top of page

Reformation Movements and their impact

Brahmo Samaj


Hindu College was established in Calcutta in 1817 which gave impetus to English education in Bengal. The large number of schools and colleges found during the next fifty years created an English educated class across India which exerted considerable influence in giving a shape to a new modern version of India. Three universities were established in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras in 1857. Numerous colleges were affiliated to them. After the failure of the outbreak of 1857 the English educated students of these institutions came to the forefront to provide leadership in every sphere, under the British Empire's flag. One of the key features of the new age was discarding the blind and irrational faith by a section of the Indians, notably the Hindus. It also affected the political consciousness at a later stage. Brahmo Samaj, established as a reformist society to challenge and discard age old Hindu traditions and practices, took a centre stage in the social movement. 

Raja Rammohan Roy was the first and the best among the class of social reformers. He tried to infuse rational enquiry in challenging prevalent religious practices and thereby attracted the ire of the orthodox section. He challenged the practices of the Hindu society to be not in consonance with the scriptures. The Hindu practices had debased, degraded and deteriorated into a set of extreme perverse practices bereft of any philosophical or spiritual basis, in the name of customs and rituals. Many of these customs were not only meaningless but also left to themselves outright harmful. For instance the practice of Sati was actually an evil cult of putting on fire the widows in most cases for usurping their property by the inlaws. This had no scriptural sanction as it was meant to be a voluntary sacrifice. The horrible practice of marrying many women in the name of "kulinism", but in actual practise for the sake of money was another diabolic ritual. The women were deprived of all education, were treated as burden and were given in marriage as early as possible, before they became 8 years old, quite often to husbands of the age of their grandfather if suitable younger grooms were not available. Many women were widowed at early ages and had to perform extreme penances with strict injunctions on their behavior to preserve their purity, by the heads of the societies. All sorts of superstitious practices and sorcery gained upper hand resulting in very high mortality for the infants and their mother under unhygienic conditions. The Vaishnavism of the 16th century as propounded by the great Chaitanya Deva and his followers had been converted into instruments of horrible debauchery by a section of the Vaishnavas. The divine love of Radha and Krishna - the yearning of the individual soul for the Cosmic soul, was taken literally as a physical union and most Vaishnavas indulged themselves in extreme lust fulfillment in the name of spiritual practices. The Shaktas or the worshippers of the God as mother were not far behind in their horrible Vamachari tantrik practices with women and wine. In sort, Hinduism was defiled, debased and deteriorated beyond redemption and it was a matter of time before educated Indians would be loath to keep any contact with such obnoxious practices. While true spirituality in Hinduism was not rare, the rituals and customs prevalent hid or obscured the gems underneath. To a superficial observer and those who were newly educated in Western rational education, per the design of Lord Macaulay, found in  Hinduism nothing but a bundle of superstitions and malpractices. The Missionaries had a field day converting Indians, esp. the educated ones, thereby strengthening their hold on the masses. They were actively supported by the Christian British rule. Mohamedans, who were extremely fanatic about their religious beliefs and were not to be swayed by Missionary propaganda, were best left out. Hindus, who had less  depth of belief and even less knowledge about their own religion, were easy prey. A group of extreme rationalists, students of Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, called themselves as "Young Bengalis" and became notorious for their iconoclast image. Several of them later converted to Christianity and others were more tilted towards Brahmo doctrines. On the other hand, Hindu conservatives and orthodox comprising of a large section of Brahman scholars and pandits, backed by eminent landlords like Radhakanto Deb. stoutly defended their tradition and practices, but did nothing to arrest the degradation.

It was in this backdrop that the pioneering social reform movements started, first in Bengal and then in other provinces. Brahmo Samaj was one of the first to carry out reformation plan with a missionary zeal, followed by Arya Samaj established by Dayananda Saraswati in the North and West India. Rammohan Roy was a great personality who openly and publicly protested against the blind acceptance of whatever passed on the authority of priesthood and its interpretation of scriptures. As Dr. R.C Majumdar claims, it is worthy to rank him by the side of Bacon and Luther. Rammohan Roy, who earned the title Raja, looked upon idolatry of Hinduism as a degeneration from the pure monotheistic doctrine of Upanishads. He established the Brahmo Sabha in 1828 along with a number of other English educated Indians and opened it up in 1830. The sole objective of Raja was to establish the doctrine of monotheism in Hinduism, on the basis of Vedanta. Debendra Nath Tagore (father of Rabindranath Tagore and a pioneer of Indian religious movement) revived it in a new light. The Brahmos under him resisted the Missionary effort by remaining within the main ambit of Hinduism and yet infusing the strong and pure ideals based on the doctrine of the Upanishads. Debendranath and Akshay Kumar Datta established the Tattwabodhini patrika to carry out the new ideals and many young men of Bengal were attracted towards the doctrine. One of the greatest among them was Keshab Chandra Sen. The young Brahmo members advocated female education, supported widow remarriage, denounced polygamy, and carried out zealously many other reforms decried by the Hindus. Of course the Brahmos staunchly opposed idolatry. Keshab Chandra Sen was a great orator. He was more attracted towards Christ and his attempts to re interprete Brahmo ideals in the light of Christianity alarmed Debendranath, his mentor, who was more inclined towards traditional Hinduism. Therefore Keshab and a younger group of Brahmos broke away and formed the Sadharan or Bharatvarshiyo Brahmo Samaj while the one founded by Debendranath was named as Adi Brahmo Samaj. Keshab was joined by young enthusiastic reformers like him which included Shibnath Shastry, a scholar, Pratap Chandra Majumdar, Bijoy Krishna Goswami who belonged to the clan of Advaita Goswami, the famous companion and disciple of Sri Chaitanya Deva and a pillar of Gaudiya Vaishnavism.

Keshab brought radical changes by rejecting caste, idolatry and making Brahmo religion a universal one by embracing the ideals of Christianity. He met Queen Victoria in England and he was extremely popular and well known both in India and abroad. His sermons were vastly popular among the youth who found in him the ideal lacking in Hinduism, so a lot of educated youth were naturally attracted towards Brahmo religion. Moreover Brahmo Samaj in general encouraged women's education and discouraged early marriage. Schools were established for education of girls and several Brahmo girls became highly educated, like Kadambini Ganguli who became a pioneer lady doctor. Keshab spread the ideals of Brahmo religion with a missionary zeal across India, in Bombau, Madras and in the North West Provinces. Branches of Brahmo Samaj were established in Bombay  and Madras, called Prarthana Samaj and Brahma Samaj resp. Keshab openly proclaimed loyalty to the British Government and shunned politics. His affinity towards Christianity also made him popular with the Europeans. Keshab was lionized in India and England and was openly hailed as the deliverer of the people by Lord Lawrence, the Viceroy. In 1875 Keshab came into contact with Ramakrishna Paramhamsa and was gradually attracted by the saint of Dakshineswr to the extent of picking up many of the latter's ideals, including that of worshipping God as Mother. Many of Keshab's admirers like Mahendranath Gupta, later became ardent followers of Sri Ramakrishna. In 1878 there was a further division within Brahmo Samaj. Disillusioned by Keshab not living upto his ideal (since he gave his youngest daughter in marriage at a very tender age), Shibnath Shastry, Bijoykrishna Goswami and other younger members left his organization and formed Sadharan Brahmo Samaj. Shibnath was a great orator and attracted by his spiritual and moral code of conduct as well as scholarly disposition, many younger men joined the Brahmo movement and became members of Sadharan Brahmo Samaj. Among them were Narendranath Datta, who later became world famous as the great world teacher Swami Vivekananda, and Rakhal Chandra Ghosh, who became the first President of Ramakrishna Order - Swami Brahmananda. Keshab and his followers like Pratap Majumdar formed the Nababidhan Brahmo Samaj (New Dispensation). After Keshab's death in 1884, however, there were further splits within Nababidhan and eventually the movement weakened. As already discussed, Ramakrishna movement, because of the great ideals and forceful personalities behind it, gradually replaced the reformation movements like Brahmo Samaj to provide a true spiritual alternative to the people on the pure and pristine principles of Vedanta. 

Brahmo Samaj had their own media for propagating and promoting their ideals. While Adi Samaj had Tattwabodhini, Sadharan Samaj had Messenger and Keshab started the Indian Mirror. Indian Mirror was later taken over and edited by Narendranath Sen and was very vocal in supporting Swami Vivekananda's triumph in the West when all other Brahmo newspapers including Messenger and Pratap Majumdar's New Dispensation were instrumental in attacking Vivekananda and in relentlessly spreading malicious lies about him, by colluding with the Christian Missionary papers. Nababidhan Brahmo Samaj, out of spite or jealousy, played an extremely negative role in attacking and vilifying Swami Vivekananda personally by colluding with the Christian Missionary newspapers to do a character assassination. Indian Mirror by Narendranath Sen played a stellar role by stoutly defending Vivekananda against all the Brahmo onslaught. In general Brahmos played a very negative role in the early Nationalistic movement by being loyal to the British. Most of them associated the early Nationalism with Hindu revival and therefore dreaded and remained indifferent if not completely opposed to it. The Brahmos, including Rabindranath looked upon the revolutionary movement as detrimental to their interest and tried to paint it in a very negative picture. Since the Brahmos occupied a major space among the influential section, they successfully painted a regretfully dismal picture of the revolutionary movement and its heroes. There may be another reason. Brahmos in general did not look upon Vivekananda in a very positive light and Vivekananda's influence on the youth, which had badly impacted the Brahmo movement as the Missionaries, naturally was dreaded by them. Since the revolutionaries and the early Nationalists were almost all inspired by Vivekananda, it was clear that they would not get any sympathy from the Brahmos.

Writes Dr. R.C Majumdar, "The movement of Raja Ramomohan Roy could hardly be called a movement of religious and social revolt. While claiming the right of the private judgement in the interpretation of ancient scriptures, the Raja never repudiated their authority,; nor did he, while seeking to assert the right of individual conscience to determine for itself what was right or wrong, even repudiate the authority of that social conscience which spoke through ancient social laws and sanctified social traditions. " Dr. Majumdar asserts that though the Raja defied prevailing customs of the Hindus he never ceased to regard himself as Hindu. He never dreamt of founding a separate sect. Debendranath Tagore was the real founder of the Brahmo Samaj as a separate religious sect, by proclaiming the "freedom of reason from the bondage of ancient scriptural authority." Keshab and his associates like Shibnath and Pratap further distinguished themselves from the traidtional Hinduism to evolve Brahmo Samaj as a social reformer and claimed their superiority over idolatry and caste based Hindu system. But Keshab also diverted towards Christianity and looked upon the British rule in India as a "divine will." It is said that Keshab's Nababidhan was largely influenced and inspired by the pure and pristine ideals of Ramakrishna Paramhamsa. After Keshab's death, his followers gradually drifted away from the spiritual ideals and Brahmo Samaj gradually lost its relevance and appeal.

It cannot be denied that Brahmo Samaj played a role in the freedom movement. First, it boldly challenged the social taboos and customs and encouraged many young men and women to think beyond scriptural injunctions, independently, based on logic and reason. It also encouraged woman's education, though the noted Feminist Annette Akroyd accused Keshab and his Brahmo associates of double speak w.r.t woman's education and political and social emancipation. Akroyd was shocked by Keshab's negative viewpoints in giving higher education to the women. But many of the women who became highly educated belonged to the Brahmo families as education  of girls was still a taboo among conservative Hindus. By raising the bar on education Brahmo Samaj also raised the political consciousness a section of educated Indian youth. It is to be noted that most of the early Brahmo leaders were staunchly loyal to the British Government and remained so even during and after the Partition of Bengal movement, like Narendranath Sen, Anandomohan Bose, the Moderate Congress Leader etc. Krishna Kumar Mitra was a leader of the anti Partition movement and belonged to Brahmo Samaj. Bipin Chandra Pal was also a member of Brahmo Samaj. Suren Tagore and Sarala Ghoshal, both of whom belonged to the Adi Samaj, were instrumental in  trying to impart martial qualities among Bengali youth to fight the political injustices. 

Arya Samaj


Brahmo Samaj movement inspired similar or parallel movements in other parts of India. The most important of this was Arya Samaj, founded by Swami Dayananda Saraswati, in 1875. Dayananda played a missionary role in promoting his religion which was popular in Punjab and in parts of Western India, but he never had substantial no. of followers.  Dayananda believed  that the reform of the Hindu society could be achieved by going back to the age of Vedic rituals , undiluted by the later Puranic influence. He rejected the hereditary system of caste and did not recognize the superiority of the Brahmins on ground of their birth. He claimed that everybody had the right to study Vedas, not merely the Brahmins. He denounced the worship of gods and goddesses and believed in monotheism - worship of one Supreme Being. He was opposed to widow remarriage, but advocated for later marriage age for the boys and girls and strongly opposed the prevailing custom of marriage at an early age. He also supported inter caste marriages. He started the periodical Satyartha Prakash which became the main channel of communication of Arya Samaj. Dayananda was also opposed to the conversion attempts made by the Muslims and the Christians on the Hindus. He theorized that since Christian and Islamic claim of superiority stemmed from their assertion that their books were infallible, a same stand had to be adopted by the Hindus regarding the infallibility of Vedas. Dayananda's movement became quite strong in Punjab. Dayananda also came to meet Keshab Chandra Sen in 1875 in Calcutta. He had great respect for Keshab. Dayananda also met Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, who, despite his lack of scholarship and obvious worship of temple deity Kali as the Mother of the Universe, gained profound admiration of the scholar Dayananda. Arya Samaj also initiated the Suddhi movement, that of reconversion of the Hindus who had earlier embraced Christianity and Islam, to Arya Samajist fold. Orthodox Hinduism had virtually closed its door against them. But Arya Samaj threw it open and many converted person responded gladly. This was obviously seen as a threat by the Christian Missionaries and the Muslim fundamentalists. This was a constant source of feud between the Muslims and the Arya Samajists. Arya Samaj considered this as essential to restoring the political, social and National integration of India. Arya Samaj also actively engaged in social services like famine relief and stressed upon the spread of  English education. The Dayananda Anglo Vedic school in Lahore developed into a College. Under Lala Hansraj, who remained its principal for 28 years, it became "the foremost agency for planting a sturdy independent Nationalism in Punjab."

bottom of page