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Socio-religious reform movements of 19th century Part 1

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Raja Ram Mohan Roy:

Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772 – 1833)

  • Born in Radhanagar, Hooghly District, Bengal Presidency in May 1772 into a Bengali Hindu family.
  • He is known as the ‘Father of Modern India’ or ‘Father of the Bengal Renaissance’.
  • He was a religious and social reformer.
  • Widely known for his role in the abolition of the practice of Sati.
  • He was a scholar and knew Sanskrit, Persian, Hindi, Bengali, English and Arabic.
  • He fought against the perceived ills of Hindu society at that time.
  • Propagated Western education among Indians.
  • Formed the Brahmo Samaj in 1828.
  • Worked for the East India Company as a clerk.
  • He died in September 1833 in Bristol, England.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy Contribution

Work and ideology
  • He was opposed to Sati, polygamy, child marriage, idolatry, the caste system, and propagated widow remarriage.
  • He stressed on rationalism and modern scientific approach.
  • He believed in social equality of all human beings.
  • He started many schools to educate Indians in Western scientific education in English.
  • He was against the perceived polytheism of Hinduism. He advocated monotheism as given in the scriptures.
  • He studied Christianity and Islam as well.
  • He translated the Vedas and five of the Upanishads into Bengali.
  • In 1817, in collaboration with David Hare, he set up the Hindu College at Calcutta.
  • In 1822, Roy found the Anglo-Hindu school, followed four years later (1826) by the Vedanta College; where he insisted that his teachings of monotheistic doctrines be incorporated with “modern, western curriculum.
  • He started the Sambad Kaumudi, a Bengali weekly newspaper which regularly denounced Sati as barbaric and against the tenets of Hinduism. It covered topics like freedom of the press, induction of Indians into high ranks of service, and separation of the executive and judiciary.
  • In 1828, he founded the Brahmo Sabha which was later renamed Brahmo Samaj. He had also founded the Atmiya Sabha.
  • Brahmo Samaj’s chief aim was worship of the eternal god. It was against priesthood, rituals and sacrifices. It focused on prayers, meditation and reading of the scriptures.
  • It was the first intellectual reform movement in modern India where social evils then practiced where condemned and efforts made to remove them from society.
  • It led to the emergence of rationalism and enlightenment in India which indirectly contributed to the nationalist movement.
  • The Brahmo Samaj believed in the unity of all religions.
  • He worked for the improvement in the position of women. He advocated widow remarriage and education of women.
  • His efforts led to the abolition of Sati in 1829 by Lord William Bentinck, the then Governor-General of India.
  • He was a true humanist and democrat.
  • He also spoke against the unjust policies of the British government especially the restrictions on press freedom.
  • Raja Ram Mohan Roy and his Brahmo Samaj played a vital role in awakening Indian society to the pressing issues plaguing society at that time and also was the forerunner of all social, religious and political movements that happened in the country since.
  • He visited England as an ambassador of the Mughal king Akbar Shah II (father of Bahadur Shah) where he died of a disease. He was awarded the title ‘Raja’ by Akbar II.
  • A Persian paper called Mirat-ul-Akbar contained a tract entitled Brief Remarks on Ancient Female Rights and a book in Bengali called Answers to Four Questions in 1822

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Aligarh Muslim Movement

  • Syed Ahmed Khan was born in Delhi, the capital of the Mughal Empire to an affluent and aristocratic family that had close ties with the Mughal court. He was educated in the Quran and the sciences.
  • He wrote a profound booklet ‘Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind’ (Reasons for the Indian Revolt of 1857) which cited British ignorance and aggressive expansion policies as the chief causes of the revolt.
  • Sir Syed stressed on the importance of modern scientific education for Muslims to advance their conditions. He advocated the learning of English. He was also against superstition and evil customs prevalent in society then.
  • He also advocated inter-faith understanding. He was also a scholar on Christianity, and wrote a book, ‘Commentary on the Holy Bible’.
  • He believed that Muslim society could move ahead only if rigid orthodoxy was abandoned and pragmatism was adopted.
  • In 1869, he received the Order of the Star of India from the British government.
  • He set up many educational institutes to propagate education, the most significant being the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College (MAOC) which he set up in 1875. This later became the Aligarh Muslim University. The MAOC was instrumental in the Aligarh Movement of the 19th century which was an important movement of renaissance among Indian Muslims. This had lasting ramifications on the politics, religion and culture of the country. An unintended effect was the propounding of the two-nation theory that ultimately led to calls for creating Pakistan.
  • Sir Syed is believed to be the first Indian Muslim who understood the need for a fresh orientation of Islam.
  • He founded the Scientific Society of Aligarh modelling it on the Royal Society of England. This society held annual conferences and published and distributed scientific material in English and Urdu.
  • He was an advocate of Urdu as the lingua franca of all Indian Muslims. His works propagated the language and also proposed to the government to use Urdu officially.
  • He was nominated to the Viceroy’s Legislative Council in 1878. He supported Dadabhai Naoroji and Surendranath Banerjee in obtaining representation for Indians in the government and the civil services.
  • But he was wary of the rise of Indian nationalism as he thought power would pass into the hands of the Hindus alone. He advocated Muslims to have loyalty to the British. In his own words, “we do not want to become subjects of the Hindus instead of the subjects of the people of the Book.”
  • He is regarded as one of the founders of the Two Nation Theory which says that Hindus and Muslims cannot be one nation.
  • Sir Syed was knighted by the British in 1888.

Theosophical Society: Roles and Features of the movement in India

  • The Theosophical Society was founded by Madame Blavatsky and Col. Olcott in 1875 in New York. It was only in 1879, that this ideology gained its roots in the Indian culture and Society.
  • Theosophy is derived from the Greek word ‘theosophia’ literally meaning “God’s wisdom”.
  •  Its essence is in its referring to hidden knowledge or wisdom that offers the individual enlightenment and salvation.
  • The movement was popularised by Annie Besant in India. Theosophy was based on three principles:-
    1. Universal brotherhood.
    2. The study of comparative religion and philosophy.
    3. Investigations into the natural laws which seek to understand the unexplained mystic laws!
  • Theosophical Society was an integral part of the revival of Hinduism in India which also brought about a certain degree of social solidarity. To quote Annie Besant “Without Hinduism, India has no future. Hinduism is the soil into which India’s roots are struck, and torn out of that she will invincibly wither as a tree torn out of its place.”
  • The theosophists also worked for the abolition of caste, untouchability and believed in the philosophy of assimilation.
  • Annie Besant had joined the Theosophical Society in 1889. She was a firm believer in the teachings of Vedas and Upanishads.
  • She published two journals called the “ The New India” and the “Common Weal”. The Theosophical Movement had more appeal among intelligentsia than the masses and made its own mark in the nineteenth century. It came to be allied with Hindu renais­sance.


Jyotiba Phule organized a powerful movement against the exploitative structural Social System , value and normative system casteand patriarchy based inequalities, discrimination and exploitation in Maharashtra. He started a school for girls, and the ‘untouchables’, and also a home for widows. He challenged the supremacy of the Brahmans. His two writings – Saravajanik Satyadharma Pustak and Gulamgiri became sources of inspiration for the common masses particularly weaker section of society..

• He founded the SatyaShodhak Samaj (Truth Seekers’ Society) to carry out his crusade against the Brahmanic hegemony.

• The SatyaShodhak Samaj had initiated programme of positive action for women liberation, propagating education, and for economic betterment.

• The middle castes, the Kombis, Malis and Dhangars, developed a sense of identity as a class against Brahmans, who are thought of as exploiters. Kammas, Reddis and Vellalas, the powerful intermediate castes, joined hands against the Brahmanas. Muslims also joined them.


• His aim was an ideal society with a complete ABOLITION OF CASTE SYSTEM AND SOCIO-ECONOMIC INEQUALITIES.

• This movement targeted the lower caste community for UPLIFTING and giving them a SENSE OF IDENTITY.

Some of Mahatma Phule’s published works

  • Tritiya Ratna
  • Brahmananche Kasab
  • Powada : Chatrapati Shivajiraje Bhosle Yancha (Life of Shivaji)
  • Manav Mahammand (Muhammad) (Abhang)
  • Gulamgiri
  • Satyashodhak Samajokt Mangalashtakasah Sarva Puja-vidhi
  • Sarvajanic Satya Dharmapustak
  • Shetkaryacha Asud

Vivian Derozio | Young Bengal Movement

  • In 1826, a young man of 17, Henry Vivian Derozio, whose father was of Portuguese origin and mother an English woman, joined Hindu College as a teacher.
  • Derozio promoted radical ideas through his teaching and by organizing an association for debates and discussions on literature, history, philosophy and science.
  • Derozio’s students, collectively called the Young Bengal, ridiculed all old social traditions and customs, debated the existence of God, defied social and religious convictions and demanded freedom of thought and expression and education for women.
  • They cherished the ideals of French Revolution and the liberal thinking of England. The very strong radical views of this group and their unconventional practices like not showing respect to religious idols alarmed the orthodox Hindus of Calcutta.
  • Ideas and Teaching
    • Derozio promoted radical ideas through his teachings and by organizing an association for debates and discussions on Literature, History, Philosophy and Science.
    • Derozio wanted to spread intellectual revolution among young students.
    • He was a great propounder of liberal thinking.
    • He was supporter of Freedom of Speech, Thought and Education of Women’.
    • Defied social and religious conventions.
    • He stated that radical views were the roots of religious philosophy.
    • He ridiculed old social traditions and customs, and debated the existence of God.

Continued in next part…………………….

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