Genesis of the Awakening - Religious and Social Reform Movement

India had witnessed a series of reform movements in the 19th century. These movements were a result of immense intellectual and cultural stirrings that had taken place under the colonial rule. The colonial conquest of India by the British during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had exposed the weaknesses which were present in the social institutions and cultural practices of the time. It led to the growth of an awakening that India was colonized by a handful of foreigners because of the internal weaknesses affecting Indian society.

As a consequence, several individuals and movements sought to bring about changes in the social and religious practices with a view to reform and revitalize the society. A few of the enlightened individuals began to search for the strengths and weaknesses of the then society and also for the ways and means to remove such weaknesses. They believed that certain elements of the modern Western thought must be incorporated into Indian psyche to pave the way for social reconstruction. However, the task was extremely challenging because a majority of Indians still put their faith in traditional beliefs and practices, and had refused to come to terms with Western thought.

The reformist leaders of the 19th century were impressed and inspired by modern scientific thought and the doctrines of reason and humanism. Although the various reform movements were of different nature and extent, there was a common thread that ran across them which was the conviction that there was an urgent need for social and religious reform.

Social conditions in the 19th century:

Indian society of the 19th century was deeply engulfed in religious superstitions and social obscurantism. German sociologist Max Weber had termed Hinduism 0f 19th century a combination of magic, animism, and superstition, and deplorable practices such as animal sacrifices and physical torture had replaced the devotion to, and worship of, God. The priestly class exercised enormous, unhealthy influence on the minds of common people. They had a monopoly over the spiritual knowledge which allowed to go for ritual interpretations which reinforced their dominance in the society. Idolatry, polytheism and other ritual practices had resulted in the faithful people living in submission to the priestly class.

The position of women in society was the most distressing. The birth of a girl child was considered inauspicious, her marriage became a burden on the family and widowhood led to her getting ostracized by the family and community. Infanticide, child marriage, polygamy, sati etc were some of the abominable practices against women which were common in society.

Another institution which exercised an overwhelming control social life was caste. Caste-based discrimination, untouchability in particular, was an inhuman practice which was common. Segregation of residential areas, occupations etc., based on the position of caste in the ritual hierarchy fostered societal divisions and hampered individual mobility.

Intellectual underpinnings of the reform movements:

The reform movements of the 19th century had rejected all those practices which were marked by bigotry and blind fatalism. These movements had considered such practices as features of a decadent society. They had created the climate for reform by sometimes referring to a golden past which was devoid of such practices. They termed the situation in the nineteenth century as an outcome of an accretionary process, a distortion from the ideal past. However, their vision of the future was not based on this idealization, nor did they envisage a blind resurrection of the past.

Rationalism and religious universalism were the two important intellectual criteria which drove the reform movements of the 19th century. Social relevance of any practice or institution was judged by a rational analysis. Raja Rammohan Roy strongly believed in the principle of causality linking the whole phenomenal universe. This perspective enabled the reformist leaders to evaluate contemporary socio-religious practices from the standpoint of social utility and replace blind faith in tradition with rationality.

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