BRAHMO SAMAJ. The expression “Brahmo Samaj” (correct transcription, “Brahma Samaja”) literally stands for a society of the worshippers of Brahman, the Supreme Reality, according to Hindu philosophy. It is the name of the Theistic Church founded by Raja Rammohun Roy (1772-1833), in Calcutta on 20 August 1828. The history of the movement leading to the foundation of this “house of worship” is intimately bound up with that of the individual career of Rammohun Roy.
Born in the village of Radhanagar in the district of Hooghly, West Bengal, of wealthy and orthodox Brahman (Vaisnava) parents, he received in his boyhood the traditional education of the country and attained remarkable proficiency in Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit.Later in life he learnt English, Greek, Latin and Hebrew. A study of the Qur`an and Islamic theology shook his faith in the popular idolatrous forms of Hindu worship and made him a lifelong admirer of the uncompromising monotheism of Islam. A profound acquaintance with the Upanisads, the BraAmasutra and the Gita and Indian philosophical literature in general, convinced him that the concept of the unity of the Godhead was the very essence of Hinduism.
He had also deeply studied the philosophy of the Brahmanical Tantras. He studied Mahayana Buddhism together with its later decadent phases, and he is said also to have mastered some Jaina scriptural texts.He had also a considerable familiarity, presumably due to his travels in upper India and stay at Banaras and Patna as well as through his command over the Hindi language, with the literature of the medieval Indian bhakti movement. He drew inspiration from it and specifically claimed medieval saints like Kabir, Dadu, and others as among the spiritual ancestors of his own monotheistic creed.
His study of Indian and Islamic thought movements was thus comprehensive and almost always firsthand. Knowledge of a number of European languages enabled him to master both the spiritual and secular traditions of Western thought.By a cultivation of Christian scriptures he acquired a profound respect for the moral precepts of Jesus Christ. His secular studies included the literature of empirical philosophy from Bacon to Locke, the propaganda of freethinking and illumination as represented by Hume, Voltaire, Volney, Thomas Paine and others, the philosophy of utilitarianism as propounded by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill and some forms of contemporary socialist thought and movement, particularly the school of Robert Owen.
His extensive studies in philosophy and comparative religion thus prepared Rammohun Roy for the task to which he was to devote his lifethe task of restoring Hinduism to its original norm of a monistic and monotheistic creed.He was however not a revivalist and was fully alive to the challenge that had arisen in the shape of the introduction of Western science and thought. He felt strongly the need of a new philosophy of life, which would, without sacrificing the genuine spiritual heritage of India, absorb and assimilate the spirit of modernism imported from the West. He warmly advocated the introduction of Western science and technology into the educational curriculum of India and became a pioneer of English education and enlightened journalism in this country.
He fought the superstitions and prejudices that had gripped the contemporary Hindu community, raised his voice against the caste system and was chiefly instrumental in inducing the British government to abolish the rite of sati or burning widows alive. He laid the foundation of political agitation in India, appeared publicly as an advocate of the liberty of the press as well as the champion of the exploited Indian peasantry. In fact deeply religious as he was, he had conceived religion not as a narrow personal creed, but as an all prevading elevating principle operating in every sphere of individual, social and national life. The foundation of the Brahmo Samaj brought to a focal point this comprehensive scheme of religious, social, intellectual and political transformation of India as visualized and formulated by Rammohun Roy.
The uncompromising monotheism of Islam, the doctrine of self knowledge of the Upanisads, the moral teachings of Christ, the liberal social message of Buddhism and the deep and simple piety of the saints of the medieval Indian bhakti movement had helped to shape this universal outlook. The result was however not syncretism, but synthesis, Rammohun`s emphasis being always on the unity of the fundamentals of the diverse faiths. The Brahmo Samaj was conceived by its founder not as the religious organization of a particular sect, but as a fellowship of worship which could be joined by anyone irrespective of his or her sectarian affiliation.
The worship was made strictly monotheistic, no image, picture, symbol or any other created thing being allowed into the premises where it was conducted. The character of the service, though universal, was decidedly Hindu and at this stage it consisted of readings from the Vedas, exposition of the Upanisads and devotional music. The distinction of caste was not observed by the Hindus present, except in one respect. The Telegu Brahmans engaged to recite the Vedas could not be persuaded to admit non Brahman listeners to their presence and had to be placed within a separate enclosure.
But the Upanisads were explained by the more liberal Bengali Brahman pandits to the general audience (including non Brahmans, and sometimes non Hindus) in violation of the orthodox rules of caste. In respect of religious music which he introduced into the Brahmo Samaj service, Rammohun had certainly been influenced by the practice of singing hymns as part of the Christian Church service. He however also drew inspiration from the examples of the followers of Guru Nanak, Dadu and Kabir as he had clearly indicated in his tract Prarthanapatra (1823) and it is not difficult to see that Sikh sabdas had a large share in moulding Rammohun Roy`s outlook in this regard.
The creed of the Brahmo Samaj as conceived by Rammohun Roy was monotheism, its philosophy monism and its social ideal service to humanity. In his own interpretation of the Vedanta, Rammohun was a monist and he mainly followed Sankara except on four points, viz. (a) he laid, consistently with his monistic or advaita position, a much greater emphasis on upasana (adoration and prayer); (b) he declared Brahma/nana (knowledge of Brahman) and moksa (final liberation) to be within reach of the householder (grihastha); (c) he assigned a much more positive role than the conventional advait in would be prepared to do to the doctrine of maya as the creative power of Brahman; (d) he recognized the ideal of humanism and service as an adjunct to his brahmavada (belief in Brahman) as absolute.
The Brahmo Samaj after remaining moribund for a few years following Rammohun`s departure for England in 1830 and his premature death in 1833, was provided with a solid organizational framework by Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905), eldest son of Dwarkanath Tagore, Rammohun`s trusted friend and collaborator. In 1839, Debendranath established the Tattvabodhini Sabha the declared objective of which was “the extensive propagation of Brahmo Dharma.” The Sabha at once became the organizational wing of the infant Brahmo Samaj and on its platform assembled all sections of progressive elements in contemporary Bengal, including Pandit is varchandra Vidyasagar, philanthropist and social reformer, Akshay Kumar Datta.
rationalist and one of the makers of Bengali prose, Rajendralal Mitra, noted oriental scholar, Rajnarayan Bose, the saintly scholar and grandfather of Sri Aurobindo, Isvarchandra Gupta, poet and journalist, and a number of brilliant young students of the Hindu College belonging to the group known as “Young Bengal.” Rituals and ceremonies of the Church were now drawn up, the most prominent being the system of initiation and the form of divine service. On 21 December 1843, Debendranath, along with twenty of his companions, was formally initiated into the new faith and the foundations of a sect of Brahmos were laid.
A system of subscribed membership was started. Up to 1866, the year of the first schism in the history of the organization, Debendranath remained the accredited leader of the Calcutta Brahmo Samaj which maintained and carried forward the best traditions 01 the days of Rammohun Roy. A remarkable change that occurred in Brahmoism during this epoch was the formal abandonment of the belief in the infallibility of scriptures. The basis of Brahmoism was declared to be “the human heart illumined by spiritual knowledge born of self realization.” The monotheistic creed of the Samaj was however still regarded as the noblest and purest expression of Hinduism and the Hindu Sastras (minus their polytheistic accretions) continued to be studied with respect.
Less intellectual and more spiritual in his mental makeup than Rammohun Roy, Debendranath laid a more pronounced emphasis on bhakti or devotion in his exposition of the Sastras and ultimately veered round to qualified monism (Visistadvaitavada), a position which the Brahmo Samaj can be said to have retained till now. Under his inspiring leadership, the Samaj played a distinguished role on sponsoring social reforms such as widow marriage, spread of education, development of Bengali literature through its organ the Tattvabodhini Patrika and opposition to the efforts of Christian missionaries to villify Hinduism and to gain converts from the ranks of the Hindus.
The Brahmo movement thus grew in extent and influence throughout Bengal and upper India and the Samaj became a great moral and spiritual force in the country. To the end of his long life, Debendranath, called maharsi (great sage) for the deep spirituality of his nature by his admiring fellow believers, continued to enjoy the respect of all sections of his countrymen. In course of his spiritual quest, he found in the teachings of Guru Nanak one abiding source of inspiration. He visited the Golden Temple of Amritsar more than once, joined the temple singers in the choric singing of hymns there, learnt the language of the Sikh Scripture and openly expressed his admiration of the democratic organization of Sikh places of worship and the Sikh mode of initiation.
His autobiography, which is a charming account of the gradual unfolding of his spiritual life, is strewn with quotations from the Sikh Scripture, along with those from the Upanisads and Haflz. The next phase of the Brahmo movement is dominated by the dynamic personality of Keshav Chandra Sen (1838-1884) who had joined the Samaj in 1857 and had become the right-hand man of Debendranath Tagore. Differences arising from a conflict of two radically different temperaments, soon led to a parting of ways.
Debendranath was intensely national in his religious ideal drawing his inspiration mainly from the sublime doctrines of the Upanisads and he was always in favour of emphasizing the special relation that Brahmoism had with Hinduism of the Vedantic form. In social questions too he was for a slow and cautious move forward always seeking, like Rammohun Roy before him, a harmony between an intended reform and the collective will of the people for whom it was meant. The character and personality of Keshav were however entirely moulded by Western culture and Christian influence and he was the advocate of a much more aggressive reform policy not hesitating to employ legislation as a weapon.
In 1865, the progressives led by Keshav withdrew from the parent Church and, in the following year (11 November 1866), they established the Brahmo Samaj of India. The parent body came henceforth to be known as the Adi Brahmo Samaj. The new wing proceeded to carry out its programme of spiritual and social reform with great sincerity and enthusiasm and achieved striking success within a short period. The whole of India now in a real sense became the field of activity of the Brahmo Samaj. The two Indian tours of Keshav in 1864 and 1867 had done much to foster the sense of spiritual and national unity among the Indians and his visit to England in 1870 carried the message of the Brahmo Samaj to Europe.
The Samaj now adopted a much more radical and comprehensive scheme of social reform, including the programme of a complete abolition of caste distinctions, promotion of female education and female emancipation, cheap newspaper, labour welfare, etc. These activities found expression in the formation of the Indian Reform Association in 1870 and the enactment of the Civil Marriage Act of 1872. Doctrinally, a much greater emphasis now began to be laid, presumably due to Christian influence, on the sense of sin, the spirit of repentence and the efficacy of prayer. The universality of the theism of Keshav and his followers was much more pronounced than that of Debendranath Tagore and the latter`s compatriots.
This found expression in the compilation of the SlokaSangraha (1866) which was a carefully compiled collection of extracts from the religious scriptures of various sects and in its revised editions covered Hindu, Buddhist, Jaina, Sikh, Jewish, Christian, Muhammadan, Parsee and Chinese sacred texts. Great religious systems of the world like Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Sikhism, were studied with reverence. The infusion of bhakti or devotional fervour into Brahmoism for which Keshav was indebted in some measure to the Vaisnava followers of Chaitanya made it “a practical religious culture, sweet and soothing to the human heart.”
Finally, Keshav`s doctrine of God in Conscience “developed the moral side of faith, by bringing human conduct within the domain of man`s spirituality.” The sympathetic and respectful attitude which he had displayed towards all faiths early in his career led to a rich synthesis of religions, which he proclaimed under the title of “New Dispensation” (Nava Vidhan) on 25 January 1880. The systematic study of the different religions of the world initiated since 1869 through Keshav`s inspiration and direction had led saintly scholars of the Samaj like Gour Govinda Roy, Pratap Chandra Mazoomdar, Aghor Nath Gupta, Girish Chandra Sen and Mahendra Nath Basu to enrich the store of human knowledge by their learned publications on Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Sikhism.
The last named scholar is well known in Bengali literature for his NanakPrakasa, part I (1885) and part II (1893), based on a comprehensive study of the Sikh Scripture in the original. It was Keshav who gave first public recognition to the spiritual genius of the contemporary saint, Ramakrishna Paramahansa; great spiritual fellowship had grown up between the two.
The second schism in Brahmo Samaj occurred when a band of Keshav`s sincere and talented followers, including Pandit Sivanath Sastri, Ananda Mohan Bose, Vijay Krishna Goswami, Durgamohan Das, Sivchandra Deb, Dvarkanath Ganguli, Umesh Chandra Datta and others, left him to found the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj (15 May 1878) mainly on the following grounds: (i) their demand for the introduction of a democratic constitution in the Church was not conceded; (ii) they could not see eye to eye with Keshav on the question of adesa or Divine Command ; (iii) marriage of Keshav`s daughter with the prince of the Cooch Behar state allegedly in violation of the provisions of the Marriage Act of 1872 which Keshav had himself done so much to get passed.
Leaders of this new body made it their first objective to draw up a Trust Deed for their church and give the organization a democratic constitution based on universal adult franchise. They laid great emphasis on the ideas of freedom and democracy. In conformity with the democratic and constitutional ideals it was also affirmed that “nothing should pass as an act or deed or opinion of the Samaj until a majority of the members sanctioned it.” There is really no important doctrinal difference between the second and third bodies of the Brahmo Samaj, apart from the fact that the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj does not lay the same emphasis on the theory of adesa or Divine Command when understood in a collective sense and on Keshav`s ideal of the New Dispensation as is done by the Brahmo Samaj of India.
The new body, however, laid renewed stress on the ideals of service and philanthropy that had been the characteristics of the movement since the days of Rammohun Roy and plunged whole heartedly into a programme of social, educational and political reform. The concept of constitutional democracy is a distinct contribution of Sadharan Brahmo Samaj to modem Indian social polity. The anticaste movement now took concrete shape all over India with the emergence of organizations like the Native Philanthropic Association for the regeneration of Pariahs in Southern India (1883) at Bangalore, the Depressed Classes Mission Society of India (1906) at Bombay, the All India AntiUntouchability League (1907) at Pune and the Society for the Improvement of the Backward Classes (1913) at Calcutta.
From the ranks of men associated with the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj emerged nationalist leaders such as Ananda Mohan Bose, Bepin Chandra Pal, Chitta Ranjan Das and J.M. Sengupta; revolutionaries such as Satyaendra Nath Bose and Ullaskar Datta; and sponsors of labour welfare such as Dvarkanath Ganguli, Ramkumar Vidyaratna and Sasipada Banerji. In the field of literature, philosophy and comparative religion too. the members of the Samaj have left a permanent stamp.
Special mention may be made in this context of the authoritative study of Guru Nanak and the Sikh religion by Krishna Kumar Mitra, one of the leaders of the Samaj and of the Svadeshi movement, who studied the Sikh Scripture in the original in order to equip himself for the task. In fact the second schism in the history of the Brahmo Samaj “certainly indicated a forward look and an onward march which showed the life that was in the movement.” The Sadharan Brahmo Samaj has proved to be the most powerful and active branch of the Brahmo Samaj in the country.
Numerically probably the smallest religious community in the world, the Brahmo Samaj has played a role of farreaching importance in the history of modern India. It has not only sought to harmonize the conflicting religious trends of our day, but has also proceeded to meet the challenge thrown by a scientific and industrial age to the world of traditional spiritual values. The result has been a new spiritual philosophy which by its sheer dynamism has helped to transform the face of India.
1. Sastri, Sivanath, History of the Brahmo Samaj. Calcutta, 1974
2. Farquhar, J.N., Modern Religious Movements in India. Delhi. 1977
3. Ganda Singh, ed., The Singh Sabha and other Socio-Religious Movements in the Punjab. Patiala, 1984