The Arya Samaj is a Hindu reform movement in India which promotes values and practices based on the belief in the infallible authority of the Vedas. It was founded in Bombay on 10 April 1875 by Swami Dayananda Saraswati. The movement stood for monotheism (the belief that there is only one God) and undertook the task of reforming the Hindu religion in India (especially in north India). Arya Samaj was the first Hindu organisation to introduce proselytisation in Hinduism.
Background – Arya Samaj
Swami Dayananda Saraswati
Swami Dayananda Saraswati was born on 12 February 1824 to a brahmin family in the Tankara, Kathiawad region (now Morbi district of Gujarat). His original name was Mool Shankar Tiwari. The death of his younger sister and his uncle from cholera led Dayananda to ponder the meaning of life and death. He was engaged in his early teens, but he decided to escape the entanglement of marriage and ran away from home in 1846 to live an ascetic life.
From 1845 to 1869, Dayananda Saraswati spent nearly 25 years as a wandering ascetic, searching for religious truth. During these years, he practised various forms of yoga and spent over two years in Mathura as a disciple of spiritual teacher Swami Virajanand Dandeesha. Virajanand taught him the philosophical interpretation of the Vedas.
Virajanand believed that Hinduism had strayed from its historical roots and that many of its practices had become impure. Dayananda Saraswati promised Virajanand that he would devote his life to restoring the rightful place of the Vedas in the Hindu faith. For this mission, he founded the Arya Samaj.
Dayananda’s views were published in 1875 in Varanasi with the title “Satyarth Prakash” (the light of truth). He took inspiration from the Vedas and considered them to be the infallible and actual original seed of Hinduism. He gave the slogan ‘Back to the Vedas‘.
Dayananda’s slogan of ‘Back to the Vedas‘ was a call for a revival of Vedic learning and Vedic purity of religion and not a revival of Vedic times. He was against later Hindu scriptures such as Puranas and criticised the ignorant priests for perverting Hinduism. He accepted modernity and displayed a patriotic attitude to national problems. He stressed the significance of individual interpretation of the scriptures and said that every person has the right to access God.
Dayananda also met other reformers of the time – Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Keshab Chandra Sen, M. G. Ranade, etc.
Dayananda Saraswati launched a frontal attack on Hindu orthodoxy, untouchability, caste rigidities, idolatry, polytheism, belief in magic, charms and animal sacrifices, the taboo on sea voyages, etc.
Between 1869 and 1873, Dayananda Saraswati began his efforts to reform orthodox Hinduism in India. He established Vedic schools, which focused on Vedic values, culture, Satya (truth) and Sanatana Dharma (the essence of living). The school gave separate educations to boys and girls based on ancient Vedic principles. The Vedic school system also relieved Indians from the pattern of a British education.
The first Vedic school was set up in 1869 in Farrukhabad, where 50 students enrolled in its first year. This success led to the establishment of the Vedic schools at Mirzapur (1870), Kasganj (1870), Aligarh (1870), and Varanasi (1873).
Foundation of Arya Samaj
In 1874, Dayananda Sarawati received an invitation to travel to Bombay. On 20 October 1874, he arrived in Bombay. The two members of the Prarthana Samaj approached Dayananda and invited him to speak at one of their gatherings. They recognised Dayananda’s desire to uplift the Hindu Community and protect Hindus from the pressures to convert to Christianity or Islam. Dayananda spent one month in Bombay and attracted 60 people to his cause. They proposed founding a new samaj with Dayananda’s ideas as its spiritual and intellectual basis.
Dayananda Saraswati formally set up the first Arya Samaj unit in Bombay in April 1875, but later the headquarters of the Samaj was established in Lahore. Dayananda himself enrolled as a member rather than the leader of the Bombay group.
The primary mission of the Arya Samaj is to eradicate Ignorance (Agyan), Poverty or Indigence (Abhav), and Injustice (Anayay) from this earth. Dayananda established Arya Samaj based on two principles, the Infallible authority of the Vedas and Monotheism, which he explained in his famous work ‘Satyarth Prakash’. Further, he formed ten guiding principles, known as the ‘Ten Niyamas’, for the Arya Samaj.
Principles of Arya Samaj
The ten guiding principles of the Arya Samaj are as follows:
- God is the primary source of all genuine knowledge.
- God alone is worthy of worship, as he is all-truth, all-knowledge, omnipotent, immortal, and creator of the universe.
- Vedas are scriptures of actual knowledge. It is the paramount duty of all Aryas to study, teach and propound the Veda.
- An Arya should always be ready to accept the truth and abandon untruth.
- The guiding concept of all activities should be dharma or due consideration of right and wrong.
- The primary aim of the Arya Samaj is to promote the welfare of the whole world, i.e., to achieve physical, spiritual, and social prosperity for all.
- Everybody deserves to be treated with love and justice.
- One should dispel ignorance and promote knowledge.
- One should not be content with one’s own prosperity only but should consider the prosperity of all as his own prosperity.
- The social well-being of humanity is to be placed above an individual’s well-being.
Arya Samaj – Features
- The Arya Samaj believes in the infallibility of Vedas and takes them as the ultimate source of all knowledge and truth.
- The Samaj believed that post-Vedic texts such as Puranas were responsible for the pollution of Hinduism.
- Arya Samaj aimed to recover the lost value of Aryanism, re-establish the original Aryan Vigor, and reassert itself against internal and external danger.
- It represented a reaction against the invasion of Western ideas and Christianity into Indian society.
- Arya Samaj opposes the worship of idols and the reincarnation theory of God. The Samaj also denies the concept of a personal god.
- It believes in a single God who does not have a physical existence.
- It favoured the doctrine of ‘Karma’ and rejected the idea of destiny.
- It condemned the caste system, the dominant position of the Brahmins in society and rejected the claim of the priest to act as intermediaries between man and God.
- It launched a frontal attack on several evil practices such as polytheism, idolatry, belief in magic, charms, animal sacrifices, taboos on sea voyages, feeding the dead through sraddhas, etc. According to Swami Dayananda, these evils exist in society due to ignorance of the teachings of the Vedas.
- Arya Samaj supported women’s rights and equality. It argued for the rights of women and Shudras to study the Vedas and condemned child marriage. It held that the minimum age for marriage for boys should be 25 years and for girls be 16 years.
- It was against Polygamy, Sati and other practices. There is no place for gender discrimination against women.
- It supported widow remarriage and female education. It conducted outstanding work in the realm of education, especially for women.
- The Samaj initiated the Shuddhi (purification) Movement, which aimed at bringing Hindus who had converted to other religions back to Hinduism.
- The Arya Samaj came to be known for the social services it rendered in times of calamities, such as famine, earthquakes and floods.
Growth of Arya Samaj after Dayananda
Swami Dayananda died on 30 October 1883 at Ajmer. Despite this setback, the Arya Samaj continued to develop, especially in Punjab. After his death, the earlier leaders of the Samaj were Pandit Lekh Ram and Swami Shraddhannand.
In 1886, Dayananda Anglo-Vedic (D.A.V.) College was set up in Lahore, with Mahatma Hansraj as the first headmaster of this college. But a difference of opinion between the two groups in the Samaj arose over the curriculum of the DAV College. One group was known as the ‘College Party‘ (or ‘Culture Party’), among whose leaders were Hansraj, Lala Lal Chand and Lala Lajpat Rai, and the other was the ‘Mahatma Party‘ led by Guru Datta Vidyarthi and Lala Munshi Ram. (Lala Munshi Ram later came to be known as Swami Shraddhannand).
While the Mahatma Party was interested in introducing the study of Sanskrit and Vedic philosophy in the tradition of ancient gurukuls, the College Party favoured the government curriculum and English education to meet the economic and professional needs. Later the issue of vegetarianism also became a point of contention. The Mahatma Party refrained from eating meat and favoured all Aryas being strict vegetarians, whereas the College Party had nothing against non-vegetarianism, claiming that diet was a personal choice. Over these issues, the Arya Samaj split up in 1893.
The College Party retained control over D.A.V. Schools and College. The Mahatma Party took over the Arya Partinidhi Sabha, Punjab and most of the local Arya Samaj branches.
The Samaj campaigned for widow remarriage and women’s education. An Arya Samajist, Lala Dev Raj, founded the Kanya Maha Vidyalaya at Jalandhar in the 1890s.
In the early 1900s, the Arya Samaj also campaigned against caste discrimination. In 1900, Swami Shraddhanand opened the Gurukul at Gujranwala (West Punjab, now in Pakistan). In 1902, the Gurukul was moved to Kangri near Haridwar and named ‘Gurukul Kangri’. The Gurukul believed in radical social reforms. It aimed at providing an indigenous alternative to Lord Macaulay’s education policy by offering education in areas of Vedic literature, Indian culture, Indian philosophy, and modern science and research.
The British Government, in the early part of the 20th century, viewed the Samaj as a political body. They also dismissed some Samajis in government services for belonging to the Samaj.
Controversy – Shuddhi Movement
The Arya Samaj advocated social reform and worked actively to improve the condition of women and spread education among them. It fought untouchability and the rigidities of the hereditary caste system.
One of the objectives of Arya Samaj was to prevent the conversion of Hindus to other religions. In order to protect the Hindu society from the onslaught of Christianity and Islam, the Arya Samaj started the Shuddhi Movement, which sought to bring Hindus who had converted to other religions back to Hinduism. But, the movement became responsible for the growth of communalism in India, thus, remembered as a controversial legacy of Arya Samaj.
During the 1920s, an aggressive campaign of Shuddhi led to increasing communalisation of social life, which later snowballed into communal political consciousness. The Shuddhi Movement (led by Shraddhanand) also attempted to uplift those regarded as untouchables and outside the caste system of Hindus into pure caste Hindus.