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Growing Socioreligious Reform Movements in 19th century India
Socioreligious Movement in 19th Century India? Till the 19th century, the Emerging East India Company had attained substantial stability and control over major territories of India through direct military confrontation. The Company who had ascertained its sovereignty over Bengal and Mysore after the pitching Battle of Plassey(1757) and Anglo-Mysore Wars(1767-1799) respectively later switched to diplomatic strategies of territorial expansion by early 19th century. Under its regime, the colonial administrators commenced several policies that metamorphosed the sociopolitical, administrative, educational and economic structure of India at massive levels.
The present article attempts to shed light on the reformist and revivalist socioreligious Movement in 19th century India that was the byproduct of colonialism and had incredibly redesigned Indian tradition and culture.  

1. Brahmo Samaj: Raja Rammohan Roy:

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  • Nineteenth-century India had witnessed the emergence of rationalism, liberalism and modern vision of enlightenment among people. It marked the transition from the blind acceptance of social norms to rational interrogation of social customs and traditions. This analytical and liberal thinking was the cumulative product of colonialism and the introduction of English Medium Education in India in 1935.
  • The modern period of sophistication had observed the rise of a distinguished free-thinker and religious reformer, Raja Rammohan Rai who is generally attributed as ” Father of Modern India” and “Father of Bengal Renaissance“. He believed in gender equality and monotheism and therefore as a social and religious reformer, he vehemently opposed polytheism, idolatry, polygamy, caste system, the orthodox practices like Sati, Purdah System, Child Marriage and social inequalities etc. He advocated women education and stressed on the propagation of Rationalism and Modern Scientific Knowledge.
  • Roy founded Atmiya Sabha in 1815 for performing religious discussions. Later by 1819, he started a Bengali Journal “Sambad Kaumudi” criticizing the immolation of widows on funeral pyres of their dead husbands. He was exceedingly favoured by other newspaper writers and his efforts successfully led to the abolition of Sati in India in 1829.
  • Roy who believed in one formless God set up the first socio-religious movement- Brahmo Samaj in 1828 and denounced polytheism, priesthood, rituals and sacrifice. He condemned the prevailing superstitions among Indians and suggested prayer, meditation and reading scriptures as a means of worshipping God. He died of a disease in 1833. 
  • After 1843, Debendranath Tagore merged his Tattvabodhini Sabha (1839) with Brahmo Samaj and provided it with a ‘sectarian character’. Keshab Chandra Sen joined this socioreligious Movement in 1857 and demanded radical reforms like abolition of Purdah System, Polygamy, Child Marriage, Caste System etc. and supported widow marriage and inter-caste marriage. His consistent attempts led to the introduction of Native Marriage Act, 1892 that legalized inter-caste marriage and banned polygamy. The act clearly stated that no male below 18 and female below 14 could marry. This was the first socioreligious Movement in India that successfully adopted several progressive and developing practices like Widow Remarriage, Intercaste Marriage etc. and abolish the preceding orthodox rituals of Hinduism like Sati.

    2. Young Bengal Movement: Henry Louis Vivian Derozio 

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Initiated by a teacher Henry Louis Vivian Derozio in Hindu College in Calcutta in the late 1820s, the Socioreligious Movement- Young Bengal Movement promoted the concepts of liberty, equality, rationalism and free-thinking amongst students. Through his teaching method, he ignited radical ideas amongst students and encouraged them to question the conservative Hindu customs. It supported women education, widow remarriage and protested against idolatry, polygamy, caste system, the orthodox Sati and Purdah System.

OPPOSITION OF BRAHMO SAMAJ AND YOUNG BENGAL MOVEMENTCreated by Radhakant Deb in 1830, Dharma Sabha was a social organization that defended the age-old practice of Sati and berated Raja Rammohan Roy and Henry Derozio for contradicting and distrusting the practice. They demanded the non-interference of colonial administrators in the religious structure of India. Later, it also campaigned against Hindu Widow Remarriage Act, 1856.

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3. The Deoband Movement: Rashid Ahmed Gangohi and Muhammad Qasim Nanautavi

The Deoband School of Islamic Theology was started by two theologians Rashid Ahmed Gangohi and Muhammad Qasim Nanautavi who initiated a revivalist  Socioreligious Movement called Deoband Movement at Deoband in Uttar Pradesh in 1866.
It aimed to propagate the true teachings of the Quran and uplift Muslims through the promotion of religious and moral education amongst them. This Socioreligious Movement denied the propagation of western education and kept alive the spirit of jihad against the colonial rule. 

4.Prarthana Samaj: Dr Atmaram Pandurang

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Founded by Dr Atamram Pandurang in Maharashtra in 1867, Prarthana Samaj was a reformist Socioreligious Movement that stimulated universal brotherhood and equality of castes. Under the leadership of Mahadev Govind Ranade and R.G Bhandarkar, it strongly disparaged Child Marriage, Polygamy and Caste Annihilation. The leaders of this Socioreligious Movement severely attacked the caste system in India. It firmly believed in female education and thus considerably attempted to spread education amongst them. This Socioreligious Movement advocated inter-caste dining and marriage.

SOCIAL ACTIVISM THROUGH LITERATURE: Renowned as ‘Lokhitwadi‘, Gopal Hari Deshmukh was the major literary voice in 19th century colonial India who condemned child marriage, dowry, polygamy and caste-based injustices through his writings in the weekly magazine called  “Prabhakar“. He penned for women rights and also fired criticism on Brahmanical Supremacy.

5. Satyashodak Samaj: Jyotirao Phule

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Mahatma Jyotirao Phule laid the first stone of the Socioreligious Movement called Satyashodhak Samaj on September 24, 1873. This Society of Seekers of Truth denounced untouchability, caste system, female infanticide, idolatry and priesthood and demanded equal rights of education for women and lower caste people. It criticized the Brahimical superiority in social configuration and promoted respect for all religions and castes.

The Samaj actively published a magazine named “Deenabandhu” for making people realize the atrocities inflicted by Brahmins on lower caste people. When the national movements were  upsurging gigantically, Jyotirao Phule refused the society to participate in the nationalist struggles for freedom because he thought “Shudras could expand their scope by directing their complaints to a benevolent, if misguided, the British government.” This Socioreligious Movement was the first manifestation of Dalit’s agitation and resistance against the oppression by Brahmins.

6. Arya Samaj: Swami Dayanand Saraswati

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Established by Swami Dayanand Saraswati on 10 April 1875, Arya Samaj was the Socioreligious Movement in Mumbai that aimed to revoke conventional Hindu rituals like image-worshipping, polygamy, Purdah and Sati System. Realizing the necessity of revival of religious scriptures, Swami Dayanand urged the people to “Go back to the Vedas” for spiritual renewal. It repudiated the hereditary basis of the caste system and strongly functioned to alleviate the caste-based marginalization in India like untouchability. 

Arya Samaj had launched a remarkable movement in early 20th century called “Shudhi Movement” that endeavoured to bring back the “Hindus proselytized into Christian or Muslim” again into Hindu fold after the re-conversion and sanctification.

Asserting on the importance of education, this Socioreligious Movement inaugurated numerous academic institutions in India like Dayanand Anglo Vedic (DAV) Schools for imparting modern education in Humanities and Science and to incite a national awakening amongst students.

7. Theosophical Society: Madame H.P. Blavatsky and Col. H.S. Olcott.

Theosophical Society was a non-sectarian body that was commenced by H.P Blavatsky and Col. H.S. Olcott. in New York in 1875. It was later expanded to India and its headquarter was set up in Adyar near Madras in 1886. From its beginning, it contributed to the resurrection of ancient religions like Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism for spiritual purification and besides, it also encouraged universal brotherhood.  Annie Besant gained its Presidentship in 1907 and thereafter this society energetically refurbished Eastern beliefs and recognized the doctrine of the transformation of the soul and occult mysticism.

The theosophists re-inspired Indians and helped them retrieve glory and self-respect in their tradition. Additionally, they also functioned for uplifting the socially downtrodden and depressed sections by focusing on hygiene and health-related issues. It also campaigned against child marriage and strongly spread education amongst people.

8. The Aligarh Movement: Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

Growing Socioreligious Reform Movements in 19th Century India

Started by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in 1877, the Socioreligious Movement called  Aligarh Movement fostered Muslims to gain Western education and scientific temperament. With this purpose, they set up Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, the forerunner of Aligarh Muslim University where educators attempted to invoke inherent rationalism amongst Muslims. Sir Syed prohibited Muslims to enter into Indian National Congress because he considered them somewhat anti-nationalist and provocative.

9. Aruvippuram Movement: Sri Narayana Guru

Growing Socioreligious Reform Movements in 19th Century India

The Socioreligious Movement called Aruvippuram Movement was launched by Sri Narayana Guru in Kerala in 1888 against injustices of the caste system and to instigate the concepts of spiritual enlightenment and social equality amongst people. 

10. The Ahmedia Movement: Mirza Ghulam Ahmed

Growing Socioreligious Reform Movements in 19th Century India
In 1889, the Ahmedia Movement was launched by Mirza Ghulam Ahmed who claimed himself as the incarnation of Jesus Christ and Hindu God Krishna. Later, he denied the same and called him only a minor prophet. This Socioreligious Movement advocated Western liberalism, theology and promoted fraternity amongst religious communities. It established schools that promoted modern Western education.
Growing Socioreligious Reform Movements in 19th Century India
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11. Ramakrishna Mission: Swami Vivekananda

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Started by Indian mystic Ramakrishna Paramhans’ chief disciple Swami Vivekananda in Belur, Calcutta in 1897, the socioreligious Movement Ramakrishna Mission seeks to propagate the true meaning of Vedantic spiritualism and the doctrine of social service for attaining redemption. Its motto was “Atmano mokshartham Jagat pitaya cha” i.e. ‘one’s salvation and for the welfare of the world‘  that is vividly reflected in its humanitarian social welfare programmes.

12. The Depressed Class Mission Society: Maharshi Vitthal Ramji Shinde

Growing Socioreligious Reform Movements in 19th Century India

In 1906, Maharshi Vitthal Ramji Shinde started “The Depressed Class Mission Society” for uplifting the socially backward sections and to ameliorate the practice of untouchability at the national level. It demanded to improve the economic and social conditions of depressed classes and facilitate them with educational opportunities. It opened numerous nation-wide schools and hostels for depressed sections and in 1917, it succeeded in convincing Indian National Congress to pass a resolution condemning untouchability.

13. Seva Sadan Society: Ramabai Ranade

Growing Socioreligious Reform Movements in 19th Century India

Established by Ramabai Ranade in Maharashtra in 1909, Seva Sadan Society focused on women empowerment and education. She instilled reformist and feminist ideas amongst women through her orations and liberal lectures on womanhood. She unsubscribed from the Marxist ideas of motherhood that clutched women in conservative household boundaries. Rather she demanded a fine balance between the modern and traditional responsibilities of women. She increasingly worked for skill development amongst women and greatly contributed to the upliftment of women. 

 14. Social Service League: Narayan Malhar Joshi

Growing Socioreligious Reform Movements in 19th Century India

Narayan Malhar Joshi initiated the Social Service League in 1911. This organization aimed to serve the victims of famine, epidemics, flood and other natural disasters plaguing in India. It conducted social welfare programmes for the poor and destitute. It also set up educational institutions, dispensaries and libraries.

15. Servants of India: Gopal Krishna Gokhale 

Commenced by Gopal Krishna Gokhle in Pune Maharashtra in 1915, Servants of India Society fought against alcoholism, grinding poverty, oppression of women, domestic violence and the social malpractices of untouchability and caste discrimination etc. This society campaigned for education, sanitation, health care etc for women and socially weaker sections.

16. Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha: Dr B. R. Ambedkar:

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Laid by Dr B.R. Ambedkar in 1924 on the principle of “Educate, Organize and Agitate“,  Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha was primarily concentrated on improving the social and economic conditions of untouchables and depressed classes. It functioned to spread education and culture amongst depressed sections by opening hostels and providing them with necessary facilities. It worked to rectify the social problems faced by untouchables by putting forward their grievances to the colonial government.

17. Self-Respect Movement: E.V. Ramaswamy

Growing Socioreligious Reform Movements in 19th Century India

Questioning and shattering the Brahminical superiority, Self-Respect Movement was an egalitarian movement led by E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker in Tamil Nadu in 1925 that demanded equal rights for women and backward classes. It functioned for the revival of Dravidian languages like Telugu, Kannada, Tamil and Malayalam. Concerning “Namathu Kurikkol” and “Tiravitakkalaka Lateiyam“, the objectives of this movement are delineated below-
1. To remove the caste-based social configuration
2. To secure equal rights and opportunities for women and depressed classes.
3. To discourage the foundation of temples and rather the common funds to be mainly utilized for educational enhancement and employment.

Though this movement couldn’t bring any considerable changes to the economic condition of women and socially backward people it recreated a sense of self-respect and self-reliance amongst people. The movement broadly promoted inter-caste and inter-religious marriages and demanded the legalization of marriages without a priest. As an outcome of this movement post-independence, Tamil Nadu became the first state to legalize the Hindu marriage without Brahman priest.

18. Harijan Sevak Sangh: Mahatma Gandhi

When the British government accepted Dr B.R Ambedkar’s demand for communal representation for depressed classes, Gandhi revolted and subsequently set himself on indefinite hunger strike. Later, Mahatma Gandhi signed Poona Pact with Dr Ambedkar and started an organization named All India Anti-Touchability League on 30 September 1932 which was later renamed as Harijan Sevak Sangh for eradicating the performative act of untouchability. 


 From the above analysis and our previous discussion on A New Era of Political Consciousness and National Awakening Aftermath Revolt Of 1857, we can broadly understand how numerous social and religious reformers emerged in 19th century India claiming the necessity of refining the sociopolitical and religious structure of society. They coordinated their efforts and questioned the persisting norms like Sati, Purdah System and suppression of lower strata of society and actively functioned for the eradication of these orthodox practices. These voices of struggle, reformation and metamorphosis were somehow submerged under the majestic sweep of Indian history but these whispering voices undeniably further acted as the source of inspiration for the nationalist revolutionaries and the catalyst of national awakening amongst countrymen.


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