Dev Samaj was a religious and social reform society founded on 16 February 1887 in Lahore by Shiv Narayan Agnihotri, who was earlier a Brahmo Samaj follower. The Samaj emphasised the supremacy of the ‘Guru‘, the eternity of the soul, and the need for Good action. The book “Dev Shastra” compiled the teachings of the Samaj. It called for ideal social behaviour such as not accepting brides, avoiding intoxicants and non-vegetarian food, and keeping away from violent actions. Agnihotri also spoke against Child marriage.
Shiv Narayan Agnihotri was born on 20 December 1850 into a family of Brahmins in Akbarpur, Uttar Pradesh. He entered Thompson College of Engineering in Roorkee at the age of sixteen. In 1873, he came to Lahore, where he took up a position as a drawing master at the Government School.
While in Lahore, Agnihotri joined the Brahmo Samaj and quickly rose as a prominent figure within the Movement. He became a Brahmo missionary travelling throughout Punjab. In 1882, he resigned from his teaching position to work full-time for Brahmo Samaj Movement.
As a Brahmo Samaj leader, Agnihotri engaged in theological disputes with the Arya Samaj Movement, especially with its founder Swami Dayananda Saraswati. Though he opposed Arya Samaj as a Brahmo Samaj proponent, his own eventual dissatisfaction with the ideology of Brahmo Samaj resulted in ideological friction with other Brahmo leaders. He found himself less comfortable within Brahmo Movement and eventually resigned from the Punjab Brahmo Samaj in 1886 to form his own religious group, ‘Dev Samaj‘ (Divine Society).
Establishment of Dev Samaj
In February 1887, Agnihotri established the Dev Samaj rejecting the Brahmo rationalism and drawing on the concept of the ‘Guru‘ as an enlightened soul as its central doctrine while retaining elements of Brahmo reformism.
By the end of 1887, Agnihotri and his new organisation began to move away from the central ideology of the Brahmo Samaj. In place of the eclectic rationalism of the Brahmos based on a reinterpretation of traditional Hindu texts, the Dev Samaj made the Pandit Agnihotri as ‘Guru’ and his own personal revelations the central principle.
At first, the Dev Samaj was a theistic society, but later it re-emerged as a movement dedicated to social reform. Combining a strict moral code with social radicalism, Agnihorti advocated vegetarianism, the social integration of castes, the education of women, widow remarriage and the elimination of child marriage. Polygamy, Adultery, and other ‘unnatural crimes’ were outlawed, and hard work was stressed, with members urged to lead a useful life.
Though initially upholding the worship of God, from 1892, Agnihotri advocated dual worship of himself and God, claiming a status of near divinity. He asserted that he had attained the highest possible plane of existence. By 1895, the society underwent a new development and became essentially atheistic in its ideology when Agnihotri rejected the worship of God, leaving the ‘Guru’ as the focus of worship.
As with the Brahmo and Arya Samaj, the Dev Samaj rejected contemporary Hinduism. It denied all caste restrictions and encouraged the members to practice inter-dining and inter-caste marriage. Agnihotri sought to change women’s roles through the elimination of child marriage. His teachings gained influence mostly among educated Hindus in Punjab, who came to view him as their Guru. (In some sources, the other name of ‘Shiv Narayan Agnihotri’ was ‘Satyanand Agnihotri’ or ‘Bhagwan Dev Atma‘).
As a renowned religious and social leader, he was committed to the spread of women’s education In India. He played a prominent role in the fight for women’s equal status in law, society and education. He fought to empower women by promoting women’s right to property and education. His idea was to enable the women of India to raise their knowledge and living standards so that they would be able to compete with society. When he established the organisation of Dev Samaj, he inspired his disciples to build institutions for girls for their education.
To ensure that women’s education was made accessible, Dev Samaj established several girls’ schools and colleges in India. Agnihotri was the pioneer reformer who opened a High School for Girls at Ferozepur in 1901. On 2 November 1901, the opening ceremony of the famous institution of Dev Samaj Girl’s School Ferozepur was performed by Agnihotri. The pressing demand of the public in and around Ferozepur motivated and inspired the Dev Samaj Society to open the gates of higher education for girls.
Over the years, the Dev Samaj founded schools and colleges in several parts of Punjab. The Members of Dev Samaj were almost all educated, literate people, and even a large percentage of their women were literate.
Decline – Dev Samaj
Dev Samaj peaked in the early twentieth century in Punjab as a “Science Grounded Religion” in 1921. However, it declined following Agnihotri’s death in 1929 but did not disappear.