A General Survey of Sociocultural Reform Movements and their Leaders

Prominent sociocultural reform movements and their leaders of the 19th century India are as follows:

Rammohun Roy and Brahmo Samaj:

  • Rammohun Roy is regarded as the first great leader of modern India.
  • He had a deep love towards his country and people. However, he was troubled by the backwardness and stagnation in Indian society of his times.
  • He observed that popular religion was full of superstitions and the priestly class exploited the ignorant common people.
  • Though he possessed great respect for the traditional philosophies of the East, he firmly believed that modern Western knowledge and culture was essential for the regeneration of Indian society.
  • He was a great scholar and knew many languages including Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, English, French, Latin, Greek and Hebrew.
  • He started the Atmiya Sabha in 1815 at Calcutta. Through this organization, he carried out a struggle against religious and social evils prevalent at that time in Bengal. Atmiya Sabha promoted free thinking, conducted debates, and discussions on philosophical issues. Dwaraka Nath Tagore and Nand Kishore Bose were among its famous participants.
  • He was strongly opposed to idol worship, caste rigidities, and meaningless religious rituals prevalent at that time. He propounded that ancient Hindu texts preached monotheism or the worship of one God.
  • He relied on the power of human reason while arguing for religious reform, and believed that the philosophy of Vedanta was rooted in the principle of reason.
  • His famous works include - Gift to Monotheists (1809) in which he argued for the worship of a single God, Precepts of Jesus (1820) in which he included the moral message of Christianity which he had hoped would be incorporated in Hinduism.
  • In 1828, he founded the Brahmo Sabha, which later came to be known as the Brahmo Samaj. It began as a religious society whose purpose was to purify Hinduism and to preach monotheism. It was based on the belief in reason, the spirit of the Vedas and Upanishads. It emphasized on human dignity, opposed idol worship, and was extremely critical of social evils such as the practice of sati.
  • To eradicate Indian society of the evil practice of sati, he began by quoting the ancient Hindu texts which did not approve such practice.  He was also a man of action. He used to visit the burning ghats at Calcutta to try to persuade people to give up their plan of self-immolation. He was instrumental in persuading William Bentinck to pass the Bengal Sati Regulation in 1829 which banned the practice of sati.
  • He was against the subjugation of women, protested the idea that women were inferior to men. He condemned polygamy and the deplorable status of widows. He insisted that right of inheritance and property be given to them.
  • He was one of the earliest propagators of modern education. He established the Hindu college in 1817 with assistance from David Hare. He set up an English school in Calcutta and later established the Vedanta College in 1825 in which courses on Indian as well as Western learning were offered.
  • He was instrumental in the rise of nationalist consciousness in India. He wanted to weed out the corrupt elements in Indian society which divided Indian society so that Indian unity could be forged. In this regard, he strongly opposed the caste system which he believed had divided Indian people and deprived them of patriotic feeling.
  • He raised several demands such as the abolition of the Company's trading rights, reduction of rents paid by the peasants to zamindars, Indianization of the superior services, judicial equality between Indians and Europeans etc.

Derozio and Young Bengal:

  • Henry Vivian Derozio was an Anglo-Indian who had modern ideas and views which were considered to be radical at that time. He served as an inspiration to many Bengali intellectuals in the 1820s and 1830s.
  • He taught at Hindu College and many students were inspired by his views on thinking freely and rationally, questioning all authority. He drew inspiration from the French Revolution and taught his students the importance of liberty, equality, and freedom and to worship truth.
  • He is considered to be the first nationalist poet of modern India, and his followers were known as Derozians who had started the Young Bengal movement.
  • Derozians attacked old and decadent customs, rites and traditions. They advocated equal status and rights for women, demanded education for them.
  • However, they could not succeed in creating a movement because the social conditions were not yet ripe for their ideas. There was no class or social group which could have supported their ideas at that time.
  • Nevertheless, they raised their voice on important issues such as the freedom of the Press, better treatment for Indian labour in British colonies abroad, trial by jury, protection of the ryots from oppressive zamindars, employment of Indians in the higher grades of government services etc.

Debendranath Tagore and Tatvabodhini Sabha:

  • After Rammohun Roy, it was Debendranath Tagore who had revitalized the Brahmo Samaj.
  • He had a great understanding of the traditional Indian learning as well as the modern Western thought.
  • In 1839, he founded the Tatvabodhini Sabha to propagate the Brahmo ideas. It included prominent people like Derozio, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Akshay Kumar Dutt etc.
  • He also started the Tatvabodhini Patrika which promoted a systematic study of India's past in the Bengali language. It also helped spread a rational outlook among the intellectuals of Bengal.
  • In 1843, Debendranath Tagore reorganized the Brahmo Samaj. The Samaj actively supported the movement of widow remarriage, abolition of polygamy, women's education, improvement of the ryot's condition and temperance.

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar:

  • He was a great scholar and social reformer. He became the principal of Sanskrit College. He represented a happy blend of Indian and Western cultures.
  • He resigned from government service because he could not tolerate undue official interference. He was a man of great intellect as well of immense generosity and sympathy for the poor and the oppressed.
  • He opened the gates of the Sanskrit College to non-Brahmin students for he was opposed to the monopoly of Sanskrit studies the priestly class was enjoying at the time. He also introduced the study of Western thought in the Sanskrit college to bring the students out from a self-imposed isolation.
  • He waged a long struggle in favour of widow remarriage. He presented the traditional learning as evidence for the support of his struggle. A powerful movement began due to his efforts involving the sending of a number of petitions from Bengal, Madras, Bombay, Nagpur and other cities of India to the Government asking it to pass an act legalizing the remarriage of widows. This led to the enactment of Hindu Widows' Remarriage Act of 1856.
  • Apart from this, he also raised his voice against child marriages and polygamy. He was deeply interested in promoting women's education. As a Government Inspector of Schools, he organized 35 girls' schools, many of which he ran at his own expense. As Secretary to the Bethune School, he was one of the pioneers of higher education for women.

Dayanand Saraswati and Arya Samaj:

  • He founded the Arya Samaj in 1875. He invoked the authority of the Vedas the most authentic Indian religious texts, and sought to purge Hinduism of all its post-Vedic distortions.
  • He claimed that Vedas contained scientific truths and thus Vedic religion was pure and superior.
  • He attacked idolatry, polytheism, and the ritualistic religion dominated by the Brahman priests.
  • He was also in favour of social reforms. He condemned child marriage and stood for widow remarriage, inter-caste marriages, and female education. He also denounced untouchability and repudiated caste system.
  • Arya Samaj became very popular as a movement in Punjab and North-Western Provinces.
  • His followers later became involved in the shuddhi movement, which involved the reconversion of those Hindus who had adopted religions such as Christianity, Sikhism, and Islam.

Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishna Mission:

  • Vivekananda was among the important reformers of Hindu religion. He was an advocate of Vedanta philosophy. He presented Hinduism as a universal religion, which accepts all the religions of the world as truths.
  • He was against the blind beliefs and superstitious practices prevalent in Hinduism of that time and emphasized on infusing rationality in human thought. He presented a synthesis of Indian and Western learning where Western scientific knowledge combined with the spirituality of India could be of immense benefit to humanity.
  • He founded the Ramakrishna Mission in 1897 to encourage the youth of India to be engaged in social work. It functions on the basis of Karma Yoga, which is the principle of selfless work done in dedication to God.

Reform Movements in Western India:

  • Bal Shastri Jambekar was among the earliest of reformers who attacked the Brahmanical orthodoxy in order to reform Hinduism. In 1832, he started a weekly, the Darpan, with an objective of infusing critical thinking in the minds of Indians who he believed had lagged behind the Europeans.
  • Paramahansa Mandali was founded in 1849 to promote monotheism and to break the rigidities of the caste system. It promoted inter-dining with people of lower castes, widow remarriage, and women's education.
  • Jyotiba Phule was a pioneer in leading the cause of the lower castes, including the untouchables, against Brahmanical orthodoxy. He started the SatyaShodhak Samaj to work towards the liberation of the lower castes from oppression and exploitation. Along with his wife Savitri Phule, he started a girls' school in Poona to promote women's education.
  • Gopal Hari Deshmukh, also known as the Lokahitawadi, advocated the reorganization of Indian society on rational principles and modern humanistic and secular values.
  • Prarthana Samaj was started by Atmaram Pandurang, with the help of Keshub Chandra Sen, to promote the Brahmo ideas. It advocated monotheism, worked towards the upliftment of women and lower castes, abolition of child marriage, advocated widow remarriage and women's education. M.G.Ranade, R.G.Bhandarkar were among the prominent personalities associated with the Samaj.

Reform Movements in other religions:

  • Dadabhai Naoroji started the Rahanumai Mazdayasanan Sabha, along with other liberal Parsis such as J.B.Wacha, S.S.Bengali, and Naoroji Furdonji, to reform the Zoroastrian religion. He agitated for the grant of a legal status to women and for uniform laws of inheritance and marriage for the Parsis.
  • Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was the pioneer of social reforms among the Muslims. He strongly supported Western education as means for the upliftment of ordinary Muslims. He had established the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in 1875 to promote English education among Muslims, which later became the Aligarh Muslim University. Through his interpretations, he strived to make Islam a modern religion compatible with science and Western thought.
  • Reform Movements in Sikhism
    • Nirankari Movement - started by Baba Dayal Das. It rejected idol worship, intermediaries like priests, and advocated the worship of a formless God.
    • Singh Sabha Movement - led by Thakur Singh Sandhawalia and Giani Gian Singh, it wanted to purge Sikhism of all distortions, and restore it to its pristine purity.

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