Revival versus Reform
It is often debated whether the reformers were or were not revivalists. They were, in a sense, both reformers and revivalists.
- They wanted to revive the best in our past and at the same time discard or reform the prevailing inhuman and irrational customs.
Ridiculing those who wanted to blindly return to the past, Ranade queried, “When we want to revive our institutions and customs … what particular period of history is to be taken as old?” Ranade correctly pointed out how customs and usages are constantly or ceaselessly changing.
To drive home the point that a mere blind revival of all past practices was neither wise nor practical, Ranade asked : “Shall we require our Brahmins to turn into beggars and dependents upon the king as in old days?”
“The men and gods of those days ate and drank forbidden things to excess in a way no revivalist will now venture to recommend“, said Ranade.
The reformers did not altogether discard the past and did not mind involving some of the traditions from the past. But they were not revivalists in the sense that they glorified everything that existed in an imaginary golden age. They were for a critical acceptance of the past.
The reformers were cautious men who had realized that if a return to the past was neither feasible nor welcome, then equally a complete severance from the past was impossible and undesirable. The reformist ideology stood for adjustment of the old to the new conditions in a slow and cautious manner.
In the words of Justice Telang, a reformer of Western India, “It was the duty of everyone to understand and appreciate the past and selecting all that was possible from it, apply it to the altered circumstances of today. All this was to be done with moderation, wisdom and right direction.“
The Idea Of Change And Progress
The reformers believed in the law of evolution, of change and progress.
They were critical of –
- the Hindu doctrine of Karma or re-birth, according to which our present plight was attributed to our past lives or deeds (Karma); and
- the notion of “maya” or illusion of the material world, because such beliefs caused the people to passively accept life and destroyed creativity.
To believe that our present was determined by our past and hence we should accept it with calm resignation was to believe in an uninspiring ideal which only perpetuated the status quo.
The reformers instead believed that man –
- could determine his own progress and
- was a responsible agent of change.
The reformers believed in progress. In fact, Gopal Krishna Gokhale considered progress to be one of the revolutionary ideas that had come to us from the West. A system that refused to change and adapt to new situations was destined to become a drag on society rather than serve to protect it or serve it.
The reformers sought to change those sectors of Indian society where the status quo had become not only a drag on society but also led to its political subjection and economic backwardness.
To the reformers progress and change were a sign of life, vitality and creativity.
Ranade summed up this aspect of the social reform ideology when he observed, “The change which we should all seek is thus a change –
- from constraint to freedom,
- from credulity to faith,
- from status to contract,
- from authority to reason,
- from unorganized to organised life,
- from bigotry to toleration,
- from blind fatalism to a sense of human dignity.
This is what I understand by social evolution, both for individuals and societies in this Country.”
Individual As The Centre Of All Things
The social reform ideology considered –
- the individual as the centre of all human endeavour;
- the society moves round the axis of its individuals;
The welfare and comfort of the individual in this world was the main source of inspiration for all the social reforms.
To illustrate, the reformers refused to accept the argument of the Sanatanis that sati brought benefits to the women in future births. They argued for its abolition on the ground that it brought pain and suffering were very much influenced by the Western philosophy of individualism and the Benthamite doctrine of utility interpreted as the greatest good of the greatest number.
The aim of social reform was –
- to rediscover the individuals;
- to liberate his intellect;
- to make him or her once again free, creative and happy;
- that the sense of human dignity must reassert itself.
The reformers rejected the notion that a thing had to be done simply because an authority (priests or Shastras) had enjoined it. A thing should be done only if our reason told us it was conducive to mankind’s present well-being and comfort. In other words, they rejected the principle of medieval organisation based on authority and instead pleaded for a reformed organization based on reason.
This does not mean that the reformers were against religion or religious authority as such. They were only protesting against blind acceptance of whatever was said by men who spoke in the name of religion.
For instance, Ranade preached that we are the children of God, not of men, and the voice of God is the only voice we are bound to hear. We may therefore revere all human authority and pay respects to prophets and revelations, he argued, but should never let this reverence and respect come in the way of the dictates of conscience, the inner voice of reason within us, which he described as “the divine command in us.”
One question that was persistently raised during the era of reform and is being raised to this day was : Must social reform necessarily precede other (political and economic) reforms?
Social Reform Must Precede Political Reform
One school, best represented by the Parsi reformer from Bombay, Malbari, was of the view that social reform must precede political reform.
- The state, it was argued, is based on the family and hence before trying to reform the state, attempts must be made to reform or improve the family.
- A people with their homes debased, their women ignorant and superstitious, a people trammeled with all the old world prejudices and subject to cruel and inhuman customs, can never hope to enjoy or exercise high political privileges.
- This school believed that all endeavours to achieve political reform (self-government) without fulfilling the preliminary conditions of moral and social reform were bound to end in disappointment if not in disaster.
This does not mean that the social reformers were against political freedom or driving the British out of India. They were all for ultimate self-rule but felt that genuine political freedom or self-government would be possible only after the society had changed morally, become egalitarian and rid itself of caste disabilities and superstitions.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy argued, certain administrative measures of British rule may deserve censure; but the social conditions of the people characterized by senseless and inhuman customs which undermine their vitality and debase their ideals, were infinitely worse. Hence he welcomed and even pleaded for the British connection as a necessary short time curative measure.
Gokhale even considered British rule as “providential”, a part of the divine plan to help Indians improve their lot.
Political Reform Must Precede Social Reform
At the same time, social reformers too realized the interconnection between different aspects of society.
- In Ranade‘s famous words, “You cannot have a good social system when you find yourself low in the scale of political rights, nor can you be fit to exercise political rights unless your social system is based on reason and justice. You cannot have a good economic system when your social arrangements are imperfect. If your religious ideals are low or grovelling, you cannot succeed in the social, economic or political spheres. The interdependence is not an accident but the law of our nature“.
Reforms Requiring Least Difficulty Must Precede The Other
Social reformer’s broad approach was to follow the line of least resistance.
- K.T. Telang explained this strategy as : “Secure first the reforms which you can secure with the least difficulty and then turn your energies in the direction of those reforms where more difficulty has to be encountered. You will thus obtain all that vigour which the spirit of reforms must derive from success and thus carry out the whole work of progress with greater promptitude than if you go to work the other way.”
Social & Political Reforms Must Go In Parallel
Another great figure of this era, Dadabhai Naoroji popularly known as the Grand Old Man of India took the stand that we should work for both political and social reform, but separately.
- Dadabhai took the stand that the Indian National Congress should consider only problems in which all were equally interested rather than those which tended to create conflicts.
- Dadabhai said this while reacting to Malbari’s aggressive campaign, both in India and in England, for the Age of Consent Bill which sought to prescribe a minimum age for marriage for Indian girls. In his famous presidential address to the Indian National Congress, Dadabhai expressed the view that the National Congress should confine itself only to question in which the entire nation can directly participate like political reform or demand for self-government and leave the adjustment of social reforms and other class questions to class Congresses.
The 19th century reformers looked towards the state for help in achieving social reform though it would be wrong to say that the reformers were over enthusiastic about legislation or considered it the sole method of reform. As the great reformer of the age, Sayaji Rao, the Gaekwad of Baroda, put it :
“There appear to be two great methods of reform –
- legislation and
Of these the simpler and swifter is legislation, but on the other hand, it can only deal with particular evils and its effects are less permanent and thorough. Moreover, in some respects it appears more suited to our national temperament, which like that of some continental people in Europe prefers government action to popular initiative. But legislation cannot deal with great barriers which have their roots deep in social organization. This only education can deal with“.
One thing is certain. The reformers were not prepared to accept the argument of militant nationalists like Tilak who insisted on political autonomy or self-rule preceding any attempt at social reform and criticized the reformers for weakening and destroying national pride by their perpetual criticism of their heritage and their own past institutions and practices.
Telang for instance, maintained that the state had every right to interfere for the sake of justice and humanity, even if the Shastras were against the proposed measure of reform. The British Indian Government may, have pledged itself to a policy of neutrality in religion by the Proclamation of 1858, Telang argued, but this did not give the sovereign the right to abandon his paramount duty which was to protect the subjects from unjust harm.
Ranade was more sophisticated in his support of state legislation. He pleaded with Tilak to see the difference between the alleged interference due to foreign initiative and the so-called interference due to Indian initiative. He made it clear that in matters of reform, the initiative should be chiefly Indian, based upon its tradition and dictated by the wisdom of the most representative and enlightened men in the community.
It is clear that the 19th century reformers were men of great caution.
- They were neither blind imitators of the western way of life nor reckless radicals.
- They stood for gradual, evolutionary and constructive change.
- All of them emphasized the role of education in enlightening the people and changing their hearts.
- They prized modern or western education mainly because they clearly perceived its emancipatory role.
- In Eastern India the Brahmo Samaj started schools, in Western India the Prarthana Samaj did likewise.
- The Maharaja of Baroda made primary education free and compulsory in his state because, as he himself put it, without education “no solid progress can be made and without it no lasting progress can be maintained“.
In a letter to Malbari who seemed too eager to have the British legislate reforms regardless of whether the people had been educated or not Telang wrote, “My faith in the education of public opinion as a great social force is almost unlimited. And I believe that in the long run the results of education are not only more enduring, but what might seem paradoxical, more rapid than the results of such artificial remedies as are proposed in your note“.
The reformers put faith in human conscience. They believed there was a universal conscience implicit in the individual conscience and this conscience was capable of being trained and perfected. It was to awaken the individual conscience, the individual’s sense of right and wrong, that all the social reformers put such great emphasis on education.
Bibliography : IGNOU – Modern Indian Political Thought
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