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Raja Rammohan Ray: The Father of Modern India.

This is a difficult book to review, because it contains so much that is valuable and so much that is flawed. It is certainly good to see a young scholar explore Rammohun Roy's Vedanta philosophy, which, despite the book's title, is the subject it deals with. Its solid core is Robertson's careful comparison of Rammohun's English and Bengali commentaries on Vedanta texts, which he shows are sometimes identical with Sankara's and sometimes different.

Robertson begins with a survey of the available sources on Rammohun's life, followed by an original and well-researched essay on his life and times. He next considers his protagonist's theological writings, judging (p. 30) that the 1803-4 Tuhfatu'l muwahhidin "certainly has not deserved the attention it has received." This would have been a good point at which to note Rammohun's shift from reliance on reason alone to a combination of tradition, reason, and devotional faith in his later writings, as in his 1817 "Introduction" to the Kena Upanisad.

Particularly interesting is Robertson's examination of subtle differences between Rammohun's English and Bengali glosses on the Kena, Isa, Katha, Mandukya, and Mundaka upanisads, which he explains are due to the two audiences for whom he was writing. It is unfortunate that Robertson has not compared the Sanskrit texts with Roy's translations and noted where Rammohun has added his own ideas. For example, in his "Abridgement of the Vedant" (i.e., of Badarayana's Brahmasutras) in translating 3.4.27, Rammohun adds "and good acts" to the text's "calmness and control over the sense organs" (V. M. Apte's translation; the idea may have its origin in Vacaspati's commentary ad loc.). As part of his efforts to move Hindus toward a more egalitarian society Rammohun also interpolates the words "householders possessed of a portion of wisdom," where they are not mentioned in the Sanskrit, when he translates Mundaka Upanisad, 1.2.11, which refers only to "they who practise austerity (tapas) and faith (sraddha) in the forest" (Robert Ernest Hume's translation). Hume reads Mundaka 3.1.10 as: "Whatever world a man of purified nature makes clear in mind / And whatever desires he desires for himself"; while Rammohun has: "Whatever desirable object he may wish to acquire for himself or for another [his italics]. . ."

Clearly, with these and other additions and his introductory remarks Rammohun puts his own spin on the Vedanta. Although the Mundaka is addressed to a wealthy householder, Rammohun does not say, as Robertson asserts he does (p. 146) that it "lays down the law for those with family and social obligations, those who are active in their world." Rammohun was an ardent reformer as well as a good scholar, and Robertson appears similarly motivated, adding his own spin to Rammohun's in his conclusion (p. 180) that "Rammohan Ray taught that the highest religion of the Upanishads was egalitarian and monotheistic, this-worldly and not other-worldly."

Apparently Rammohun thought both the Brahmasutras and the Bhagavata Purana, a ca. tenth-century bhakti rather than Vedanta text, to be the work of the same author, Vyasa ("the arranger"). This could help explain why he inserted moral injunctions in his translations of and introductions to both Sanskrit works. He thus quotes "Vyasa"'s Bhagavata in his brief "Translation of a Sunskrit Tract on Different Modes of Worship": "Further, man, by charity to the needy, by honour to others, by friendship, and by an equal regard to all, shall direct his worship to me who, by residing in the heart, dwell in all creatures." Theologically, Ajit Kumar Ray (Religious Ideas of Rammohun Roy [1976], 58, 60-61) agrees with G. S. S. Sreenivasa Rao, who writes in his Vedanta: Some Modern Trends ([1982], 38): "Roy attempts to synthesize, on the ground of reason and rationality, the elements contained in both Sankara and Ramanuja." Nor can we rule out the influence of New Testament ethics, Islamic or other Hindu theism, eighteenth-century European deism, or the words and examples of his Protestant acquaintances as constituent elements in his thought.

On the insoluble question of which works Rammohun wrote and which were written by his associates in the Atmiya Sabha, Robertson is more ready than I to credit the associates with authorship. A close comparison of the style and vocabulary of works unquestionably by Rammohun with those attributed to him but published under other names or anonymously can throw fresh light on this vexed question. A greater need is for all these writings to be edited, annotated, and well indexed by a team of scholars. Now that we have The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, is it not time for an academically oriented Collected Works of Rammohun Roy, both Bengali and English? (A good start in this direction has already been made by the two-volume Correspondence of Raja Rammohun Roy [1992-], edited by Dilip Kumar Biswas.)

This is a learned book, targeted, it seems, at readers with a good knowledge of Sanskrit, since the text contains many trans-literated but untranslated words in that language. Robertson's bibliography is poorly arranged. His own article, "Evangelicals and Rammohan Ray," mentioned earlier in a footnote, is not listed under his name. Bibliographic entries for Rammohun's writings are scattered, his English Works and Bengali Grantha-bali being entered under the names of their editors. We may hope that the author's future books will be written in a more reader-friendly style, thoroughly proofread, and will contain glossaries of Bengali and Sanskrit terms, bibliographies arranged by authors or by titles (in the case of edited volumes), and more complete indexes.

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Author:Hay, Stephen
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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