Circumstances Leading To The Social Reform Movement

The Indian Social Reform Movement was largely, though not exclusively a product of the Western impact on Indian society.




The Indian Society in the 18th century was under the influence of several caste practices. Taboo on inter-dining and marriage and notion of pollution were some of them. The lot of the lower castes was the worst. They were treated as untouchables and required to stay in segregated localities since even their shadow was deemed to pollute a high caste Hindu. They were not allowed to use village wells and were denied education. The orthodox considered these caste rigidities and taboos as divinely ordained and denigrated or condemned all attempts at change or progress.


Plight Of Women

Next to the lot of the lower castes, the position of women was particularly hard in 18th century India. Child marriage was widely prevalent and it was customary to marry young boys between 10 and 16 to young girls between 6 and 10. Since child mortality was high in those days, many young girls became widows even before reaching the age of physical maturity. These young widows were not allowed to marry and their plight was indeed most miserable.

On the other hand, there was no bar on a widower and he was even allowed to have many wives. Polygamy was widespread among the high caste Hindus (the Kulin Brahmins of Bengal in particular) as well as Muslims. Purdah was a way of life with both Hindu and Muslim women. They were generally never allowed to come outside their chambers and could not show their uncovered faces to the outside world.


Indian society was groaning under the tyranny of inhuman customs and traditions. The people had lost all feelings of humanity and justice. What was worse, the creative spirit of the people was being undermined.


Colonial Challenge & Christianity

The social reform movement of the 19th century was partly a response to the Western impact on a traditional society and to come to terms with the colonial challenge posed by the colonial presence. Since the Western impact was first felt in Bengal, the western educated Bengalis were the first to raise the banner of reform.

At about the same time the Indian society was also exposed to the activities of christian missionaries. The missionaries like Alexander Duff, William Carey and Wilson propagated their religion through educated institutions they had started and spared neither money nor energy to spread the faith. The missionaries presented Hinduism as a mass of superstitions and cruel practices and projected Christianity as the ideal faith.

Although the missionaries failed to achieve mass conversions, their zeal to propagate the faith bore a very different kind of result –

  • It aroused a new spirit of inquiry among the thoughtful Indians regarding their own faith.
  • It made them go back to the Vedas to find out what was true Hinduism.
  • Consequently, they refused to accept the prevailing ceremonies, rituals and taboos, in short popular Hinduism, as the true faith. .


19th Century England

In England itself the 19th century was an era of great change and vitality.

It was the age of –

  • the Reform Bill;
  • the abolition of slavery;
  • the emancipation of women;
  • the great prime ministers like Peel, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli;
  • the social workers like Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Fry.


Impact Of Development In England On Indians

The English educated Indian was highly influenced by the developments in England. A new social conscience awakened among the English educated intelligentsia of India.

  • Raja Ram Mohan Roy initiated a social reform movement in Bengal, known as Brahmo Samaj which opposed the existing customs and practices of the Hindus.
  • Akshay Kumar Dutt, Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar, Debendernath Tagore, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Girish Chandra Ghose, Harish Chandra Mukherji, Raj Narain Bose and K. M. Banherjee were some of the earliest in Bengal known for their pioneering work in the direction of fighting superstition, cruelty and injustice practiced in the name of Hinduism.

The urge for reform also found expression in other parts of the country. Some of the prominent reformers are –

  • Gopal Hari Deshmukh, Mahadev Govind Ranade and Jhotiba Phule in Western India;
  • Kandukuri Veeresalinpm and Narayana Guru Swami in South India;
  • Dayananda Saraswati and Syed Ahmed Khan in North India.


The combined efforts of these reformers and the movements they had initiated brought about a significant awakening in Indian society.



Bibliography : IGNOU – Modern Indian Political Thought

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