Socio Religious Reforms

The process of Socio-Religious reforms in India started in the late 18th to early 19th century. However, reform is a continuous process. There are several practices that are being challenged even today. In this session, we would be looking at some of the social reform movements of the 20th century. Witnessed at the beginning of the nineteenth century with the efforts of some enlightened sections of society. Along with reforms it gave birth to some undesirable impacts too.

The nature and character of the socio-religious Reforms movement in the 20th century differed in some ways from those in the 19th century. In this phase, the socio-religious reform movements were strongly influenced by the rising nationalist movement and tended to merge with the anti-imperialist struggle.

Socio-Religious Reforms

India’s rich past meant that the arrival of foreigners to India was a common practice. People came to India for various reasons ranging from trade, literature, religion, and conquest. Each wave of foreigners that came to India impacted Indian society in some way or the other. But this process generally took some time to reflect on the ground. The impact of British rule on Indian society & culture was extensively different from earlier times. Most of the earlier rulers who came to India had settled within the frontiers, were absorbed by the superior culture, and became part of the land and its people. On the other hand, the British conquest was different, and it came at a time when India, in contrast to an enlightened Europe of the 18th century affected in every aspect by science and scientific outlook, presented the picture of a stagnant civilization.

The social base of the upcoming quest was the newly emerging middle class and traditional as well as western-educated intellectuals.
The important intellectual principles which gave these reform movements an ideological unity were “rationalism”, “religious universalism”, and “humanism”.
The process of re-awakening, however, did not always follow the intended line and gave rise to some undesirable by-products as well.

Important Personalities of The Socio-Religious Reforms Movements

  1. Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833)
    • Father of Indian Renaissance.
    • Maker of Modern India.
    • Believed in scientific temper, human dignity, monotheism, and Upanishads.
    • Opposed idolatry and meaningless rituals.
    • Books: Gift to Monotheism (1809) + Percepts of Jesus (1820).
    • Translated Vedas and Upanishads into Bengali.
    • Atmiya Sabha (Society of Friends) in Calcutta in 1814.
    • Started Brahmo Samaj (1828) [ formerly called Brahmo Sabha]
    • Established Vedanta College (1825).
    • Supported the revolutions of Naples and Spanish America.
    • Supported David Hare in establishing Hindu College (1817).
    • Crusader against Sati.
    • Efforts resulted in Government Regulation against Sati in 1829.
  2. Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905)
    • Headed Tattavabodhini Sabha, formed in 1839, and its organ Tattavabodhini Patrika.
    • Joined Brahmo Samaj in 1842.
    • Favored Widow remarriage, Women’s education, and the abolition of Polygamy.
  3. Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-1884)
    • Appointed as Acharya of the Brahmo Samaj in 1858.
    • Spread the ideas of the Samaj outside Bengal (in the United Provinces, Bombay, Punjab, etc.).
    • Showed radical views against the caste system, and favored inter-caste marriage.
    • Expelled from Acharya’s position in 1865.
    • Founded Brahmo Samaj of India (1866).
    • Sadharan Brahmo Samaj (Ananda Mohan Bose, Shibchandra Deb, and Umesh Chandra Datta) was founded in opposition to his views.
  4. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891)
    • Man of high moral standards, a humanist, and a proponent of modern education.
    • Appointed Principal of Sanskrit college in 1850 in Bengal.
    • Opened Sanskrit College to non-Brahmins.
    • An ardent supporter of Widow remarriage. Helped legalized it.
    • One of the pioneers of higher education for women.
    • Appointed as the secretary of Bethune College (est. 1849).
  5. Balshastri Jambedkar (1812-1846)
    • Pioneer of social reform through Journalism in Bombay.
    • Against Brahminical domination.
    • Father of Marathi Journalism.
    • Newspaper: Darpan (1832), Digdarshan (1840).
    • Founded Bombay Native General Library.
    • Started the Native Improvement Society.
    • The first professor of Hindi at Elphinstone College.
    • Director of the Colaba Observatory.
  6. Gopalhari Deshmukh ‘Lokahitwadi’ (1823-1892)
    • Belonged to Maharashtra.
    • Against Hindu orthodoxy and caste system.
    • Believed in rational, modern, and secular principles.
    • Wrote for weekly Prabhakar under the pen name ‘Lokahitwadi’.
    • Started weekly Hitechu.
    • Helped in founding periodicals like Gyan Prakash, Indu Prakash, and Lokahitwadi.
  7. Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866-1915)
    • A liberal leader of the Indian National Congress.
    • Formed Servants of India society (1905) with the help of M. G. Ranade.
    • Aimed at mobilizing a cadre of selfless workers for the service of the country in a religious spirit.
    • Published Hitavadi (1911).
  8. Jyotiba Phule (1827-1890):
    • Born to Mali(gardener) community in Maharashtra.
    • Fought against upper caste and Brahmanical domination, caste system, and socio-economic inequalities.
    • Founded the Satyasodhak Samaj in 1873 to promote social service and education among the lower caste and women.
    • Books: Sarvajanik Satyadharma
    • Gulamgiri
    • Fought for the cause of widow remarriage and opened a home for widows in 1854.
    • Given the title of Mahatma for his social service work.
  9. Gopal Ganesh Agarkar (1856-1895)
    • Belonged to Maharashtra.
    • Favored human reason and discarded the false glorification of the past.
    • Co-founder of the New English School, the Deccan Education Society, and the Fergusson College.
    • The first editor of Kesari (a Marathi newspaper started by Lokmanya Tilak).
    • Periodical: Sudharak.
  10. Swami Vivekananda (1862-1902)
    • Also known by the name Narendra Dutta.
    • Preached Neo-Hinduism and believed in Vedanta, considering it to be the most rational system of knowledge.
    • Inspired by the lives of Ramakrishna, Buddha, Jesus, and the teachings of the Gita and Upanishads.
    • He was against the religious domination by the Hindus.
    • Participated in the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893 where he emphasized the balance between materialism and spiritualism.
    • Founded the Ramakrishna Mission in 1897 for promoting social service and humanitarian relief works.
    • He advocated the doctrine of service to all living beings. According to him, the service to mankind is the service to God.
  11. Dayananda Saraswati (1824-1883)
    • Also known by the name Moolshanker.
    • Born in old Morvi state (Gujarat) to a Brahmin household.
    • Started Arya Samaj in 1875.
    • Book: Satyarath Prakash.
    • Gave the slogan “Back to the Vedas”.
    • Believed in the theory of Karma, reincarnation, and the Chaturavarna system of the Vedas.
    • He was against the theory of niyati or destiny and criticized the concept of Moksha.
  12. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898)
    • British loyalist and a member of the Judicial Service.
    • Member of the Imperial Legislative Council in 1878.
    • Earned Knighthood in 1888.
    • Advocated reconciling modern education with the teachings of the Quran.
    • Founded Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College (now Aligarh Muslim University) in 1875.
    • Fought for the cause of women and education and reform among the Muslims.
    • Magazine- Tahdhib-ul-Akhlaq.
Socio-Religious Reforms

Reformism vs Revivalism

  Reformism– Social reform
– Help of the British colonial state
– Influenced by western enlightenment
– Not critical of the colonial state
– Moderates
  Revivalism– Against social reform
– Brought against the colonial state
– Ancient Indian religion revival, Indian spirituality superior
– Self-confidence in Indians by declaration
– Extremist

Important Reform Movements

Hindu Reform Movements

Brahmo Samaj (1828)
Raja Rammohan Roy (1772-1833)
[Books – A Gift to Monotheists (1809), Precepts of Jesus (1820)]
Debendranath Tagore—founder of Tatvabodhini Sabha
After the split with Brahmo Samaj, he formed Adi Brahmo Samaj

Keshub Chandra Sen—later associated with Brahmo Samaj (secessionists from the group: Sadharan Brahmo
Favored: Human reason and conscience; Political upliftment of the masses, widow remarriage.
Against: Polytheism; Idol worship; Incarnations; Scriptural authority; Caste system, Purdah system, Untouchability, Sati, child marriage.
No definite view on Karma and the transmigration of the soul.
Punjab: Dayal Singh College at Lahore (1910) started by Dayal Singh Trust, popularized the ideas of the Samaj.
Their efforts led to the abolition of Sati in 1829
Journals by Rammohan Roy: Sambad Kaumudi (1821), Mirat-ul-Akbar;
Debendranath Tagore: Tattva Bodhini Patrika;
Keshub Chandra Sen brought out Indian Mirror
Sadharan Brahmo Samaj brought out the Tattva Kaumudi, The Indian Messenger, The Sanjibari, the Navyabharat, and Prabasi.
Prarthana Samaj (1867)Atmaram Pandurang in Bombay.Popularized liberal ideas of women’s education, widow remarriage, raising the age of marriage for boys and girls, and against caste and communal barriers.
Joined by M. G. Ranade in 1870, gained all India character.
Associated with the Bhakti cult in Maharashtra.
Other Prominent leaders: R. G. Bhandarkar, N. G. Chandavarkar.
Young Bengal Movement (1820-30)Henry Vivian Derozio in Bengal and
Rasikkrishna Mullick
Also known as the “Young Bengal Movement”.
Inspired by the French Revolution which favored free thinking and rationality.
It was too radical for the contemporary time with no effect on the masses.
Derozio is regarded as the First nationalist poet of modern India.
Paramhansa Mandali (1849)Dadoba Pandurang and
Mehtaji Durgaram
In Maharashtra.
Fought against the Caste system and favored the worship of one God.
Real religion is based on morality, love, and good conduct.
Satyasodhak Samaj (1873)Jyotirao PhuleIn Maharashtra.Social service and education among the lower castes and women.
Servants of India Society (1905)Gopal Krishna Gokhale and
M.G. Ranade
In MaharashtraMobilize a cadre of selfless workers for the service of the country in a religious spirit.
Social Service LeagueNarayan Malhar JoshiIn BombayTo help the poor and the masses to achieve better conditions of life and work.
Ramkrishna MovementRamakrishna ParamahamsaIn CalcuttaTo organize a group of persons to work for the spread of the message of Vedanta, which inspired the life of Ramakrishna Paramhansa.
To carry on philanthropic work in conjunction with the followers of the mission.
Arya Samaj (1875)Dayananda SaraswatiIn Bombay.
It believed in God being the primary source of true knowledge.
Considered Vedas to be the main book of knowledge.
Faith in Dharma (right or wrong)Promote the well-being of all individuals and foster love and justice.
Encouraged inter-caste and widow remarriage.
Undertook social service during times of natural calamities like earthquakes and droughts, etc.
Started Shuddhi (purification) Movement to reconvert back to Hinduism to those who have converted to Christianity or Islam.
Seva Sadan (1908)Behramji M. Malabari and Diwan Dayaram GidumalOpposed child marriage and supported widow remarriage.
B. M. Malabari’s (Newspaper: Indian Spectator) efforts led to the Age of Consent Act. It took care of the deserted, exploited, and destitute women and fostered education and medical services.
Dev Samaj (1887)Shiv Narayan AgnihotriIn Lahore
Aimed at societal reform through religion by focusing on the eternity of the soul, the supremacy of the guru, and the need for good action.
Book: Deva Shastra.
Dharma Sabha (1830)Radhakant Deb (1794-1876)Favored orthodox Hinduism by maintaining the status quo.
Advocated western education among girls.
Emerged to counter the Brahmo Samaj,
Aimed at the protection of orthodoxy,
Condemned radical and liberal reforms,
Helped in the spread of western education.
Bharat Dharma Mahamandal (1902)Madan Mohan Malaviya in Varanasi.To defend the orthodox Hindu religion.
Other similar organizations that merged into it:
1. Sanatana Dharma Sabha (1895).
2. Dharma Maha Parishad in South India.
3. Dharma Mahamandali in Bengal.
Sree Narayan Guru Dharma Paripalana Movement (SNDP)Sree Narayana Guru Swamy in Kerala.Among the Ezhavas (caste of toddy-tappers and untouchables) of Kerala.
Also called the Aravippuram Movement.
Opposed the oppression of the depressed classes, animal sacrifices, dividing tendencies of the castes, creeds, etc.
Famous poet Kumaran Asan is associated with it.
Radha Swami Movement (1861)Tulsi Ram aka Shiv Dayal SahebIn Agra.
Believe in the supremacy of the guru, Satsang (pious people), and simple life with worldly existence.
Did not believe in the temple and other related symbols.
Vokkalinga Sangha (1905)MysoreOpposed Brahminical domination.
Justice MovementC. N. Mudaliar,
T.M. Nair,
P. Tyagaraja
In Madras Presidency.
Fought for attaining the representation of the lower castes in the legislatures.
Self-Respect Movement
E. V. Ramaswamy Naicker.Against Brahminical domination.
Temple Entry MovementT. K. Madhavan in Travancore.To allow the entry of lower castes into temples.
Another similar movement: was Vaikom Satyagraha (1924, K. P. Kesava, Kerala).
Indian Social Conference (1887)M. G. Ranade and
Raghunath Rao
in Madras.
Social reform organ of the Indian National Congress.
Advocated inter-caste marriage, and opposed polygamy and kulinism.
Launched “Pledge Movement to pledge against Child Marriage”

Muslims Reforms Movements

Wahabi/Walliullah MovementFounded by Syed Ahmed Barelvi inspired by Abdul Wahab of Arabia and Shah Walliullah
Response against western influences.
Establish harmony among the four schools of Muslims.
Importance of individual conscience in religion.
Transform India from dar-ul-Harb (land of kafirs) to dar-ul-Islam (land of Islam).
Titu Mir’s MovementMir Nithar Ali, the disciple of Syed Ahmed Barelvi.
Adopted Wahabism and Sharia.
Organized Muslim peasants against the Hindu landlords.
Faraizi MovementBased on Islamic pillars of faith as established by Haji Sharitat Ullah.
Elimination of un-Islamic practices from Islam.
Revolutionary tone under Dudu Mian.Targeted Hindu landlords.
Ahmadiyya MovementBy Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in 1889.
Originated in India.Based on liberal principles like Brahmo Samaj.
Opposed Jihad, favored separation of religion from state, promoted tolerance and protection of human rights.
Suffered from mysticism.Like Baha’ism of the West Asian countries.
Aligarh MovementBy Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in 1875.Liberal and modern in nature.
Promotion of modern education among Muslims.
Social reforms among the Muslims like the abolition of purdah, polygamy, widow remarriage, women’s education, etc.
Deoband School (Darul Uloom)
Mohammad Qasim Nanotavi and Rashid Ahmed Gangohi in 1866 in Saharanpur, United Provinces.
Moral and religious regeneration of the Muslim community.
Imparted instruction in the Islamic religion.
Supported the formation of the Indian National Congress.
Issued fatwa against Syed Ahmed Khan’s Aligarh School.

Other Religious Reforms Movements

ParsiRahnumai Mazdayasnan Sabha (1851)Organized to improve the social conditions of the Parsis.
Purification of the Zoroastrian religion.
Newspaper: Rast Goftar (Truth-Teller).
Prominent leaders: Naoroji Furdonji, Dadabhai Naoroji, K. R. Cama, and S. S. Bengalee.
SikhThe Singh Sabha Movement (1873, Amritsar)Modern education among the Sikhs through Khalsa schools in Punjab.
To counter the proselytizing activities of the Christian missionaries.
SikhThe Akali Movement (Gurudwara Reform Movement)Offshoot of the Singh Sabha Movement.
Aimed at liberating the Sikh Gurudwaras from the corrupt mahants.
Sikh Gurudwaras Act, of 1922 was passed to give control of the gurudwaras to the masses through Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC).
Theosophical MovementThe Theosophical Society (1875)Formed by Madame H.P. Blavatsky and Colonel M.S. Olcott in New York, United States.
Shifted headquarters to Adyar, Madras in 1882.
Inspired by Upanishads, Samkhya, yoga, and Vedanta schools of thought.
Aimed at establishing a universal brotherhood.
Prominent leader: Annie Beasant (1847-1933)Arrived in India in 1893.
Elected its president in 1907.
Founded the Central Hindu College in Benaras in 1898 (later became Benares Hindu University in 1916).

Socio-Religious Reforms of the 20th Century

The process of social reforms in India started in the late 18th to early 19th century. However, reform is a continuous process. There are several practices that are being challenged even today. In this session, we would be looking at some of the social reform movements of the 20th century.

  • The nature and character of the socio-religious movements in the 20th century differed in some ways from those in the 19th century.
  • In this phase, the socio-religious reform movements were strongly influenced by the rising nationalist movement and tended to merge with the anti-imperialist struggle.

Gurudwara Reform Movement

  • Before 1920 the Sikh Gurudwara was governed by the Udasi Sikh Mahants, who treated the Gurudwara offerings and other income of the Gurudwaras as their personal income.
  • The British government supported these Mahants as a counterpoise to the rising tide of nationalism among the Sikhs.
  • The Gurudwara Reform Movement launched an agitation for freeing the Gurudwaras from these corrupt Mahants and for handing over the Gurudwaras to a representative body of Sikhs.

Result of the Movement:

  • Under the growing pressure of Gurudwara agitators, the Gurudwaras came under the control of an elected committee known as the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) in November 1920.
  • At the same time, the Shiromani Akali Dal was also formed as a body to carry on the further struggle for reforms.
  • Gradually, the Akali movement came under the strong influence of the ongoing Non- Cooperation Movement and assumed nationalist hues too.
  • One of the important milestones in the Akali Movement was the victory of the Akalis in the “Keys Affair” with the climb-down of the Punjab bureaucracy.
  • As a result of the Akali movement, the government finally handed over control of all the Punjab Gurudwaras in 1925 to an elected body, SGPC.
  • Soon after the Akali Movement got divided into three streams, namely Moderate Nationalist Reformers, Pro-government Loyalists, and Political Organs of Sikh Communalism.

Vaikom Satyagraha (1924-25)

  • According to the prevalent caste system in Kerala and the rest of India, low-caste Hindus were not allowed to enter the temples.
  • In the Kakinada meeting of the Congress Party in 1923, it was decided that movements against untouchability need to be promoted.
  • The beginning was made in Vaikom, a village in Travancore.
  • There was a major temple whose approach roads could not be used by the Avarnas.
  • The Kerala Provincial Congress Committee (KPCC) launched a satyagraha for temple entry.
  • The Vaikom Satyagraha created enthusiasm all over the country and had the blessing of even Gandhiji.
  • On 23rd November 1925, all the gates of the temple were opened to Hindus except the eastern gate.
  • In 1928, backward castes got the right to walk on public roads leading to all temples in Travancore.
  • In the Vaikom Satyagraha, Periyar’s leadership played a pivotal role.

Self-Respect Movement

  • Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy was the leader of the Self-respect Movement. It was a popular movement, which occurred in Tamil Nadu in 1925.
  • It was an anti-Brahminism Movement and aimed to grant equal rights to the lower castes in Tamil Nadu.
  • He attacked the laws of Manu, which he called the basis of the entire Hindu social fabric of caste.
  • He established the idea of Self-Respect Marriages for non-brahmins, marriages conducted without priests or religious vows.
  • This movement gained popularity in no time and became a political platform.

Guruvayur Temple Entry

  • After the suspension of the Civil Disobedience Movement, the KPCC decided to organize a temple entry satyagraha in Guruvayur in 1931.
  • A jatha of 16 volunteers began the march from Cannanore to Guruvayur but had to face resistance from the temple authorities.
  • Even though the Guruvayur temple was not opened immediately, it created great excitement and politicization, and anti-caste sentiments.
  • However, the main weakness of these movements was that they lacked a cohesive strategy for ending the caste system itself.

Some other organizations that worked for socio-religious reforms in the 20th century:

OrganizationAssociated PeopleDetails
Bharat Dharma Mahan-mandala;
Benaras (1902)  
Madan Mohan Malaviya,
Deen Dayal Sharma,
Gopal Krishna Gokhale (Founders)
– Orthodox Hindus’ (Sanatan-dharinis’) organization that opposed the Arya Samaj’s teachings.  
The Servants of India Society;
Bombay (1905)  
Gopal Krishna Gokhale  – Famine relief and improving tribals’ condition in particular.  
– Journal- Hitavada
Poona Seva Sadan (1909)  G.K. Devadhar and
Ramabai Ranade Dhondo Keshav Karve
– Economic upliftment; employment for women.  
Bharat Stri Mandal; Calcutta (1910)Saralabala Devi Choudharani  – Women’s education and emancipation.  
Social Service League (1911)Narayan Malhar Joshi  – Improving the condition of the common masses; opening schools, and libraries.
Seva Samiti;
Allahabad (1914)
Hridyanath Kunzru  – Improving the status of the suffering classes through social service and education.
The Indian Women’s Association;
Madras (1917)  
Annie Besant  – Upliftment of Indian women; annual conferences (All India Women’s Conferences) were held.
Nishkam Karma Math: Pune 1910Dhondo Keshav Karve– Educational progress of women; improving widows’ condition.  
– Founded a women’s university in Pune, now in Mumbai.


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