Brahmo and Arya Samaj

A meeting of the Arya Samāj for investing boys with the sacred thread
A meeting of the Arya Samāj for investing boys with the sacred thread

The Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj were two important institutions that developed in 19th-century India against existing social practices. The impact of the West resulted in a social and cultural renaissance in India. To regenerate society, it was felt that modern sciences and ideas of reason were essential.

Ram Mohan Roy, occupying a pivotal position in the awakening, was the founder of Brahmo Sabha in 1828, which was known as Brahmo Samaj afterward. Roy was an enlightened thinker and well versed in Sanskrit, English, and Arabic. An accomplished Vedic scholar, he was also a great admirer of Jesus Christ.

Roy wanted to bring reform to Hindu society, which had become stagnant. Evils like the sati (suttee) system of self-emolation of widows, child marriage, polygamy, and other social ills had crept in.

The goal of the Brahmo Samaj was to rid Hindu society of evils and to practice monotheism. Incorporating the best teachings of other religions, it aimed at a society based on reason and the Vedas. A golden age in Vedic society had begun.

Rajnarain Bose, Debendranath Tagore, and Keshab Chandra Sen enriched the Samaj through inculcation of novel ideas that aimed at reforming Hindu religion and society. Bose used the Hindu scriptures like the Vedas, Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita as the holy books of the Hindus.

Debendranath Tagore, the father of Rabindranath Tagore, revived the Brahmo Samaj, which had become dormant after Roy’s death in 1843. He established the branches of the Samaj and spoke out against idol worship, pilgrimages, and rituals of Hindu society. Membership of the Samaj continued to rise; from six in 1829 to 2,000 after 1835.

Starting in Bengal, it spread to different parts of India. But a schism developed, as Debendranath and the older generation did not like the radical ideas of Sen, who formed the Brahmo Samaj of India in 1866. The older organization was called the Adi (original) Brahmo Samaj.

Emancipation of Hindu Women

The crusade of the Brahmo Samaj resulted in the emancipation of Hindu women within the fold of the Samaj. The British government passed the Civil Marriage Act in 1872, prohibiting child marriage and polygamy, as well as the abolition of caste distinctions.

When Sen violated this act at the time of his daughter’s marriage, there was another split in the Brahmo Samaj of India in 1878 with the formation of Sadharana (Common) Brahmo Samaj by Ananda Mohan Bose and others.

The Brahmo Samaj had done laudable work in the field of education. The urban elite of West and South India came under its spell. It remained a sort of guiding spirit for reformed Hindu society.

At the time of World War I, it had 232 branches in major cities of South and Southeast Asia. Apart from the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, the Congress presidents and nationalist leaders like Surendranath Banerji and Bipin Chandra Pal were members in the 19th century.

Swami Dayananda Saraswati founded the Arya Samaj in the colonial city of Bombay in 1875, but its growth came in the Punjab after the establishment of Lahore Arya Samaj three years later.

It grew rapidly in different parts of India, with provincial braches in Uttar Pradesh (1886), Rajasthan (1888), Bengal (1889), and Madhya Pradesh (1889). It also spread to the British Empire outside of India, especially in South Africa, Fiji, and Mauritius, where people of Indian descent lived.

Removal of Untouchability

Dayananda Saraswati was against idolatry, polytheism, ritual, the caste system, the dominance of the Brahmans, and the dogmatic practices of Hinduism. He launched a crusade for social equality, removal of untouchability, and in favor of female education and adult, widow, and intercaste marriages. He toured India, spreading his message. He promoted Vedic learning and its sacredness with his slogan, “Go back to the Vedas.”

His platform, however, was not to be misconstrued as encouraging going back to the Vedic times; he showed rationality in his approach toward reforms in Hinduism. The Vedas were to be interpreted by human reason. He also rejected all forms of superstition. He was influenced by the intellectual traditions of reason and science of the West.

He translated the Vedas and wrote three important books, Satyartha Prakas, Veda-Bhashya Bhumika, and Veda-Bhashya. Of the Ten Principles of the Arya Samaj, the following were paramount: infallibility of the Vedas, the importance of truth, the welfare of others, the promotion of spiritual well-being, and contributing one-hundredth of one’s income to the Samaj.

Unlike orthodox Hinduism, the Arya Samaj welcomed the Hindu who had embraced other religions either of his or her own will or because of force. The suddhi (reconversion by ritual purification) generated a lot of controversy in the 20th century.

Some historians believed that the religious program of the Samaj was one of the factors responsible for the growth of communalism. Beginning in the 1890s it was also involved in the cow protection movement, leading to widespread communal violence. After Saraswati’s death, the Arya Samaj became aggressive. It preached supremacy of Arya dharma (religion) and contributed to a pan-Hindu revivalist movement.

One of the objectives of the Arya Samaj was the spread of education, and it did pioneering work by establishing schools and colleges throughout the country. The Dayanand Anglo-Vedic School opened in Lahore in 1886 and was converted to a college three years later.

The educational campaign of the Samaj created a schism in its rank. The orthodox faction held the teachings of Dayananda as the creed of the Samaj, whereas the liberal group saw him primarily as a reformer. After a split in 1893, the orthodox group controlled the major branches of the Samaj, including the Arya

Pratinidhi Sabha. This group emphasized reconverting the Hindus through the suddhi. Reviving the Vedic ideals, they established Gurukul Kangri at Haradwar in 1902. The liberal wing concentrated on relief work and Dayanand Anglo-Vedic Schools promoted modern curricula in addition to Indian values.

The Arya Samaj remained in the forefront of political agitation against British colonial rule, and Lala Rajpat Rai of the Arya Samaj was an important leader of the extremist faction of the Indian National Congress.