The spread of Western education and culture in our country gave rise to a new awakening of minds, especially among the educated classes. They began to look towards the drawbacks and deficiencies of our social life and attempted to find ways and means to remove them. In this endeavour, many took the view that our salvation lay in getting rid of the past and adopting the new mode of life and thought. There were others who cherished the ancient past. They wished to imbibe the age-old virtues of our great ancient civilisation. Perhaps, none of the two alone could be fully helpful. A synthesis of the two, therefore, brought a new awareness of the country’s past glory as well as a new path towards rationalism and democracy in our thoughts and actions. The pioneer of this new outlook was Raja Rammohun Roy. He is also called the Father of Modern India. His better accomplishment was that he stood like a living bridge between the country’s mighty past and the strong future. He founded the Brahmo Samaj, which aimed at purging the Hindu society of all its evils.
Raja Rammohun Roy was a great scholar. He knew several languages—Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, English, French, Hebrew, Greek and Latin. He studied the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Gita, the Bible and the Quran. He vigorously opposed the worship of idols, rigidity of caste and prevalence of rituals. Many thought that Rammohun Roy would embrace Christianity, but he disappointed them. He stood for reform of Hinduism. He founded the Brahmo Samaj. It stood for worship of the Eternal, Unsearchable, Immutable Being who was the Author and Preserver of the Universe. The doors of Brahmo Samaj were thrown open to all. The great Raja also stood for various social reforms like abolition of Sati. He was a stout champion of women’s rights. He founded the Vedanta College where the learning of both the Eastern and the Western cultures was imparted. After his death, his great work was carried on by his able followers, Devendranath Tagore, Keshav Chandra Sen and Vidyasagar. Devendranath stood for worship of Brahma by all, the highest and the lowest. Keshav Chandra established the Prarthana Samaj at Bombay (now Mumbai). It did commendable work in social reform like widow remarriage and inter-caste marriage. It established various institutions like a Founding Asylum, a Widows’ Home and a Depressed Classes Mission. Vidyasagar dedicated his entire life to the cause of education and social reform. He stood against polygamy and child marriage. He advocated widow remarriage. The first lawful Hindu widow remarriage among the elite of Bengal was celebrated in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on December 7, 1856 at the inspiration of Vidyasagar.
The leaders of the Hindu Renaissance Movement, Swami Dayanand and Swami Vivekananda, however, found that the Western civilisation was over-materialistic, shorn of all humanity and goodness. They looked towards the ancient past of India with pride and acclaim. Swami Dayanand gave the new idea to the Hindu society : “Back to the Vedas”. Swami Vivekananda attended the Parliament of Religions at Chicago (US) in September 1893. He made a great impact upon the delegates by his eloquent speech there. The speech made him world renowned overnight. On returning home, he placed a new ideal before the nation, “Once more the world must be conquered by India with her spirituality.” These noble and lofty words created a new chord in the heart of every Indian. They infused in all a sense of pride as well as an ardent spirit of patriotism. People began to adore their motherland like a deity. Nationalism, thus, became a religion, a new gospel of truth, peace, salvation and tranquillity.
Swami Dayanand was the founder of the Arya Samaj. He exhorted the people to study the Vedas and attempted to establish a new social structure built upon principles contained in them. He advocated that the Vedas were infallible, being the inspired words of God and the fountain of all knowledge. He attacked the caste system and untouchability. He denounced idol worship, rituals and superstitions. He wanted to purify the Hindu religion. He translated the Rig Veda and the Yajur Veda to Hindi. He also wrote the Satyarath Prakash, the bible of the Arya Samaj. After his death in 1883, the work of Swamiji was carried on by his ardent disciples, Hans Raj, Pandit Guru Dutt, Lala Lajpat Rai and Swami Shraddhanand. Hans Raj founded the D.A.V. College at Lahore in 1886. Swami Shraddhanand established the Gurukul Kangri at Hardwar in 1902.
Swami Vivekananda established the Ramakrishna Mission in 1896 in sacred memory of his great teacher, Ramakrishna Paramahansa. Ramakrishna was a poor priest in the temple of Dakshineshwar near Calcutta. He had no formal education but was a profound spiritual personality. He believed that all religions were equal before the eyes of God. He, therefore, adopted and practised various forms of meditation advocated by them. Swami Vivekananda, his scholarly disciple, propounded the teachings of his Guru in the modern style. He preached the greatness of the Hindu religion and the Vedas to the Western world. He denounced his countrymen for having lost their touch with the rest of the world. Vivekananda ridiculed the caste system, rituals and superstitions. He exhorted the people to look towards the new world and shun their attitude of aloofness. He also stood for the uplift of the poor and the downtrodden and exhorted the educated Indians to work for removal of hunger and ignorance of the masses.
The Theosophical Society was founded by Madam H.P. Blavatsky, a Russian lady, and Colonel H.S. Olcott, an American military officer, in the United States in 1875. They came to India in 1879 and established their headquarters at Adyar at Madras in 1886. Annie Besant joined this society in 1889 and four years later, she settled herself in India. Her participation in the Theosophical Movement gave it a new momentum as she loved India dearer than her life. The Theosophists wanted to revive and strengthen ancient Hinduism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. They believed in the universal brotherhood of man and transmigration of the human soul. Since they glorified ancient religions of India, it proved a great morale-booster to the educated persons to feel proud of their country and religion. Annie Besant established the Central Hindu School at Benaras which later became the Banaras Hindu University with the efforts of Madan Mohan Malaviya.
The wave of religious reform and moral awakening also stirred the Muslims, the Sikhs and the Parsis with equally great fervour. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan asked the Muslims to give up their superstitions and bigotry and adopt the progressive culture and scientific outlook of the West. He translated the Quran into Urdu and gave to it a new scientific and rationalist interpretation. In 1875, Sir Syed Ahmed founded the Mohamadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh, which later became the famous Aligarh Muslim University. Maulvi Chirag Ali advocated monogamy among the Muslims and urged for a better status for women in the society.
In the wake of the reform movement, Mirza Ghulam Ahmed founded the Ahmadiya Movement at Qadian in Gurdaspur district of Punjab and attempted to portray the virtues of the Muslim culture and society. In Punjab, the Akali Movement worked for the better management of their religious shrines and was able to get the Gurdwaras Act put in the statute book in 1922. A Khalsa College was also established at Amritsar. The Parsis had their Rehnumai Mazdayasan Sabha (Religious Reforms Association) started by Naoroji Furdonji and S.S. Bengalee.
Apart from the religious regeneration of society, many public-spirited persons also rendered their yeoman services
to the society and promoted the spirit of nationalism in the country. In Maharashtra, Dhondo Keshav Karve started a Hindu Widows Home at Poona (now Pune) in 1899. Its objective was to provide new avenues of happiness to the widows of the high-caste families who could not remarry and adopt respectable professional careers such as teachers and doctors. He also opened the Indian Women’s University at Poona in 1916. Gopal Krishna Gokhale established the Servants of India Society whose members dedicated their lives to the service of the Motherland. Narayanan Malhar Joshi founded the Social Service League at Bombay in 1911 to promote the cause of the social service and welfare of the masses. Among the great poets and novelists of ardent nationalism were Rabindranath Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chatterji, C. Subramania Bharati and Muhammad Iqbal. Anandmath, written by Bankim Chandra Chatterji, contained the hymn Vande Mataram. Tagore wrote numerous poems, songs, dramas and plays to infuse among the people the feeling of national pride, unity and patriotism. He established a unique university at Shantiniketan. Subramania Bharati, a fiery young Tamil poet, inspired millions of people with his poems and songs about freedom and his intense desire to see his country become great, prosperous and happy. The people, therefore, acclaimed him as Bharati when he was only eleven years old. Muhammad Iqbal, the renowned Urdu poet, wrote Sare Jahan Se Achcha Hindostan Hamara (Our India is the best in the world).