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Leaders of Indian Renaissance and reform movements

Renaissance signifies religious, social and institutional reforms. Following leaders in India led the Indian Renaissance:

Raja Ram Mohan Roy

Raja Ram Mohan Roy (22 May 1772 – 27 September 1833) was a great social and religious reformer of India. In 1829 Rammohan Roy founded a new religious society known as the Atmiya Sabha which later on came to be known as the Brahmo Samaj. He was one of the founders of the Brahmo Sabha, the precursor of the Brahmo Samaj, a socio-religious reform movement. This religious society was based on the twin pillars of rationalism and the philosophy of the Vedas. The Brahmo Samaj emphasised human dignity, criticised idolatry and denounced social evils like sati. He was given the title of Raja by Akbar II, the Mughal emperor. His influence was apparent in the fields of politics, public administration, education and religion. He was known for his efforts to abolish the practices of sati and child marriage. Raja Ram Mohan Roy is considered by many historians as the “Father of the Indian Renaissance.” Rammohan Roy struggled persistently against social evils. He argued that ancient Hindu texts the Vedas and the Upanishads upheld the doctrine of monotheism. To prove his point, he translated the Vedas and five Upanishads into Bengali. In 1849 he wrote Gift to Monotheism in Persian. Rammohan Roy was a staunch believer in the philosophy of Vedanta (Upanishads) and vigorously defended the Hindu religion and Hindu philosophy from the attack of the missionaries. He only wanted to mould Hinduism into a new cast to suit the requirements of the age.

Henry Vivian Derozio

Henry Vivian Derozio, a teacher of the Hindu College was born in 1809. He was of mixed parentage his father was Portuguese and his mother was Indian. In 1826, at the age of 17, he joined the Hindu College as a teacher and taught there till 1831.The movement started by Henry Vivian Derozio was called the Young Bengal Movement and his followers were known as the Derozians. They condemned religious rites and the rituals, and pleaded for eradication of social evils, female education and improvement in the condition of women. Derozio was a poet, teacher, reformer and a fiery journalist. He was perhaps the first nationalist poet of modern India. He was removed from the Hindu College because of his radicalism and died soon after at the age of 22. The establishment of the Hindu College in 1817 was a major event in the history of Bengal. It played an important role in carrying forward the reformist movement that had already emerged in the province. A radical movement for the reform of Hindu Society, known as the Young Bengal Movement, started in the college. Derozio was deeply influenced by the revolutionery ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity. He was a brilliant teacher and within a short period of time, he drew around him a group of intelligent boys in the college. He inspired his students to think rationally and freely, to question authority, to love liberty, equality and freedom and to worship truth. By organising an association for debates and discussions on literature, philosophy, history and science, he spread radical ideas.

Debendranath Tagore

Debendranath Tagore, the father of Rabindranath Tagore, was responsible for revitalising the Brahmo Samaj. Under him the first step was taken to convert the Brahmo Samaj into a separate religious and social community. He represented the best in traditional Indian learning and the new thought of the West. In 1839, he founded the Tatvabodhini Sabha to propagate Rammohan Roy’s ideas. He promoted a magazine to do a systematic study of India’s past in Bengali language. The Samaj actively Debendranath Tagore supported the movements for widow remarriage, the abolition of polygamy, women’s education and the improvement in the condition of the peasantry.

Keshab Chandra Sen

Keshab Chandra Sen (19 November 1838 – 8 January 1884) was an Indian Bengali philosopher and social reformer. Born a Hindu, he became a member of the Brahmo Samaj in 1856 but founded his own breakaway “Brahmo Samaj of India” in 1866 while the Brahmo Samaj remained under the leadership of Debendranath Tagore (who headed the Brahmo Samaj till his death in 1905). In 1878 his followers abandoned him after the underage child marriage of his daughter which exposed his campaign against child marriage as hollow. Later in his life he came under the influence of Ramakrishna and founded a syncretic “New Dispensation” or Nôbobidhan inspired by Christianity, and Vaishnav bhakti, and Hindu practices.He carried on an intensive programme of social reform. He set up schools, organised famine relief and propagated widow remarriage. In 1872 the Government passed the Native (Civil) Marriages Act legalising marriages performed according to Brahmo Samaj rites.

Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar

Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, a towering personality of the mid- nineteenth century, was born in a poor Brahmin family of Bengal in 1820. He was a renowned Sanskrit scholar and became the Principal of the Sanskrit College in 1851. The Sanskrit College conferred on him the title of ‘Vidyasagar’ because of his profound knowledge of Sanskrit. Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar was both a scholar and a reformer. He was a great humanist and had deep sympathy for the poor and the oppressed. He dedicated his entire life to the cause of social reform which he thought was necessary for modernising India. By admitting non-Brahmin students to the Sanskrit College, he dealt a severe blow to the prevalent caste system. Vidyasagar was a staunch supporter of women’s education and helped Drinkwater Bethune to establish the Bethune School, the first Indian school for girls, in 1849. As Inspector of Schools, Vidyasagar opened a number of schools for girls in the districts under his charge. Vidyasagar’s greatest contribution lies in the improvement of the condition of widows. Despite opposition, Vidyasagar openly advocated widow remarriage. Soon a powerful movement in favour of widow remarriage was started. At last, after prolonged struggle the Widow Remarriage Act was passed in 1856. Through his efforts, twenty-five widow remarriages took place. He also spoke vehemently against child marriage and polygamy. Vidyasagar contributed enormously to the growth of the Bengali language and contributed to the evolution of the modern prose style in Bengali. He wrote a Bengali primer, ‘Varna Parichay’, which is used even today. Through his writings, Vidyasagar made the people aware of the social problems and thus helped the growth of nationalism in India.

Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa

Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa was one of the greatest saints of modern India. Ramakrishna was born in a poor Brahmin family of Bengal. He showed a religious bent of mind from his childhood. He had no formal education but his discourses were full of wisdom. He was the chief priest of the Kali temple at Dakshineswar near Calcutta. People from all walks of life visited Dakshineswar to listen to his discourses. Ramakrishna Paramhamsa was a man with a liberal outlook. He firmly believed that there was an underlying unity among all religions and that only the methods of worship were different. God could be approached by any form of worship as long as it was done with single- minded devotion. Different religions were all different roads to reach the same God. He believed that service to man was service to God, for man was the embodiment of God on earth. As man was the creation of God, man-made divisions made no sense to him.

Swami Vivekananda

Narendra Nath Dutta, better known as Swami Vivekananda, was the most illustrious disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. He was born in Calcutta in January, 1863. He graduated from the Scottish Church College and was well-versed in Western philosophy. Vivekananda was a man of great intellect and possessed a critical and analytical mind. At the age of eighteen, Vivekananda met Sri Ramakrishna. This meeting transformed his life completely. After the death of Sri Ramakrishna, he became a ‘sanyasi’ and devoted his life to preaching and spreading Ramakrishna’s message to the people. His religious message was put in a form that would suit the needs of contemporary Indian society. Vivekananda proclaimed the essential oneness of all religions. He condemned the caste- system, religious rituals, ceremonies and superstitions. He had a deep understanding of Hindu philosophy and travelled far and wide to spread its message. At the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago (1893), Vivekananda spoke about Hindu religion at length. His brilliant speech on Hindu philosophy at Chicago was well received and “dear brothers and sisters” became a hallmark of beginning any address. American newspapers described him as an ‘Orator by Divine Right’. He delivered a series of lectures in the U.S.A., England and in several other countries of Europe. Through his speeches, Vivekananda explained Hindu philosophy and clarified the wrong notions that prevailed in Western countries about the Hindu religion and Indian culture. In India, however, Vivekananda’s main role was that of a social reformer rather than a religious leader. He propagated Ramakrishna’s message of peace and brotherhood and emphasized the need for religious tolerance which would lead to the establishment of peace and harmony in the country. He believed that it was the social responsibility of the better placed people to take care of the downtrodden, or the ‘daridra narayan’. With his clarity of thought, deep understanding of the social problems of India, Vivekananda undoubtedly left a deep mark on the Indian intelligentsia as well as on the masses. At a time when the nation was in despair, he preached the gospel of strength and self-reliance. Vivekananda died at the age of 39. In 1896, Vivekananda founded the Ramakrishna Mission to propagate social welfare. It laid emphasis not on personal salvation but on social good and social service. The Ramakrishna Mission stood for religious and social reform based on the ancient culture of India. Emphasis was put on the essential spirit of Hinduism and not on rituals.

Dayanand Saraswati and the Arya Samaj

Another organisation in northern India which aimed to strengthen Hinduism through reform was the Arya Samaj. Dayanand Saraswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj in Rajkot, was born into a Brahmin family in Kathiawar, Gujarat, in 1824. At the early age of 14, he rebelled against the practice of idol worship. He ran away from home at the age of twenty. For the next fifteen years, he wandered all over India meditating and studying the ancient Hindu scriptures. In 1863 Swami Dayanand started preaching his doctrine of one God. He questioned the meaningless rituals, decried polytheism and image worship and denounced the caste system. He wanted to purify Hinduism and attacked the evils that had crept into Hindu society. Dayanand Saraswati believed that the Vedas contained the knowledge imparted to men by God, and hence its study alone could solve all social problems. So he propagated the motto “Back to the Vedas.” Asserting that the Vedas made no mention of untouchability, child marriage and the subjugation of women, Swami Dayanand attacked these practices vehemently. Dayanand began the suddhi movement which enabled the Hindus who had accepted Islam or Christianity to return to Hinduism, their original faith. Dayanand published his religious commentaries in Hindi so as to make the common people understand his preachings. The Satyarth Prakash was his most important work.

The Swami worked actively for the regeneration of India. In 1875, Swami Dayanand founded the Arya Samaj in Bombay. The Arya Samaj made significant contributions to the fields of education and social and religious reforms. After his death, his followers had established the Dayanand Anglo Vedic Schools first in Lahore and then in other parts of India. Gurukuls were also established to propagate traditional ideals of education. A network of schools and colleges both for boys and girls were also established by the Arya Samaj. The Arya Samaj influenced mostly the people of northern India, specially Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Punjab. Although it was not a political organisation, the Arya Samaj played a positive role in creating a nationalist pride in Indian tradition and culture.

Jyotirao Govindrao Phule

Jyotirao Govindrao Phule prominent role in bringing about, reforms in Maharashtra. He fought for improving the condition of women, the poor and the untouchables. He started a school for the education of girls of the lower castes and founded an association called the Satyasodhak Samaj. People from all castes and religions were allowed to join the association. He was opposed to the domination of the Brahmins and started the practice of conducting marriages without Brahmin priests.

The Prarthana Samaj

In 1867, the Prarthana Samaj was started in Maharashtra with the aim of reforming Hinduism and preaching the worship of one God. Mahadev Govind Ranade and R.G. Bhandarkar were the two great leaders of the Samaj. The Prarthana Samaj did in Maharashtra what the Brahmo Samaj did in Bengal. It attacked the caste system and the predominance of the Brahmins, campaigned against child marriage and the purdah system, preached widow remarriage and emphasised female education. In order to reform Hinduism, Ranade started the Widow Remarriage Association and the Deccan Education Society. In 1887, Ranade founded the National Social Conference with the aim of introducing social reforms throughout the country. Ranade was also one of the founders of the Indian National Congress.

Annie Besant

She was a British socialist, theosophist, women’s rights activist, writer, orator, and supporter of both Irish and Indian self-rule. She was a champion of human freedom, an educationist, philanthropist, and a prolific author who had written over three hundred books and pamphlets. In 1886 they founded the Theosophical Society at Adyar near Madras. In 1890 Besant met Helena Blavatsky, and over the next few years her interest in theosophy grew, whilst her interest in secular matters waned. She became a member of the Theosophical Society and a prominent lecturer on the subject. As part of her theosophy-related work, she travelled to India. In 1898 she helped establish the Central Hindu School, and in 1922 she helped establish the Hyderabad (Sind) National Collegiate Board in Mumbai, India.Annie Besant, an Irish woman who came to India in 1893, helped the Theosophist movement to gain strength. She propagated Vedic philosophy and urged Indians to take pride in their culture. The Theosophists stood for the revival of the ancient Indian religion and universal brotherhood. The uniqueness of the movement lay in the fact that it was spearheaded by foreigners who glorified Indian religious and philosophical traditions. Annie Besant was the founder of the Central Hindu College in Banaras, which later developed into the Banaras Hindu University. Annie Besant herself made India her permanent home and played a prominent role in Indian politics. In 1917, she was elected President of the Indian National Congress.

Syed Ahmad Khan

The most important socio-religious movement among the Muslims came to be known as the Aligarh Movement. It was organised by Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1899), a man described as the most outstanding figure among the Muslims. Syed Ahmad Khan was born in 1817 into a Muslim noble family and had joined the service of the Company as a judicial officer. He realised that the Muslims had to adapt themselves to British rule. So Syed Ahmad advised Muslims to embrace Western education and take up government service. In 1862, he founded the Scientific Society to translate English books on science and other subjects into Urdu. He also started an English- Urdu journal through which he spread the ideas of social reform. Through his initiative was established the Mohammedan Oriental College which later developed into the Aligarh Muslim University. It helped to develop a modern outlook among its students. This intellectual movement is called the Aligarh Movement. As a social reformer, Syed Ahmad Khan campaigned against the purdah system, polygamy and the Muslim system of divorce. He emphasised the need for removing irrational social customs while retaining the essence of Islam and encouraging a rational interpretation of the Koran. Syed Ahmad Khan believed that the interest of the Muslims would be best served through cooperation with the British Government. It was only through the guidance of the British that India could mature into a full-fledged nation. So he opposed the participation of the Muslims in the activities of the Indian National Congress.

Sir Syed Ahmad Taqvi bin Syed Muhammad Muttaqi (17 October 1817 – 27 March 1898), commonly known as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, was a Muslim pragmatist and Islamic reformist.He was born into a family with strong ties to the Mughal court, Syed studied the Quran and Sciences within the court. He was awarded honorary LLD from the University of Edinburgh.

In 1838, Syed Ahmad entered the service of East India Company and went on to become a judge at a Small Causes Court in 1867, and retired from service in 1876. During the Indian Rebellion of 1857, he remained, loyal to the British Empire and was noted for his actions in saving European lives. After the rebellion, he penned the booklet The Causes of the Indian Mutiny – a daring critique, at the time, of British policies that he blamed for causing the revolt. Believing that the future of Muslims was threatened by the rigidity of their orthodox outlook, Sir Syed began promoting Western–style scientific education by founding modern schools and journals and organising Muslim entrepreneurs.

In 1859, Syed established Gulshan School at Muradabad, Victoria School at Ghazipur in 1863, and a scientific society for Muslims in 1864. In 1875, founded the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, the first Muslim university in South Asia. During his career, Syed repeatedly called upon Muslims to loyally serve the British Empire and promoted the adoption of Urdu as the lingua franca of all Indian Muslims. Syed heavily critiqued the Indian National Congress. Syed maintains a strong legacy in Pakistan and among Indian Muslims. He strongly influenced other Muslim leaders including Allama Iqbal and Jinnah. His advocacy of Islam’s rationalist (Muʿtazila) tradition, and at broader, radical reinterpretation of the Quran to make it compatible with science and modernity, continues to influence the global Islamic reformation. Many universities and public buildings in Pakistan bear Sir Syed’s name.

Baba Dayal Das

Baba Dayal Das propagated the nirankar (formless) idea of God. By the end of the 19th century a new reform movement called the Akali Movement was launched to reform the corrupt management of Gurdwaras. Baba Dayal Singh (1783-1855) was a Sahajdhari Sikh whose main mission was to bring Sikhs back to the Adi Granth and simran. His successor Baba Darbara Singh established many centres beyond Rawalpindi and wrote about the essential teachings of Baba Dayal. The sect had grown considerably and the third successor, Sahib Rattaji (1870-1909) kept the Nirankaris in order via strict adherence to their rahit (Khalsa code of conduct). At this time they numbered in the thousands and some had taken interest in the Singh Sabha movements, under the fourth successor Baba Gurdit Singh. The Nirankaris helped to bring the Anand Marriage Bill in 1908-9 to the attention of the Sikh populace. Their fifth Guru Sahib Hara Singh (1877-1971) started to reorganise the sangat and was succeeded by his eldest son Baba Gurbakhsh Singh. However because their emphasis was largely upon Guru Nanak’s message, and the times were dominated by Singh Sabha Sikhs emphasising Guru Gobind Singh’s Khalsa, their voices went unheard. This was exacerbated by the shift from Sahajdhari (shaven) to Keshdhari (unshaven) Sikhs. Finally with their inability to keep in step with the tumultuous social changes of the British Raj they were soon marginalised.

Pandita Ramabai

Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati (23 April 1858 – 5 April 1922) was an Indian social reformer, a pioneer in the education and emancipation of women in India. She was the first woman to be accorded the titles of Pandita as a Sanskrit scholar and Sarasvati after being examined by the faculty of the University of Calcutta. She participated in the freedom movement and was one of the 10 women delegates of the Congress session of 1889. She founded the Arya Mahila Sabha in Pune and opened the Sarda Sadan for helping destitute widows. The purpose of the Arya Mahila Sabha was to promote the cause of women’s education and deliverance from the oppression of child marriage. When in 1882 a commission was appointed by Government of India to look into education, Ramabai gave evidence before it.

Sarojini Naidu

Sarojini Naidu (13 February 1879 – 2 March 1949) was an Indian independence activist and poet who earned the sobriquet of Nightingale of India. She was born in a Bengali Hindu family in Hyderabad. She was educated in Chennai , London and Cambridge. She married Dr. Govindarajulu Naidu and settled down in Hyderabad. She took part in the Indian nationalist movement, became a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and fought for the attainment of Swaraj or independence. She became the President of Indian National Congress and was later appointed as Governor of the United Provinces, now Uttar Pradesh. She was the first woman Governor of the Republic of India. Known as the ‘Nightingale of India’, she was also a noted poet. Her poetry includes children’s poems, nature poems, patriotic poems and poems of love and death. She also wrote poetry in praise of Muslim figures like Imam Hussain, in a time where Muslim-Hindu tensions ran high in pre-independence era. Issues regarding the split of India into a Muslim country and a Hindu country have already begun, and as she had got an inter-caste and inter-regional marriage in a time where this was uncommon, her goal was to bring all of India together regardless of any caste or religion. She stood for voting rights for women, and took an active interest in the political situation in the country. She also helped to set up the All India Women’s Conference. In 1915–18, she travelled to different regions in India delivering lectures on social welfare, women’s empowerment and nationalism. She also helped to establish the Women’s Indian Association (WIA) in 1917. She was sent to London along with Annie Besant, President of home rule league and Women’s Indian Association, to present the case for the women’s vote to the Joint Select Committee. In 1925, Naidu presided over the annual session of Indian National Congress at Cawnpore (now Kanpur).

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