Important Reform Figures 2.0
One of the greatest figures in 19th century Bengal was Narendra Nath Datta, better known as Swami Vivekananda. His spiritual preceptor was Ramakrishna Paramhansa (1834-1886). Ramakrishna stressed universalism in religions and denounced religious particularism. Ramakrishna instilled in his disciples the spirit of renunciation and brotherly love for one another. However, his primary concern remained with religious salvation and not social salvation.
His message was popularised inside and outside India by his famous disciple, Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) Vivekananda condemned the caste system and people’s obsession with rituals and superstitions. During his travels all over the country, Vivekananda was deeply moved to see the abysmal poverty and backwardness of the masses. He was the first religious leader in India to understand and openly declare that the real cause of India’s disgrace was the neglect of the masses. The immediate need was to provide food and other bare necessities of life to the hungry millions. For this they should be taught improved methods of agriculture, village industries, etc. It was in this context that Vivekananda grasped the crux of the problem of poverty in India. Thus the masses needed two kinds of knowledge: secular knowledge to improve their economic condition and spiritual knowledge to imbue in them faith in themselves and to strengthen their moral sense.
In 1896 he founded the Ramakrishna Mission to carry on humanitarian and social work. The main goal of the Mission was to provide social service to the people, and it carried on its mission by opening schools, hospitals, orphanages, libraries, etc. in different parts of the country.
His speeches at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago held in September 1893 made him famous as an ‘orator by divine right’ and as a ‘Messenger of Indian wisdom to the Western world’. After the Parliament, he spent nearly three and a half years spreading the Vedanta as lived and taught by Ramakrishna, mostly on the east coast of USA and also in London.
Swamy Dayanand Saraswati and the Arya Samaj
Swamy Dayanand Saraswati (1824-1883) was the leading figure in social and religious reforms in North India. He founded the Arya Samaj in 1875. He attacked idolatry, polytheism, Brahmin-sponsored religious rites and superstitious practices. He opposed the practice of child marriage and supported inter- caste marriages and female education. He considered the Vedas to be infallible and the foundation of religion. This gave his teachings an orthodox hue. The Swami insisted that post-Vedic changes in Hindu society had led only to weakness and disunity, which had destroyed India’s capacity to resist foreign invasion and subjugation. Dayananda called on Hindus to reject the “corrupting” excrescences of their faith, including idolatry, the caste system, and infant marriage, and to return to the original purity of Vedic life and thought.
The Arya Samaj played an enlightened role in furthering the cause of social reform in North India. It worked for the improvement in the condition of women, advocated social equality and denounced untouchability and caste rigidities. Although the Vedas were venerated as infallible, the reforms advocated were the product of modern rational thinking. The Arya Samaj took root most firmly in the Punjab at the start of the 20th century, and it became that province’s leading nationalist organisation.
To educate women and the subjugated sections of society, Arya Samaj opened many educational institutions such as schools, colleges, technical institutions such as medical and engineering colleges and universities. It encouraged Hindu interdenominational marriages and also widow re-marriages. Arya Samaj intellectuals and followers helped promote the goal of bringing equality of all sections of society and also contributed to the national movement seeking the independence of India from British rule.
Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan
The movement for reform arose relatively later among the Indian Muslims, only after the 1860 s.
The leading figure in this was Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan (1817-1898). In 1847 he brought out a notable book, Athar assanadid (“Monuments of the Great”), on the antiquities of Delhi. Even more important was his pamphlet, The Causes of the Indian Revolt. During the Indian Mutiny of 1857 he had supported the British, but in this booklet he ably and courageously analysed the weaknesses and mistakes of the British administration that had led to dissatisfaction and a countrywide explosion. Widely read by British officials, it had considerable influence on British policy.
Sayyid Ahmed Khan urged the Muslims to abandon their unenlightened medieval outlook and to imbibe modern scientific knowledge and thought. He condemned the custom of polygamy, and advocated the removal of purdah and spread of education among women. He emphasised upon tolerance and urged the people to develop a rational outlook and freedom of thought.
He viewed the Quran as the most authoritative and rational religious text for the Muslims. He respected all religions and spoke against religious fanaticism and bigotry. Some of his followers desisted from joining the emerging national movement believing that the two communities, the Hindus and the Muslims, had to progress along separate paths and it was in Muslim interest not to identify with any anti-British movement. His most important concern was the promotion of modern education for which he worked throughout his life. In 1875 he founded the Muhammedan Anglo-Oriental College in Aligarh for the spread of Western education. Later this developed into the Aligarh Muslim University. He clearly foresaw the imperative need for the Muslims to acquire proficiency in the English language and modern sciences if the community were to maintain its social and political identity and move forward.
Sir Syed is also considered the founder of the Aligarh Movement of which Aligarh was the centre. He had two immediate goals: to remove the state of misapprehension and tension between the Muslims and the British government, and to enable the Muslims to benefit from the opportunities being created under the new regime without deviating in any way from the fundamentals of their faith.
Keeping education and social reform as the two key planks of his programme, he launched the Aligarh Movement with the following objectives:
- To create an atmosphere of mutual understanding between the British government and the Muslims
- To persuade Muslims to adopt English education
- To persuade Muslims to abstain from politics of agitation
- To produce an intellectual class from amongst the Muslim community
- To bring about social and cultural reforms amongst the Muslim community
- To maintain, and as far as possible, promote the political and economic interests of Muslims in the affairs of the country.