Socio Religious Reform Movements – UPSC

During the period of nineteenth-Century, there was the emergence of a new modern vision among enlightened sections of the Indian society. The growth of the national democratic awakening led to movements to reform and democratize the social institution and religious outlook of the Indian people. The newly educated Indians start revolted against rigid social conventions and outdated religious customs. Many Indian intellectuals realized that the socio-religious reformation was an essential condition for the growth of national unity, solidarity, and development of the country on modern lines.

Causes for the rise of Socio-Religious Reform movements

India saw many changes in the social and religious structure of society during the 19th century. Several causes accounted for the rise of social and religious reforms in the country, which are as follow:

  • The first and foremost cause was the impact of British rule on Indian society and culture. The establishment of British rule in India brought many changes to the social and cultural life in the country and created conditions favorable to intellectual growth.
  • The growth of nationalist sentiments, the spread of education, the increased awareness of the world, and the emergence of new economic forces heightened the consciousness of the backwardness and degeneration of Indian society, which further strengthen the resolve to reform.
  • The impact of modern western ideas & culture accounted for the social and religious awakening. Ideologists led by Sir Willian Jones, James Prinsep, Charles Wilkin brought the Indian culture and civilization into the limelight. The strong influence of western liberal thoughts on the emerging middle class further led to the socio-religious awakening among them.
  • Another factor was the detrimental effect of the Christian missionaries, who propagate Christianity in India and serve the British imperial interests. These Christain missionaries, while engaged in spreading the Christain faith, also denounced the religious rituals, the caste system, the belief of the Hindus, and the degraded position of women. Indian intellectuals now felt the need to reform their social and religious customs.

Important Socio Religious Reform movements

The socio-religious reform movements could be divided into two categories: the reformist and the revivalist movements. The reformist movements responded with the time and scientific temper of the modern era, whereas the revivalist movements began reviving the ancient Indian traditions and thoughts. The revivalist believed that western culture and thinking ruined the Indian culture and ethos. The important socio-religious reform movements are as follow:

Brahmo Samaj

Raja Rammohan Roy, also known as the father of the Indian Renaissance, founded the Brahmo Sabha in 1828 in Calcutta. He believed in the modern scientific approach and principles of social equality & human dignity. He put his faith in monotheism, that is, belief in one universal God. He wrote the book Gift to Monotheists in 1809 and translated the Vedas and five Upanishads into Bengali to prove his conviction that the ancient Hindu texts also support monotheism.

In 1814, Raja Rammohan Roy set up the Atmiya Sabha in Calcutta to propagate the idea of monotheism, reform the Hindu society, and campaign against meaningless rituals, caste rigidities, and other social ills. In 1819, He launched a movement for the abolition of Sati Pratha through his journal Sambad Kaumudi, published in 1821. He also wrote the book Percepts of Jesus in 1820, published in 1824, and the journal Mirat-ul-Akhbar, published in the Persian language in 1822.

On 20 August 1828, he founded the Brahmo Sabha in Calcutta. It was later renamed Brahmo Samaj. The movement stood for monotheism or belief in one God and to purify Hinduism. Brahmo Samaj opposed polytheistic ritualism, idol worship, and casteism. It launched campaigns against social evils like the practice of Sati, child marriage, Polygamy, female infanticide, etc. It also stressed the need for the new western type of education based on ideals of rationalism, liberalism, nationalism, democracy. Raja Rammohan Roy’s death in September 1833 was a setback to the Samaj’s mission.

In 1842, Debendranath Tagore (the father of Rabindranath Tagore) gave a new life to the Brahmo Samaj. Earlier, Debendranath Tagore founded the Tattvabodhini Sabha in 1839 in Calcutta to propagate monotheism, Rammohan’s ideas, and systematic study of India’s past with a rational outlook. He started the journal Tattvabodhini Patrika in Bengali in 1840.

Debendranath Tagore joined the Brahmo Samaj in 1842, along with his associates and independent thinkers such as Ashwini Kumar Datt, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar. While the Brahmo Samaj was a reformist movement to reform the Hindu society, Debendranath Tagore also opposed the Christain missionaries for their criticism of Indian religion & culture and their attempts at conversion.

In 1856, Keshab Chandra Sen joined the Brahmo Samaj. In 1858, the Brahmo Samaj experienced another phase of energy when Debendranath Tagore appointed Keshab Chandra Sen as the acharya of the Samaj. Keshab was instrumental in popularising the movement. He opened the branches of Samaj outside the Bengal in the United Provinces, Bombay, Punjab, Madras, and other towns. In 1861, he brought out the journal Indian Mirror, the first Indian Daily in English.

Soon, the movement with him became very radical in nature. He had strong views against the caste system and open support for intercaste marriage. Debendranath Tagore did not like the radical ideas of Keshab. In 1865, Keshab Chandra Sen was dismissed from the acharya office.

In 1866, Keshab Chandra Sen and his followers founded the Brahmo Samaj of India. The Samaj under Debendranath Tagore came to be known as Adi Brahmo Samaj.

In 1878, the inexplicable act of Keshab of marrying his 13 years old daughter to the minor Hindu Maharaja of Coach-Behar with orthodox Hindu rituals led to a further split in the Keshab’s Brahmo Samaj of India. After 1878, the separated followers of Keshab founded a new organization, known as Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, led by Ananda Mohan Bose, Umesh Chandra Datta, and Shibchandra Deb.

Prarthana Samaj

In 1867, Atmaram Pandurang, with the help of Keshab Chandra Sen, founded the Prarthana Samaj in Bombay. The Samaj emphasis on monotheism and was more concerned with the social reforms than with religion. It advocated social reforms such as:

  • Opposed the caste system.
  • Stood for the women’s education.
  • Encouraged the widow remarriage and also opened widow ashrams.
  • Opposed child marriage and supported raising the marriage age for both males and females.
  • Started institutions like orphanages to end the social evils.

In 1870, Mahadeo Govind Ranade joined the Prarthana Samaj, and under his leadership, the samaj gained an all-India character. With his effort, the Deccan Education Society was founded in 1884 to propagate education. Dhondo Keshav Karve and Vishnu Shastri were social reformers with Rande. Along with Karve, Rande set up the Widow Remarriage Association in 1891 to support widow remarriage. He also set up Widows Home Association to provide education and training to the widows. The other leaders of the Samaj were R. G. Bhandarkar and N. G. Chandavarkar.

Theosophical Movement

In 1875, Madame H. P. Blavatsky and Colonel M. S. Olcott founded the Theosophical Society in New York, United States. Both Blavatsky and Olcott were inspired by Indian thought and culture. In 1882, they came to India and shifted their headquarters to Adyar, on the outskirts of Madras.

  • Theosophical Society aimed to work for the universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, caste, creed, or color.
  • They advocated the revival of ancient religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism.
  • Theosophical Society was inspired by the philosophy of the Upanishads, Yoga, Samkhya, and Vedantic traditions.
  • Theosophists believed in the doctrine of reincarnation and Karma.
  • They also believed that a special relationship could be established between God and a person’s soul by contemplation, prayer, revelation, etc.
  • The society also sought to investigate the unexplained laws of nature and powers latent in human beings.

Since the theosophical movement glorified India’s religious & philosophical traditions, the movement came to be allied with the Hindu renaissance.

In India, the movement became somewhat popular when Annie Besant became its president in 1907 after the death of Olcott. Annie Besant arrived in India in 1893 and was closely associated with the theosophical society. In 1898, She laid the foundation of Central Hindu College at Benaras, which taught the Hindu religion and western scientific subjects. She also participated in the Indian freedom struggle. In 1916, she started Home Rule Movement along with Tilak. She also published journals: New India and Common weal.

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