Celebrating the ‘essence of Hinduism’: How 19th century Brahmo Samaj altered Bengali society

At a time when the political landscape of Bengal is witnessing the possibility of inroads being made by the Bharatiya Janata Party, adherents of Brahmoism say the party will be unable to understand the liberal nature of religion practised by them.

Amit Das recollects a little anecdote from his grandmother’s life. “If she ever saw any of us praying to an idol before going to school, she would immediately rebuke us,” he says. “Her point was that if one had studied properly then they would do well regardless of whether they pray to God or not.” The 57-year-old is a fourth generation member of the Brahmo Samaj, a Hindu reformist movement that began in the early 19th century.

His great grandfather, Sundari Mohan Das, a freedom fighter, doctor and social worker of the late 19th century, was the first in his family to have joined the Samaj. “Like many young Bengali men of the time, he too was a follower of Keshub Chandra Sen, who influenced them to dream of a world devoid of superstition; where widows could remarry and women’s education was deemed essential,” says Das.

One of the most influential religious movements of the 19th century that took birth in Bengal and spread far and wide from here, Brahmoism is today reduced to a few thousand members. The community, for the past few years, has been demanding minority status from the government of India. Das, an active member of the religious organisation, is a firm believer in the principles laid down by the Brahmo Samaj: denunciation of idol worship and polytheism, rejection of the caste system, emancipation of women, respect for all religions, and others.

Back in the 19th century, Brahmoism was established as an effort to reform Hinduism from within, in response to the criticisms being levelled against Hindu society by the West. “It was a movement that struck a fine balance between reform and rejection. These were people who were positive about changing contemporary Hindu society, but were not willing to uproot themselves from it,” says historian Amiya Sen over the phone. In other words, the Brahmo Samaj was both an effort to alter Hinduism through western ideologies, and at the same time stay true to its traditional principles.

Although the movement lost momentum by the end of the 19th century, the Brahmo Samaj did have an impact on the psyche of the Bengali middle class. At a time when the political landscape of Bengal is witnessing the possibility of inroads being made by the Bharatiya Janata Party, adherents of Brahmoism say the party will be unable to understand the liberal nature of religion practised by them.

The Brahmo Samaj and its impact on Bengali society

Historian David Kopf, who authored the book ‘The Brahmo Samaj and the shaping of modern India’, explains that the establishment of the Brahmo Sabha by the social reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy, needs to be understood in context of the Unitarian movement that was raging in large parts of the Western world since the 16th century. Unitarianism was a radical approach to religion, society and ethics which looked to substitute popular religious traditions with a rational faith.

“By 1822 he (Roy) had helped form the Calcutta Unitarian Committee and by 1825-26, his scattered writings in their cumulative effect already contained a kind of syllabus for activists dedicated to Hindu reform,” writes Kopf. Roy formed the committee in collaboration with a missionary, Rev. W. Adam. Apart from conducting Unitarian services, the committee also established the Vedanta College meant for churning out Hindu Unitarians. But Roy and Adam fell off soon after and the mission was abandoned.

Consequently, in 1828 Roy along with a group of wealthy upper caste men started a more Indian variant of the Unitarian movement. This was named the ‘Brahmo Sabha’ and its first meeting was held on August 20, 1828 at a house in Chitpore road in Calcutta. Among the most notable supporters of Roy in the Sabha was Dwarkanath Tagore, grandfather of Rabindranath Tagore. Activities carried out by the group included chanting of verses from the Upanishads, and then translating them in Bengali and singing of theistic hymns composed by Roy. “There was no organisation, no membership, no creed. It was a weekly meeting open to any who cared to attend. Ram Mohan believed he was restoring Hindu worship to its pristine purity,” writes John Nicol Farquhar, a Scottish education missionary in Calcutta who authored the book, ‘Modern religious movements in India’.

Throughout this period, the Brahma Sabha played a key role in modernising Indian society. Roy successfully campaigned against Sati or the immolation of Hindu widows, he established a number of educational institutions including the Vedanta College, the English School and the City College of Calcutta popularising English education and promoted a rational and non-authoritarian form of Hinduism. He also played a pioneering role in opening the Hindu School in 1817, which is now the Presidency University.

With Roy’s death in 1833, the still infant Brahmo Sabha lost its wind a bit. It was in 1842 that the Sabha was given a fresh lease of life under the leadership of Debendranath Tagore, son of Dwarkanath Tagore. “Debendra followed Ram Mohan in his belief that original Hinduism was a pure spiritual theism, and in his enthusiasm for the Upanishads, but did not share his deep reverence for Christ,” writes Farquhar. He was also the one to give an organised structure to the Sabha. In 1843, he drew up a Brahmo convent or a list of solemn vows to be taken by every member. Some of these included abstaining from idolatry and to worship God by doing good deeds.

In 1857, Keshub Chandra Sen joined the Sabha, and he would soon turn out to be its third leader. Under his influence, Debendranath decided on giving up the tradition of Durga Puja in the Tagore family, which was a grand annual affair. The Sabha also discussed caste, with its members giving it up altogether. Debendranath too got rid of his sacred thread.

Sen was heavily influenced by Christianity. At his suggestion, the Sabha began to follow the example of Christian philanthropy, gathering money and food for the needy.

In 1860, members of the Sabha realised the need to spread out from Bengal. In 1861, the preacher Pundit Navin Chandra Roy went to Punjab to spread the new faith. He established the Brahmo Samaj in Lahore. Another preacher, Atmuri Lakshminarasimham went to the Madras Presidency to spread the Brahmo teachings in the Telugu speaking areas.

“Brahmo Samaj was not just restricted to Bengal. It was the first pan Indian movement of Hindu reform,” says Sen. “But Bengal was the first province to come under western influence through British colonialism. Consequently, both social reform and revival were first to emerge in Bengal,” he adds.

“But the Brahmo Samaj was a very small community and that too an urban and elite community,” explains researcher Snigdhendu Bhattacharya who authored the book, ‘Mission Bengal: the Saffron experiment’. “Although it was a miniscule community, it remained one of the most influential ones since it included some of the finest social reformers and personalities of Bengal. Two of the most influential Bengali families, the Tagores and the Rays, were both Brahmos,” he says.

Speaking about the kind of influence that Brahmo families had on middle class Bengali society, Bhattacharya says, “every child in any urban area grows up reading Sukumar Ray. When they read the Ramayana, it is Upendrakishore Roychowdhury’s interpretation in most cases. Then of course there is Satyajit Ray whose films have influenced every child and adult in all of Bengal.” The influence of the Tagore family not just in Bengal, but all over India, remains unmatched. “The essence of all their work remained humanism and rationalism which emerged from the fountainhead of Brahmo philosophy,” says Bhattacharya.

From the 1860s, a number of schisms and splinter groups emerged within the Samaj. In 1866, the first formal division between liberal younger Brahmos and conservative older Brahmos led to the establishment of the Brahmo Samaj of India under Sen. In 1878, the marriage of Sen’s daughter to the maharaja of Cooch Behar in violation of the Brahmo Marriage Act of 1872 caused yet another major schism in Brahmo history, resulting in the formation of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj. “These splits resulted in the dwindling popularity of the Samaj,” says Bhattacharya.

“I would say that the Brahmo movement began to decline from the 1880s. Firstly, there was a distinct Hindu counter discourse, or Hindu revival. Also by this time, the political overtook the social,” says Sen. By 1885 the Indian National Congress was formed. “The Hindus realised that the best way to fight against colonialism is to politically unite, rather than focusing on social reform,” Sen says.

Despite their decline though, the Brahmo Samaj made an enormous impact ideologically and culturally to Bengal and created an enduring value system in the region. “They were the people behind promoting women’s education, inter caste marriages, questioning the very hierarchy of caste, democratising education and most importantly, promoting the idea of leading a moral life over a religious one,” says Sen.

The Brahmo Samaj in Bengal today

Given the dwindling popularity of the Samaj since the late 19th century, a majority of Brahmo members today are those by birth. Nonetheless, there are instances of those who have taken formal initiation in the community in the recent past. Ketuki Bagchi (67) took up formal membership of the Samaj in 2004. She says her parents were staunch followers of Roy and thereby she had been associated with the Brahmo ideology since her childhood even though not a member. “The influence of the Samaj was such that there were many Bengali families who believed and practised the principles of Brahmoism, despite the fact that they were not formal members,” she says. She explains that her parents perhaps never formally joined the Samaj because the organisation never went about promoting its beliefs or engaged in proselytising activities.

Prasun Ganguly, 74, a fourth generation Brahmo says the first thing that any new member of the Samaj has to do is give up idol worship and follow the basic principles of egalitarianism and rationalism promulgated by Roy. That apart, the social ceremonies of its members like marriage and funerals are in stark contrast to those in Hindu society. “For instance at a Brahmo wedding, the bride and the groom assemble in front of people and declare their vows to each other. Similarly, at a funeral first the preacher presiding over the ceremony says a few words about the departed soul and then the others join in to sing a few Brahmo sangeet (spiritual songs written by Roy and other influential members of the Samaj),” says Ganguly.

Speaking about what the current political situation in Bengal means to the Brahmo community, Ganguly says, “In most Bengali families even today, there is a reverence for Brahmoism because of the kind of social reforms brought by them. It believes in a kind of religion devoid of the ill practices and superstitions of Hinduism. In that sense, Brahmoism is the essence of Hinduism.”

“Any political party in power must not try to impose its own understanding of Hinduism on anyone.”

Further reading:

The Brahmo Samaj and the shaping of modern India’ by David Kopf

Modern religious movements in India by John Nicol Farquhar

Hindu revivalism in Bengal, 1972-1905 by Amiya Sen



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