Arya Samaj

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ĀRYA SAMĀJ . The Ārya Samāj ("society of honorable ones") is a modern Hindu reform movement founded in Bombay, India, in 1875 by Dayananda Sarasvati (18241883), advocating Hindu renewal by a return to Vedic religion. The basic principles of the Ārya Samāj were developed by its founder, Dayananda, a Gujarati brahman who became a sanyāsin ("renunciant") in 1847 and spent the rest of his life in religious quest. From 1847 to 1860 Dayananda lived as a wandering yogin searching for personal salvation, and later, after three years of Sanskrit study in Mathura with his guru, he worked as a reformer seeking to revive Hinduism.

Dayananda's sense of what Hinduism needed was gradually shaped by his guru, by debates with sectarian pandits in the western areas of Uttar Pradesh, and by discussions of religious issues with members of the Brāhmo Samāj and a variety of Hindu scholars and intellectuals in Calcutta. By the time he founded the Ārya Samāj on April 10, 1875, he had written a statement of doctrinal principles that was published two months later as Satyārth prakāś. A handbook on the daily Five Great Sacrifices, the Pañcamahāyajñavidhi, was published later in 1875, and a manual on the family life cycle rituals, Saskārvidhi, was published in 1877. Although these publications contained Vedic quotations in Sanskrit, the works themselves were composed in Hindi to make them accessible to the widest possible audience. Dayananda revised each of these basic guides over the next few years; as the mature product of his thinking, the revised editions were Dayananda's lasting legacy to the Ārya Samāj.

The central element in Dayananda's position was his belief in the truth of the Vedas. His guru had convinced him that the only true writings were those of the i s ("seers") who flourished before the composition of the Mahābhārata and that all subsequent scriptures contained false sectarian views, but Dayananda had to arrive at his own understanding of the line between truth and falsehood. He had lost his faith in image worship as a youth and was an active opponent of Vaiava sectarianism after 1863, but it took longer to reject the worship of Śiva and even longer to abandon the advaita ("nondualistic") philosophy of the Upaniads. By the second edition of Satyārth prakāś, however, he had decided that neither the Upaniads nor the Vedic ritual texts, the Brāhmaas, had the authority of revelation; this was an honor due only to the collections of Vedic hymns, (i.e., the four mantra sahitā s of the gveda, Sāmaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda ), because they alone were directly revealed by God to the i s. True religion, that is Aryan religion, must thus be based only on the hymns, which convey eternal knowledge of the one true God.

The religion that Dayananda established on this base was derived from Vedic sources, but its particular features were his own creation. Although a brahman by birth, Dayananda, rejected Brahmanic control of Vedic religion. He insisted that Vedic knowledge should be available to everyone, including women and members of the traditionally impure śūdra castes. Membership in the Ārya Samāj was open to any person of good character who accepted its beliefs, and the Vedic rituals Dayananda prescribed could be performed by any Ārya, or member of the movement. Caste was irrelevant, since the same dharma (duties) applied to all: to perform Vedic rituals, to study and propagate Vedic knowledge, and to promote social well-being.

The theology that Dayananda bequeathed to the Ārya Samāj was as innovative as his social reform program and his attitude toward Vedic knowledge. He was convinced that the Vedic hymns proved the existence of a single supreme God. God is not, however, the only reality; rather, God is eternally coexistent with the jīva s (conscious and responsible human selves) and with prakiti (the unconscious material world). In their ignorance, the jīva s bind themselves to rebirth in the world by their karman (actions). God cannot release the jīva s from responsiblity for their deeds, but in his mercy he has revealed the Vedas to guide the jīva s to moka (freedom from rebirth and union with God). However, since the cause of moka is finite human action, moka itself must be finite, and the jīva s must eventually be reborn into the world. Each jīva, according to Dayananda, is thus eternally active, moving from worldly involvement to freedom in God's bliss and then back again into the world.

Dayananda's views were rejected by every branch of Hindu orthodoxy, most vehemently by orthodox brahmans. In Bombay, though, Dayananda found a group of progressive Hindus led by members of several merchant castes who were eager to adopt his teachings and to organize, in 1875, the first chapter of the Ārya Samāj. The second important chapter, and the leading chapter from that point on, was founded in Lahore in 1877, led by a rising elite also predominantly from the merchant castes. The simple set of membership rules developed by the Lahore chapter was adopted by new chapters that sprang up rapidly elsewhere in the Punjab and in western Uttar Pradesh. Dayananda's emphasis on individual responsiblity and full religious participation appealed to the merchants and professionals who joined, and they in turn proved to be excellent organizers. Dayananda gave each chapter full responsibility for its affairs within the general rules, so that when he died in 1883 the Ārya Samāj was not only a self-sustaining movement, but it was able to begin active expansion in new directions.

The Dayanand Anglo-Vedic school was established in Lahore in 1886 and became a college in 1889, providing a model for an extensive system of schools and colleges. The practice of śuddhi, or reconversion by purification initiated by Dayananda on an individual basis, was expanded into a movement to reconvert Hindus who had become Christians or Muslims. Āryas were active in social reform programs and in the Indian nationalist movement, the more militant helping to form the Hindu Mahāsabhā party. The partition of India in 1947 placed Lahore and other centers in the Punjab within Pakistan, but the organization recovered from the loss to remain a significant force for Hindu education and social causes. With chapters in almost every city and town in northern India and with an estimated membership of over one million, it has proved to be the most successful of the nineteenth-century reform movements.

See Also

Brāhmo Samāj; Dayananda Sarasvati.


There is much less literature in English on the Ārya Samāj than on other nineteenth-century movements such as the Brāhmo Samāj and Ramakrishna Mission, partly because most of the movement's own publications are in Hindi and partly because Westerners (and westernized Indians) have been less attracted by it. The best general treatment of the movement by a member, though now dated, is the nationalist leader Lala Lajpat Rai's The Ārya Samāj (London, 1915). An early Western critique that reflects Christian resentment of the movement's militant Hinduism is found in J. N. Farquhar's Modern Religious Movements in India (New York, 1915), pp. 101129. For the founder's autobiography up to 1875, supplemented by a statement of his basic doctrines, a chronology of his life, and an annotated list of his publications, see Autobiography of Swami Dayanand Saraswati, edited by K. C. Yadav (New Delhi, 1976). The most scholarly and authoritative study of the founder and the early movement is J. T. F. Jordens' Dayānanda Sa-rasvatī, His Life and Ideas (Delhi, 1978). A more detailed study of the Ārya Samāj's development in the region of its greatest early strength is Kenneth W. Jones's Ārya Dharm: Hindu Consciousness in Nineteenth-Century Punjab (Berkeley, 1976). A survey of the movement's main developments up to 1947 is provided by Kenneth W. Jones's, "The Ārya Samāj in British India," in Religion in Modern India, edited by Robert D. Baird, (New Delhi, 1981), pp. 2754.

New Sources

Llewellyn, J. S. The Ārya Samāj as a Fundamentalist Movement: A Study in Comparative Fundamentalism. New Delhi, 1993.

Prakash, Satya. Speeches, Writings, and Addresses by Svami Satya Prakash Sarasvati. Delhi, 1987.

Thomas J. Hopkins (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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ĀRYA SAMĀJ The Ārya Samāj (literally, "society of the nobles") was perhaps the most influential of the many reform movements that sprang up in nineteenth-century India in reaction to the double challenge Hinduism had to face: Christian missionary zeal and European modernity in the shape of British colonialism. The impact of the movement can be measured not only in terms of the number of its adherents—by 1947 the Samāj counted almost 2 million members—but also by the fact that many of its leaders became prominent in Indian politics, academia, journalism, and other spheres of public life throughout the twentieth century. Clearly, the religious association provided an ideology that was attractive to certain strata of (North) Indian society in a particular historical situation.

Origins, Doctrinal Basis, and Early Development

The first branch of the Ārya Samāj was founded in Bombay in 1875 by Swāmi Dayānanda Sarasvatī (1824–1883). Dayānanda, a Gujarati Brahman with a Shaivaite background, had grown dissatisfied with the polytheism and shallow ritualism that characterized the varieties of Hinduism he had experienced in his youth. During his wandering years as a sanyāsin (ascetic world renouncer) in the 1850s and 1860s he built his own vision of a reformed and "purified" ārya dharma. In his view, arbitrary and selfish Brahmans were the root cause for what he saw as a degenerate state of Hinduism: the prevalence of idolatry, "blind faith" and "social evils" like child marriage, the abuses of the caste system, and the suppression of women in Hindu society. The pandits, he maintained, had neglected the study of the Veda, which contained the guidelines for a perfect society, and had instead imposed morally corrupting texts like the Purāṇas. Only a return to the sober and rational monotheism he believed to find in Vedic scripture would provide the solution to India's spiritual, social, and political problems, ensuring that the Hindus could carry on where their proud Aryan ancestors left off.

Making use of the new technologies of mass communication, the swāmi expounded his textual revisionism in various pamphlets and in his book Satyārth Prakāsh (The light of truth), published in Hindi in 1875. The book also contained a polemical critique of Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, and Hindu "orthodoxy," a fact that made the Ārya Samāj a rather controversial body from its inception. Nonetheless, in a period where many educated Hindus found it hard to reconcile their religious tradition with the new Western knowledge they had acquired, Dayānanda's reformatory message became particularly popular with the emerging Anglicized middle class in the urban centers of the Hindi-speaking regions, particularly in the Punjab.

The death of the founder in 1883 did not stop the movement from expanding further and becoming conspicuous in various fields of public activity. In 1886 the Dayananda Anglo-Vedic High School (DAV) was founded in Lahore, and it became the nucleus of a tremendously successful network of educational institutions, which continues to blossom today. Already at this early stage it was obvious that one of the strengths of the Āryas was their efficient organization, energetic fund raising, and propaganda. Their techniques were partly inspired by Christian missionaries and partly by recycled elements of Hindu tradition.

A Religious Movement in the Age of Nationalism

In 1893 the movement split over the question of doctrinal purity. Swāmi Shraddhānanda (1857–1926), the second charismatic figure to emerge from the movement, accused the faction running the DAV School of being too Westernized and thereby betraying the founder's ideological legacy. From 1900 onward, he established his own network of schools, the Gurukulas, which were outwardly modeled after ancient Hindu seats of learning and which placed more emphasis on the study of the Vedas. Yet at the same time, they also borrowed heavily both from the curricula and the pedagogical practices used in British public schools.

Both factions became politically active from the 1890s onward, albeit in completely different ways. Whereas some of the prominent leaders of the DAV wing joined the Indian National Congress and became part of the mainstream national movement (e.g., LālāLājpat Rāi), Shraddhānanda and his followers for decades advocated an "evolutionary nationalism" based on a Spencerian perception of society as a "social organism." Political self-rule, far from being a birthright, had to be earned through an arduous learning process. Only the gradual perfection of the individual through education, it was believed, could pave the way for independence. It was only after the nationalist agitation had reached new heights in the wake of the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919 that the Gurukul Āryas joined the mass campaigns organized by Mahatma M. K. Gandhi.

Education for both men and, crucially, for women, thus certainly was the cornerstone of Ārya activity, but their reformatory zeal expressed itself also in other fields. From the 1880s they undertook various experiments in "untouchable uplift" with the final goal of breaking all caste barriers. Orthodox distrust of the Āryas and their general reluctance to accept "purified" untouchables in their midst, however, soon produced a backlash. Shuddhi, the purification ritual used to "reclaim" outcastes, was also employed to reconvert (neo-)Muslims who had left the fold of Hinduism during Islamic rule. Such endeavors soon brought the Samāj into conflict with Islam. Communal tensions were further acerbated by the Ārya fight for the ban of cow slaughter and the propagation of Hindi (instead of Urdu, spoken by most Muslims) as the administrative language in large parts of North India. In the context of steadily worsening relations between Hindus and Muslims during the 1920s, the Āryas seem to have deliberately cultivated their image as pugnacious, avant-garde defenders of Hinduism in the hope of gaining greater acceptance among their conservative Hindu brethren. Some of today's scholars, therefore, see the organization in the first place as a forerunner of contemporary Hindu chauvinist parties and organizations. However, the picture seems to be more complex, as the movement was quite heterogeneous, and militant Hindu chauvinism was but one of the many strands accommodated within the regionally diverse Ārya movement.

Reaching its peak from the 1920s to the 1940s, the popularity of the organization waned steadily after independence. Nowadays, it is no longer the vital movement it used to be for almost a century, even in its former strongholds in the Hindi belt of North India. However, in some of the homelands of the Hindu diaspora (like Guyana, Fiji, and Mauritius), where the Samāj had spread with the immigration of indentured laborers from India in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Ārya Samāj brand of "purified" Hinduism is still very much alive.

Harald Fischer-Tiné

See alsoHinduism (Dharma) ; Hindutva and Politics


Fischer-Tiné, Harald. "Kindly Elders of the Hindu Biradri: The Arya Samaj's Struggle for Influence and Its Effect on Hindu-Muslim Relations." In Gurus and Their Followers: Studies in New Religious Movements in Late Colonial India, edited by A. Copley. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000.

——. "The Only Hope for Fallen India: The Gurukul Kangri as an Experiment in National Education." In Explorations in the History of South Asia: A Volume in Honour of Dietmar Rothermund, edited by G. Berkemer, et al. New Delhi: Manohar, 2001. In-depth discussion of the Gurukul wing.

Jones, K. W. Arya Dharm: Hindu Consciousness in Nineteenth-Century Punjab. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. The locus classicus for a historical analysis of the Ārya movement.

——. "The Arya Samaj in British India, 1875–1947." In Religion in Modern India, edited by R. D. Baird. New Delhi: Manohar, 1994. The best informed general overview.

Jordens, J. T. F. Swami Dayananda Saraswati: His Life and Ideas. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1978.

——. Swami Shraddhananda: His Life and Causes. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981. Detailed and reliable biographies of the founder (above) and his most charismatic successor.

Llewellyn, J. E. The Arya Samaj as a Fundamentalist Movement: A Study in Comparative Fundamentalism. New Delhi: Manohar, 1993. Particularly strong on the textual basis of the movement.

Sarasvatī, Dayānanda. The Light of Truth: Or, an English Translation of the Satyarth Prakash. Translated by Chiranjiva Bharadwaja. Reprint, New Delhi: Sarvadeshik Ārya Pratinidhi Sabhā, 1975. English translation of the Ārya Samāj's "bible."

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Ārya Samāj. A Hindu reform movement founded by a brahman, Dayānanda Sarasvatī, in 1875. The followers of Dayānanda are against idol-worship and meaningless rituals in modern Hinduism, and aim to return to the Vedas in their beliefs and ritual. Dayānanda's interpretation of the Vedas is to be found in his book Vedabhāshya. Followers of Ārya Samāj do not tolerate caste divisions in Hindu society, and they introduced the novel idea of converting people of other faiths to Hinduism. The followers of Ārya Samāj do invaluable work to remove social and religious injustices. It is now a worldwide organization.

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Arya Samaj: see Saraswati, Dayananda.