Brahmo Samaj

views updated May 23 2018


BRAHMO SAMAJ The "Society of Brahma," or the Brahmo Samaj, was founded by Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833) in Calcutta in 1828. Roy, revered as the father of India's nineteenth-century Hindu Renaissance, a Bengali Brahman by birth, studied English, Latin, and Greek as well as Sanskrit, Persian and Bengali, while employed as a young man in the British East India Company's Revenue Department. He read Vedic Sanskrit, and Western classics in Greek and Latin. A brilliant student of religion, Roy focused first on Hindu texts, several of which he translated into English, and then on mastering Christianity. He considered the monistic equation of every individual's "soul" (atman) with the universe's transcendental "soul" (Brahman), as articulated in Upanishadic Vedanta texts, the apogee of Hindu philosophy, only millennia later "adopted" by Deists and Unitarian Christians. He easily confounded and, in the profundity of his philosophic arguments, defeated every Christian missionary who tried to convert him.

In 1815 Roy started to meet regularly with an elite group of brilliant Bengali friends, who at first simply called their discussion group a "Friendly Association" (Amitya Sabha). Roy had published his first Upanishadic translation that year, an Abridgement of the Vedant, and he discussed with his friends the enlightened wisdom of India's ancient Upanishadic philosophy, rejecting as an "aberration" all later "idol worship" that so "debased" Hinduism as to leave India at the mercy of every Western conqueror, first Muslims who abhorred all images, then European Christians, the wisest among whom adhered to Vedantic monism, focusing as did enlightened Jews and Muslims on the transcendental power of the One God, whose spirit pervaded the universe, and was reflected in every person's soul.

Meetings of the Brahmo Samaj were rarely attended by more than fifty members of that elite Bengali brotherhood, which included the wealthy and singularly creative Tagores as well as the brilliant Sens and remarkable Roys. Their passionate reborn pride in Hindu philosophy and faith, and in the great civilization that had nurtured and sustained it from the dawn of human history, inspired millions of others, including countless Western as well as Indian leaders and thinkers, who long before century's end came to recognize India's unique cultural genius and the wisdom of its greatest ancient seers and yogic sadhus. That Bengali Hindu Renaissance thus launched the intellectual revolution, small in its numbers at first, but most profound in its ultimate impact, inspiring India's nationalist demands for independence as well as several social reform movements by the last decade of the nineteenth century, long after Roy and his bhadralok (intelligentsia) contemporaries had passed on.

Stanley Wolpert

See alsoRoy, Ram Mohan


Kopf, David. British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969.

——. The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Roy, Ram Mohan. A Defense of Hindoo Theism in Reply to the Attack of an Advocate for Idolatry. Calcutta: n.p., 1818.

——. Precepts of Jesus. London: Unitarian Society, 1824.

Sastri, S. The Brahmo Samaj. 2 vols. Calcutta: R. Chatterjee, 1911–1912.

Sen, K. The Brahmo Samaj God-Vision in the Nineteenth Century. Calcutta: Indian Mirror, 1880.

Brahmo Samāj

views updated Jun 08 2018

Brahmo Samāj. 19th-cent. Hindu reform movement. It had its antecedent in the Brahmo Sabha (1828) of Rām Mohan Roy (1772–1833), who was impressed by Western achievements, but who believed that Indian spirituality was greater. The Brahmo tradition of reinterpreting early Hinduism in the light of new knowledge led to the organizing of Brahmo Samāj in 1843 by Debendranath Tagore (father of the poet). The presence of Keshub Chandra Sen in the movement led to Tagore continuing with the Adi Samāj, while Sen led the Brahmo Samāj to further division and a cult-like focus on himself—though he also engaged in much social reform. The movement continued into the 20th cent., but rapidly declined in influence and membership.