Brahmo Samaj

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From The Tribes And Castes Of The Central Provinces Of India

By R. V. Russell

Of The Indian Civil Service

Superintendent Of Ethnography, Central Provinces

Assisted By Rai Bahadur Hira Lal, Extra Assistant Commissioner

Macmillan And Co., Limited, London, 1916.

NOTE 1: The 'Central Provinces' have since been renamed Madhya Pradesh.

NOTE 2: While reading please keep in mind that all articles in this series have been scanned from the original book. Therefore, footnotes have got inserted into the main text of the article, interrupting the flow. Readers who spot these footnotes gone astray might like to shift them to their correct place.

Brahmo Samaj

\Bibliog7-aphy : Professor J. C. Oman's Brdhmaiis, Theists and Mttsliins of India (1907) ; Cults, Customs a7id Superstitions of India (1908) ; Rev. F. Lillingston's Brahmo Samdj and Arya Samaj (1901). The following brief account is simply compiled from the above works and makes no pretence to be critical.] LIST OF PARAGRAPHS 1. Riivi Mohan Roy, foi/ndc?- of the sect. 2. Much esteemed by the English. 3. Foundation of the lirahnio Saniaj. 4. Debc7idra Ndth Tagorc. 5. Keshiib Chandar Se>t. 6. The Civil Marriage Act. 7. Keshub Chandar's relapse into niysticisvi. 8. Recent history of the SanidJ. 9. Character of the movement. I. Ram

Brahmo Samaj Religrion

This monotheistic sect of Mohan Bengal numbered only thirty-two adherents in the Central founder of Provinccs in 191 I, of whom all or nearly all were probably the sect. Bengalis. Nevertheless its history is of great interest as representing an attempt at the reform and purification of Hinduism under the influence of Christianity. The founder of the sect, Ram Mohan Roy, a Brahman, was born in 1772 and died in England in 1833. He was sent to school at Patna, where under the influence of Muhammadan teachers he learnt to despise the extravagant stories of the Puranas.

At the age of sixteen he composed a tract against idolatry, which stirred up such a feeling of animosity against him that he had to leave his home. He betook himself first to Benares, where he received instruction in the Vedas from the Brahmans. From there he went to Tibet, that he might learn the tenets of Buddhism from its adherents rather than its opponents ; his genuine desire to form a fair judgment of the merits of every creed being further evidenced by his ' learning the language in which each of these finds its expression : thus he learnt Sanskrit that he might rightly

understand the Vedas, Pali that he might read the l> Tripitaka, Arabic as the key to the Koran, and Hebrew and Greek for the Old and New Testaments.^ In 181 9, after a diligent study of the Bible, he published a book entitled The Precepts of Jesus, the Guide to Peace and Ilappuiess. Although this work was eminently appreciative of the character and teaching of Christ, it gave rise to an attack from the missionaries of Serampore. Strange to say. Ram Mohan Roy so far converted his tutor Mr. Adam (himself a mission- ary) to his own way of thinking that that gentleman relinquished his spiritual office, became editor of the Indian Gazette, and was generally known in Calcutta as ' The second fallen Adam.' ^ Ram Mohan Roy was held in great esteem by his English 2.

Much contemporaries in India. He dispensed in charities the bulk b^'^jhe^'^ of his private means, living himself with the strictest economy English, in order that he might have the more to give away. It was to a considerable extent due to his efforts, and more especially to his demonstration that the practice of Sati found no sanction in the Vedas, that this abominable rite was declared illegal by Lord William Bentinck in 1829.

The titular emperor of Delhi conferred the title of Raja upon him in 1830 and induced him to proceed to England on a mission to the Home Government. He was the first Brahman who had crossed the sea, and his distinguished appearance, agreeable manners, and undoubtedly great ability, coupled with his sympathy for Christianity, procured him a warm welcome in England, where he died in 1833.^ Ram Mohan Roy, with the help of a few friends and 3. I'ounda- disciples, founded, in 1830, the Brahmo Samaj or Society of prahmo God. In the trust deed of the meeting-house it was laid Samaj. down that the society was founded for " the worship and adoration of the eternal, unsearchable and immutable Being who is the Author and Preserver of the Universe, but not by 1 Lillingston, p. 45, on the author- a book in Persian and knew English ity of Max Miiller. Professor Oman well. states, however, that he had but little ^ Oman, quoting from Dr. George acquaintance with the Vedas {Brah- Smith's Life of Dr. Alexander Dtiff, mans, Theisis, p. 103), and if this was vol. i. p. 118. so it would seem likely that his know- ^ Oman, quoting Mary Carpenter's ledge of the other ancient languages was Last Days in En,^land of the RCxja not very profound. But he published RCnii Mohan. Roy, p. 67. VOL. I r

any other name, designation or title peculiarly used by any men or set of men ; and that in conducting the said worship and adoration, no object, animate or inanimate, that has been or is or shall hereafter become ... an object of worship by any men or set of men, shall be reviled or slightingly or contemptuously spoken of or alluded to either in preaching, or in the hymns or other mode of worship that may be delivered or used in the said messuage or building." ^ This well exemplifies the broad toleration and liberality of the sect.

The service in the new theistic church consisted in the recital of the Vedas by two Telugu Brahmans, the reading of texts from the Upanishads, and the expounding of the same in Bengali. The Samaj, thus constituted, based its teaching on the Vedas and was at this time, though unorthodox, still a Hindu sect, and made no attempt a:t the abolition of caste. " Indeed, in establishing this sect. Ram Mohan Roy professed to be leading his countrymen back to the pure, uncorrupted, monotheistic religion of their Vedic ancestors ; but his monotheism, based, as it was, essentially upon the Vedanta philosophy, was in reality but a disguised Pantheism, enriched as regards its ethics by ideas derived from Muslim and Christian literature and theology." ^ 4- Deben- After the death of its founder the sect languished for a period of ten years until it was taken in hand by Debendra Nath Tagore, whose father Dwarka Nath had been a friend and warm admirer of Ram Mohan Roy, and had practically maintained the society by paying its expenses during the interval. In 1843 Debendra drew up a form of initiation which involved the renunciation of idolatry.

He established branches of the Brahmo Samaj in many towns and villages of Bengal, and in 1845 he sent four Pandits to Benares to copy out and make a special study of the Vedas. On their return to Calcutta after two years Debendra Nath devoted himself with their aid to a diligent and critical study of the sacred books, and eventually, after much con- troversy and even danger of disruption, the Samaj, under his guidance, came to the important decision that the teaching of the Vedas could not be reconciled with the conclusions of modern science or with the religious con- ' Lilliiigston, p. 5'- " Ih-dlLiiiaiis, Thcisis, p. 105. dra Nath Tagore.

victions of the Brahmos, a result which soon led to an open and public denial of the infallibility of the Vedas, " There is nothing," Professor Oman remarks, " in the Brahmic movement more creditable to the parties concerned than this honest and careful inquiry into the nature of the doctrines and precepts of the Vedas." ^ The tenets of the Brahmo Samaj consisted at this time s- Keshub of a pure theism, without special reliance on the Hindu sacred se^n^""" books or recognition of such Hindu doctrines as the trans- migration of souls. But in their ordinary lives its members still conformed generally to the caste practices and reli- gious usages of their neighbours.

But a progressive party now arose under the leadership of Keshub Chandar Sen, a young man of the Vaidya caste, which desired to break altogether with Hinduism, abolish the use of sect marks and the prohibition of intermarriage between castes, and to welcome into the community converts from all religions. Meanwhile Debendra Nath Tagore had spent three years in seclusion in the Himalayas, occupied with meditation and prayer ; on his return he acceded so far to the views of Keshub Chandar Sen as to celebrate the marriage of his daughter according to a reformed theistic ritual ; but when his friend pressed for the complete abolition of all caste restrictions, Debendra Nath refused his consent and retired once more to the hills.

'^ The result was a schism in the community, and in 1866 the progressive party seceded and set up a Samaj of their own, calling themselves the Brahmo Samaj of India, while the conservative group under Debendra Nath Tagore was named the Adi or original Samaj. In 1905 the latter was estimated to number only about 300 persons.^ Keshub Chandar Sen had been educated in the Presi- dency College, Calcutta, and being more familiar vv'ith English and the Bible than with the Sanskrit language and Vedic literature, he was filled with deep enthusiastic ad- miration of the beauty of Christ's character and teaching.^ He had shown a strong passion for the stage and loved nothing better than the plays of Shakespeare. He was 1 Bnihiiians, Thcisls, p. ill. ^ Braktiiaiis, Theists, p. 116. 2 Lillingston, p. 73. "* Ibidem, p. 113.

fond of performing himself, and especially delighted in appearing in the role of a magician or conjurer before his family and friends.

The new sect took up the position that all religions were true and worthy of veneration. At the inaugural meeting, texts from the sacred scriptures of the Christians, Hindus, Muhammadans, Parsis and Chinese were publicly read, in order to mark and to proclaim to the world the catholicity of spirit in which it was formed.^ Keshub by his writings and public lectures kept himself prominently before the Indian world, enlisting the sympathies of the Viceroy (Sir John Lawrence) by his tendencies towards Christianity, 6. The By this time several marriages had been performed ^r' • accordinij to the revised ritual of the Brahmic Church, which Marriage "^ ' Act. had given great offence to orthodox Hindus and exposed the participators in these novel rites to much obloquy. The legality of marriages thus contracted had even been questioned. To avoid this difficulty Keshub induced Government in 1872 to pass the Native Marriage Act, introducing for the first time the institution of civil marriage into Hindu society.

The Act prescribed a form of marriage to be celebrated before the Registrar for persons who did not profess either the Hindu, the Muhammadan, the Farsi, the Sikh, the Jaina or the Buddhist religion, and who were neither Christians nor Jews ; and fixed the minimum age for a bridegroom at eighteen and for a bride at fourteen. Only six years later, however, Keshub Chandar Sen committed the fatal mistake of ignoring the law which he had himself been instrumental in passing : he permitted the marriage of his daughter, below the age of fourteen, to the young Maharaja of Kuch Bihar, who was not then sixteen years of age." This event led to a public censure of Keshub Chandar Sen by his community and the secession of a section of the members, who formed the Sadharan or Universal Brahmo Samaj, The creed of this body consisted in the belief in an infinite Creator, the immortality of the soul, the duty and necessity of the spiritual worship of God, and disbelief in any infallible book or man as a means of salvation.^ 1 Brdhntans, Theists, p. 1 1 8. 2 Lillingston, p. 96. ^ Brdhmaiis, Theists, p. 133.

From about this period, or a little before, Kcshub 7. Keshub Chandar Sen appears to have attempted to make a wider ^-'^•""'•^s appeal to Indians by developing the emotional side of his into mysti- religion. And he gradually relapsed from a pure unitarian '^'^'"' theism into what was practically Hindu pantheism and the mysticism of the Yogis.

At the same time he came to consider himself an inspired prophet, and proclaimed him- self as such. The following instances of his extravagant conduct are given by Professor Oman.^ "In 1873 he brought forward the doctrine of Adesh or special inspiration, declaring emphatically that inspira- tion is not only possible, but a veritable fact in the lives of many devout souls in this age. The following years witnessed a marked development of that essentially Asiatic and perhaps more especially Indian form of religious feeling, which finds its natural satisfaction in solitary ecstatic con- templation. As a necessary consequence an order of devotees was established in 1876, divided into three main classes, which in ascending gradation were designated Shabaks, Bhaktas and Yogis.

The lowest class, divided into two sections, is devoted to religious study and the practical performance of religious duties, including doing good to others. The aspiration of the Bhakta is . . . ' Inebriation in God. He is most passionately fond of God and delights in loving Him and all that pertains to Him. . . . The very utterance of the divine name causes his heart to overflow and brings tears of joy to his eyes.' As for the highest order of devotees, the Yogis, ' They live in the spirit-world and readily commune with spiritual realities. They welcome whatever is a help to the entire subjugation of the soul, and are always employed in conquering selfish- ness, carnality and worldliness. They are happy in prayer and meditation and in the study of nature.' " The new dispensation having come into the world to harmonise conflicting creeds and regenerate mankind, must have its outward symbol, its triumphal banner floating proudly on the joyful air of highly-favoured India. A flag was therefore made and formally consecrated as ' The Banner of the New Dispensation.' This emblem of ' Regenerated

and saving theism ' the new prophet himself formed with a yak's tail and kissed with his own inspired lips.

In orthodox Hindu fashion his missionaries—apostles of the new Dispensation—went round it with lights in their hands, while his less privileged followers respectfully touched the sacred pole and humbly bowed down to it. In a word, the banner was worshipped as Hindu idols are worshipped any day in India. Carried away by a spirit of innovation, anxious to keep himself prominently before the world, and realising no doubt that since churches and sects do not flourish on intellectual pabulum only, certain mystic rites and gorgeous ceremonials were necessary to the success of the new Dispensation, Keshub introduced into his Church various observances which attracted a good deal of attention and did not escape criticism. On one occasion he went with his disciples in procession, singing hymns, to a stagnant tank in Calcutta, and made believe that they were in Palestine and on the side of the Jordan. Standing near the tank Keshub said, ' Beloved brethren, we have come into the land of the Jews, and we are seated on the bank of the Jordan.

Let them that have eyes see. Verily, verily, here was the Lord Jesus baptised eighteen hundred years ago. Behold the holy waters wherein was the Son of God immersed.' We learn also that Keshub and his disciples attempted to hold communication with saints and prophets of the olden time, upon whose works and teaching they had been pondering in retirement and solitude. On this subject the following notice appeared in the Sjinday Mirror

" ' It is proposed to promote communion with departed saints among the more advanced Brahmos. With a view to achieve this object successfully ancient prophets and saints will be taken one after another on special occasions and made the subject of close study, meditation and prayer. Particular places will also be assigned to which the devotees will resort as pilgrims. There for hours together they will try to draw inspiration from particular saints. We believe a spiritual pilgrimage to Moses will be shortly undertaken. Only earnest devotees ought to join.' " Keshub Chandar Sen died in 1884, ^"tl the Brahmo

Samaj seems subsequently to luive returned more or less 8. Recunt to its first position of pure theism coupled with Hindu 'l'^'"^ "'^. ' ^ llie .Saniilj. social reform. His successor in the leadership of the sect was Babu P. C. Mazumdar, who visited America and created a favourable impression at the Parliament of Religions at Chicago.

Under his guidance the Samaj seems to have gradually drifted towards American Unitarianism, and to have been supported in no slight degree by funds from the United States of America.^ He died in 1905, and left no one of prominent character and attainments to succeed to the leadership. In 191 i the adherents of the different branches of the Samaj numbered at the census only 5500 persons. The history of the Brahmo Samaj is of great interest, 9. Char- because it was the first attempt at the reform and purifica- ^^^'^ °^ ^ 1 the move- tion of Hinduism made under the influence of Christianity, ment. the long line of Vaishnavite reformers who strove to abrogate Hindu polytheism and the deadening restrictions of caste, having probably been inspired by the contemplation of Islam.

The Samaj is further distinguished by the admirable tolera- tion and broadness of view of its religious position, and by having had for its leaders three men of exceptional character and attainments, two of whom, and especially Keshub Chandar Sen, made a profound impression in England among all classes of society. But the failure of the Samaj to attract anj' large number of converts from among the Hindus was only what might have been expected. For it requires its followers practically to cut themselves adrift from family and caste ties and offers nothing in return but an undefined theism, not calculated to excite any enthusiasm or strong feeling in ordinary minds. Its efforts at social reform have probably, however, been of substantial value in weakening the rigidity of Hindu rules on caste and marriage.

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