Socio-Religious Reform Movements

Indian society has constantly witnessed changes from within and outside. India saw an evolution from the Vedic age to the British conquest to the present independent time. The advent of the 19th century in India brought in a fresh imagination to reform the prevalent social and cultural practices in India. The ongoing practices now called for a spirit of reawakening by enlightened social elements. Hence, came the socio-Religious reform movement. Why did Socio-Religious Reform movements occur in India? 

The factors that contributed to the happening of socio-religious movements were multifaceted as 

  1. Women were living in a deprived state owing to the discriminatory practices that were prevalent during those times. Traditions such as Sati, child marriage, opposition to widow remarriage, and female infanticide, led to unfair treatment towards women. This came from the need to reform this very feature of society. 
  2. Religious superstitions clouded the environment at that point in time and led to the suppression of reason. The overall outcome was a drive to obscurantism. The need to reform the irrelevant traditional practices was felt. 
  3. Casteism was another issue that created barriers to social mobility. People from lower castes were discriminated against and were isolated at a separate place in society. Untouchability was widely practised. 
  4. Western civilization was criticized due to the intimidation of Britishers. This lessens the revival of traditional practices. 
  5. A sense of awakening was realized by some enlightened sections of society. It was acknowledged that the Britishers are casting the rock and ruin of the Indian economy. A need to revive old sentiments of Indian sentiment and arouse nationalism in India was felt. 

All these schemes of things led to a search for rationalism in society. Analytical and scientific reasoning was preferred over the prevalent dogmas. 

The reform movements were broadly categorized into two compartments I.e.the reformists and revivalists. The reformists stressed bringing fresh ideas into the mainstream and replacing the traditional practices that defied rationality. For example, the Brahmo Samaj, and the Aligarh movement among several others. On the other hand, the Revivalists believed in bringing back the memories of ancient civilization and exhibiting the old traditions to the Britishers. For eg. – the Arya Samaj etc. 

Some significant Socio-Religious reform movements are as follows- 

  • Brahmo Samaj- It was established by Raja Rammohan Roy in 1828 as Brahmo Sabha. Later the name was changed to Brahmo Samaj. The idea was to disapprove of idol worship and rituals that oppose meaning. No image of a deity, statue, or image was allowed on the premises. Instead, the focus was put on doing prayers, performing meditation and learning ideas from the Upanishads. It propagated the concept of worshipping the Eternal, Unsearchable and firm being who is a preserver of the whole universe.

Raja ji aimed to refine Hinduism from evil practices like Sati. He believed in monotheism, discarded faith in incarnations, held that no scripture is above reason and conscience, and condemned casteism in society. He took no firm perspective on the philosophy of Karma and transportation. 

Raja ji was a firm critic of Sati and his continuous efforts in the direction of abolition of the same bore fruits in the form of Government Regulation of 1829. For his vital contributions to redefining the foundation of India, he is popularly called the ‘father of Indian renaissance’ and ‘the maker of Modern India’. His other notable contributions include Atmiya Sabha in 1814 in Calcutta which emphasized the idea of Vedanta. He wrote ‘Precepts of Justice’ in 1820. He equipped both the Western and Indian concepts in the Vedanta College (established by Raja ji only in 1825). He was a great believer in providing justice, equality and liberty to society to all. 

The efforts by Raja Rammohan Roy had overarching impacts on Indian society.

● Prarthana Samaj- founded by Keshab Chandra Sen (KC Sen) and Atmaram Pandurang in 1867. Paramahansa Sabha was the predecessor of it and worked on the idea of propagating liberal values. M.G. Ranade was a famous personality associated with it and had incredible contributions. The fourfold objectives of the Samaj were as follows 

  1. Objection of Caste System 
  2. Education to women 
  3. Allowing widows to remarry 
  4. Increase the age of marriage for males and females. 
  • Young Bengal Movement- by Henry Vivian Derozio was a radical movement in Bengal by the younger generation. Derozio was a professor at Hindu College who drew motivation to lead this movement from the tremendous Revolution that occurred in France. He advocated equal rights for women. However, the movement did not take off as expected due to the contradiction between the radical nature of the movement and the prevalent conditions at that time. Having said that, the movement by Derozio was successful in invoking fresh ideas in the civilization and for his assistance, he is remembered as the first nationalist poet. 
  • Satyashodhak Samaj- by Jyotirao Phule. Phule was against the elevated status given to the upper caste vis-a-vis lower castes and the hegemony they enjoyed. The Brahmanical superiority was discriminatory toward people from lower castes. Hence to confront the same, he founded the Society of 

Truthseekers(Satyashodhak Samaj) in 1873. The primary objective was to educationally empower people from lower caste. Sarvajanik Satyadharma and Gulamgiri were some of his prominent works. He and his wife, Smt. Savitribai Phule advocated greatly for women’s education and opened a girls’ school in Pune. He also got the title of Mahatma for his pivotal contributions to uplift the downtrodden. 

  • Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s “Servants of India Society” founded in 1905 along with M.G. Ranade advocated for pursuing constitutional means and engaging in the service to the people of the country. It called for a band of workers devoted to the grounds promoting religious spirit in India. Hitavada was also published to further the said causes.
  • Social Service League- of Narayan Malhar Joshi was established in Bombay to ensure better living conditions for workers. He was also instrumental in founding the All India Trade Union Congress(1920). Legal aid, and setting up libraries, and schools were some of the activities undertaken by them. 
  • Contribution of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar- He fought for the rights of women in general. His commitment to legalize widow remarriage was a great success. He also emphasized eliminating child marriage, polygamy and promoted women’s education. He combined the elements of both Indian and Western thoughts. He also became the principal of Sanskrit College and included Western methods in Sanskrit teaching. Besides this, he served as the secretary of Bethune School and promoted higher education for women. 
  • Ramakrishna Movement- A poor priest in Calcutta, Ramakrishna Paramhansa’s teachings inspired many to move towards spiritual upliftment. The teachings were not in the form of a book but in conversations and attracted laymen due to simplicity. The primary objectives of this movement were as follows- enabling a bunch of monks practicing renunciation to spread the message of Vedanta and, looking upon all men, women and children as embodiments of the divine. Later, Swami Vivekananda took the lead after the death of Ramakrishna Paramahansa and launched Ramakrishna Mission in 1897. He propagated the philosophy of ‘Service of man is the service of God’. Swami Vivekannada’s message at the Parliament of Religions held in 1893 in Chicago garnered huge appreciation from leaders across the globe. He called for a healthy combination of Western and spiritual philosophies leading to progress. He also formed Ramakrishna Mission for social work and humanitarian ease. He called for the service of all beings of fundamental importance. The mission also considered the significance of image worship though stressed the value of spirit. 
  • Arya Samaj- It concentrated on revivalist nature and was established by Swami Dayanand Saraswati. The foremost division was established in 1875 at Bombay and then, headquarters were established at Lahore. He focused on ushering in a society devoid of both casteism and class inequalities. Setting the revivalistic tunes, he called for ‘Back to the Vedas’ by invoking the spirit of the Aryan religion. He decided on the Chaturvarna system too. The movement took off with the establishment of the first Dayananda Anglo-Vedic (D.A.V) school in 1886 at Lahore. It stressed the significance of Western education and accepted modern beliefs. They also initiated the Shuddhi movement for purification. 
  • Self-Respect movement- commenced by E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker or Periyar in the middle of the 1920s. He rejected Brahmanical supremacy and championed weddings without Brahmin priests. 
  • Temple Entry Movement – T.K. Madhavan put up with the subject of entry into temples. Meanwhile, Vaikom Satyagraha was set up in Kerala to let open entry of untouchables in temples under the leadership of K.P. Kesava. Gandhi also endorsed the movement by touring the state of Kerala.
  • Wahabi Movement- The instruction of Shah Walliullah and Abdul Wahab provided a revivalist reaction to the Western style. They opposed the deprived state of Muslims in India and wished for the true spirit of Islam. The aim was to 

harmonize the teachings of diverse schools of Islam and honor conscience at times of conflict. Later on, the movement had calls to convert India from dar-ul-Harb (land of kafirs) to dar-ul-islam (land of Islam). 

  • Aligarh Movement – Syed Ahmed Khan spearheaded this movement and agreed to come to terms with the Britishers for the benefit of Indian Muslims. He obtained a knighthood in 1888. He aimed at integrating the facets of the teachings of Quran and 

the western education. He even restated books in the Urdu language. He also laid the foundations of Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College (later called the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) ) in the year 1875. The motive was to educationally empower women and resist polygamy. 

  • Theosophical Movement- Madam Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott founded it in New York in 1875. After 7 years, the headquarters were moved to Adyar in the Indian state of Madras. It stressed forming a special bond between the soul and God. It adopted the Hindu conviction of karma, Upanishads, yoga etc. Hence, in a way, it led to the Hindu Renaissance. 

The socio-religious reform movements returned the very character of Indian society and led to a sense of renaissance among the sections of society, especially at the grassroots level.

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