Indian Renaissance And Social Reform


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The Indian Renaissance and Social Reform movement challenged the age-old traditions and customs which bound the Indian people in chains of servitude and bondage. The burning questions of caste-oppression, child marriage, Sati and so on became the focal point of many reform movements. Attacks on idolatry and superstition were also an important feature of these reforms.

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Rational Critique Of Religion And Society

The early thinkers of modern India were pre-occupied mainly with social and religious issues. The political questions were paid little or no attention.

Raja Rammohan Roy’s first published work, Tuffat-ul-Muwnhihhidin (A Gift to Deists) is a rational critique of religious systems in general and the role of vested interests in religion. Rammohan in his later writings exposed the irrationality of Hindu religious rituals and dogmas, and social evils such as sati, child marriage etc. He considered religious reform most essential for both social reform and political modernization.

Thus, the beginning of modern Indian thinking is marked by a critique of the existing social order. This critique was carried forward by successors with a view to create a ‘modern’ society.

  • Rammohan attacked the belief in revolution, prophets, miracle and all kinds of superstitions like seeking salvation through bathing in a river and worshiping a tree etc., and pleaded for rational explanation and empirical verification as the only basis for truth.
  • Radh Kanta Deb, Henry Derozio of Hindu College, despite their criticism of Rammohan for his pro-British attitude, agreed with him on the question of rational explanations.
  • Akshay Kumar Dutt rejected religion super-naturalism and maintained that everything could be explained on the basis of reason and rationality.
  • Syed Ahmed Khan, Ranade and other thinkers too stood for a rational critique of Indian society.
  • Jyotiba Phule challenged the legitimacy of the Hindu Social order based on caste-hierarchy and pleaded for social transformation on egalitarian grounds.

Naturally, therefore Brahmo Samaj and other streams of the reform movement in Bengal fought for widespread reforms in Hindu Society.

Rammohan’s Tuhft not only forwarded the rational explanation and reason as the basis of truth but being a study of comparative religion, also contributed to the development of the idea of religious universal-ism and a universal outlook based or the unit of Godhead and monotheism.

  • Rammohan explained different religions in terms of national embodiment of one universal theism.
  • In Keshub Chandra Sen’s view all the established religions were true. Keshub’s notion of “Fatherhood of God” implied “Brotherhood of Man“.

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Religious Revivalism

Religious revivalism was a trend within the reform movements which sought to reform religion, but differed in one important respect.

  • It sought to reform by an appeal to the past – the Golden Age, as it were.
  • It sought to restore the glory of ancient religion; mainly emerging from within the womb of Hindu Society, they tried to dexterously combine pristine religious purity with many modern values like individual liberty and democracy.

Among the major religious reform movements of 19th century India, like Brahmo Samaj, Prarthana Samaj, Arya Samaj and Ramakrishna Mission, it was the latter two that really represented this appeal to the past.

The Arya Samaj with its slogan of ‘Hack to the Vedas‘ and the Ramakrishna Mission with its attempt to resurrect Vedantic Hinduism, though substantially different in their approaches to religion had the same essential purpose of reforming religion in terms with changing times. They sought to establish to some degree,

  • the freedom of individual,
  • break the stranglehold of Brahminism, and
  • reform the caste system which had birth as its solid determinant of status.

Thus, Arya Samaj and its chief architect Swami Dayanand Saraswati, repudiated the authority of the Brahmins and fought against the very idea of intermediaries between God and his devotees. To that extent, they freed the individual from the tyranny of Brahmin priesthood. It opposed polytheism and associated meaningless rituals and superstitions which split the people into innumerable sects.

The Ramakrishna Mission which drew inspiration from saints like Chandidas and Chaitanya and was initiated by the rustic saint Ramakrishna, on the other hand idealized Hinduism, its polytheism and idol worship. Swami Vivekananda, its chief propagandist, was chiefly concerned that Indian nationalism which he said must fight the corrupting ‘materialist influences’ of the west. Unification and reform of Hindu society were a prerequisite to this end.

There was thus an essential unity in the religious revivalist movements, in terms of the objectives. The Arya Samaj fought against the rigid, hereditary caste system and argued for the inclusion of guna (character), Karma (action) and Swabhava (nature) as criteria for the basis of caste. Even Shudras, according to it, could study the vedas.

It was this appeal of religious revivalism that drew hundreds of nationalist towards it and it thus signaled a component of India’s national awakening.

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Bibliography : IGNOU – Modern Indian Political Thought

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