A Defense of Hindu Theism (1817)
Ram Mohun Roy
BEFORE I attempt to reply to the observations that the learned gentleman, who signs himself Sankara Sastri, has offered in his letter of the 26th December last, addressed to the Editor of the Madras Courier, on the subject of an article published in the Calcutta Gazette, and on my translation of an abridgment of the Vedanta and of the two chapters of the Vedas, I beg to be allowed to express the disappointment I have felt in receiving from a learned Brahman controversial remark, on Hindoo Theology written in a foreign language, as it is the invariable practice of the natives of all provinces of Hindoostan to hold their discussions on such subjects in Sanskrit, which is the learned language common to all of them, and in which they may naturally be expected to convey their ideas with perfect correctness, and greater facility than in any foreign tongue: nor need it be alleged that, by adopting this established channel of controversy, the opportunity of appealing to public opinion on the subject must be lost, as a subsequent translation from the Sanskrit into English may sufficiently serve that purpose. The irregularity of this mode of proceeding, however, gives me room to suspect that the letter in question is the production of the pen of an English gentleman, whose liberality, I suppose, has induced him to attempt an apology even for the absurd idolatry of his fellow-creatures. If this inference be correct, while I congratulate that gentleman on his progress in a knowledge of the sublime doctrines of the Vedanta, I must, at the same time, take the liberty of entreating that he will, for the future, prefer consulting the original works written upon those doctrines, to relying on the second-hand information on the subject, that may be offered him by any person whatsoever.
The learned gentleman commences by objecting to the terms discoverer and reformer, in which the Editor of the Calcutta Gazette, was pleased to make mention of me. He states, “That people of limited understanding, not being able to comprehend the system of worshipping the invisible Being, have adopted false doctrines, and by that means confounded weak minds in remote times; but due punishment was inflicted on those heretics, and religion was very well established throughout India by the Reverend Sankaracharya and his disciples, who, however, did not pretend to reform or discover them, or assume the title of a reformer or discoverer.”
In none of my writings, nor in any verbal discussion, have I ever pretended to reform or to discover the doctrines of the unity of God, nor have I ever assumed the title of reformer or discoverer; so far from such an assumption, I have urged in every work that I have hitherto published, that the doctrines of the unity of God are real Hindooism, as that religion was practised by our ancestors, and as it is well-known even at the present age to many earned Brahmans: I beg to repeat a few of the passages to which I allude.
In the introduction to the abridgement of the Vedanta I have said “In order, therefore, to vindicate my own faith and that of our forefathers, I have been endeavouring, for some time past, to convince my countrymen of the true meaning of our sacred books, and prove that my aberration deserves not the opprobrium which some unreflecting persons have been so ready to throw upon me.” In another place of the same introduction: “The present is an endeavour to render an abridgment of the same (the Vedanta) into English, by which I expect to prove to my European friends, that the superstitious practices which deform the Hindoo religion, have nothing to do with the pure spirit of its dictates.” In the introduction of the Kenopanishad: “This work will, I trust, by explaining to my countrymen the real spirit of the Hindoo scriptures which is but the declaration of the unity of God, tend in a great degree to correct the erroneous conceptions which have Prevailed when regard to the doctrines they inculcate”; and in the Preface of the Isopanishad: “Many learned Brahmans are perfectly aware, of the absurdity of idol-worship, and are well informed of the nature of the “pure mode of divine worship.” A reconsideration of these passages will, I hope, convince the learned gentleman, that I never advanced any claim to the title either of a reformer or of a discoverer of the doctrines of the unity of the Godhead. It is not at all impossible that from the perusal of the translations above alluded to, the Editor of the Calcutta Gazette, finding the system of idolatry into which Hindoos are now completely sunk, quite inconsistent with the real spirit of their scriptures, may have imagined that their contents bad become entirely forgotten and unknown; and that I was the first to point out the absurdity of idol-worship, and to inculcate the propriety of the pure divine worship, ordained by their Vedas, their Smritis, and their Puranas. From this idea, and from finding in his intercourse with other Hindoos, that I was stigmatized by many, however unjustly, as an innovator, he may have been, not unnaturally, misled to apply to me the epithets of discoverer and reformer.
2ndly. The learned gentleman states: “There are an immense number of books, namely, Vedas, Sastras, Puranas, Agams, Tantras, Sutras, and Itihas, besides numerous commentaries, compiled by many famous theologians, both of ancient and modern times, respecting the doctrines of the worship of the invisible Being. They are not only written in Sanskrit, but rendered into the Prakrita, Telugu, Tamil, Gujrati, Hindoostani, Marhatti, and Canari languages, and immemorially studied by a great part of the Hindu nation, attached to the attached to the adwitam faith, &c.” This statement of the learned gentleman, as far as it is correct, corroborates indeed my assertion with respect to the doctrines of the worship of the invisible Supreme Spirit being unanimously inculcated by all the Hindoo Sastras, and naturally leads to severe reflections on the selfishness which must actuate those Brahmanical teachers who, notwithstanding the unanimous authority of the Sastras for the adoption of pure worship, yet, with the view of maintaining the title of God which they arrogate to themselves and of deriving pecuniary and other advantages from the numerous rites and festivals of idol-worship, constantly advance and encourage idolatry to the utmost of their power. I must remark, however, that there is no translation of the Vedas into any of the modern languages of Hindoostan with which I am acquainted, and it is for that reason that I have translated into Bengali the Vedanta, the Kenopanishad of the Sama Veda, the Isopanishad of the Yajur Veda, &c., with the contents of which none but the learned among my countrymen were at all acquainted.
3rdly. The learned gentleman states, that the translations of the scripture into the vulgar language are rejected by some people; and he assigns as reasons for their so doing, that “if the reader of them doubts the truth of the principles explained in the translation the divine knowledge he acquired by them becomes a doubtful faith, and that doubt cannot be removed unless he compare them with the original work: in that case, the knowledge he lastly acquired becomes comes superior, and his study, in the first instance, becomes useless and the cause of repeating the same work.” When a translation of a work written in a foreign tongue is made by a person at all acquainted with that language into his native tongue, and the same translation is sanctioned and approved of by many natives of the same country, who are perfectly conversant with that foreign language, the translation, I presume, may be received with confidence as a satisfactory interpretation of the original work, both by the vulgar and by men of literature.
It must not be supposed, however, that I am inclined to assert that there is not the least room to doubt the accuracy of such a translation; because the meaning of authors, even in the original works, is very frequently dubious, especially in a language like Sanskrit, every sentence of which, almost, admits of being explained in different senses. But should the possibility of errors in every translation be admitted as reason for withholding all confidence in their contents, such a rule would shake our belief, not only in the principles explained in the translation of the Vedanta into the current language, but also in all information respecting foreign history and theology obtained by means of translations: in that case, we must either learn all the languages that are spoken by the different nations in the world, to acquire a knowledge of their histories and religions, or be content to know nothing of any country besides our own. The second reason which the learned gentleman assigns for their objection to the translation is that “Reading the scripture in the vulgar languages is prohibited by the Puranas.” I have not yet met with any text of any Puranas which prohibit the explanation of the scripture in the vulgar tongue; on the contrary, the Paranas allow that practice very frequently I repeat one of these declarations from the Siva Dharma, quoted by the great Raghunandana. “He who can interpret, according to the ratio of the understanding of his pupils, through Sanskrit, or through the vulgar languages, or by means of the current language of the country, is entitled, spiritual father.” Moreover, in every part of Hindoostan all professors of the Sanskrit language instructing beginners in the Vedas, Puranas, and in other Sastras, interpret them in the vulgar languages; especially spiritual fathers in the exposition of those parts of the Vedas and Puranas, which allegorically introduce a plurality of gods and idol-worship, doctrines which tend so much to their own worldly advantage.
The learned gentleman states, that “The first part of the Veda prescribes the mode of performing yagam or sacrifice, bestowing danam or alms; treats of penance, fasting, and, of worshipping the incarnations, in which the Supreme Deity has appeared on the earth for divine purposes. The ceremonies performed according to these modes, forsaking their fruits, are affirmed by the Vedas to be mental exercises and mental purifications necessary to obtain the knowledge of the divine nature.” I, in common with the Vedas and the Vedanta, and Manu (the first and best of Hindoo lawgivers) as well as with the most celebrated Sankaracharya, deny these ceremonies being necessary to obtain the knowledge of the divine nature, as the Vedanta positively declares, in text 36, section 4th, chapter 3rd: “Man may acquire the true knowledge of God, even without observing the rules and rites prescribed by the Veda for each class: as it is found in the Veda that many persons who neglected the performance of the rites and ceremonies, owing to their perpetual attention to the adoration of the Supreme Being, acquired the true knowledge respecting the Supreme Spirit.” The Veda says; “Many learned true believers never worshipped fire, or any celestial gods through fire.” And also the Vedanta asserts, in the 1st text of the 3rd section of the 3rd chapter: The worship authorized by all the Vedas is one, as the directions for the worship of the only Supreme Being are invariably found in the Veda, and the epithets of the Supreme, and Omnipresent Being, &c., commonly imply God alone.” Manu, as I have elsewhere quoted, thus declares on the same point, chapter 12th, text 92nd: “Thus must the chief of the twice-born, though he neglect the ceremonial rites mentioned in the Sastra, be diligent in attaining a knowledge of God, in controlling his organs of sense, and in repeating the Veda.” Again, chapter 4th, text 23rd: “Some constantly sacrifice their breath in their speech, when they instruct others of God aloud, and their speech in their breath, when they meditate in silence; perceiving in their speech and breath thus employed, the imperishable fruit of a sacrificial offering.” 24th: “Other Brahmans incessantly perform those sacrifices only, seeing with the eye of divine learning, that the scriptural knowledge is the root of every ceremonial observance.” And also the same author declares in chapter 2nd, text 84 : “All rites ordained in the Veda, oblations to fire gland solemn sacrifices, pass away; but that which passes not away is declared to be the syllable Om, thence called Akshara since it is a symbol of God, the Lord of created beings.”
5thly. The learned gentleman states, that “the difficulty of attaining a knowledge of the Invisible and Almighty Spirit is evident from the preceding verses.” I agree with him in that point, that the attainment of perfect knowledge of the nature of the God-head is certainly difficult, or rather impossible; but to read the existence of the Almighty Being in his works of nature, is not, I will dare to say, so difficult to the mind of a man possessed of common sense, and unfettered by prejudice, as to conceive artificial images to be possessed, at once, of the opposite natures of human and divine beings, which idolaters constantly ascribe to their idols, strangely believing that things so constructed can be converted by ceremonies into constructors of the universe.
6thly. The learned gentleman objects to our introducing songs, although expressing only the peculiar tenets of monotheism, and says: “But the holding of meetings, playing music, singing songs, and dancing, which are ranked among carnal pleasures, are not ordained by scripture, as mental purification.” The practice of dancing in divine worship, I agree, is not ordained by the scripture, and accordingly never was introduced in our worship; any mention of dancing in the Calcutta Gazette must, therefore, have proceeded from misinformation of the Editor. But respecting the propriety of introducing monotheistical songs in the divine worship, I beg leave to refer the gentleman to texts 114th and 115th of the 3rd chapter of Yajnavalkya, who authorizes not only scriptural music in divine contemplation, but also the songs that are composed by the vulgar. It is also evident that any interesting idea is calculated to make more impression upon the mind, when conveyed in musical verses, than when delivered in the form of common conversation.
7thly. The learned gentleman says: “All the Brahmans in this peninsula are studying the same Vedas as are read in the other parts of the country; but I do not recollect to have read or heard of one treating on astronomy, medicine, or arms: the first is indeed an angam of the Vedas, but the two latter are taught in separate Sastras.” –in answer to which I beg to be allowed to refer the gentleman to the following text of the Nirvana: “The Vedas, while talking of planets, botany, austere duties, arms, rites, natural consequences, and several other subjects, are purified by the inculcation of the doctrines of the Supreme Spirit.” And also to the latter end of the Mahanirvana agam.
From the perusal of these texts, I trust, he will be convinced that the Vedas not only treat of astronomy, medicine, and arms, but also of morality and natural philosophy, and that all arts and sciences that are treated of in other Sastras, were originally introduced by the Vedas: see also Manu, chapter 12, verses 97 and 98. I cannot of course be expected to be answerable for Brahmans neglecting entirely the study of the scientific parts of the Veda, and putting in practice, and promulgating to the utmost of their power, that part of them which, treating of rites and festivals, is justly considered as the source of their worldly advantages and support of their alleged divinity.
8thly. I observe, that on the following statement in my Introduction to the Kenopanishdad, viz., “Should this explanation given by the Veda itself, as well as by its celebrated commentator, Vyasa, not be allowed to reconcile those passages winch are seemingly at variance with each other, as those that declare the unity of the invisible Supreme Being, with others which describe a plurality of independent visible gods, the whole work must, I am afraid, not only be stripped of its authority, but looked upon as altogether unintelligible,” the learned gentleman has remarked that “To say the least of this passage, RAM MOHUN ROY appears quite as willing to abandon as to defend the Scripture of his Religion.”
In the foregoing paragraph, however, I did no more than logically confine the case to two points, viz., that the explanation of the Veda and of its commentators must either be admitted as sufficiently reconciling the apparent contradictions between different passages of the Veda or must not be admitted. In the latter case, the Veda must necessarily be supposed to be inconsistent with itself, and therefore altogether unintelligible, which is directly contrary to the faith of Hindus of every description; consequently they must admit that those explanations do sufficiently reconcile the seeming contradictions between the chapters of the Vedas.
9thly. The learned gentleman says that “Their (the attributes and incarnations) worship under various representations, by means of consecrated objects, is prescribed by the scripture to the human race, by way of mental exercises,” &c. I cannot admit that the worship of these attributes under various representations, by means of consecrated objects, has been prescribed by the Veda to the HUMAN RACE; as this kind of worship of consecrated objects is enjoined by the Sastra to those only who are incapable of raising their minds to the notion of an invisible Supreme Being. I have quoted several authorities for this assertion in my Preface to the Isopanishad, and beg to repeat here one or two of them: “The vulgar look for their God in water; men of more extended knowledge in celestial bodies; the ignorant in wood, bricks, and stones; but learned men in the Universal Soul. Thus corresponding to the nature of different powers or qualities, numerous figures have been invented for the benefit of those who are not possessed of sufficient understanding.” Permit me in this instance to ask, whether every Mussulman in Turkey and Arabia, from the highest to the lowest, every Protestant Christian at least of Europe, and many followers of Kabir and Nanak, do worship God without the assistance of consecrated objects? If so, how can we suppose that the human race is not capable of adoring the Supreme Being without the puerile practice of having recourse to visible objects?
10thly. The learned gentleman is of opinion that the attributes of God exist distinctly from God and he compares the relation between God and these attributes to that of a king to his ministers, he says: “If a person be desirous to visit an earthly prince, he ought to be introduced in the first instance by his ministers,” &c.; and “in like manner the grace of God ought to be obtained by the grace through the worship of his attributes.” This opinion, I am extremely sorry to find, is directly contrary to all the Vedanta doctrines interpreted, to us by the most revered Sankaracharya, which are real adwaita or non-duality; they affirm that God has no second that may be possessed of eternal existence, either of the same nature with himself or of a different nature from him, nor any second of that nature that might be called either his part or his quality. The 16th text of the 2nd section of the 3rd chapter: ” The Veda has declared the Supreme Being to be mere understanding.” The Veda says; “God is real existence, wisdom and eternity.” The Veda very often calls the Supreme Existence by the epithets of Existent, Wise, and Eternal; and assigns as the reason for adopting such epithets, that the Veda in the first instance speaks of God according to the human idea, which views quality separately from person, in order to facilitate our Comprehension of objects. In case these attributes should be supposed, as the learned gentleman asserts, to be separate existences, it necessarily follows, that they must be either eternal or non-eternal. The former case, viz. the existence of a plurality of beings imbued like God himself with the property of eternal duration, strikes immediately at the root of all the doctrines relative to the unity of the Supreme Being contained in the Vedanta. By the latter sentiment, namely, that the power and attributes of God are not eternal, we are led at once into the belief that the nature of God is susceptible of change, and consequently that He is not eternal, which makes no inconsiderable step towards atheism itself. These are the obvious and dangerous consequences, resulting from the learned gentleman’s doctrine that the attributes of the Supreme Being are distinct existences. I am quite at a loss to know how these attributes of the pure and perfect Supreme Being (as the learned gentleman declares them to exist really and separately, and not fictitiously and allegorically,) can be so sensual and destitute of morality as the ereating attribute or Brahma is said to be by the Puranas, which represent him in one instance as attempting to commit a rape upon his own daughter. The protecting attribute, or Vishnu, is in another place affirmed to have fraudulently violated the chastity of Brinda, in order to kill her husband. Siva, the new destroying attribute, is said to have had a criminal attachment to Mohini disregarding all ideas of decency. And a thousand similar examples must be familiar to every reader of the Edranas. I should be obliged by the learned gentleman’s showing how the contemplation of such circumstances, which are constantly related by the worshippers of these attributes, even in their sermons, can be instrumental towards the parification of the mind, conducive to morality, and productive of eternal beatitude. Besides, though the learned gentleman in this instance considers these attributes to be separate existences, yet in another place he seems to view them as parts of the Supreme Being as he says “If one part of the ocean can be adored the ocean is adored.” I am somewhat at a loss to understand how the learned gentleman proposes to reconcile this apparent contradiction. I must observe, however, in this place, that the comparison drawn between the relation of God and those attributes, and that of a king and his minister, totally inconsistent with the faith entertained by Hindoos of the present day; who, so far from considering these objects of worship as mere instruments by which they may arrive at the power of contemplating the God of nature, regard them in the light of independent gods, to whom, however absurdly, they attribute almighty power, and claim to worship, solely on his own account.
11thly. The learned gentleman is dissatisfied with the objection mentioned in my translation, and remarks, that “the objections to worshipping the attributes are not satisfactorily stated by the author.” I consequently repeat the following authorities, which I hope may answer my purpose. The following are the declarations of the Veda; “He who worships any God excepting the Supreme Being, and thinks that he himself is distinct and inferior to that God, knows nothing, and is considered as a domestic beast of these gods. A state even so high as that of Brahman does not afford real bliss. Adore God alone. None but the Supreme Being is to be worshipped; nothing excepting him should be adored by a wise man.” I repeat also the following text of the Vedanta: “The declaration of the Veda, that those that worship the celestial gods are the food of such gods, is an allegorical expression, and only means, that they are comforts to the Supreme Being is rendered subjects to these gods. The Veda affirms the same.”
And the revered Sankaracharya has frequently declared the state of celestial gods to be that of demons, in the Bhashya of the Isopanishad and of others.
To these authorities a thousand other might be added. But should the learned gentleman required some practical grounds for objecting to the idolatrous worship of the Hindoos, I can be at no loss to give him numberless instances, where the ceremonies that have been instituted under the pretext of honouring the all-perfect Author of Nature, are of a tendency utterly subversive of every moral principle.
I begin with Krishna as the most adored of the incarnations, the number of whose devotees is exceedingly great. His worship is made to consist in the institution of his image or picture, accompanied by one or more females, and in the contemplation of his history and behaviour, such as his perpetration of murder upon a female of the name of Putana; his compelling a great number of married and unmarried women to stand before him denuded; his debauching them and several others, to the mortal affliction of their husbands and relations; his annoying them, by violating the laws of cleanliness and other facts of the same nature. The grossness of his worship does not find a limit here. His devotees very often personify (in the same manner as European actors upon stages do) him and his female companions, dancing, with indecent gestures, and singing songs relative to his love and debaucheries. It is impossible to explain in language fit to meet the public eye, the mode in which Mahadeva, or the destroying attributes is worshipped by the generality of the Hindoos suffice it to say, that it is altogether congenial with the indecent nature of the image, under whose form he is most commonly adored.
The stories respecting him which are read by his devotees in the Tantras, are of a nature that, if told of any man, would be offensive to the ears of the most abandoned of either sex. In the worship of Kali, human sacrifices, the use of wine, criminal intercourse and licentious songs are included: the first of these practices has become generally extinct; but it is believed that there are parts of the country where human victims are still offered.
Debauchery, however, universally forms the principal part of the worship of her followers. Nigam and other Tantras may satisfy every reader of the horrible tenets of the worshippers of the two latter deities. The modes of worship of almost all the inferior deities are pretty much the same. Having so far explained the nature of worship adopted by Hindoos in general, for the propitiation of their allegorical attributes, in direct opposition to the mode of pure divine worship inculcated by the Vedas, I cannot but entertain a strong hope that the learned gentleman, who ranks even monotheistical songs among carnal pleasures, and consequently rejects their admittance in worship, will no longer stand forward as an advocate for the worship of separate and independent attributes and incarnations.
12thly. The learned gentleman says, “that the Saviour,” meaning Christ, “should be considered a personification of the mercy and kindness of God (I mean actual not allegorical personification).” From the little knowledge I had acquired of the tenets of Christians and those of anti-Christians, I thought there were only three prevailing opinions respecting the nature of Christ. viz.. that he was considered by some as the expounder of the laws of God, and the mediator between God and man; by many to be one of the three mysterious persons of the Godhead; whilst others, such as the Jews, say that he was a mere man. But to consider Christ as a personification of the mercy of God is, if I mistake not, a new doctrine in Christianity, the discussion of which, however, has no connection with the present subject. I, however, must observe that this opinion, which the learned gentleman has formed of Christ being a personification of the mercy of God, is similar to that entertained by Mussulmans, for a period of upwards of a thousand years, respecting Mohummud, whom they call the mercy of God upon a all his creatures. The learned gentleman, in the conclusion of his observations, has left, as he says, the doctrines of pure allegory to me. It would have been more consistent with justice had he left pure allegory also to the Vedas, which declare, “appellations and figures of all kinds are innovations,” and which have allegorically represented God in the figure of the universe: “Fire is his head, the sun and the moon are his two eyes,” &c.; and which have also represented all human internal qualities by different earthly objects; and also to Vedas who has strictly followed the Vedas in these figurative representations, and to Sankaracharya, who also adopted the mode of allegory in his Bhashya of the Vedanta and of the Upanishads.
From: The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy. Edited by Jogendra Chunder Ghose. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 1982, I: 89-100.