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DEV SAMAJ, a religious and social reform society, was founded on 16 February 1887 in Lahore by Pandit Shiv Narayan Agnihotri (1850-1929). The story of the Dev Samaj is in essence the story of its founder. Pandit Agnihotri was born in the village of Akbarpur, in Uttar Pradesh, on 20 December 1850. At sixteen he went to Thomson College of Engineering at Roorkee. In November 1873, he moved to Lahore taking a position as drawing master at the Government College.

Pandit Agnihotri, who had already begun seriously to question orthodox Hinduism through the influence of Munshi Kanhayalal Alakhdhari and his personal guru. Pandit Shiv Dayal, soon joined the Lahore Brahmo Samaj.He was a dramatic and effective speaker, a prolific writer of tracts and pamphlets and a successful journalist. In all, he wrote nearly 300 books and pamphlets during his lifetime. Initially Pandit Agnihotri accepted the rational, eclectic, and reformist ideology of the Brahmo Samaj.

He wrote and spoke in favour of marriage reform, against the evils of child marriage, and supported vegetarianism. In 1877, he met Swami Dayanand and although they agreed on many of the values commonly shared. Dayanand and Agnihotri clashed persistently. In the years that followed, Pandit Agnihotri defended Brahmo ideals in opposition to the new Arya Samaj. Agnihotri also defended Sikhism against attacks made by the Arya Samaj in 1888-89.

Agnihotri dedicated more and more of his energy to the Brahmo cause. He became a Brahmo missionary travelling extensively throughout the Punjab and, finally, on 20 December 1882, he took sannyas with the new name, Satyanand Agnihotri. He decided to devote his entire life to religious pursuit and social service. Factional strife, competition for leadership, differences over beliefs and the resulting tensions began to impinge on Agnihotri`s commitment to the Brahmo Samaj.

He found himself less and less comfortable within the Brahmo movement, and finally resigned from the Punjab Brahmo Samaj in 1886.The founding of the Dev Samaj in 1887 provided Agnihotri with a new opening. By the end of 1887, he and his new organization began to move away from the central ideology of the Brahmo Samaj. In place of the eclectic rationalism of the Brahmos based on a reinterpretation of traditional Hindu texts, the Dev Samaj made the `Guru` Pandit Agnihotri, and his own personal revelations the central principle.

"Book revelations" whether Arya, Brahmo, Christian, or Islamic were rejected; the `guru` became all. In 1892, Agnihotri initiated a policy of dual worship, both of himself and of God. Three years later the worship of God ended, leaving only the `Guru` Pandit Agnihotri as the focus of worship and of all ideological innovation.Although the Dev Samaj followed patterns of leadership and legitimization different from those of other reform movements within Punjabi Hinduism, its ideology remained similar.

As with the Brahmos and Aryas, the Dev Samaj rejected contemporary Hinduism. Its rituals and deities were replaced by worship of the true `guru,` Dev Bhagvan Atma. All caste restrictions were rejected.Members of the Dev Samaj were expected to practise inter dining and inter-caste marriage. Pandit Agnihotri also sought to change the role of women through the elimination of child marriage; he set the approved age of marriage at twenty for boys and sixteen for girls.

He discouraged excessive dowries, pardah, and the traditional mourning rites carried out by Punjabi women.Agnihotri taught that widow marriage was acceptable and married a widow himself following the death of his first wife. The Dev Samaj maintained that women as well as men should be educated and, to further this end, it opened a coeducational school at Moga on 29 October 1899. This later became the Dev Samaj High School, and in 1901 the Samaj opened a separate girls` school, the Dev Samaj Balika Vidyalaya.

Over the years the Dev Samaj founded other schools and colleges in many parts of the Punjab. Above all else, the Dev Samaj taught a strongly moral doctrine.Its members were urged to be completely honest in both their public and private lives. They should not lie, steal, cheat, accept bribes, or gamble. They should take neither liquor nor drugs and should practise strict vegetarianism. The Samaj members were divided into three classes, Sahayaks, or sympathizers and Navajivan Yaftas, those who had found a new life.

The former joined the Dev Samaj, paid Rs 10 per year, and accepted the leadership of Pandit Agnihotri. The latter members were expected to follow the strict moral code of the Dev Samaj, to reject all "false" religious symbols and to donate onetenth of their income to the Samaj. A third section of members included those who had taken a strict religious vow dedicating themselves to the pursuit of Dev Dharam.The strict moral code of the Dev Dharam appealed to educated Punjabis, who came to make up the membership of the Samaj.

Dev Samajis were almost all educated, literate men and even a large percentage of their women were literate. Their position in society gave the movement far greater influence than sheer numbers would allow. The Samaj was always an elite organization even at its peak during the 1920`s.Following the death of Pandit Agnihotri the movement declined, but did not disappear. Partition saw the loss of its properties in Lahore and as a result the centre of the movement shifted to the MogaFirozpur area where it still continues to adhere to the Vigyan Mulak Dharam, the Science Grounded Religion of Pandit Shiv Narayan Agnihotri.

References:

1. Kanal, P.V., Bhagwan Dev Atma. Lahore, 1942
2. Farquhar, J.N., Modern Religious Movements in India. Delhi, 1977
3. Jones, Kenneth W., Arya Dharm. Delhi, 1976
4. Mittal, K.K., Perspectives of the Philosophy of Devatma. Delhi, 1983

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