Social Reforms of India in 18th and 19th Century

Posted: November 14, 2010 in Uncategorized

The history of Indian civilization dates back to the first millennium BC. Agriculture became the primary occupation of the inhabitants and provided a stable social order. The basic elements of the social structure,based on caste system, were laid down by the Vedas. The Dharma Shasta’s were written which formed the basis of the conduct of the classes. In the post- Vedic age, the Brahmins conducted the rituals and the warriors defended the territory. The businessmen were entrusted with business transactions, while the lower classes toiled in the field and remained in servitude to the other three. The land belonged to the villagers and the chieftains collected one-sixth of the agricultural produce as revenue. The village administration looked into the work of the villages and mediated between the ruler and the subjects. Sir Henry Maine described the Indian villages as “little republics”.Castes in India were governed by normative conduct. Being inscriptive, caste was conferred on the individual at the time of his birth. It remained unchanged throughout his lifetime. Violation of the caste rules could lead to lowering of the status of the individual. The practice of hyper gamy led to upward mobility of a girl from a lower caste, within the caste structure, through marriage. The society was basically patriarchal with traces of matriarchy in some regions of the south. In the 4-tier social structure, only the upper three castes were allowed to participate in the affairs of the State. The caste unity and village self-rule declined in due course due to internal and external factors. The Brahmin system, under which the landowner retained a few individuals of different castes to render services to him, also declined. This was based on barter system, where the services were paid in kind like grain, cloth or animals. Soon, the landowners began to exploit the lower caste people in service.
Reckoning the millennia of Indian history, one can hardly think of a greater contrast than the one that existed between eighteenth-century and twentieth-century India. On the one hand India had a stagnating traditional culture and society at very low ebb, while on the other hand India possessed a still traditional society in the throes and the creative excitement of modernising itself, of emerging as a new nation, remaining thoroughly its own and rooted in its culture, yet taking its place in the contemporary world. The nineteenth century was the pivotal century that saw the initiation of this process that brought about an enormous transformation in the religious, social, economic, political, and cultural spheres.
Bengal was first to undergo significant British influence and to produce the new English-educated group. By the early 1800s a crystallization of different reactions to Western influence was noticed, and there emerge three distinct groups, the radicals, the reformers, and the conservatives. Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) was the first great modern reformer, and has for good reason been called ‘The Father of Modern India’. In the religious sphere Ram Mohan’s main target of attack was the Hindu system of idolization, its mythology and cult. He proposed as an alternative a deistic type of theism, strongly influenced by European deism and the ideology of the Unitarians. As a social reformer, Ram Mohan’s interest was mainly in the appalling condition of women in Hindu society, an interest that was to dominate the social reform movement for many decades. He is rightly famous for his long and successful campaign for the abolition of sati, the self-immolation of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands, and he fought incessantly against child marriage and for female education. The crowning achievement of Ram Mohan’s organizational efforts was the foundation of the Brahmo Sabha (later known as Brahmo Samaj) in 1828. The Socio-Religious Reform movements of the 19th century in West Bengal, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab aimed at checking the influence of Christian Missionaries. The missionaries wished to convert Indians to Christianity. They also wished to purge Hindu society of social evils such as Sati and infanticide. The aim of Brahmo Samaj was to save middle class families of Bengal from adverse effects of Christianity.

After the death of Ram Mohan Roy, Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905) took over its leadership and gave it a new direction. He drew up a declaration of faith, established a theological school, sent out the first Brahmo missionaries, and created a new liturgy, the ‘Brahmo Rites’. He himself was inclined towards the contemplative and the bhakti aspect of Hinduism, and averse to Ram Mohan’s rationalism. With a stress on devotion, ethical duties, and the near-Vedic but non-idolatrous Brahma rites, the Samaj moved closer to the mainstream of Hinduism, as it grew quickly in numbers.

Later with Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-84) a new wind started to blow in the Samaj. He was an iconoclastic reformer, repudiating all Hindu cults, rejecting caste and the seclusion of women. In religion he had a new ‘universalistic’ tendency, with strong leanings towards Christianity. During this time Bengal also produced the scholar Iswara Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-91) who took up the widow remarriage movement, the first social reform cause that was taken up all over the country, and who saw it to a successful conclusion. The reform he advocated and saw become law, namely that a high-caste widow could legally remarry, affected few individuals and in fact was taken advantage of by very few for many years to come. Nevertheless, the widow remarriage movement was very important because it became the inspiration of other reform movements all over the country.
The growing religious and social reform awareness started in Maharashtra from 1840. In this early stage, Gopal Hari Deshmukh (1823-92), known as Lokahita-wadi, denounced loudly that typical feature of Maharashtra, the absolute intellectual and moral dominance of Brahmans over Hindu life. His friend and collaborator Jotiba Govind Phule (1827-90), of low caste, took up this fight against brahmanic oppression in his voluminous prose and poetic works, and gave it concrete form in his organization for the uplift of the low castes, the Satyasodhak Samaj. In 1867 Maharashtra brought forth its own organization of religious and social reform, the Prarthana Samaj. The theism of the Prarthana Samaj was similar to that of its Bengali counterpart, but it was consciously linked with the bhakti tradition of the Maharashtrian saints. They invoked their own medieval bhakti tradition as another reform movement that was evolutionary, not revolutionary. They also had a different attitude towards the connection between religious and social reform.
Another important figure of Indian Socio Religious reform movement was Dayananda Saraswati (1824-83) who in 1875 published his major work the Satyarth Prakash and founded his reform society, the Arya Samaj. Dayananda’s theological vision was one that emerged neither from a personal mysticism nor from Western ideas, but from the intimate observation of the corrupt Hinduism of his day. He attacked polytheism, idolatry, and the many superstitious beliefs and rites connected with them, and the stranglehold of the brahmans on sacred lore and religious practice. He had the vision of a primeval monotheism, above the paraphernalia and hostilities of all human creeds. According to him, this religion was in fact the original Vedic religion, which was contained in the four Vedas. It was his aim to propagate the truth of that religion, to reinstate it in its purity, and thereby to reinstate the Indian people in their forgotten glory. Thus Dayananda’s religion, whilst denouncing much of contemporary Hinduism, kept close to orthodoxy in several basic ways: belief in the Vedas, and in karma and transmigration, and allegiance to the six darshanas and to the various Hindu names for the one God.
From 1880 two important tendencies which had been stirring in the previous decades occupied the Indian scene: nationalism and political action. From now on individuals and groups openly identified themselves with an Indian nation, a new concept in Indian history. This predominance of nationalism and politics now began to exert influence on the ideas of religious and social reform which had previously prevailed. Nationalism itself developed two patterns, a religious one and a secular one, and each school assigned a different place to social reform.
Two early outstanding examples of the new religious nationalism are Bankim and Tilak. It is very striking how the religious nationalism of both in fact had deep provincial roots, and may be seen as Bengali and Maharashtrian nationalism respectively. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-94) found Bengal divided between the traditionalist orthodox and the progressive reformers. His religion combines the humanism of Positivism with the activist interpretation of the Krishna myth and of the Bengali cult of the Mother Goddess. His novels in particular awoke in the Bengalis, first the middle class, and later the masses, a self-confidence and pride in their language and their religion.


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