The different socio-religious reform movements of 19th century (India) – Essay

Brahmo Samaj:

Founded as Brahmo Sabha on 20th August, 1828 by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, it was renamed Brahmo Samaj about a year later.

Brahmo Samaj was first rationalistic and intellectual movement in India. It believed in one universal God and prayer, meditation, reading from Upanishads was used as a medium to worship God.

There was no place for temple, rituals, sacrifices, priest etc. in the Samaj. It believed in progressive social practices and propagated it.

After death of Raja in 1833 the Samaj found a new leader in Debendranath Tagore who joined Brahmo Samaj in 1842 and infused a new life into it.

Under his leadership new branches of Sabha were established in various towns of India. Earlier Tagore founded Tattvabodhini Sabha in 1839 that engaged in search of spiritual truth.

Debendranath Tagore reshaped Brahmo Samaj and gave it a shape of formal religion. He compiled prayers, books and even prescribed Brahmo form of worship.

Debendranath handed over the leadership of Samaj to young and dynamic Keshab Chandra Sen and made him Acharya.

Keshab Chandra Sen who joined Samaj in 1858 and popularised the movement in Bengal and in other parts of India.

He helped in transformation of Brahmo Samaj into an All India Movement. Under him leadership scriptures of all religion were read at Samaj meetings.

Keshab Chandra Sen openly opposed caste system. He advocated inter-caste marriages and opposed child marriages, polygamy etc.

He was instrumental in enactment of number of social legislations like passage of Widow Remarriage Act, 1856, legalisation of non-ritualistic or Brahmo form of marriages by enactment of Native Marriage Act of 1872 (popularly known as the Civil Marriage Act). It fixed the minimum age for the groom and bride at 18 and 14 respectively.

The radical views and preaching’s of Keshab Chandra Sen got him into trouble and Debendranath dismissed him from the office of the Acharya in 1865.

Keshab Chandra Sen along with his followers left the parent body in 1866 and formed Brahmo Samaj of India.

The other faction under Debendranath came to be known as Adi Brahmo Samaj.

Another schism/split in Brahmo Samaj took place in 1878. It was initiated by progressive followers of Brahmo Samaj of India like Anand Mohan Bose, Bipin Chandra Pal, Surendranath Banerjee etc.

who formed Sadharan Brahmo Samaj. The split took place because of the rising conflict in the ideology and the practices of the Samaj.

Confrontation resulted because certain close disciples of Keshab Chandra Sen began to regard him as an incarnation.

Moreover, Keshab’s authoritarian approach in interpretation of words etc. further dissuaded the followers with rational and independent thinking.

The division in Brahmo Samaj of India was finally precipitated by the fact that Keshab married his eldest daughter in an orthodox family of Maharaja of Cooch Behar according to traditional Hindu customs and rituals. Both bride and bridegroom were not yet of marriageable age.

Prarthana Samaj :

Mahadev Gobind Ranade along with Dr Atmaram Pandurang founded Prarthana Samaj in 1867 reorganized Paramhansa Sabha under the guidance of Keshab Chandra Sen.

It was primarily a social reform and social work movement. It believed that true love of god lay in the service of its children without any social or religious distinction.

The only religious component of the Samaj was faith in single, all powerful and loving god (i.e, monotheism).

Actvities of Prarthana Samaj spread to South India through the efforts of great Telugu reformer Kandukari Veerasalingam (father of modern Telugu literature).

Arya Samaj :

It was a militant reform movement founded by Swami Dayanand Saraswati (born as Mulshankar; at Tankara in old Morvi state of Gujarat) in 1875 at Bombay. Headquarters of Arya Samaj was established at Lahore in 1877.

Dayanand attacked idolatry, polytheism, Brahamin sponsored religious rites and superstitious practices.

He advocated social equality improvement in status of women and denounced untouchability, caste rigidities and encouraged rationality. He disregarded authority of later Hindu scriptures like Puranas.

However, he regarded Vedas as infallible and fountainhead of knowledge and gave the popular call to ‘go back to Vedas’.

Dayanand published his views in his famous work Satyartha Prakash (the true expositions in Hindi). He accepted doctrine of karma but rejected theory of niyati (fatalism). Sum total he advocated physical, social and spiritual welfare of mankind.

He gave a wider concept of Aryan religion. He was first man to advocate concept of ‘Swaraj’ and gave the political Slogan of ‘India is for Indians’. He gave emphasis to education in order to diffuse knowledge and dispel ignorance.

Liberal/moderate amongst Arya Samaj like Lala Hans Raj, Lala Lajpat Rai established Anglo-Vedic School at Lahore in 1886.

Many Schools/Colleges for boys and girls were opened. The education at Anglo-Vedic Schools/Colleges combined best of modern (western) and classical (oriental) studies.

Orthodox/militant opinion in Arya Samaj represented by Pandit Lekh Ram and Lala Munshi Ram (later known as Swami Shraddhanand) stood for Vedic System of education to be imparted in accordance with ancient system of education and therefore established Gurukul Pathshala at Kangri near Hardwar in 1902. They provided education to boys only.

Ramakrishna Mission :

Swami Vivekananda, one of the greatest thinkers of India founded Ramkrishna Mission in 1896 to carry out humanitarian and social work to all without any distinction, especially to help poor and destitute.

Basic motto of the mission was to provide social service to people, spread the meaning of Vedantic spiritualism and strive for harmony among various faiths and cults.

Vivekananda established the monastic order after name of his guru or spiritual preceptor Ramkrishna Paramhansa of Dakshineswar, Calcutta who believed in universalism in religion and whose main concern was religious salvation and not social salvation.

Vivekananda established Belur Math near Calcutta in 1899, which became the centre of Mission activities.

Another centre at Mayawati near Almora was established later. He was a Vedantist and he interpreted Vedanta in the light of modern age and this finally came to be known as neo-vedantism.

Swami Vivekananda established spiritual supremacy of India at the World Parliament of Religions held at Chicago in 1893.

He was first Indian to question the superiority of west instead of defending his religion. Valentine Chirol author of Indian Unrest described Vivekananda’s teachings as one of the major causes of nationalist movement in India. He was spiritual precursor of India’s freedom movement.

Theosophical Movement :

It was founded by H.P. Blavatsky of Russo-German origin in New York with Colonel H.S. Olcott (American) in 1875.

They arrived in India in 1879 and established the headquarters of the society at Adyar near Madras in 1882.

The society believed that oriental religion, especially Hindu religion and its classics, ancient thoughts, had answers to all human miseries.

The society believed in reincarnation, theory of karma, transmigration of soul, and drew inspiration from philosophy of Upanishads and also from different schools of thought like Yoga, Vedanta etc.

Theosophist popularized the study of oriental classics especially Upanishads and Bhagwat Gita.

Annie Besant joined the society in England in 1889 and came to India in 1893 after death of Balvatsky.

She played very important role in popularizing and propagating theosophy in India. She became president of the society after death of Olcolt in 1907.

She translated Bhagwat Gita in English. The society did commendable work under Besant in the field of education.

She laid the foundation of Central Hindu College at Benaras in 1898 that later became nucleus for formation of Benaras Hindu University in 1916.

Young Bengal Movement :

Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1809-31) a lecturer of English literature and History at Hindu College, Calcutta along with some English educated Bengali youth popularly known as Deiozians, formed.

Young Bengal Movement at Calcutta. It was a radical movement. The movement attacked old traditional and decadent customs. It advocated women’s rights and educated the public on socio-economic and political issues.

It developed a revulsion against Hindu religion and culture to such extent that its followers deliberately started drinking wine, eating beef etc.

The movement urged people to cultivate and practice all virtues and abhor vices in every form and shape. It encouraged free discussion on all subjects with rationality/logic.

Parsis Reform Movement :

Rahanumai Mazdayasanan Sabha or religious reform association was founded by western educated progressive Parsis like Naoroji Furdonji, Dadabhai Naoroji, J.B.Wacha, S.S.Banglee, K.R.Cama- in 1851 with the objective of social regeneration of Paris, removal of purdah system, raising the age of marriage, education of women.

Rast-Gofter (voice of truth) propagated the message of the association. Even Parsi religious rituals and practices were reformed and Parsi creed was redefined.

Wahabi Movement :

The earliest organized Muslim response to the western influence in India came from Wahabi Movement founded in India by Shah Walliullah who was influenced by teachings of Abdul Wahab of Saudi Arabia.

Syed Ahmad of Rae Bareli (1786-1831), a disciple of Shah Abdul Aziz, eldest son of Walliullah popularized the teachings of the latter and also gave it political colour.

It was a revivalist movement with slogan to return to pure Islam. Jihad was declared with the prime objective of converting Dar-ul-Harb (land of infidels) into Dar-ul-Islam (land of Islam).

Accordingly Abdul Aziz issued a fatwa. Syed Ahmad of Rae Bareli became sworn enemy of British.

He established permanent centre at Patna and started movement of religious reform and initiated campaign with the help of frontier tribes.

However, he had to face Sikh power on the north-west. Syed Ahmad of Rae Bareli lost his life in a battle at Balakot.

In the Revolt of 1857, Wahabis played a notable role in spreading anti British sentiments. British crushed the movement in 1870s. Wahabis considered Sher Ali, the assassinator of Lord Mayo, a martyr.

Aligarh Movement :

It was a Reformist Movement founded with prime focus to modernize Indian Muslims. It was started by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-98) who retired from the govornment service (Judicial Service) in 1876.

He was prepared to accept the official patronage and reconcile the differences of the community with that of the government, and develop the Muslims, socially and economically.

He was convinced that in order to get larger share in government job modern education was a must.

He tried to modernize Muslim community and propagated his ideas through his writings in the journal named Tahzib-al-Akhlaq (improvement of manner and morals).

He advocated rational approach towards religion and emphasized on reinterpretation of Kuran in the light of reason to suit the new trend of time.

He condemned the system of piri (mystic faquirs being treated as teacher/guru) and muridi (disciple) and institution of slavery in Islam.

With full official backing from government Sir Syed founded Aligarh School in 1875, which was upgraded as Mohammodan Anglo Oriental College, which became nucleus for formation of Aligarh Muslim University in 1920.

He stressed the need for Hindu-Muslim unity. However he did not associated himself with INC and asked Muslims to stay aloof from political movements and urged them to be loyal to British in order to get maximum benefits.

Deoband Movement :

It was an important Revivalist Movement founded in 1867 by two theologians Muhammd Qasim Nanatavi and Rashid Ahmad Gangohi at Deoband, Shahranpur in 1866 with two main objectives:

(a) Popularizing the teachings of Kuran and Hadis

(b) To initiate Jihad against foreign rule

It discouraged English education and criticized western culture and trained students for preaching Islamic faith.

There was wide gulf between Deoband and Aligarh movements. It issued fatwa against Sir Syed Ahmed’s Organisation in 1888. It welcomed the formation of INC and supported it.

The Intellectuals Movement of 19th century had its own limitations in terms of impact, extent and achievements and it could not achieve any spectacular success.

Caste distinctions and privileges associated with it continued in the society. The traditional practices associated with religious and social life did not die away.

Child-marriage and enforced widowhood remained as pressing a problem as ever. Reform in practice in any case affected a very small minority in the urban areas. The masses remained nearly untouched by the ideas of the intellectuals.

Despite the best endeavours made by the intellectuals to appeal to the masses, their appeal for all practical purposes remained confined to the urban middle classes, particularly the educated sections.

Moreover, traditions die very hard. The evils associated with caste and customs proved to be hard to eradicate from Indian consciousness.

It was really very difficult to bring about changes in the long established customs and traditions and deeply rooted prejudices.

The fact of widespread illiteracy remained a great obstacle to the realization of Social and Cultural Change.

The intellectual ideas and activities could not, therefore, stir the minds of the general public. It can rightly be said about the movement that the lamp had been lighted but the light was flickering.

The intellectuals did have certain concrete gains to their credit. It was greatly due to their constant endeavours that abolition of Sati and legalisation of widow-marriage were achieved during the nineteenth century.

The intellectuals’ debate and discussion, even if they failed to bring about any concrete change immediately, raised the level of consciousness.

Another significant contribution of the intellectuals lay in the realm of female education. It laid the foundation for emancipation of women.