The onslaught of the reformist movements like Brahmo and the Arya Samaj evoked strong response from the orthodox Hindu society. The reformist movements sought to abolish the age old practices of image worship, challenged the authenticity of the Puranic traditions and denounced Brahmanical Hinduism with its caste system, superiority of the Brahmins, abominable practices like Sati, early marriage of girl child depriving them of all opportunities of formal education, and the dire and pitiable condition of the widows. The religious orders were fragmented, the Vaishnavas or the worshipper of Krishna and Vishnu, the Shaktas or the worshipper of God as the mother of the Universe, Durga or Kali, and the Shaivas or the followers of Shiva, were always at loggerhead. Moreover there was extreme debauchery in the name of religion both among Vaishnavas and the Shaktas. Horrible practices like orgy were common among some classes. Many sects came up from among the Vaishnavas and the Shaktas, esp. in Bengal, called Nabarasik, Kartabhaja and others. The Vamachari tantrik form came from the Shaktas. All of them had in some form or the other sensual enjoyments as the very basis for religious practices. The Hindu society was not altogether ignorant of the many social evils and reforms were started within the society to educate women and to confront the evils of orthodoxy and the despicable hypocrisy of the sectarian religions. Christian Missionaries were continuously targeting the Hindu practices and Brahmos had already won away a large section of the youth who were ignorant of the great spiritual lineage of Hinduism and were repelled by the horrific social practices and the hypocrisy of a section of the religious leaders. The champions of Hindu revivalism were predominantly Nationalists as well. They believed in the glory of Mother India and wanted to restore that glory. They believed that the only path towards restoration would be to bring back the pure and pristine ideals of Hinduism, the belief in the culture and legacy of India that had been her mainstay for centuries till Islamic rule broke it. They started a spirited defence of Hindu culture, religion and civilization in the face of the consistent attacks of both Missionaries and Christian scholars as well as the attack of the Indian reformation movements on Hindu ideals. The best representative of this movement was Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. Writes Dr. R.C Majumdar, "Bankim Chandra openly attempted a reexamination, a reinterpretation, and a readjustment of our old theology and ethics in the light of the most advanced modern thought and in accordance with the new rules of literary criticism and scriptural interpretation that had been so powerfully influencing current religious life and thought in Christendom itself."
Ramakrishna Paramhamsa was perhaps one the greatest figures of the nineteenth century who was a synthesis of the best of the ideals of Hinduism. Sri Ramakrishna led the Hindu revival from the front by reminding the Hindus of the glorious legacy and tradition of their life - living a pure life of ideals centered around God. Like a scientist in a laboratory, he chose Dakshineswar temple as the ground for his practical experiments with different religions to discover the Truth. The doors of the spiritual secrets were held ajar for this son of mother Kali. He easily and effortlessly progressed from one great journey to another, from self discovery of the luminous conscious principle behind the temple image of mother Kali to a guided tour of all 64 principles of Tantra by an expert and highly accomplished spiritual Brahman woman named Jogeshwari, to the loftiest ideals of Vedanta by itinerant monk Totapuri, to the Puranic traditions of worshipping Rama and Krishna, to delving into the Islamic Sufi tradition and understanding the subtle essence of Christianity, Ramakrishna experienced them all. Thus he came to become the epitome of catholicity by discovering that "Oneness behind everything", that he called as Mother. He realized that the same Truth can be arrived at through various means, and religious strife are nothing but amateurish, ego centric battles. While staying in the temple premises and barely venturing out in the surrounding areas of Calcutta, Ramakrishna aroused interest in many genuine spiritual seekers and scholars who flocked to him from all strata of the society. He refused none - from the downtrodden and fallen prostitutes to the greatest spiritual figures, from the well established businessmen, professors, doctors, students, nurses, teachers, officers, Marwari businessmen, Sikh soldiers, Nepal's Ambassador, to the most ordinary and often illiterate folks, all received his unconditional love and grace. His wonderful catholicity won the approval and admiration of all, even the staunchest attackers on Hinduism - the Brahmos and the Christian Missionaries. After few initial visits Keshab Chandra Sen became a devoted admirer and Keshab's article on Ramakrishna attracted many others to Dakshineswar. He was visited by the greatest Hindu scholars who admitted his superiority and in some cases divinity - Ishan Chandra Mukherjee, Prankrishna Mukherjee, Bijoy Krishna Goswami, Pratap Chandra Majumdar, Gauri Kanta of Indesh, Narayan Shastri, Padmalochan Pandit, Shambhu Charan Mullick, Hirananda Advani, Shibnath Shastri, Debendra Nath Tagore, Shashadhar Tarkachudamani and many others. He met and influenced Vidyasagar, well known doctors like Rajendralal Datta and Mahendralal Sarkar, Actors like Girish Ghosh, teachers like Mahendranath Gupta (M), professionals like Ramchandra Datta, Suresh Mitra, Manamohan Mitra, Kedarnath Chatterjee, Adharlal Sen, and accomplished writers like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Michael Madhusudan Datta and others. In his life time he created a band of young men led by Narendranath Datta, who fired by his pure ideals and wonderful catholicity, would renounce worldly life and would become the centre of a new spiritual awakening of masses, leading to the ultimate revival of Nationalism. The flood of spirituality that emanated from Dakshineswar temple would sweep all the dirt of the contemporary Hindu society, without any need for explicit reforms. For the first time Hindus understood what their religion stood for, the meaning and significance of their religion, their legacy, rooted firmly in Sankhya, Vedanta and other gems of Indian spiritual tradition. A gigantic spiritual force thus took hold of the rusty wheel of Hindu civilization and gave it a mighty push so that it gradually gained momentum and speed. Such gigantic forces have traditionally been called as "Avataras" by Hindu scriptures.
Swami Vivekananda says, "The life of Sri Ramakrishna was an extraordinary searchlight under whose illumination one is able to really understand the whole scope of Hindu religion. He was the object-lession of all the theoretical knowledge given in the Shastras. He showed by his life that Rishis and Avataras really wanted to teach. The books were theories, he was the realization. This man in fifty one years lived five thousand years of national spiritual life. "
Writes Dr. R.C Majumdar, "Both by precept and example of his own life, Ramakrishna brought home to an incredulous world, held under the spell of Natural science, the reality of spiritual life and of the means to attain it as described in ancient Hindu scriptures." Since Ramakrishna firmly established that idol worship is not false, instead it can lead to salvation in essence if sincerely pursued, as demonstrated by many other Sadhakas or spiritual seekers in the past, it too away the edge of the attack of the Brahmos, Arya Samajists and the Christians. When Maxmueller wrote his treatise, "A Real Mahatman" on the life of Ramakrishna, the Western world was taken by surprise. Lofty ideals of Hindu spirituality were already propagated by Vivekananda and his Guru's life held the mirror in which such lofty ideals were reflected, to shine the contemporary materialistic society that was enamoured with the new scientific thoughts and the wonderful tenets of Rationalism. Through Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, Hindus learned to know who they are - "Amritasya Putrah" or sons and daughters of immortality.
Theosophical Society established by Madam Blavatsky had its first centre in America but later shifted to Madras. It was subsequently led by Col Olcott and Annie Bessant. Theosophical Society found a lot of resonance among Hindus of India primarily because they found in the society a bunch of sympathizers who openly advocated the cause of Hinduism. But the society was more focused on occult practices and Tibetan Mahatmas rather than indulging in true spirituality. Nevertheless, Theosophical Society also indirectly led to the rise of Nationalistic spirit by inculcating a sense of pride among educated Hindus, against the tirades of the Missionaries and the reformists. When Swami Vivekananda came to Madras as a penniless monk and asked for a referral from the Theosophical Society to go to the Parliament of Religion, the Society asked him to first become their member which the Swami naturally refused. Therefore Theosophical Society did not only not help Vivekananda, but also later when he was in a somewhat precarious condition during his early days in America before his wide recognition, the Society refused to help him. Vivekananda in his address in Madras criticized the activities of the Society (since it was more concerned with occult than pure spirituality of Hinduism) and highlighted this duplicity. Annie Bessant used the full organizational strength of the Society to bolster her Home Rule movement's success. Later when she drifted away from the Nationalistic movements and openly supported the British rule, the Theosophical Society lost its edge and eventually its base in India shrank.
Keshab Chandra Sen had strong leanings for Christianity and was loyal to the British as he accepted the British subjugation of India as a Divine Dispensation for the salvation of India. However not all Brahmos shared his view. Rajnarain Bose, for instance held before his countrymen a "complete and comprehensive picture of Nationalism", touching every aspect of life in a prospectus, which he issued in 1866 for establishing a Society for the Promotion of National Feeling among the educated Natives of Bengal. The object of this society was to resist the powerful tendency of imitating the West, by reviving old ideas and traditions. Yoga, Indian classical music, Ayurveda, Indian food, dress and etiquette, were to replace the foreign counterparts. Students were supposed to learn the mother tongue first, cultivation of Samskrit was encouraged, meetings were to be conducted in pure Bengali, researches were to be published in Bengali etc. were the key tenets. Rabindranath acknowledged that he and his brother Jyotirindranath were initiated into some form of a secret society by Rajnarayan Bose and got inspiration from him to liberate India. Nabagopal Mitra took up ideas of Rajnarayan Bose and started Hindu Mela, to promote National feeling and patriotism among Hindus. The special features were patriotic songs, poems and lectures, a review of the political, social, economic, and religious conditions of India, exhibition of indigenous arts and crafts, performances of indigenous forms of physical exercises (like playing with Lathi or bamboo sticks - a form of martial art of Bengal). It had an all India outlook as specimens of artwork were collected from rest of India. The Hindu Mela met altogether 14 times between 1867 to 1880. An association named National Society was formed whose object was promotion of unity and national feeling among Hindus. Nabagopal Mitra held that the "chief criterion of Nationalism was unity." This unity was sustained and promoted on different basis among different Nation States. He maintained that the basis of India's National Unity had been Hindu religion. He maintained that the Hindus across India needed to come on a common platform and "Hindus were destined to be a religious Nation."
Rajnarain Bose himself proceeded to base his nationalism on Hindu religion. He stayed away from politics and religion from the purview of the Society he had formed in 1866 (Dr. R.C Majumdar, History of Freedom Movement Vol 1). In 1872 he delivered a lecture proclaiming the superiority of the Hindu religion and culture over European and Christian theology and civilization. He concluded that Hindus had forgotten their glorious past and that they were the inventors of rational thinking and freedom of the society. He proudly proclaimed the cultural and the religious superiority of Hindus and said that Hinduism presented a much higher social idealism, yet to be reached by other religions including Christianity. He expressed his hope that the rejuvenated Nation of India would one day again illuminate the world by her knowledge, spirituality and culture and the glory of the Hinduism would spread in the whole world.
Another great person who fostered the idea of Hindu Nationalism was Bankim Chandra Chattapadhyay. He said in an article in 1872 that it was the duty of the Hindus to take counsel together and agree upon a definite policy and chalk out a common line of action. He emphasized that the National interest of Hindu India must be preserved even at the cost of relation with other Nations whose good would be at the expense of Hindu India. Even if doing good to one's own Nation caused harm to the others, Indians must do it. Bankim Chandra wrote the famous novel Ananda Math in which he had immortalized the struggles of a band of monks to free India from despotic rules, drawing inspiration from the Sannyasi movement of 1770s. In Ananda Math the song "Vanda Mataram" was penned, which became the war cry of all Nationalists in days to come. Bankim openly attempted a reexamination, a reinterpretation and a readjustment of our old theology and ethics in the light of the most advanced modern thought and in accordance with the new rules of literary criticism (Dr. R.C Majumdar, History of Freedom Movement Vol 1). Bankim debated with the Christian Missionaries with Hasty on their forefront, on their attacks on Hindu icons like Krishna. He criticized the works of Western scholars and Indologists like Weber, and wrote the book Krishna Charitra (The character of Krishna) to prove the historical existence of Krishna as opposed to the mythology built around his character. He debunked many false conceptions of the Missionaries and the Indologists with sharp and pointed logical arguments. His work became inspiration for several other Hindu writers to take up their pens on behalf of their religion and culture.
Hindu Nationalism got a great impetus from Arya Samaj. B.C Pal said that the Hindus of Punjab felt a keen humiliation in their inability to meet Muslim and the Christian propagandists who condemned their religion as idolatry and polytheism. Dayananda Saraswati gave them the much needed place of honour by providing them with a weapon of defence against the vile propaganda and also attacking the Christians and Muslims in his Satyartha Prakash, by exposing the weaknesses of both these religions. Arya Samaj was a militant sect and its chief inspiration came from its intense patriotism. The patriotism always carried with it a feeling of intolerance towards Islam that was openly hostile towards Hinduism and the concept of Nationalism. It also developed an anti foreign attitude, esp. among the youth. Political independence was one of the first objectives of Dayananda. He was the first man to use the term Swaraj and one of the first to insist on the use of Swadeshi. He wanted to recognize Hindi as the national language of India. He also adopted Suddhi or conversion of those who had left Hinduism and embraced other religions. In this way Arya Samaj wanted to build a sense of unity on the basis of one religion, one society and language and culture.
B.C Pal also recognized the contribution of Theosophical Society as the Society inculcated a spirit of self respect among the Hindus on the basis of their legacy rooted in spirituality and tried to dissuade the Hindu intellectuals from self loathing as was the norm with the free thinkers and the Rationalists including the Brahmos. The Hindus of India were particularly attentive because the sermons came from the representatives of so called advanced races - the Europeans, who were heading the Society and had embraced the basic principles and practices of Hinduism.
Writes Dr. R.C Majumdar, "The Hindu Nationalism should not, however be regarded as a counterpart or rival of the Muslim nationalism as represented by the Wahabis. For though, based on then old glory of the Hindus, it embraced within its purview all the races and the creeds of India. Unlike Wahabism it was not inspired with the ideal of establishing Hindu rule in India."
The spirit of Nationalism was not limited to Bengal alone. It soon spread to Maharashtra and other parts of India. In the province of Bombay emerged Nationalist icons like Vishnu Krishna Chiplunkar, Mahadev Govinda Ranade, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Barely hundred years back the Marathas had the vast Hindu Empire at their disposal whose foundation was laid by the great legacy of Shivaji 200 years back. Marathas never forgave not forgot their humiliation in the hands of the British. The rise of Nationalism was slow among the Muslims as they lagged behind in terms of Western education. To most Muslims community and the religious considerations mattered most and grievances against the British were seen in that light. Most Muslims, esp. the elite ones, were agonized by the fact that they were the rulers of India for over 600 years, only to be dethroned by a foreign power. As a result of Muslim exclusivity and sense of superiority over the idol worshipping Hindus who had been ruled by them, Muslims were largely excluded from then new Nationalistic consciousness that was engulfing India, and thus the rising tide of Nationalism was largely Hindu in character and essence. Dr. R.C Majumdar opines that this is largely because of the fact that the memory of past greatness in every country binds the people together into National unity. But in India this historic consciousness operated upon the two major elements of the population, the Hindus and the Muslims, in diametrically opposite ways. Every historical incident of the past which reflected glory upon one was a humiliating memory to the other.
Another striking feature of the Nationalism was that it was brought forth possibly by the English education. The same thought was echoed by Bal Gangadhar Tilak in KEsari in 1885 - "We are at present being gradually inspired by the spirit of patriotism. The birth of patriotism among us is due to English rule and English education." The argument was that English education made the Indians aware of the ancient and modern history and the fruits of patriotosm among ancient Greeks and Romans. Tilak felt that patriotosm was not diffused to the ignorant section of the society who did not come under English education and therefore made it a point to propagate patriotism among masses throughout his life. He infused fresh life into Ganapati festival and inaugurated the Shivaji festival, making these festivals a gateway to the rise of national consciousness towards freedom. But these produced exactly opposite effects upon the Hindus and Muslims. Muslims despise the images, esp. of Hindu Gods, and Shivaji for them stood for resurgent Hinduism against an Islamic rule. Therefore they were repelled by both. Nevertheless, Hindus found both these icons to be symbols of pride and made them the fulcrum for the rising tide of Nationalistic ideas. Even in Bengal Shivaji festivals were made quite popular by Sakharma Genesh Deuskar, ably supported by Sister Nivedita, Aurobindo and other Nationalist leaders.