Arya Samaj Reformist Movement

In 1875, Dayanand Saraswati founded Arya Samaj. Arya Samaj was not only a reform movement but also an attempt to recover the traditional values that were fundamental to the Indian social system. The reformers rose into prominence with the growing acceptance of western education and the need for social rethinking in India. The reformers were, to a large extent, working in tandem with the colonial administration.

There was an implicit understanding between the British administrators and the reformers, particularly on the issue of spreading modern education. There was a good deal of understanding between them on the abolition of social evils. The reformers were, however, criticized by the revivalists for being lenient to Christianity. The reformers were even labeled as the stooges of colonial values.

Arya Samaj was an attempt to recover the Indian Tradition

Arya Samaj was not only a reform movement but also an attempt to recover the traditional values that were fundamental to the Indian social system. It advocated for the infallibility of the Vedas and Hindu ancient values. The Theosophical Society of Annie Basant founded in 1875 also advocated for the study of ancient Hindu, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian philosophy. There was an upsurge in revivalist initiatives. Swami Vivekananda founded the Ram Krishna Mission in 1892.

Vivekananda opposed the caste system and untouchability. The revivalists also heralded several areas where reformation was required. They were firm in heralding the doctrines of Gita and Yoga. They insisted on upholding Indian values while not failing to uphold reason, science, and humanism. An important meeting ground between the reformers and revivalists was the equal commitment to abolish untouchability, superstition, polygamy, child marriage, and to promote widow-remarriage, dignity, and education for women, etc

Birth of Arya Samaj

dayanand saraswati
Dayanand Saraswati, Founder of Arya Samaj

The Arya Samaj as a social transformation movement was founded in the year 1875 in Bombay. The key founder was Dayanand Saraswati. Saraswati was interested in promoting native educational resources. He took a leading role in translating Vedic learning materials into Hindi. He was keen to compile a mass literary source. Arya Samaj is a Sanskrit derivative meaning a noble society. It came about as a response to reformists who were largely swept away by the European enlightenment values. It was a social reform movement with an Indian premise. Arya Samaj regarded Vedas as the origin and source of all wisdom and virtues. It had elements that the world could replicate. 

Unlike Brahmo Samaj, the Samaj stood for promoting the Indian learning system and values. Arya Samaj advocated for social reforms and the philosophy of one God. It was a cultural movement to reclaim Vedas to counter the growing influence of Christianity. It had the ambition to proselytize in Hinduism which was to be accompanied by modernizing Hinduism. It took up the issues concerning social evils in India. For the Arya Samajists, it was not necessary to solely depend on Western values to bring reformation in the Indian social system.

The issue of fighting caste discrimination required a self-awakening of Indians. Arya Samaj began to rebuke the social banning of widow remarriage in 1856. It believed in educating Indian values to secure social awakening which was essential for abolishing child marriage and re-conversion of those who had been converted to Christianity and Islam. 

Arya Samaj R.V. Russell 1916
A meeting held in 1916 | Image Credit: Wikipedia 

Identifying as an alternative to Western education, Dayanand advocated for Vedic knowledge as the foundation for all forms of knowledge. The Vedic knowledge was infallible and equally compatible with any other form of knowledge system. Redefining polytheism in India, Dayanand argued that Arya Samaj believed in one God philosophy. He also pointed out that all the different facets of Hindu gods and goddesses were to converge into one god. 

Tenets of Arya Samaj

The activities of Arya Samaj were spread out to several parts of India including Rajasthan, Gujarat, Central India, and Punjab. The Samaj worked in a decentralized organizational setup. The central activities of Arya Samaj were run through regional and zonal units known as Kendras. Through the Kendras, Dayanand launched a wider campaign to associate people voluntarily to reform and do away with dogmatism and superstitious beliefs. The works of Arya Samaj in north India were to uplift Jat’s society. 

The reformers and revivalists faced unbending resistance from the orthodox religious leaders. It was hardly easy to pursue reformists’ agenda where the socio-economic and political power was confined to a few upper caste Indians. One of the greatest contributions of Arya Samaj was its postulations on Vedic monotheism. Like Brahmo Samaj, it also rejected idol worshipping. Dayanand’s idea of monotheism was supported by the natural merge of all Hindu gods and goddesses into one god. 

Another fundamental commitment of Arya Samaj was to bring every India to a process of education. It believed education was the only way out to resolve mass superstitions and dogmatism in India. Education was in the long run expected to eradicate poverty, suppression of women, and all forms of injustices in India. The working tenets of Arya Samaj were based on the ideals of the Vedas, Rig-Veda, Yajur-Veda, Sam-Veda, and Atharva-Veda. Arya Samaj believed in the omnipresence of a merciful and just god. To spread the Vedic values, the Samaj thought it crucial to establish educational institutions. The Samaj established numerous residential educational institutions which came to be known as the Gurukuls. 

The Gurukul system of education did not discriminate against anyone on the grounds of gender, caste, and creed. It encouraged gender parity as both were advised to inculcate the urge for knowledge. The Gurukul system is an alternative to the Western educational system. The Gurukul system of education relied on ancient Vedic teachings and the recovery of ideal principles of Vedas. The objective was to mainly provide the Hindus in India with an indigenously grown schooling system. The Vedic educational system was regarded as a mechanism to evade Western cultural and knowledge domination.

As part of its educational initiatives, Arya Samaj founded Dayanand Anglo Vedic (DAV) Schools and Colleges in 1886 India to propagate the ancient Hindu knowledge system. These educational institutions promoted a blend of religious and scientific knowledge systems. Today, DAV educational system has spread overseas and has become one of the single largest educational networks with more than seven hundred institutions all over the world. It has succeeded in promoting Hindi and Sanskrit as key languages in the learning system. 

The 10 commandments of Arya Samaj

10 rules of Arya Samaj

Arya Samaj believed in the integration of philosophy and praxis. The works of Samaj were based on ten crucial philosophical principles. The principles are listed as below;

  1. Every ultimate knowledge emerges from the Vedas. 
  2. Human actions should be guided by righteousness – a Dharma.
  3. Accept the Truth and dispel the Untruth.
  4. Promote Knowledge, and discard ignorance.
  5. Think and practice others’ welfare and well-being.
  6. God is a spirit and not an idol – stand against idol-worshipping  
  7. Stand for the good cause of the world. 
  8. Treat all with compassion, love, and fairness.
  9. Discard caste discrimination.
  10. Uphold social norms and relate them to the promotion of individual self

Taking up initiatives on proselytization, the Arya Samajists did not appreciate the early reformers for uncritically submitting to the Christian values. To them, it resulted in the growing consolidation of foreign rule in India. They denounced the reformers for encouraging the conversion of Indians to Christianity. As a response, it started a process to bring those converts back to Hinduism. Proselytization was one of the key programs of Arya Samaj.

The program of re-proselytization was carried out through Vedic procedures. The reconversion process was known by the name of ‘Shuddi’. The Arya Samaj also encouraged several movements that aimed at preserving Hindu rituals like Sandhya Pujanam, Havan, chant mantras, sing bhajan-kirtan, etc. The Samaj also endorsed several Hindu religious practices like Sandhyavandanam  (meditative prayer using Vedic mantras with divine sound) and milk offering rituals like agnihotra

Impact of Arya Samaj

The impact of Arya Samaj was that it was able to question caste discrimination embedded in the Hindu social system. It stood for the democratization of rituals and stopping the monopoly of the upper caste – the Brahmins. The volunteers of Arya Samaj were allowed to carry out Gayatri Pujas. The involvement of Arya Samajists in performing rituals was to stop Brahminical monopoly on religious and ritualistic performance.

The Samaj also encouraged all the communities to verse with Vedic messages and knowledge. Aryan Samaj successfully challenged several evil practices like child marriage, polygamy, the Purdah System, Sati, and deprivation of women. The role of Arya Samaj encouraged women’s education and inter-caste matrimonial relations. The role of Arya Samaj was not only limited to the transformation of cultural and religious practices but also to encouraging self-reliance and non-dependence on foreign markets and goods. The Samajists played a critical role in popularising Hindi and Sanskrit education which in turn cushioned anti-colonial sentiments and critique of western values. 

Arya Samaj has worked intending to recover and revive the forgotten values of the Aryan culture, to inspire people to take pride in indigenous heritage. It was a strategic struggle of the later reformers who thought it necessary to revive cultural values to question foreign rule in India. To them, the western values were weakening the Indian social fabric, particularly the Hindu values. The revivalist aspirations of Arya Samaj were, however, often in contradiction with the modern democratic and secular ethos that was germinating in nationalist imagination in India. It remained a bone of contention during the anti-colonial struggle of India.

Arya Samaj runs several humanitarian initiatives while providing education at the school and higher education levels. Arya Samaj promotes spirituality and philanthropic activities in alliance with like-minded non-governmental initiatives. To date, Samaj works as a charitable collective committed to women’s upliftment, widow re-marriage, and education for weaker sections. The ideas of the Arya Samaj movement garnered support from the toiling masses who were facing social and cultural repressions. Till today, the Samaj has been known for organizing collective marriage ceremonies while consistently campaigning for widow re-marriage and Vedic education.

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