Religious Reforms

The 19th century attempt at religious reform had two aspects. The first sought to remove idolatry and religious superstitions and the second, to present a theistic ideal.




The Attack On Idolatry And Superstitions


The early social reformers adopted almost an iconoclastic attitude towards idol worship and polytheism. The endeavour of the Brahmo Samaj, for instance, was to remove from Hinduism all idolatrous practices. They considered the proliferation of gods and goddesses as later development, unknown to vedic age.

The polytheism was sought to be justified on the ground that the spirit behind it was of pure monotheism. Raja Ram Mohan Roy refused to accept this argument, as the orthodox Hindu had a distinct conception of the individuality of every deity he worships. “Neither do they (the Hindus) contended, “regard the images of these gods merely in the light of elevating the mind …they are simply in themselves made objects of worship.”

The apologists of image worship argued that idolatry was a harmless practice, “calculated to do much good and no harm”. The reformers in reply pointed to the quarrels among the worshipers of different gods and certain practices associated with certain forms of idol worship.

  • Regarding the first point this is what Raja Ram Mohan Roy had to say, “So tenacious are these devotees in respect of the honour due to their chosen divinities that when they meet in such holy places as Hardwar, the adjustment of the points of precedence not only become occasions of warmest verbal altercations, but sometimes even physical blows and violence.”
  • Regarding the latter point, the Bengali reformers cited the cult of Krishna and Kali worship which were often accompanied by human and animal sacrifices and marked by use of wine and sexual licence.

Some critics charged the early 19th century reformers and the Brahmo Samaj in particular of being heavily influenced by Christianity and of trying to Christianize Hinduism.

  • This is not a fair charge. All that the early Bengali reformers were trying to do was to liberate and rationalize Hinduism and put it on a rational basis so that it may provide a stimulus to all-round progress without cutting the Hindus off completely from their past. These reformers can be compared to men like Bacon, Disraeli and Luther who struck hard at the roots of medieval European society. Like their European counterparts, the early Bengali reformers sought to raise their voice against blind acceptance of religious authority and against the tyranny of priests and religious dogma.


The New Theistic Ideal

The 19th century religious reform movement not only repudiated polytheism, but more importantly, stressed the theistic tendencies in Hinduism. Raja Ram Mohan Roy made common cause with Christian and Muslim Unitarianism. He thus opposed the Christian doctrine of Trinity, arguing that it was erroneous to conceive of God and his son and the Holy Spirit as if they were three distinct entities.

The Brahmo Samaj

  • It claimed that only God defined as “the Eternal, Unsearchable and Immutable Being who is the author and preserver of the Universe can claim the unqualified and enthusiastic worship of all men without distinctions of caste, colour, creed or race”.
  • It claimed that such a conception was propounded in the Upanishads written by the ancient Hindu seers and sages.
  • It wanted to reestablish Hinduism in this pristine, pure form, freed from all superstitions and prevailing inhuman practices.
  • It attacked the idolatrous tendency in all creeds and asked followers of all religions to return to one God.



Bibliography : IGNOU – Modern Indian Political Thought

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