Crisis and Religious Renewal in the Brahmo Samaj (1860-84)

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Crisis and Religious Renewal in the Brahmo Samaj (1860-84)
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19th century Bengal was the scene of the most diverse confrontation and interaction between two cultures: political, linguistic, and, not least of all, religious. Writing the religious history of this period requires many talents: stubbornness and patience to sit for weeks and weeks in archives, looking for relevant items that shed light on the puzzle, a committed religious feeling and sympathy for the religious search in other people and cultures, and a detached attitude enabling one to remain impartial. With these qualities, the author has succeeded in producing a remarkable book, relating the well-documented s sry of Keshab Chandra's religion and the organization of his insight in a community. The interest beyond the most useful in of 19th century of comparative


Rather than being a thell ethical and theological topic, the Encounter of Religions is a concrete lived reality. When religions meet, this experience finds expression in concrete forms of religiosity. The present volume is a case study selected from the history of inter-religious encounters. It was in 19th Century Calcutta, the privileged meeting place of Eastern and Western (religious) culture, that the Brahmo Samaj came into being. It was a religious movement aimed at giving a concrete form to its experience of the One God who speaks through the different religions and religious traditions. In this study, I attempt to map out the religion of the Brahmo Samaj as it developed under Keshab Chandra Sen's leadership. Because the concrete design of the Brahmo Samaj is still an almost unreclaimed terrain, I have given this study a predominately documentary character. It is offered as a basis for further research by the specialized disciplines which study religions. This book represents a revised version of my doctoral thesis submitted at the Theological Faculty of the Katholieke Universiteit to Leuven (Belgium). The present study was made possible thanks to the support of the Belgian Nationaal Fonds voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek, which granted me an Aspirant-Scholarship for the period 1973-1977, as well as travel grants to Great Britain and India. I am deeply indebted to my supervisor, Prof. F. De Graeve, who not only initiated me in the Study of Religions and Fundamental Theology but also suggested the Brahmo Samaj as an interesting case in the history of the encounter of religions. I would also like to thank the professors of the Theological Faculty and the Oriental Institute in Leuven and of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where I prepared this study. I am also particularly indebted to Mr. Sati Kumar Chatterji, Secretary of the New Dispensation, who was bountifully generous with his assistance during my research visit to Calcutta, introducing me to authentic Brahmo religiosity. I wish also to thank Dr. J.V. Boul ton, SOAS, London, who taught me Bengali, and who read and corrected the manuscript; the staff of the various libraries which I visited: the libraries of the Katholieke Universiteit to Leuven; the British Library, the India Office Library, the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies, the Dr. Williams' Library, the Church Missionary Society Archives, in London; the National Library, the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj Library, the Bangiya Sahitya Library, in Calcutta.
I would further like to cordially thank my friends Louis and Catherine Vanhove-Romanik, who corrected and patiently typed out the manuscript. Because this study represents an important phase in my life, I would also like to thank my sister Louisa, who made it possible for me to study, and the Passionist community, esp. Fr. Harry Gielen, who gave me the necessary time and opportunity to complete this work, as well as the many friends who have supported me during this long, often lonely, quest for the New Dispensation.

My special thanks also are due to Dr. W.M. Callewaert, K.U. Leuven, for seeing my copy through the press.

I hope that this work will be a real contribution to further study of the Brahmo Samaj, and to the understanding of the faith of other men and women.


The nineteenth century occupies a special place in India's modern history. In this period, a transition took place from a stagnating traditional culture and a society at a very low ebb, to a modern society and nation taking a creative part in the economic, social, political, cultural, and religious life of the world community. In nineteenth-century India, a modernization process started under the total impact of the British Raj, which influenced Indian life through many channels: administration, legislation, trade, a network of communication, inchoative industrialization and urbanization, education, and evangelization. This was of a nature to bring about an enormous economic, and social. political, cultural, and religious transformation'.

Reform Movements

In this process of transforming society, there developed a new awareness of the social evils of traditional Hinduism, which was in a state of decadence at eke time. Both the new discovery of the glorious ancient past of Hindu religion and the acceptance of Western ideas and standards would initiate religious and social movements set on reforming the stagnant Hindu society and religion. Numerous reform movements sprang up in this period, mainly in the Northern part of the subcontinent2. A few examples will be helpful for a textualization of our topic.
Prominent in Maharashtra was the Prarthana Samaj, which was founded in For a selection of the most important studies which have been published on this well-researched subject, see Bibliography, section 2.4.2. IL These movements have been described by J.N. FARQUHAR, Modern Religious Move-Twents in India, Delhi, 1967. See also references in Bibliography, section 2.4.3. Bombay, in 1867. It was an organization of religious and social reform, which rejected idolatry, took a negative attitude toward the Vedas, and concerned itself mainly with the iniquities of the caste system and the backward condition of women. This theistic movement, which was related to the local Bhakti tradition, introduced a Western type of congregational worship. As a social reform movement, it was guided by caution, being careful not to break with Hindu society 3.
Another type of religious and social reform movement was initiated by the wandering ascetic Dayananda Sarasvati (1824-83), when he founded the Arya Samaj in 1874. Sarasvati's reform effort was not prompted by Western ideas but by the intimate observation of the corrupt Hinduism of his day. He attacked polytheism and idolatry, and the many superstitious beliefs and rites connected with them. On the other hand, he attempted to restore the original Vedic religion to its purity, which while exemplified in the four Vedas, had become corrupted over the centuries. He considered the contemporary caste system to be the utter degeneration of the original Vedic Varna system, i.e. a society divided into four classes according to the function of each genealogical group in that society. India, he felt, should return to this system. Being an organized reformer, he used modern reform techniques: the use of the vernacular, publications, education, and organization.
Both of these major reform movements took great advantage of the experience acquired by another sort of reform movement in Bengal, the Brahmo Samaj. The foundation of the Prarthana Samaj was affected by Keshab's visit, in 1864, to the Bombay-educated community. The Prarthana Samaj developed in close contact with the Brahmo Samaj, as will be shown later.

On the other hand, Dayananda Sarasvati visited the Brahmo Samaj in Calcutta in 1872 and followed the suggestions that K.C. Sen made to him on that occasion, viz. that he should give up his sannyasis (ascetic's) near nakedness and dress like a townsman, and that he should preach in the vernacular instead of in Sanskrit. Both elements contributed greatly to the success of the Arya Sama.

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