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Blending Indian and European Philosophy Together Research Paper

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Updated: Jul 23rd, 2022

Even though India was a British colony for a considerable part of the Modern period, it did not mean that the region did not have a rich and nuanced intellectual history during this time. Even under colonial rule, rigorous thinkers emerged, eager to combine the centuries of Indian thought with the advances of European philosophy and apply both to the problems of the day, whether local or global. One of such prominent figures was Ram Mohan Roy, an Indian philosopher from Bengal often hailed as the father of modern India and the first modern champion of women’s rights (Fatima and Fatima 643). He combined European ideas of liberalism and utilitarianism with a thorough knowledge of Indian – and specifically Hindu – intellectual tradition to arrive at his philosophical ideal.

Ram Mohan Roy lived in the late 18th – early 19th century Bengal when most of India was already under British rule. As a result, he lived at a time when Western influence was penetrating India in many ways, in cording intellectual fields. Western political and philosophic ideas found their audience among the educated members of the Indian elite. For example, the early 19th century India had a relatively small but vibrant community of liberal thinkers, one of whom was Ram Mohan Roy. They advocated a constitutional government, whether republican or monarchic, believed in the civic society, and “assigned a critical role to a free press and local forms of representation” (Bayly 26). At the same time, it did not mean that they forgot or rejected Indian intellectual tradition. This historical period of active interaction between Indian and Western thought was a crucial factor in shaping Ram Mohan Roy’s ideas, as it will be shown below.

To better understand Ram Mohan Roy’s ethical views, one should remember that he was an ardent advocate for social justice, and this fact is reflected in his philosophical thought as well. He viewed Hinduism as an essentially benevolent religion aiming at promoting the common good – and was “little concerned with issues of caste” (Bayly 29). As a reformer, Ram Mohan Roy insisted on abolishing ancient customs that he considered inhumane and contrary to the benevolent nature of Hinduism – and, as a philosopher, he aimed to provide ample justifications for this position. He made a firm stance on many issues that were clearly progressive, especially for his time. Among other things, he advocated education, inheritance rights for women, and the elimination and persecution of female infanticide (Fatima and Fatima 644). He also insisted on abolishing the practice of sati – a relatively rare but ancient tradition of a widow burning herself at her husband’s funeral (Crawford 101-102). While covering his philosophical position on each of these issues would overextend the scope of this paper, an illustrative example is still in order to showcase some characteristic features of the great Indian philosopher’s thinking.

Ram Mohan Roy’s stance on the practice of sati may serve as a suitable and important illustration of his philosophy. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, he was adamantly opposed to the custom and was a key player in enacting the 1829 regulation that banned it in India (Crawford 102). Yet, from a philosophical standpoint, Ram Mohan Roy’s argument for his position is just as crucial as the position itself. His key work with regards to sati was “Modern Encroachments on the Ancient Rights of Females According to the Hindu Law of Inheritance,” which is where he elaborated his stance on the matter clearly. The essence of Ram Mohan Roy’s argument was clearly utilitarian – widow-burning was morally wrong because it went against the individual and common good and, by doing so, created harmful social norms. This is why Bayly calls it “Fully Benthamite in the sense that it argued that bad laws make a bad society” (30). It is clear in this respect that Ram Mohan Roy studied and internalized the European ethics of his period.

At the same time, the elaboration of this argument was firmly rooted in Indian history and Hindu philosophy. Specifically, Ram Mohan Roy based his case on his interpretation of Hinduism rather than the writings of European philosophers. He did not claim that sati was a bad Hindu custom that had to be replaced by a more civilized European way. On the contrary, he insisted that sati was a perversion of Indian tradition and a violation of women’s rights as elaborated in Hindu texts (Bayly 30). In this sense, one of India’s first modern thinkers created a unique blend of Western and Indian philosophic traditions.

While Ram Mohan Roy’s contribution to debating and solving social issues of his time was considerable, he also left a significant impact in the field of political thought. In this respect, he shared the liberal ideas that many of his contemporaries valued so much. Ram Mohan Roy endorsed these ideas as the general guiding principles for his political thought, and this adherence manifested in many aspects of his intellectual legacy. To begin with, his emphasis on women’s rights demonstrates “the influence of liberal European thought, although articulated in specifically Hindu terms (Fatima and Fatima 644). Yet, apart from that, he also valued economic competition in the free market and insisted that the freedom of trade was a basis for steady and productive economic development (Bayly 28). Considering these statements, as well as many others on related matters, one can safely claim that, in terms of political philosophy, Ram Mohan Roy was a liberal.

Yet, once again, it is not the general philosophic approach itself that matters but the way in which the great Indian philosopher chose to frame and develop his argument. The way in which he made his case for Indian constitutionalism is particularly important from a philosophic standpoint. As with his approach to ethical issues in the critique of sati, Ram Mohan Roy did not base his argument on the abstract principles borrowed from Western philosophers but rooted it within the Indian intellectual tradition. He did not claim that India needed a constitutional government to emulate the nations of the West. Instead, he opined that India “had once had a constitution and it was the decline of this constitution and its checks and balances that had sunk India into backwardness” (Bayly 30). Any Western liberal thinker could argue for a constitutional government in India in general terms, but only Ram Mohan Roy could have rooted it so in the Indian intellectual history. In this respect, he was not a journeyman copying the Western arguments and applying them to India but the creator of a syncretic philosophic vision that borrowed from both cultures.

This combination of Western influences and Indian intellectual tradition shaped Ram Mohan Roy’s philosophic ideal. One may sum it as a “virtuous householder striving for spiritual liberation (mukti) in this world according to the tradition of Vedanta” (Bayly 29). The interplay of Western and Indian elements is fairly evident in this ideal. On the one hand, Ram Mohan Roy sought to satisfy inherently Indian spiritual strivings – the pursuit of self-knowledge according to the Hindu tradition. On the other hand, his understanding of Hinduism was affected by Western utilitarian thought, which led him to criticize the aspects of Hindu philosophy that did not promote the common good (Bayly 30). On the one hand, he rooted his ideal in the specifically Indian social conditions of his time. On the other hand, his liberal views prompted him to promote universal equality and criticize the caste system (Bayly 29). In other words, Ram Mohan Roy’s philosophic ideal was the original result of a fruitful combination of two different intellectual traditions. The Hindu teachings as assessed by a modern philosopher and the Western schools of liberal and utilitarian thought were both crucial for his philosophy.

As one can see, Ram Mohan Roy’s philosophic legacy borrowed significantly from both Indian and foreign sources to create a unique vision that could not be reduced to either intellectual tradition. In terms of ethics, the great Indian philosopher advocated abolishing the customs he viewed as corrupt and inhumane but based this essentially utilitarian argument on specifically Indian context. When it came to political thought, Ram Mohan Roy was a liberal constitutionalist but found the grounds for this constitutionalism in Indian history rather than merely the imitation of the West. This fruitful combination of different schools of thought contributed to the creation of a truly syncretic philosophic ideal that used Western and Indian ideas in accord.

References

Bayly, C. A. “Rammohan Roy and the Advent of Constitutional Liberalism in India, 1800-30.” Modern Intellectual History, vol. 4, no. 1, 2007, pp. 25-41.

Crawford, S Cromwell. Ram Mohan Roy: Social, Political, and Religious Reform in 19th Century India. Paragon House, 1987.

Fatima, Tausif, and Tousif Fatima. “Women’s Right and Hindu Laws of Inheritance: The Approach of Rammohun Roy.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 70, 2009-2010, pp. 643-648.

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