Hindu customs. But modernism isn’t feminism.
Roy was a humanist too and loved his country. He was essentially a liberal humanitarian nationalist. There are accounts replete of how he has been a strong voice for women’s issues. In what may be the case, I think he was more inclined towards liberalism than feminism per se. It was the ideals of liberalism that made him realize the need for equality of the sexes and the wrongs that were being meted out to women in the society and in the household and it is for this reason that he tried to put a stop on it and even said that a woman had a equal share in the ownership of property.