BORN: 1824 • Tankara, India
DIED: October 30, 1883 • Ajmir, India
Indian religious reformer
Dayananda Sarasvati (often spelled Saraswati) was a leading Hindu ascetic, or person who gives up worldly comforts to live in poverty, in nineteenth-century India. He is best known as an aggressive reformer who urged Hindus to return to the traditions and principles in the Vedas, the Hindu sacred scripture. He was also the founder of the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movement. This organization played a major role in the growth of Indian nationalism. At the time of Dayananda Sarasvati's birth, India was a British colony, but his Arya Samaj and other organizations encouraged the desire among Indians to achieve independence from Great Britain.
"Every living being has a soul which deserves affection; in every human being there is a soul worthy of respect. Any one who does not know this basic principle cannot understand the true meaning of the Vedic religion."
Birth and early life
Sarasvati was born as Mula Sankara in 1824, in Tankara, a city in the modern-day Indian state of Gujarat. He came from a wealthy Brahminfamily. Brahmins are the highest Indian caste, or social hereditary class, which consists of religious leaders, teachers, and intellectuals. Sankara received an education both in orthodox (traditional) Hinduism and in the Sanskrit language, the historical literary language of the religion.
Hindu religious practice often involves presenting a statue or other image, representing a Hindu god or goddess, with offerings such as fruit and water. (While Hinduism has many gods, all are considered to be manifestations, or forms, of the one God, Brahma.) According to one story, when Sankara was fourteen he made a visit with his father to a Hindu temple. During the night he saw mice running over the image of the Hindu god Shiva because they were attracted by the offerings of food placed before it. Sankara was disturbed by this and turned away from worship that involved images. Even as a youngster, then, he began to question Hindu practices that he later came to believe they were not part of true, historical Hinduism.
Sankara had many doubts about his religion. When a beloved uncle died five years after the incident at the temple, he began to search for a path that humans could follow to overcome their mortality (death). Hindus believe in reincarnation, an ongoing cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that in effect traps the human soul in the material world. In an attempt to escape that trap, Sankara began to practice yoga, an intensely focused mental, spiritual, and physical discipline that some believe can lead to enlightenment and spiritual salvation, or release from the cycle of death and rebirth, called samsara. In 1843 Sankara fled his home, fearing that his family would arrange a marriage for him. He became a member of the wandering order of monks called the Sarasvatis, taking the name of the order as his own.
The wandering ascetic and crusader
Dayananda Sarasvati spent nearly twenty-five years, from 1845 to 1869, as a wandering ascetic, searching for religious truth. An ascetic is someone who gives up material goods and lives a life of self-denial, devoted to spiritual matters. He lived in jungles, in retreats in the Himalayan Mountains, and at a number of pilgrimage sites in northern India. During these years Dayananda Sarasvati practiced various forms of yoga. He became a disciple, or follower, of a well-known religious teacher, Swami Birajananda (sometimes spelled Virajananda). Birajananda believed that Hinduism had strayed from its historical roots and that many of its practices had become impure. Dayananda Sarasvati promised Birajananda that he would devote his life to restoring the rightful place of the Vedas in the Hindu faith.
He kept his vow to Birajananda and became a religious crusader. Leaving behind the quiet, private existence he had led up to this time, Dayananda Sarasvati entered public life and began to develop his views about reforming Hinduism. His goal was to urge Hindus to turn away from worship involving images and to place their entire faith in the truth of the Vedas. He began to gain some recognition after he took part in a public debate with traditional Hindu scholars in the city of Benares. The subject of the debate was the authority of the Vedas. This debate was conducted by the maharaja, or ruler, of Benares, who came to share Dayananda Sarasvati's views. Through the support of the influential maharaja, Dayananda Sarasvati and his views became more widely known throughout the region.
The early 1870s were an important period in Dayananda Sarasvati's life. By this time he had abandoned the life of a wandering ascetic. He lived among and had close contact with many of the Hindu Brahmins in the city of Calcutta (now Kolkata). Prior to his arrival in the city, he had worn only a loincloth (a cloth covering just the middle portion of his body) and had preached in the Sanskrit language. His supporters in Calcutta urged him to go about fully clothed. They also recommended he preach and lecture in Hindi rather than Sanskrit, since Hindi was the language of the majority of the population, while Sanskrit was spoken only by the educated few. Dayananda Sarasvati followed their advice and was able to reach a much wider audience. In the years that followed, he continued to lecture and hold public debates not only with Hindus but with Christians and Muslims as well.
The Light of Truth
Two important events in Dayananda Sarasvati's life occurred in 1875. The first of these was the publication of his book Sathyartha Prakasha (Light of Truth). This was Dayananda Sarasvati's most important published work. In the book, he outlined his beliefs in a very brief and direct way. For example, he wrote, "I hold that the four Vedas … are the Word of God…. They are absolutely free from error, and are an authority unto themselves."
Dayananda Sarasvati argued that the commentaries on and additions to the Vedas over the centuries were not true Hindu teachings. To find the truth of Hinduism, he claimed, one had only to read the original Vedas. He also restated his belief in such principles as the eternal nature of God, rebirth, and moksha, the liberation of the soul from the cycle of reincarnation.
In 1875 Sarasvati also formed the Arya Samaj, which can be translated into English as "Society of Aryans." The Aryans were speakers of an original, unrecorded Indo-European language from which many of the languages spoken in Europe and Central Asia are descended. Thousands of years ago the Aryans moved eastward into the Indian subcontinent. The Arya Samaj is a sect of Hinduism that preaches Dayananda Sarasvati's view that the Vedas are the only real source of God's truth and that all other developments in the faith since the time the Vedas were revealed are false.
The Arya Samaj opposes ancestor worship, the sacrifice of animals, religious beliefs and practices that do not originate in the Vedas, and the caste, or social class, system. It also rejects the notion of "untouchability," which refers to the lowest caste of Indian society, the Untouchables, who perform such tasks as disposing of waste and dead animals. The sect is also against child marriage, offerings made to the gods in temples, pilgrimages, and the belief that priests hold some sort of secret wisdom. The Arya Samaj upholds belief in karma (the idea that a person's actions affect his or her destiny), reincarnation, and the important role of samskaras, or individual sacraments (rites or rituals). There are sixteen such sacraments marking important stages in a person's life, ending with the final funeral rites.
The Vedas, Hinduism's sacred scripture, consist principally of a large number of hymns or songs. These hymns were composed by early Hindu wise men who, according to traditional belief, heard them in ecstatic (highly emotional and trancelike) visions. Most scholars date the Vedas at about 1500 to 1200 bce, although some claim they are even older and were written around 5000 or 7000 bce. One of the Vedas, called the Rig Veda, may date from as far back as 12,000 bce.
The Vedas were transmitted orally from teachers to students. They are often referred to as sruti, a word that means "that which is heard." Many of these teachers and students were able to memorize thousands of lines of text. The Vedas encompass all spiritual knowledge and detail rituals, philosophies, and other practices. Devout Hindus see the Vedas as timeless and authorless. According to this belief, they did not come from the hand of humans. They represent an eternal wisdom that appears anew with each new cycle of history.
The group was, and continues to be, a force for social change in Indian society. The Arya Samaj has supported many programs of reform. It opposes discrimination against women and supports education for both men and women. To that end, it has built a network of schools and institutions of higher learning. It also defends marriages between members of different castes, a practice discouraged by traditional Indians. In addition, the Arya Samaj has built missions, orphanages, and homes for widows, and has carried out medical work and famine relief (help for those suffering from a severe food shortage).
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Arya Samaj also supported Indian independence from Great Britain. During the remainder of his life Dayananda Sarasvati challenged Indians to be more aggressive against British rule. He called for armed revolution against the British, as well as against Christian missionaries in India. At the same time he expressed admiration for European civilization. He believed that the nations of Europe were advanced because they had representative governments, a system of education, and networks of trade. Dayananda Sarasvati's goal for India was realized when the country became independent from Great Britain in 1947.
Dayananda Sarasvati continued to preach his views for the remainder of his life. He engaged Christians and Muslims in debate and gained a reputation for being an opponent of those religions. He also offended orthodox, or traditional, Hindus because he challenged their views. Several attempts were made on his life.
In 1883 Dayananda Sarasvati was a guest of the maharaja of Jodhpur. The maharaja led a life of worldly pleasure, and Dayananda Sarasvati advised him to change his ways and seek purity and discipline in his life. Some of the members of the maharaja's court were offended by Dayananda Sarasvati's boldness. It is believed that they poisoned him on the night of October 30, 1883. The accusation, however, was never proven, and the cause of Dayananda Sarasvati's death remains a mystery.
For More Information
"Dayananda Saraswati, Swami." In Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. 17 vols. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Research, 1998.
Jordens, J. T. F. Dayananda Sarasvati: His Life and Ideas. Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Salmond, Noel A. Hindu Iconoclasts: Rammohun Roy, Dayananda Sarasvati, and Nineteenth-Century Polemics against Idolatry. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2004.
Sarasvati, Dayananda. The Light of Truth. http://www.victoriaaryasamaj.org/lotruth.pdf (accessed on June 2, 2006).
Sundaram, V. "A Great Harbinger of Hindu Renaissance." News Today. http://newstodaynet.com/12oct/ss1.htm (accessed on June 2, 2006).