Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A(Socio, Phil) B.Sc. M. Ed, Ph.D.
Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V.(P.G) College, Roorkee, India
Several groups, collectively known as Hindu reform movements, strive to introduce regeneration and reform to Hinduism. What has been termed “modern Hinduism” has grown largely out of a number of quite radical reform movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although these movements are very individual in their exact philosophies they generally stress the spiritual, secular and logical and scientific aspects of the Vedic traditions, creating a form that is egalitarian that does not discriminate based on Jāti (caste or subcaste), gender, or race. Thus, most modern Hindu reform movements advocate a return to supposed ancient, egalitarian forms of Hinduism, and view aspects of modern Hinduism, such as discrimination and the caste system, as being corrupt results from colonialism and foreign influence.
These movements had a relatively small number of followers and by no means replaced or superseded the major traditional forms of Hinduism.
The reform movements largely emerged from the growing contact that Hindu thinkers had with Western thought, culture and religion. Below are the four most important movements and the names associated with them.
The Brahmo Samaj is a Hindu unitarian society, which in outward forms of worship is modeled largely after Christian practices. They stand for the abolition of caste, idol worship, and child marriage, and advocate temperance and other social reforms.
The pioneer of reform was Ram Mohun Roy. His intense belief in strict monotheism and in the evils of image worship began early and probably was derived from Christianity. In 1814 he settled in Calcutta (Kolkata), where he was prominent in the movement for encouraging education of a Western type. His final achievement was the foundation of the Brahmo Samaj (“Society of God”) in 1828.
Roy remained a Hindu, wearing the sacred cord and keeping most of the customs of the orthodox Brahman, but his theology was drawn from several sources. He was chiefly inspired by 18th-century Deism(rational belief in a transcendent Creator God) and Unitarianism (belief in God’s essential oneness), but some of his writing suggests that he was also aware of the religious ideas of the Freemasons (a secret fraternity that espoused some Deistic concepts). Several of his friends were members of a Masonic lodge in Calcutta. His ideas of the afterlife are obscure, and it is possible that he did not believe in the doctrine of transmigration. Roy was one of the first higher-class Hindus to visit Europe, where he was much admired by the intelligentsia of Britain and France.
After Roy’s death, Debendranath Tagore (father of the greatest poet of modern India, Rabindranath Tagore [1861–1941]) became leader of the Brahmo Samaj, and under his guidance a more mystical note was sounded by the society; Tagore also promoted literacy and vigorously opposed idolatry and the practice of suttee. In 1863 he founded Shantiniketan (“Abode of Peace”), a retreat in rural Bengal.
The third great leader of the Brahmo Samaj, Keshab Chunder Sen, was a reformer who completely abolished caste in the society and admitted women as members. Keshab’s faction, the Brahmo Samaj of India, adopted as its scripture a selection of theistic texts gathered from all the main religions. At the same time, it became more Hindu in its worship, employing the sankirtana (devotional singing and dancing) and nagarakirtana(street procession) of the Chaitanya movement, an intensely devotional form of Hinduism established by the Bengali mystic and poet Chaitanya. In 1881 Keshab founded the Church of the New Dispensation (Naba Bidhan) for the purpose of establishing the truth of all the great religions in an institution that he believed would replace them all. When he died in 1884, the Brahmo Samaj began to decline.
The Arya Samaj was founded by Swami Dayananda Sarasvati (left) in 1875 as a radical reform movement. Dayananda wanted to halt the Christian missionary onslaught and to return to the ancient Vedic tradition. A reformer of different character was Dayanand Sarasvati, who was trained as a yogi but steadily lost faith in Yoga and in many other aspects of Hinduism. After traveling widely as an itinerant preacher, he founded the Arya Samaj in 1875, and it rapidly gained ground in western India He therefore sought to purge Hinduism of what he considered later additions, such as image worship, pilgrimage and ritual bathing. Although emphasising the ancient Vedic tradition, Dayananda also sought to modernise Hinduism and to re-absorb Hindus who had converted to Islam or Christianity. His movement, with its concerns over the influence of other religions sowed the seeds for the many political parties that desired to re-establish Hindu rule in India. The Arya Samaj is still an active organisation, both world-wide and in the UK. Its members agree to follow its “Ten Principles” and worship largely through havan (the sacred fire ceremony) and recitation of the Gayatri-mantra.
. Dayanand rejected image worship, sacrifice, and polytheism and claimed to base his doctrines on the four Vedas as the eternal word of God. Later Hindu scriptures were judged critically, and many of them were believed to be completely evil. The Arya Samaj did much to encourage Hindu nationalism, but it did not disparage the knowledge of the West, and it established many schools and colleges. Among its members was the revolutionary Lala Lajpat Rai.
Ramakrishna (right) was born Gadadhar Chatterji in a poor but orthodox Bengali brahmana family. As a young man he became the priest at the Kali temple near Calcutta. He was later initiated as a sannyasi and experienced mystical visions, especially of Devi. He was profoundly influenced by Christianity and Islam and emphasised the universality of religion. He preached that “Jiva is Shiva” (the soul is God). He met many contemporary reformers and it was Keshab Chandra Sen who made him first known to the world.
Among the followers of Ramakrishna was Narendranath Datta, who became an ascetic after his master’s death and assumed the religious name Vivekananda. In 1893 he attended the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, where his powerful personality and stirring oratory deeply impressed the gathering. After lecturing in the United States and England, he returned to India in 1897 with a small band of Western disciples and founded the Ramakrishna Mission, the most important modern organization of reformed Hinduism. Vivekananda, more than any earlier Hindu reformer, encouraged social service. Influenced by progressive Western political ideas, he set himself firmly against all forms of caste distinction and fostered a spirit of self-reliance in his followers. With branches in many parts of the world, the Ramakrishna Mission has done much to spread knowledge of its version of Hinduism outside India.
It was Vivekananda (1863–1902), however, who made Ramakrishna really famous. He joined the Brahmo Samaj but later became Ramakrishna’s favourite disciple. He was expert in presenting Advaita Vedanta and greatly impressed the Western world in his presentation to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. He travelled extensively, promoting wide reform, claiming that other reformers “played into the hands of Europeans.” He established the Ramakrishna Mission, today well known for its social and educational endeavors.
The most important developments in Hinduism did not arise primarily from the new samajs. Ramakrishna, a devotee at Daksineshvar, a temple of Kali north of Kolkota (Calcutta), attracted a band of educated lay followers who spread his doctrines. As a result of his studies and visions, he came to the conclusion that “all religions are true” but that the religion of a person’s own time and place was for that person the best expression of the truth. Ramakrishna thus gave educated Hindus a basis on which they could justify the less rational aspects of their religion to a consciousness increasingly influenced by Western values.
Another movement influenced in part by Hinduism is the Theosophical Society. Founded in New York City in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky of Russia, it was originally inspired by Kabbala (Jewish esoteric mysticism), gnosticism (esoteric salvatory knowledge), and forms of Western occultism. When Blavatsky went to India in 1879, her doctrines quickly took on an Indian character, and from her headquarters at Adyar she and her followers established branches in many cities of India.
After surviving serious accusations of charlatanry leveled against its founder and other leaders, the society prospered under the leadership of Annie Besant, a reform-minded Englishwoman. During her tenurethe many Theosophical lodges founded in Europe and the United States helped to acquaint the West with the principles of Hinduism, if in a rather idiosyncratic form.
The Theosophical Society also played a crucial role in moulding and shaping the socio-religious movement of the 19th century.
In her words, the mission of the Theosophical Society was the revival, strengthening and uplifting of ancient religions, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. This brought with it a new sense of self-respect, a pride in the past, a belief in the future and as an inevitable result, a great wave of patriotic life, the beginning of the rebuilding of the nation.
No doubt, it stood for revivalism but it sought for the abolition of child marriage, illiteracy and alcoholism. The other association that worked for revival of age-old culture was Deva Samaj formed by Satyanand Agnihotri in 1887, which was limited to the Punjab Sanatana Dharma. Rakshini Sabha of Bengal which was set up in 1883, the Madhava Siddhanta Unnayini Sabha set up in south in 1887 and Bharat Dharma Maha Mandal of Benaras with their urge for socio-religious reform movements among the Muslims and Sikhs was reflected in their efforts during the 19th century. In the regeneration of the Muslim society, two intellectuals.
Another modern teacher whose doctrines had some influence outside India was Sri Aurobindo. He began his career as a revolutionary but later withdrew from politics and settled in Pondicherry, then a French possession. There he established an ashram and achieved a high reputation as a sage. His followers saw him as the first incarnate manifestation of the superbeings whose evolution he prophesied. After his death, the leadership of the Aurobindo Ashram was assumed by Mira Richard, a Frenchwoman who had been one of his disciples.
Sri Aurobindo firmly believe that the question is not between modernism and antiquity, but between an imported civilisation and the greater possibilities of the Indian mind and nature, not between the present and the past, but between the present and the future. He pointed out that “the living spirit of the demand for national education no more requires a return to the astronomy and mathematics of Bhaskara or the forms of the system of Nalanda than the living spirit of Swadheshi, a return from railway and motor traction to the ancient chariot and the bullock-cart.” He, therefore, spoke not of a return to the 5th century but an initiation of the centuries to come, not a reversion but a break forward away from a present artificial falsity to India’s own greater innate potentialities, which are demanded by the soul of India.
Other reform movements
Numerous other teachers have affected the religious life of India. Among them was the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, who was influenced by many currents of earlier religious thought, both Indian and non-Indian. Tagore was particularly popular in Europe and the United States about the time of World War I, and he did much to disseminate Hindu religious thought in the West.
Less important outside India but much respected in India itself, especially in the south, was Ramana Maharshi, a Tamil mystic who maintained almost complete silence. His powerful personality attracted a large band of devotees before his death in 1950.
In 1936 Swami Shivananda, who had been a physician, established an ashram and an organization called the Divine Life Society near the sacred site of Rishikesh in the Himalayas. This organization has numerous branches in India and some elsewhere. His movement teaches more or less orthodox Vedanta, one of the six schools of Indian philosophy, combined with both Yoga and bhakti but rejects caste and stresses social service.