Social and Religious Reforms and the Main Reformers

During the nineteenth century, India witnessed the emergence of many intellectual currents for national regeneration including in its religious, social, cultural, economic and political aspects. In practice the main emphasis was accorded to social and religious aspects as these problems acquired predominance over economic and political ones in the thinking of the emerging intellectuals. During the first decades of the century, the movement was a very small affair based on the efforts of a limited number of individuals whose passion for fighting social dogmatism initially could not pose a major challenge to the advocates of orthodoxy. The movement gradually gained momentum and attracted growing support and reached its peak during the second half of the nineteenth century. It also contributed significantly to the rise of the national movement in the last quarter of the century.

Ram Mohan Roy and the Brahmo Samaj

Ram Mohan Roy was a multifaceted personality who touched upon every aspect of national life and worked for the regeneration of India. He learned several languages and was a leading scholar of his times. He published his first philosophical work, Tuhfat-ul Murahhiddin in 1805 in which he analysed the major religions of the world in the light of ‘reason’ and ‘social comfort’. He denied the notion that religion was merely a matter of faith outside reason and attempted to dispel the myth of miracles associated with it.

His reform activities were strengthened after he settled down in Calcutta in 1814. He started the Atmiya Sabha and started a struggle against the religious and social malpractices. He denounced idolatry and advocated monotheism. He blamed the Brahman priests for perpetuating religious evils by keeping people ignorant about the true teachings of the scriptures. To educate the people he published Bengali translations of some of the scriptures and strongly defended monotheism in his writings. His translations and writings in the vernacular also promoted the growth of the Bengali language.

Ram Mohan remained a rationalist throughout his life. In his writings reason is considered the touchstone of reality. Although he later sought the support of the scriptures, that was only to promote reform of the Hindu society. In 1828 he established a new society, the Brahma Sabha which later came to be known as the Brahmo Samaj. Its main objective was to rid Hinduism of its evils and to preach monotheism. It incorporated the best teachings of other religions and acted as a powerful platform for the advocacy of humanism, monotheism and social regeneration.

Ram Mohan Roy and Social Reforms

Ram Mohan was extremely pained at the prevailing social degeneration in India. He was particularly concerned with the miserable plight of women in Indian society. He launched a crusade against the evil practice of sati, the burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre. His agitation bore fruit finally in 1829 when William Bentinck enacted a law against that practice. However, the solution which he put forward for the widows was not widow marriage but ascetic widowhood.

He also condemned polygamy, and early marriage, and opposed the subjugation of women and their inferior status in society. In his view the root cause of the problem was the absence of any rights for women. To him, female education was another effective method to free them from their social stagnation.

He propagated the introduction and spread of modern education which could act as a major vehicle for the dissemination of modern ideas in the country. For its promotion he provided enthusiastic support to David Hare who, along with many Indian notables of Calcutta, founded the famous Hindu College in the year 1817. He also ran an English School at Calcutta at his own cost. In 1825 he founded the Vedanta College which offered both Indian and Western learning.

In particular he emphasised upon India’s need for Western scientific knowledge, mathematics, natural philosophy and other beneficial sciences. He understood the causes underlying Western intellectual progress and wanted Indians to acquire the fruits of Europe’s progress by focussing on science and technology. His goal was the fusion of the best in the East as well as the West.

Ram Mohan took up not only social and religious problems but also political and economic issues. He called for the Indianisation of services, trial by jury, separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary, freedom of the press, and judicial equality between Indians and Europeans. He was critical of the zamindari system for its oppressive practices.

Ram Mohan was a forerunner of nationalist consciousness and ideology in India. Through his reforms he wanted to lay the foundations for the unity of Indian society, splintered into divergent groups. In particular he attacked the rigidities of the caste system which, according to him, had been a major cause of disunity among Indians.

Ram Mohan was an internationalist, libertarian and democrat in his orientation. He took an active interest in international affairs and wanted to develop amity among nations.

Henry Vivian Derozio and Young Bengal Movement

Henry Vivian Derozio, a free thinker and rationalist, was the founder of the Young Bengal Movement. Derozio was born on April 18, 1809 and died on December 26, 1831. During his very short lifetime Derozio produced several important works of poetry and was well on his way to becoming a legendary figure. Derozio was generally considered an Anglo-Indian, being of mixed Portuguese descent, but he was fired by a patriotic spirit for his native Bengal, and considered himself Indian.

The years in which Derozio penned his major works, was a decade of major world-wide change and this was reflected in his writings also. As a lecturer at the Hindu College of Calcutta, he invigorated a large group of students to think independently; this Young Bengal group played a key role in the Bengal renaissance.

Derozio’s intense zeal for teaching and his interactions with students created a sensation at Hindu College. His students came to be known as Derozians. He organised debates where ideas and social norms were freely debated. In 1828 , he motivated them to form a literary and debating club called the Academic Association. In 1830, this club brought out a magazine named ‘Parthenon’.

Apart from articles criticising Hindu practices, the students wrote on women emancipation and criticised many aspects of British rule. He also encouraged students into journalism, to spread these ideas into a society eager for change. In 1831, he helped Krishna Mohan Banerjee start an English weekly, The Enquirer, while Dakshinaranjan Mukherjee and Rasik Krishna Mallick began publishing a Bengali paper, the Znananvesan.

Many of his inner circle of students eventually rebelled against Hindu orthodoxy, and joined the Brahmo Samaj, while some like Krishna Mohan Banerjee converted to Christianity, and others like Ramtanu Lahiri gave up their sacred thread. Others went on to write in Bengali, and these included Peary Chand Mitra, who authored the first novel in Bengali. The radicalism of his teachings and his student group, however, caused an intense backlash against him.

Due to his unorthodox views on society, culture and religion, the management committee of the college, expelled him as a faculty member, “for having materially injured the student’s morals and introduced some strange system the tendency of which is destruction to their moral character and to the peace in society.”


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