Brāhmo Samāj

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BRĀHMO SAMĀJ . The Brāhmo Samāj, also known as Brāhma Samāj and Brāhmo (or Brāhma) Sabhā, was the first modern Hindu reform movement. It was founded in Calcutta in 1828 by Ram Mohan Roy (17721833). As an expression of the social and religious views of a small but influential group of westernized Indians, the Brāhmo Samāj ("congregation of brahman ") sought to create a purified form of Hinduism, a Hindu dharma free of all Puranic elements such as temple rituals and image worship. Led by a series of prominent Bengali intellectuals, the movement was a major factor in shaping Hindu responses to both secular and Christian influence from the West and thus helped pave the way for the so-called Hindu Renaissance in the late 1800s. The Brāhmo Samāj, along with the Ārya Samāj, was one of the most important religio-political influences in the Independence movement, the Brāhmo Samāj being a reform movement and the Ārya Samāj tending toward a revitalistic concern for the religious heritage of the Vedas mediated through new social and theological forms.

The Hindus involved in the Brāhmo Samāj were not broadly representative of the Bengal Hindu population, but instead belonged to a group of castes and families that had prospered in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries after Mughal domination had given way to rule by the British East India Company. The Bengalis who gained money and land during this difficult economic period were mainly those who served as suppliers, agents, or bankers for the British. In the early period of company rule, those who were prepared to take this westernizing route to new wealth were mostly Hindus from a few select castes, and it was they and their descendants who provided the leadership and most of the membership of the Brāhmo Samāj.

The initial Indian response to British rule in Bengal was strongly influenced by caste and religious factors. Muslims deprived of political power and related social privileges largely withdrew from involvement with their conquerors, while Hindu response was divided between what were known in Bengal as kulīna and non-kulīna castes. In the unique Bengal hierarchy, the highest status was given to five kulīna ("superior") brahman castes and three kulīna castes of kāyastha s (traditional writer/clerical castes of śūdra origin). Faced with British rule these kulīna castes remained aloof, as they previously had from Muslim rulers, in order to preserve their ritual purity. The upper echelons of non-kulīna s, however, were less concerned about purity and were in many cases accustomed to relations with non-Hindu rulers. Members of these castes, whose ranks included the non-kulīna brahman families of Roy and Tagore as well as non-kulīna kāyastha s and vaidya s, recognized the benefits of working with the British, and using this involvement to their advantage, they had emerged by the early 1800s as wealthy entrepreneurs and landowners more receptive than other Bengalis to Western social and religious influences.

The newly affluent non-kulīna Hindus formed a natural constituency for Hindu reform. They were wealthy, but within the traditional Hindu system they had to accept religious leadership from kulīna s. Although attracted to Western culture, most were unwilling to reject Hinduism in favor of Christianitya choice increasingly urged on them after the British East India Company opened Bengal to Christian missionaries in 1813. If they were to acquire Western culture, retain their Hindu identity, and also improve their religious status, a new form of Hinduism in which they could set the terms and take the leading role was necessary. Thanks to the genius of Ram Mohan Roy, this need was met by the creation of the Brāhmo Samāj in 1828.

The son of a non-kulīna brahman and himself a successful entrepreneur, Roy had a passion for reason and universality that led him by 1815 to reject Hindu polytheism and image worship in favor of the monotheism of the early Vedānta texts, the Upaniads and the Brahma Sūtra, which he interpreted as teaching the worship of brahman as the sole creator and supporter of the universe. Applying his standards to Christianity, he concluded that Jesus' ethical teachings had universal validity, though he rejected trinitarian theology. For a brief period in the early 1820s he aligned himself with the Unitarian movements in England and America, but when he saw that Hindus could not satisfy their spiritual and religious needs by becoming Unitarians, he founded the Brāhmo Samāj as a Hindu counterpart.

As Roy conceived it, the Brāhmo Samāj was a rational and ethical expression of Vedantic monotheism, reformist rather than radical in its ideas and goals. One radical element, however, was the assumption of religious leadership by Roy himself, a worldly self-taught non-kulīna who rejected traditional priestly authority. Once this example was accepted, the way was open for a new type of religious leader. In Bengal, this meant the recognition of upper non-kulīna s such as the Tagores, the Sens, and the Dutts as valid religious guides, and it was they in fact who provided leadership for most of the new religious movements throughout the nineteenth century.

Roy's successors in Brāhmo leadership, Debendranath Tagore (18171905) and Keshab Chandra Sen (18381884), converted the fledgling enterprise into a vital movement for religious and social reform. Between 1843 and 1858, Tagore recruited hundreds of new members, codified Brāhmo teachings, and campaigned actively against Christian proselytizing. Sen, the son of a Vaiava vaidya banker, expanded the efforts for social reform and brought the movement national attention with his charismatic missionary activities. Most significantly, as non-kulīna s, both men reinforced Roy's principle that religious authority rests on reason and ability and not on priestly caste.

By the time Sen died, the Brāhmo Samāj had largely completed its mission, having met the initial impact of Christianity and Western culture and having shown how they could be used to strengthen Hinduism instead of destroying it. In the process, the movement created a new and lasting religious model that could release the creative energies of a class of people who formerly had been patrons rather than leaders in the Hindu system. Although the Brāhmo Samāj survived as an independent organization, the energies of that class after 1884 were largely expressed in other movements of religious, social, and political reform. Such nonpriestly religious leaders as Vivekananda and Gandhi, however, were certainly both beneficiaries and worthy successors to Roy's initial vision.

See Also

Ārya Samāj; Gandhi, Mohandas; Roy, Ram Mohan; Sen, Keshab Chandra; Vivekananda.


The Brāhmo Samāj has inspired a massive literature from Ram Mohan Roy to the present. The best work on the movement as a whole is David Kopf's The Brāhmo Samāj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind (Princeton, 1979). J. N. Farquhar's Modern Religious Movements in India (New York, 1915) gives an interesting early description of the Brāhmo Samāj in the context of other nineteenth-century Indian religious developments. Two recent and more analytic studies of the religious views of the movement and its founder are provided in Spencer Lavan's "The Brahmo Samaj: India's First Modern Movement for Religious Reform" and in James N. Pankratz's "Rammohun Roy," in Religion in Modern India, edited by Robert D. Baird (New Delhi, 1981), pp. 125, and pp. 163177. The standard source for more detailed information on Roy is Sophia Dobson Collet's The Life and Letters of Raja Rammohun Roy, 3d ed. rev., edited by Dilip Kumar Biswas and Prabhat Chandra Ganguli (Calcutta, 1962), and many of his important writings have been collected in the single-volume edition of The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy, edited by Kalidas Nag and Debajyoti Burman (Calcutta, 1958). Narayan Chaudhuri's Maharshi Devendranath Tagore (New Delhi, 1973) provides a good description and evaluation of Tagore's contributions to the Brahmo movement, and Meredith Borthwick's Keshub Chunder Sen: A Search for Cultural Synthesis (Calcutta, 1977) gives an excellent scholarly assessment of his successor. The unique and complex caste system of Bengal is explained in detail in Ronald B. Inden's Marriage and Rank in Bengali Culture (Berkeley, 1976).

New Sources

Takeuchi, Keiji. The Philosophy of Brahmo Samaj: Rammohun Roy and Devendranath Tagore. Calcutta, 1997.

Thomas J. Hopkins (1987)

Revised Bibliography