The Brahmo Samaj, liberal Hinduism and its links to Unitarianism
Maghotsav at Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel Feb 2017 The following is a sermon given by Rev. Kate Dean of Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel in London to the Oxford Unitarians at The Chapel Society in Harris Manchester College Chapel, Oxford on 30th April 2017, published here with the kind permission of the author.

There's a life-size bronze statue, in front of Bristol cathedral, of an Indian man in flowing robes and an exotic looking cap. Perhaps he made heads turn when he visited his Unitarian friend in 1833. Nearby, in Arnos Vale cemetery, his tomb is carved in the Bengali style with twelve pillars upholding a tiered stone canopy because, sadly, just a couple of years after arriving in England for the first time, Raja Rammohan Roy passed away, a victim of meningitis.

It's hard to quantify Rammohan's influence on the development of modern India. Some have described him as the Father of Modern India or the Father of the Bengal Renaissance and go as far as saying that he 'was to the early 19th Century India what Gandhi was for 20th Century India.[1].

He campaigned to reform the Indian education system, changing attitudes to the rights of women and drew upon his vast knowledge of religious texts to establish the Brahmo Samaj, a progressive religious group with a decidedly universalist approach.

India has long been regarded having a 'religious culture.' In Rammohan's time, it was written that 'Religion occupies a peculiar position in Indian life. In words taken from the Petition against the Jury Act "Religious opinions exercise a great influence over their (the people's) general and daily conduct. It is not merely a system of theories and opinions but is interwoven within the laws, the manners, the daily necessities and daily action of every condition of human life"

Given Rammohan's own upbringing within a Brahmin household containing family members from differing faiths, perhaps it's not surprising that he would embrace this idea of learning from different religions and cultures. A contemporary, Kissory Chand Mitter, said 'He was essentially a theo-philanthropist. To promote love to God and love to man, agreeably to his own view of both, constituted the practical and most important part of his creed. He had a strong sentiment of natural religion. He was deeply impressed with the necessity and importance of religion in Society. He had always cherished and the longer he lied, became the more confirmed in the conviction that religion was an ineradicable principle of our nature and absolutely and indispensably necessary to the welfare of mankind.'

Rammohan spent many years working of the East India Company and he believed that there should an interchange of ideas between the East and the West. According to Dr Sumit Chanda, 'his vision was that of an Anglicized India. In turn India would act as the Enlightener of Asia. He also envisioned a possible independence for India. However, what mattered to him most was that the people should be treated liberally and governed in an enlightened manner'

After intense study of Hindu religious texts, many of which he translated into English and vernacular language, he concluded that the worship of Supreme Being was what lay at the heart of Hinduism. His thirst for knowledge also encompassed the study of Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and well as the political and financial texts, which led to his reforming ideas.

He was a great advocated of education and emancipation, especially for women and the underprivileged. At the time, it was common for widows to sacrifice themselves on their husband's funeral pyre, a practice called sati. If the husband had many wives, the loss of life was horrific. Roy succeeded in persuading the Governor-General of India to ban the practice, and this act is widely regarded as one of his greatest reforming achievements.

Maghotsav at Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel Feb 2017

Rammohun was the earliest scientific writer in the Bengali vernacular. He wrote articles and books on Geometry, Geography and Astronomy in Bengali in order to popularise science among the people. He hoped to learn from British techniques so that India would become fully modernised through "modern arts and sciences" (rather than specifically "western" or 'Eastern") and able to resist a modern State like Britain.[2]

Rammohan had a great affinity with the Unitarian beliefs and in 1823, he founded the Calcutta Unitarian Committee, along with Unitarian minister William Adam, and Dwarkanath Tagore the grandfather of the poet Rabindranath whose words we have heard in this service.

In 1828, Rammohun conducted the first 'theistic service' of the Brahmo Samaj and the first chapel was consecrated in January of 1830, a month after the practice of suti, widow burning, was suppressed. The Calcutta community was thrown into a 'whirlpool of agitation' by this ban and Rammohan left India in August of the same year. He had been awarded the honour of Raja by the Mughal Emperor and made an Ambassador to Britain - his journey took eight months via a stop over in Cape Town. And after just two and a half years in Engand, he sadly died.

Following his death, the Brahmo Samaj continued to grow and develop as a religious community in Bengal. Reading about their principles, we can see the affinity with Unitarianism, as this passage illustrates:

'It is time that religion should be disengaged from all non-spiritual and purely external elements, and installed in its function, namely, to awaken and strengthen in the human soul a sense of the Infinite and thereby enlighten, inspire, and guide the human conscience. The sphere and province of religion is in the spirit of man. The main function of religious teaching and of the Church is the moral and spiritual uplifting of man. Hence we are persuaded to think that the future religion of the human race, above all other things, should be a religion of conscience. Spirituality should be its leading characteristic.[3]

At the time of his death, Rammohan was staying with a Unitarian minister, Lant Carpenter in Bristol, whose children attended my own chapel in Hampstead. Growing up in Bristol they both went on to achieve great things - his daughter Mary was a social reformer herself, she set up schools for the underprivileged in Bristol. She would've been a teenager at the time of Rammohan's visit and we can imagine the influence he may have had. Lant's son Dr WB Lant was a physiologist who also attended Rosslyn Hill Chapel. He was also the chapel's first ever organist - before that, the congregation had to make do with a tuning fork!

In fact, Rev Carpenter's grandson Estlin Carpenter became a minister and later Principle of this college. In 1870 Keshub Chunder Sen, the distinguished Indian reformer who was part of the Brahmo Samaj, spoke at a lecture at my chapel attended by 600 people.

Harris Manchester College has long established links with the Brahmo Samaj and from the 1890s onwards, the college made it possible for a number of young Brahmos to study here. In his article for the college publication Faith and Freedom, Victor Lal describes the historic connections between Unitarians and Brahmo Samaj. The first Brahmo student was Pramatha Lal Sen, nephew to the reformer Keshub Sen, who came to the college in 1896, by which time the college had moved to its current location in Oxford.

Manchester College, as it was then, openly welcomed students from other lands. According to Victor Lal 'They felt that these students brought with them new elements of thought, widened the range of spiritual vision within the College, and broadened the religious sympathies of the College circle.' The Committee of the College said at the time 'Mr Sen may only be the first of many liberal-minded students who will bring to the college a fresh outlook to new worlds of thought, and who will carry the unfettered quest for the truth of God, to which the College is devoted.'

It's tempting for Unitarians to rest on their laurels sometimes, perhaps weighed down by the pride of so many achievements in the past. Whilst we acknowledge the debt we owe to our Unitarian forebears and others for the progress that was made in society especially in the 19th Century, we do need to remember two things: First, that Unitarians were not the only ones campaigning for progress and reform. Where they were able to band together with other like-minded souls, the achievements were even greater. And second, if we are to carry the flame forward, we must recognise our own responsibility to social justice and social action. Whilst we find solace and comfort in this sanctuary and this community, the other part to our Unitarian lives is the reaching out to those in need, and campaigning for the rights of those who do not have a voice, as Rammohan and the Carpenters did. And it is good to recognize that we continue this tradition in Oxford through the collection of items for Asylum Welcome and other good causes.

As we look around the world at events which seem beyond our control, especially looking towards our Unitarian Universalist cousins in America, my hope is that we may find a new energy for such important work. To raise ourselves up from comfortable laurels and speak out against intolerance in society and in the media. Let the teachings of those liberals who have gone before us, like Raja Rammohan Roy, guide our knowledge that change only happens when we decide to do something about it.

In 1933, the college principle marked Roy's centenary with a memorial service here in the college chapel and gave by all accounts an impressive sermon entitled 'An Indian who belonged to the World'.

So I leave the last words to Raja Rammohun Roy, whose belief in the progress of science as well as enlightened thinking regarding religion still rings true today: '... not religion only but unbiased common sense as well as accurate deductions of scientific research lead to the conclusion that all mankind are one great family of which numerous nations and tribes existing are only various branches. Hence enlightened men in all countries feel a wish to encourage and facilitate human intercourse in every manner by removing as far as possible all impediments to it in order to promote reciprocal advantage and enjoyment of the whole human race.[4]

All enlightened people feel a wish to encourage human intercourse for the enjoyment of the whole human race - I think we can all agree with that!
[1]  Rev Charles R Roy, USA
[2]  Jogananda Das
[3]  Sastri pg - 9
[4]  Sen pg - 12
  • Rammouhun Roy the Modernizer by Jogananda Das
  • The Brahmo Samaj; Religious Principles and Brief History by Sivanath Sastri
  • Rosslyn Hill Chapel: A short history 1692-1973' published by RHC 1974, reprinted 1991
  • "Religious Devills" of Hampstead by Ruth Rowntree