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THE GROWTH OF NEW INDIA, 1858-1905

After the great schism, the Adi Brahma Samaj, the organisation of Devendranath, quietly followed the pure monotheistic form of Hinduism, setting its face deliberately against social reform or propaganda of any kind. But it soon passed into obscurity. The period of reformation ushered in by Raja Rammohan Roy was over and a revolution was now in progress.


The newly started ” Brahma Samaj of India ” had a triumphant career under the guidance of Keshab Chandra Sen. The missionary exertions all over Bengal and even far outside its boundaries led to an increase in the number of local churches. The inclusion of women as members and the adoption of a moderate programme of social reform formed a new feature of the rejuvenated society. It was chiefly due to its efforts that the Government passed the Act III of 1872, which abolished early marriage of girls and polygamy, and sanctioned widow marriages and inter-caste marriages for those who did not profess any recognised faith such as Hinduism and Islam. Another striking feature was the adoption of the Samkirtan in the Vaishnava style for the purpose of propaganda. At first “Jesus was the inspirer and teacher of Keshab and now came Chaitanya. The two streams combined and made a confluence which soon produced novel and striking results.” The passion of Bhakti (devotion) seized the members, and in true Vaishnava style many of them prostrated themselves at each other’s feet and especially at the feet of Keshab. Reverence for the leader grew apace and he gradually came to be regarded by some as a prophet or a divine incarnation.

This practice of ” man-worship ” led to a fresh discord in the Brahma Church. Progressives and rationalists strongly protested against certain innovations and demanded that a definite constitution should be framed for the management of the churches. Soon other points arose to widen the gulf between the two sections. Keshab held moderate views about female education and female emancipation, and he was not prepared to go to the extreme lengths proposed by the more advanced section. In his opinion higher University education would not be suitable for women, and free mingling of men and women, or the total abolition of the Purdah system, was fraught with grave danger to society. The advanced or progressive section was strongly agitated over these important points of difference with the great leader when the marriage of Keshab’s fourteen-year-old daughter with the Hindu Maharaji of Cooch Bihar in March, 1878, led to the second schism in the Brahma Church.

Those who differed seceded and on 15th May, 1878, formed a different organisation called the Sadharan Brahma Samaj. Subsequent events showed the great strength of this party. Keshab’s Church shared the same fate as that of Devendranath and passed into comparative obscurity. The spirit of the Brahma movement has now been focused mainly in the Sadharan Brahma Samaj to which almost all the provincial Samajas are affiliated. The new Samaj has consistently followed the path of constitutionalism and upheld an advanced programme of social reform. In respect of the position of women in society it has attained results of far-reaching importance by the removal of the Purdah system, introduction of widow-remarriage, abolition of polygamy and early marriage, and provision of higher education, and it is interesting to note that Hindu society has largely adopted these ideas. In the removal of caste-rigidity it has presented Hindu society with another reform which it is gradually accepting. The fact that legislation has been passed validating widow-remarriage and inter-caste marriage among the Hindus shows the great repercussion of the Brahma movement upon Hindu society. Many far-reaching changes in Hindu social ideas have been and are still being brought about, steadily and silently, by the indirect influence of the Brahma Samaj. Interdining among different castes at public and sometimes even social functions, and travel to foreign lands beyond the sea without loss of caste, may be quoted as examples. Curiously enough, the only point where it has failed to influence Hindu society, to any appreciable degree, is its emphasis on monotheism and the abolition of the worship of images, the first and fundamental idea with which the new movement started.

The Prarthana Samaj

As has already been noted above, the Brahma Samaj movement gradually spread outside Bengal, but nowhere did it take deep root except in Maharashtra, where it led to the establishment of the Prarthana Samaj. Like the Brahma Samaj, rational worship of one God and social reform formed its ideals. It has been truly remarked, however, that differences between the emotional character of the Bengalis and the practical shrewd common sense of the Marathas are clearly reflected in the two institutions which sprang up under similar conditions.

The Brahma Samaj made its influence felt in Maharashtra as early as 1849 with the foundation of Paramahansa Sabha. But this did not live long or count for much. It was in 1867 that, under the enthusiastic guidance of Keshab Chandra Sen, the Prarthana Samaj came into existence. The difference in name was evidently deliberate, for unlike the followers of Brahma Samaj in Bengal, the followers of Prarthana Samaj never ” looked upon themselves as adherents of a new religion or of a new sect, outside and along- side of the general Hindu body, but simply as a movement within it”. They were devoted theists, followers of the great religious tradition of Maratha saints like Namdev, Tukaram and Ramdas. But instead of religious speculations they devoted their chief attention to social reform such as interdining and intermarriage among different castes, remarriage of widows and improvement of the lot of women and depressed classes. They established a Foundling Asylum and Orphanage at Pandharpur and founded night schools, a Widows’ Home, a Depressed Classes Mission and other useful institutions of this kind. The Prarthana Samaj has been the centre of many activities for social reform in Western India. Its success is chiefly due to Justice Mahadev Govinda Ranade. As C.F. Andrews observed, ” the last and in many ways the most enduring aspect of the new reformation in India has had its rise in the Bombay Presidency and is linked most closely with the name of Justice Ranade “. He devoted his whole life to the furtherance of the objects of the Prarthana Samaj. He was one of the founders of the Widow Marriage Association in 1861, and the famous Deccan Education Society (1891-1885) owes its origin to his inspiration. He inaugurated the practice of holding a Social Conference along with the annual meeting of the Indian National Congress.

To Justice Ranade we owe the clear elucidation of two important principles. First he emphasised the truth that ” the reformer must attempt to deal with the whole man and not to carry out reform on one side only “. To Ranade religion was as inseparable from social reform as love to man is inseparable form love to God.” His ideas of reform were thus very comprehensive. ” You cannot,” said he, “have a good social system when you find yourself low in the scale of political rights; nor can you be fit to exercise political rights unless your social system is based on reason and justice. You cannot have a good economical system, when your social ar- rangements are imperfect. If your religious ideas are low and grovelling you cannot succeed in social, economical and political spheres. This interdependence is not an accident but it is the law of our nature.”

The second great principle, which Ranade emphasised, was that the social organism in India shows a growth, which should not be ignored and cannot be forcibly suppressed. “There are those among us,” said he, ” who think that the work of the reformer is confined only to a brave resolve to break with the past, and do what his own individual reason suggests as proper and fitting. The power of long-formed habits and tendencies is ignored in this view of the matter.” Ranade showed a truer grasp of things when he ventured to state: ” The true reformer has not to write on a clean slate. His work is more often to complete the half-written sentence.”

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