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Dayananda Sarasvati


DAYANANDA SARASVATI (18241883), leading Hindu reformer and founder of the Ārya Samāj, known by the westernized form of his religious name, Dayānanda Sarasvatī. What is known of Dayananda's early years comes from two autobiographical statements made after he founded the Ārya Samāj in 1875. Although he refused to reveal his family and personal names or place of birth in order to preserve his freedom as a sanyāsin ("renunciant"), these statements allow a reconstruction of his life before he became a public figure.

Dayananda claimed to have spent his childhood in a small townfrom his description, most likely Tankarain the princely state of Morvi in northern Kathiawar, now in Gujarat's Rajkot district. His father was a high-caste brahman landowner and revenue collector and a devout worshiper of Śiva. Dayananda received Vedic initiation at eight and began to study Sanskrit and the Vedas. Although his father preferred that he become a devotee of Śiva, an experience in the local Śiva temple undermined Dayananda's faith that the temple icon was God, and turned him away from Śaiva ritual practice involving images. The deaths of a sister and a beloved uncle a few years later made him realize the instability of worldly life, and when, around 1845, he learned that his family had secretly arranged his marriage, he fled to become a homeless wanderer.

The young mendicant studied the monistic philosophy of the Upaniads with several teachers before being initiated into an order of sanyāsin s as Dayananda Sarasvati in 1847. He lived as an itinerant yogin for the next thirteen years, but in 1860 he settled in Mathura to study with the Sanskrit grammarian Vrijānanda (17791868). Vrijānanda, whom Dayananda accepted as his guru, aided Dayananda in perfecting his Sanskrit and also convinced him that the only truthful texts were those composed by the i s ("seers") before the Mahābhārata, since, he taught, all later works contained false sectarian doctrines. Dayananda committed himself to spreading this message when he left his guru in 1863, though it took him most of his life to decide which individual texts were true and which were false.

Between 1863 and 1873, Dayananda spent most of his time in small towns along the Ganges River in what is now western Uttar Pradesh meeting representatives of various Hindu communities and debating sectarian paits. These experiences confirmed his early doubts about image worship and led him to reject all of the Hindu sectarian traditionsnot only Vaiavism, to which he had an early aversion, but eventually even worship of the formless Śiva. In place of sectarianism and the related religious and caste restrictions, he argued with growing conviction for a united Hinduism based on the monotheism and morality of the Vedas.

Throughout this period Dayananda continued to dress as a yogin in loincloth and ashes and debated only in Sanskrit; thus his message was restricted mainly to those orthodox upper-caste Hindus who were most solidly opposed to his views. Early in 1873, however, he spent four months in Calcutta as the guest of the Brāhmo Samāj leader Debendranath Tagore, met the great Brāhmo spokesman Keshab Chandra Sen, and discussed religious issues with these and other westernized Hindu intellectuals. Dayananda saw firsthand the influence of the Brāhmo organization, learned the value of educational programs, public lectures, and publications in effecting change, and accepted from Sen some valuable advice to improve his own reception: abandon the loincloth and the elitist Sanskrit in favor of street clothes and Hindi.

Dayananda left Calcutta with an unchanged message but a broader perspective and a new style, lecturing and writing in Hindi and seeking a receptive audience for his message. He found the first such audience in Bombay, where he founded the Ārya Samāj ("society of honorable ones") on April 10, 1875. His major breakthrough, however, came two years later in the Punjab, where a rising class of merchants and professionals was seeking a defense of Hinduism against Christian missionary activity. A chapter of the Ārya Samāj was founded in Lahore in 1877, and this soon became the headquarters for a rapidly expanding movement in the Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh.

Dayananda left control of the Ārya Samāj in the hands of local chapters and spent his last years perfecting his message. He completed the revision of his major doctrinal statement, Satyārth prakās, shortly before his death on October 30, 1883. With final conviction, he declared that the Vedic hymns revealed to the i s were the sole authority for truth, and he reaffirmed his faith in the one eternal God whose revelation thus made salvation possible for all the world.

See Also

Ārya Samāj.


Dayananda's longest autobiographical statement appeared in The Theosophist in three installments in 18791880. This statement has been supplemented by an excerpt from one of his lectures in Poona in 1875 and published with explanatory notes, a doctrinal statement, and a chronology of his life in Autobiography of Swami Dayanand Saraswati, edited by K. C. Yadav (New Delhi, 1976). The best scholarly study of Dayananda's life and thought is J. T. F. Jordens's Dayānanda Sarasvatī, His Life and Ideas (Delhi, 1978). A more focused analysis of the central element in Dayananda's belief system is provided by Arvind Sharma's "Svami Dayananda Sarasvati and Vedic Authority," in Religion in Modern India, edited by Robert D. Baird (New Delhi, 1981), pp. 179196. The standard account of Dayananda's life by one of his followers is Har Bilas Sarda's Life of Dayanand Saraswati, World Leader, 2d ed. (Ajmer, 1968).

Thomas J. Hopkins (1987)

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