Menu Close

Socio-Religious Reforms Pre-Independence

Jyotiba (1827-90) and Savitribai Phule. (1831-97)
Movement / OrganisationEst. YearPlace of Est.FounderObjectives
1Brahma Samaj (earlier Atmiya Sabha – 1815)1828CalcuttaRaja Ram Mohan RoyPropagated monotheism. Opposed incarnation, sacrifices, priesthood, idolatry, superstition and sati practices, Sought for reforms in Hindu society.
2Young Bengal movement1826-1831CalcuttaHenry Louis Vivian DerozloQuite Radical. Opposed the vices in society, believed in truth, freedom and reason.
3Dharma Sabha1830CalcuttaRadha Kanta DevaOpposed to liberal.
4Tattvabodhini Sabha1834CalcuttaDebendranath TagoreReform Indian society and Hinduism. Formed as a part of Bramho Samaj and merged with it in 1840s.
5Namdhari/ Kuka Movement1841-1871N.W.F Province and BhainiBhai Balak Singh and Baba ram SinghA Politico-religious movement of the Sikhs
6Paramahansa Mandali1849 – 1860sBombayDadoba PandurangSecret society. Believe in one God, wanted to break caste rules, women education, widow remarriage etc.
7Rahanumai Mazdayasan1851BombayS.S. Bangali, Dadabhai Naoriji, Naoroji Furdonji, J.B. Nacha etc.,Founded for the restoration of Zoroastrian religion to its pristine glory and social regeneration of the Parsi community through modern education and emancipation of women.
8Radha Swami Satsang1861AgraTulsi Ram also known as Shiv Dayal SahebBelief in one Supreme Being, religious unity, emphasis on simplicity of social life and social service.
9Bramho Samaj of India or Bharatvarshiya Bramho Samaj1866CalcuttaKeshav Chandra SenFormed after division of Bramho Samaj into Adi Bramho Samaj led by Debendranath Tagore and Bharatvarshiya Bramho Samaj by Keshav C Sen
10Prarthana Samaj1867BombayAtmaram Pandurang, Govind RanadeWorship and reform of society through emphasis on mono-theism, uplift of women and abolition of caste dis-crimination.
11Indian Reform Association1870CalcuttaKeshab Chandra SenTo create public opinion against child marriages and for legalizing the Brahmo form of civil marriage. To pro-mote the intellectual and social status of Indian women.
12Arya Samaj1875BombayDayanand Saraswati (originally founder Mool Shankar)Asserted Hindu faith over other religions, with in a revivalist framework, denounced rites, Brahmin Supremacy, idolatry, Superstition.
13The Theosophical Society1875New York (In India Adyar, Madras)Madam H.P. Blavatsky Col. H.S. Olcott (In India-Annie Besant)Drew inspiration from Upanishads, Philosophy of the Vedanta, etc to aim at religious and social reform.
14Sadharan Bramho Samaj1878CalcuttaAnand Mohan BoseFormed after followers of Keshav Chandra Sen abandoned him.
15Deccan Education Society1884PuneM.G. Ranade, V.G. Chidonkar, G.G. Agarkar, etc.To contribute the cause of education and culture in Western India. The Society founded the Ferguson College, Pune in 1885.
16Seva Sadan1885BombayBehramji M. MalabariCampaign against child marriages and enforced widow-hood and care for socially exploited,’ women.
17Indian National Social Conference1887BombayM.G. Ranade and Raghunath RaoTo focus attention on matters relating to social reforms.
18Deva Samaj1887LahoreShiva Narain AgnihotriIt’s religious ideas were closer to Brahmo Samaj. It also suggested on its followers moral codes like not to accept bribe, indulge in gambling, consume intoxicants and non-vegetarian food.
19Madras Hindu Association1892MadrasViresalingamA social purity movement Concerned with the plight of widow and to combat the Devadasi System.
20Ramakrishna Mission1897BengalVivekanandaSought to revive Hinduism based on ancient India’s religious texts and concepts (eg. Vedanta, etc.,): against caste restrictions, oppression, superstition in Hinduism, aimed to uplift women and overhaul the education system.
21Bharat Dharma Mahamandala1902Varanasi Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya and Pandit Din Dayal SharmaOrginisation of the orthodox Hindus, popularly known are Sanatandharmis to counter the teaching of the Arya Samaj, movement.
22The Servants of India Society1905BombayGopal Krishna GokhaleTo work for social reforms and to train “national missionaries for the service of India”
23Poona Seva Sadan1909PuneG.K. Devadhar and Ramabai Ranade (Wife of M.G. Ranade)Establish institutions for the economic uplift and useful employment of women.
24Nishkam Karma Math1910PuneDhondo Keshav KarveEducational progress of women, improving widows condition. Founded Womens university.
25Social Service League1911BombayNarayan Malhar JoshiImproving the condition of the common masses, opened schools and libraries.
26Seva Samiti1914AllahabadH N KunzruSocial objectives like education, sanitation, cooperation, upliftment of criminals, helping depressed classes, providing relief during natural disasters etc.

1. Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Bramho Samaj

A portrait of Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833)

Rammohan Roy started Bramho Samaj in 1828 in Bengal. It consisted mostly of western educated middle class section of Bengali society. Rammohan Roy was largely inspired by western social, political and scientific advancements but also wanted to reinvent the wisdom of ancient Indian literature. The society emphasized on the ideals of rationality and reason, equality and humanism to interrogate Indian social systems and reform them. Bramho Samaj picked up issues mostly related to women, religious reforms and untouchability.

1.1 Women Issues

Bramho Samaj was strong proponent of improving status of women. With their efforts, Abolition of Sati act was passed by British govt. in 1829. They were against polygamy and also pitched for legalization of widow remarriage. They were against Child marriage and argued to increase min. age of marriage. Infanticide, women education were also some other issues taken up by the society.

1.2 Religious Reforms

Bramho Samaj was against idolatory (murtipooja), against polytheism (the concept that there are many gods) and against hold of priestly class in religious matters. It argued for translation of religious texts into local /vernacular language so that people can do individualistic interpretation of religion.

1.3 Untouchability

Bramho Samaj was against untouchability but only wanted to reform caste system. (And not abolish altogether). It did not promote inter-caste marriages or inter-caste dining.

1.4 Things Bramho Samaj did not picked up

Women employment. Right to divorce for women. Inter-caste marriages or inter-caste dining. They suggested only reform of religion and not its abolition. It suggested individualistic interpretation of religion.

1.5 Strategy of Bramho Samaj

Bramho Samaj relied on top down reform strategy. They were hopeful of British cooperation in reforming Indian society and wanted to achieve the same through religious reforms. For the same reason, the society had limited mass base.

Before establishing Bramho Samaj in 1928, Ram Mohan Ray founded Atmiya Sabha in 1814. In 1817, he assisted Dutch (Netherlandish) watchmaker David Hare in establishing Hindu College. And in 1825 he established Vedanta College. Ram Mohan Ray also started newspaper Mirat-ul-Akbar. He was given the title ‘Raja’ by Mughal King. 

In 1866, there was a division of Bramho Samaj. It got split into Adi Bramho Samaj led by Devendranath Tagore and Bharatvarshiya Bramho Samaj led by Keshav Chandra Sen. While Debendranath Tagore was little conservative, just wanted to ‘reform’ caste system. Keshav Chandra Sen, was more ‘progressive’ and wanted to abolish caste system altogether. He was supportive of inter-caste marriage and dining. And also argued for brining in elements of other religions as well in Hinduism.

2. Sir Sayyad Ahmed Khan

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898)

Sir Sayyad Ahmed Khan was a prominent Muslim scholar and reformist. British educated, he suggested that the backwardness of Muslim community was due to their lack of education and consequent access to jobs. He argued for social and educational reforms in Muslim society. He also thought that the British had anti-Islam after 1857 revolt, considering Muslims responsible for the uprising. He thus wrote the book CAUSES OF REVOLT OF 1857to illustrate the subject matter. 

He started the journal – Tahzeeb-ul-Akhlaque(Tahzeeb – traditions, Akhlaque – Questioning). In 1876-78 he started Mohammaden Anglo Oriental Schoolto blend the elements of western scientific advancement and local culture and traditions.

Sir Sayyad Ahmed Khan wrote 12 volume work on Quran and said that religion is not immutable (unchangeable) and thus can be reformed in the light of reason. He also suggested Muslims to stay away from any overt political activity against British.

2.1 Henry Vivian Derozio

A rather exceptional personality, Henry Vivian Derozio was an Anglo English teacher at Hindu college. He founded Young Bengal Movement, and was a radical social reformer (radical – one who wants to bring complete change in the system). He stood for abolition of caste system, suggested inter-caste marriage, women rights etc. Later on, he was expelled from the college because of his radical activities. Though he had number of followers (largely student community), his radical ideas could not appeal masses. Unfortunately Derozio died at young age of 22 by Cholera. His followers were also called as Derozians.

Surendranath Banerjee described Derozians as ‘Pioneers of Modern Civilization of Bengal’

2.2 Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820 – 1891)

Sanskrit scholar and a great social reformer, he was vocal for widow remarriage and arranged 1st official Widow Remarriage in 1856. In 1851, he became principle of Sanskrit College. Pandit Vidyasagar worked as a teacher at Bethune College (founded by Englishman, it was the 1st Women College in Asia). He evolved new methodology of teaching Sanskrit and also taught Sanskrit to non-Bramhin students (a bold step in his times).

3. Dadabhai Naroji – Rahnumai Mazdayasyan Sabha, Bombay, 1851

Dadabhai Nairoji (1825-1917)

Also known as Grand Old Man of India, apart from his contributions to uncover economic exploitation of British, Dadabhai Nairoji was also a social reformer. He established Rahnumai Mazdayasyan Sabha at Bombay in 1851. The organization was mainly focused on issues of Parsi community, its revival and improving position of Parsi women.

4. Arya Samaj and Swami Dayanand Saraswati

Swami Dayanand Saraswati on the Arya Samaj Magazine (Satyartha Prakash)

Swami Dayanand Saraswati established Arya Samaj in 1975 in Bombay. He argued that rationality is not an exclusive preserve of the west and can be traced to Indian philosophical thinking, predominantly Vedas. He argued that Vedas were infallible and gave the slogan ‘Go back to Vedas‘.

He was also against idolatry (murtipooja), polytheism (worshipping many Gods) and priesthood. According to him, God is formless entity and there is only one God. He considered human reason as  ultimate deciding factors and was in favour of universalism (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam). 

Arya Samaj stood for abolition of sati, polygamy, female infanticide, child marriage etc.

It advocated abolition of untouchability but not of caste system altogether. According to them, the original caste system was not based on birth, was mobile and based on merit. It was a division of labour which was necessary to maintain peace in society. It therefore did not support inter-caste marriage and inter-caste dining.

1890s onwards Arya Samaj picked up specific religious issues like cow protection movements. (Gau Sanrakshini sabhas), Shuddhi movement (religious re-conversions of those who had shifted to other religions. This was done in response to Talibagh and Tanzeem movements (started by Wahabbis) aimed at religious reconversion of Muslims who had drifted to other religions.)

Arya Samaj Enjoyed relatively larger mass base in North India. Lala Hansraj (Mahatma Hansraj) a prominent follower of Arya Samaj, started DAV (Dayanand Anglo Vedic) schols in 1884 in memory of Dayanand Saraswati.  These were started with mixed elements from Vedic education and western advancements in social sciences. 

5. Bal Gangadhar Tilak

Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920)

Famously known as Lokmanya Tilak, He opposed Age of Consent Bill 1898. The Bill proposed increasing marriage age for boy from 11 yrs to 14 yrs and girl age from 8 yrs to 11 yrs. Tilak rejected any positive role for British in bringing about active social change or their ‘benovelent rule.’ He was not against the content of the bill, but against British interfering in Indian society. He also started using Ganapati and Shivaji festivals to unite Indians and preach anti-British feelings.

6. Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule

Jyotiba (1827-90) and Savitribai Phule. (1831-97)

They started SatyaShodhak Samaj (Truth Seekers Society) in 1873 at Poona. Coming from lower (mali) caste, they were both subject as well as agent of social change. Jyotiba Phule stood for caste reforms, abolition of caste system and inter-caste marriages and dining.  He suggested that shudras and untouchables should join hands and overthrow the oppressors. He also supported the Aryan theory of invasion to explain the origin of caste system. He compared the caste system with modern version of slavery. He is also well know for his book GULAMGIRIwhich was also later adopted in a play. 

Savitribai Phule is well known for picking up the issue of women’s education. Together Phule couple started 1st school for women education in Poona. 

7. Swami Vivekanand, Ramakrishna Mission

image 7
Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)

A great disciple of Ramkrishna Paramahansa, Swami Vivekananda continues to inspire millions of hears even today. He started Ramkrishna mission from Belur Math in Bengal. He himself was a Kali worshipper and not against Idol worship.

Vivekananda stood for spiritual freedom and social reforms. He argued for spiritual salvation as well as construction of social reforms – improving position of women, abolishing untouchability etc.

In his 1893 speech at Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. He asserted that Hindu civilization and way of life has much to offer to the world to promote spirit of tolerance and acceptance that is vital in maintaining world peace.

He is well known for his idea of Cultural nationalism. He enthused Indian Youth. Now Indians could take pride in their own identity.
Vivekananda written volumes of book on Vedantic philosophy.
Gandhi, Nehru also asserted that their nationalist belief and self confidence had gained much from Vivekananda’s writings.

8. Theosophical Society

Formed in New York, USA by Blavatsy and Olcott in 1875. It later opened office in India in Madras in 1886 and grew significantly after Annie Besant came to India in 1893. The society was largely composed of Irish origin individuals or Anglo Indians. For example Anney Besant, A.O. Hume were members of it.

Theosophical society rejected the assertion that Indian society was primitive or uncivilised. Indian philosophical thoughts, particularly monks in Himalayas had answers to some of the most complex questions of human existence. Thus, the society advocated revival of ancient Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. It also argued for constructive social reforms like women education, female infanticide etc.

Mrs. Annie Besant established Central Hindu School at Benarus, which was later developed by Madan Mohan Malviya into Benaras Hindu University (BHU).

9. Analysis of Socio-Religious Reforms

All the efforts for social and religious reforms in pre-independent can be divided into two broad types. 1) Revivalist efforts 2) Reformist approach.

10. Revivalists

These were the scholars who felt that ‘ancient’ India had a substance and it is only by years of foreign subjugation Indian society has undergone degradation. Such scholars only wanted to remove the bad elements which had crept in Indian society and religion. For example Dayanand Saraswati wanted to reform caste system, but argued that it is a systematic division of labour and should not be done away with. Varna system is good, but caste system is not good. (MK Gandhi also had similar ideas).

They argued that British were no positive agents of social change and rejected any talk of benovelent despotism of civlizing mission. They argued in favour of reviving the glorius past.

However their cultural nationalism was beset with religious contradiction. To begin with, Hindu revivalists saw ancient India as period of glorious rule whereas Muslim revivalist saw medieval India as glorious past. And their assertion of glorious past was not always backed by ‘scientific’ evidence.

11. Reformists

Inspired by western ideas, they argued to implement similar methods in Indian society for its reform. They sought to ‘reform’ the Indian system by applying human reason in every field of life, including reason. According to RR Roy, human reason is ultimate touchstone to decide anything.

Reformists relied on top-down approach to solve the problem. These had comparatively lower mass-base than revivalists.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments