What is Brahmo Samaj?
Brahmo Samaj is a social and religious movement founded during the 19th century movement known as the Bengal Renaissance.
Origin of nameBrahmo Samaj literally means the society of worshippers of One True God. Brahmo means one who worships Brahma, or the supreme spirit of the universe, and Samaj means a community of men. History of the Brahmo Samaj by Sivanath Sastri
History and timelineThe movement was started on 20th August 1828 by Raja Rammohun Roy and his friends by when they opened a place for public worship, Brahma Sabha (One God Society) on Chitpore Road (now Rabindra Sarani), Kolkata, India. It was publicly inaugurated on 11th Magh or 23rd January 1830. The former date is celebrated as Bhadrotsab and the latter as Maghotsab. These are the two main festivals of Brahmo Samaj.
Of Roy's movement the noted physicist, Jayant Narlikar, writes:
- "Roy understood that the emerging knowledge from the West could not be ignored…He was deeply appreciative of the liberal philosophical traditions of India, and he founded the Brahmo Samaj, a religious movement to popularise those enlightened ideas… Since religion played a dominant role in the public life of his times, he went on to reform religion itself… His criticism of the existing religion and its rigid practices and caste barriers was inspired by his desire to make religion consistent with the changing world of his times…"The Scientific Edge by Jayant Narlikar.
Keshub Chunder Sen joined the Calcutta Brahmo Samaj in 1857. This name it retained till the year of the first schism in 1866, after which it was changed to Adi (original) Brahmo Samaj. The new one was called Brahmo Samaj of India.
Although, the Brahmo Samaj movement was born in Kolkata, the idea soon spread to the rest of India. That happened to be the period when the railways were expanding and communication was becoming easier. Outside Bengal presidency some of the prominent centres of Brahmo activity were: Punjab, Sind, Bombay and Madras presidencies. Even to this day, there are several active branches outside Bengal. Bangladesh Brahmo Samaj at Dhaka keeps the lamp burning.
Social reformIn all fields of social reform, including abolition of the caste system and of the dowry system, emancipation of women, and improving the educational system, the Brahmo Samaj reflected the ideologies of the Bengal Renaissance. Brahmoism, as a means of discussing the dowry system, was a central theme of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's noted 1914 Bengali language novella, Parineeta. The Brahmo Samaj Marriage Act of 1872 which the age at which girls could be married to 14 [link].
It also supported movements not directly attached to the Samaj, such as Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar’s movement which promoted widow re-marriage.
Aims of movementThe Brahmo Samaj aimed at developing a universal religion and that has evolved over a period. Bepin Chandra Pal has succinctly summarised the evolution,
- "Raja Rammohun Roy had given us a philosophy of universal religion. But philosophy was not religion. It is only when philosophy becomes organised in ethical exercises and disciplines and spiritual sacraments that it becomes a religion. Devendranath gave us a national religion, on the foundations of the Raja’s philosophy of universal religion. To Keshub, however, was left the work of organising the Raja’s philosophy into a real universal religion through new rituals, liturgies, sacraments and disciplines, wherein were sought to be brought together not only the theories and doctrines of the different world religions but also their outer vehicles and formularies to the extent that these were real vehicles of their religious or spiritual life, divested, however, through a process of spiritual sifting, of their imperfections and errors and superstitions." The Story of Bengal’s New Era: Brahmo Samaj and Brahmananda Keshub Chunder by Bepin Chandra Pal, published in Bangabani, 1922. Reprinted in Brahmananda Keshub Chunder Sen “Testimonies in Memoriam”, compiled by G.C.Banerjee, Allahabad , 1934, Bengali section p 33.
The attempt to create a universal religion has been analytically explained by Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das. Speaking in 1917 he said,
- "The earlier religion of his (Keshub Chunder Sen’s) life was perhaps somewhat abstract. But his religion in developed form, as we find it, in his Navavidhan, is full of concrete symbols of all religions…This brings me to another predominant note of Bengali culture. This is the note of universality… The different sects into which our country is apparently divided, all point to this universalism. The differences are deceptive. They deceive those that are strangers to our thought and culture. Every Hindu is conscious of the underlying unity of this universalism. Read the devotional poems of the Vaishnavas, read the devotional poems of the Shaktas and the other sects, you will find they were identical in this character. The life and work of Keshub Chunder Sen also point to attempt after attempt at this very universalism. The earlier attempt was abstract in its character, brought about by what is called the universal of subtractions. It was based on this, ‘There is truth in every religion! Thus in discarding what it conceived to be false in every religion, and accepting what it conceived to be true build up a sort of an abstract universal religion.’ From Hinduism it took the Upanishads discarding the subsequent scriptures and systems. From Christianity it took the ideal of the son ship of man and the Fatherhood of God divorced from it scriptures and its traditions. From Mohammedanism it took the idea of equality of man without the characteristic traditions in which that idea lived and moved and had its being. Similarly, from all known systems of religion. But as the spiritual experience of Keshub Chunder Sen deepened, he could not remain satisfied with abstract ideas thus taken and formulated. He wanted flesh and blood for the life of his religion. It was then that he formulated what I regard, as one of the grandest attempts at universal religion… The result may or may not be considered satisfactory. But I refuse to judge it by the results. I rejoice in the glory of the attempt." From a speech delivered at a meting held at the Overtoun Hall, Kolkata on January, 1917 in memory of late Keshub Chunder Sen printed in Deshbandhu Rachanasamagra.
Divisions and re-organization
When the bitterness died down, there were efforts at reconciliation and re-understanding of all that had happened in the past. Many feel that Rabindranath Tagore contributed substantially towards synthesising the Brahmo Samaj into one whole. While Sadharan Brahmo Samaj and Nava Bidhan Samaj function on their own, the one in Bhowanipur is known as Sammelan Samaj.
DoctrineThe fundamental principles of the Brahmo Samaj are that:
- There is only one God, the creator and sustainer of the world who is infinite in power, wisdom, love and holiness (see monotheism).
- The human soul is immortal, capable of eternal progress, and responsible to God for its doings.
- God manifests himself directly to the human soul, and no prophets or scriptures are mediators between God and the soul.
- All religious teachers and books are to be honored to the extent that they are in harmony with divine revelation to the soul.
- God is to be worshipped daily by loving him and doing his will.
Additionally, Brahmos do not believe in heaven and hell as eternal, unchanging conditions of reward or punishment. Instead, they see heaven as the state of being filled with divine revelation and hell as the state of being filled with sinful thoughts.
The basic religious ideology is derived to a large extent from the Isha Upanishad, a monotheistic Hindu scripture and one of the principal Upanishads, whose tentative date is assigned the 7th century BCE.
Spiritualism vs. rationalism
The splits, or schisms as they are called, occupy an important place in the history of the Brahmo Samaj. There were immediate reasons for them – the move against caste symbols in the first case and the marriage of Keshub Chandra Sen’s daughter in the second, but obviously there were deeper reasons for it. First, there was a conflict of opinions amongst people in different generations. Second, there was a clash between authoritarianism and democracy. Third and more importantly, there was divergence between spirituality and rationalism.
Unlike traditional religions, which are based on authority of some divine revelation or word that cannot be questioned, Brahmo Samaj was founded on rationalism merged with spiritualism. Therefore, there always was a subtle conflict about the proportionate mix of the two. Such conflicts did not always surface but often remained simmering underneath. There were thorough rationalists such as Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, who were close to the Brahmo Samaj in their approach towards social reformation but did not agree on spiritualism and hence kept away from it. Within the samaj, the question played a leading role in shaping its history. Even as late as 1886 when Bijay Krishna Goswami, a leading missionary, left the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, the underlying note was the conflict between spiritualism and rationalism.
When Max Muller and Romain Rolland, both highly respected and knowledgeable about India, analysed the Indian religious scenario, they heaped substantial praise upon both Raja Rammohun Roy and Keshub Chunder Sen but they seem to suggest that the movement had ended with them. It was left to David Kopf The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind by David Kopf who emphasized the valuable role played by Sadharan Brahmo Samaj in social reform particularly women’s education and the role of Rabindranath Tagore as a great synthesiser in the Brahmo Samaj. While Max Muller and Romain Rolland seem to suggest that Ramakrishna Paramahamsadev took over from Raja Rammohun Roy and Keshub Chunder Sen, David Kopf hints at Brahmo ideals loosing out in its appeal, particularly amongst Bengali youth, to Marxism. In other words, this would mean that what was sought to be a valuable mix of spiritualism and rationalism has lost out to rationalism.
Jayant Narlikar has viewed the entire scenario from a completely different angle. Being a scientist, he has noted with considerable apprehension the growing gap between India and the West. He feels that Raja Rammohun Roy had initiated steps for reformation of Indian society and that could assist in reducing the gap, but by and large, Indian society has remained unchanged. The point evidently is that social reformation of Indian society has to be undertaken if we are to attempt a reduction in its backwardness. Whether it is done along the lines of the Brahmo Samaj or in some other fashion is a moot point. This brings us to a question where it is being doubted whether mere economic development with high rates of growth would at all assist India in emerging from its backwardness.
We are living in a world where more and more people are questioning religion itself as a feudal appendage. In the developed countries, increasingly higher numbers of people are declaring themselves as not belonging to any religion. The general thinking is that religion still has a sway in India because of its backwardness. In such a scenario the future of an organisation such as the Brahmo Samaj is doubtful, to say the least, but the sad part of the story is that the glorious task it had undertaken remains unfulfilled.
In order to understand the contribution of the Brahmo Samaj, it is worth recalling what Maharaja Manindra Chandra Nandi, a noted philanthropist not belonging to the Samaj, said more than a century ago. He said,
- "Brahmo Samaj has progressed so much along the path of female education. It is at the base of the enormous progress of Bengali literature that is visible to everybody. The cultivation of music in our country that had declined to a despicable and degraded situation, has been presented to Mother Bengal by the Brahmo Samaj clothed so beautifully in wisdom, love and devotion. Brahmo Samaj has recovered the Upanishads and other valuable religious scriptures composed by the Arya Rishis of this country, which were on the verge of being lost. In these ways, Brahmo Samaj has contributed so much to the welfare of the country." Adapted from Atiter Brahmo Samaj by Troilokya Nath Deb, first published 1921. The author says the conversation took place many years ago. Considering the stress laid on women’s education, it could have been in the late nineteenth century.
Going by numbers, Brahmos form a very small community, a few thousand at best. Considered against the billion Indians, it is a drop in the ocean. However, its thinking and contribution far outweighs its numerical insignificance. Some eminent Brahmos have been listed separately, just to have an insight into the enormous contribution of this small community. Please see for a list of some of them, with links to their biographies. Many of those listed are not shown in the text of the biographies as belonging to the Brahmo Samaj but that is so for many other people from other communities in different walks of life. Those associated with the Prarthana Samaj in Western India are also listed here, as these organisations have been similar, although they maintain separate identities.
While the idea of universal religion did not have many takers, most of the social ideas of Brahmo Samaj have been finding a quiet acceptance in society at large. Indeed, such ideas as women’s emancipation, education, equality of human beings, removal of casteism and so on are so much on the general social agenda that the pioneering role of Brahmo Samaj in all these matters is often overlooked or missed. A simple example will suffice. Several thousand Indians work abroad and several million travel abroad every year. There was a day when crossing the oceans or ‘black waters’ was considered a sin and it was prohibited. Raja Rammohun Roy was the first Indian to break that rule in modern times and travelled to England. Prince Dwarka Nath Tagore was the second person. In today’s context the significance is lost.
Indian society, particularly Bengali society, has progressed through such a vast transformation that it is at times difficult to comprehend and it is still more difficult to appreciate some of what has happened in the past. When Raja Rammohun Roy succeeded in getting the Sati Act passed, his opponents gathered the signatures of hundreds of citizens on an appeal to repeal the same. The counter move had the signatures of only a few, mostly his friends. When Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar launched his widow remarriage proposals, more than ten thousand people in Kolkata signed on the statement against it. Although polygamy and child marriages generated large numbers of child widows, and formed the core of the reformation, people opposed the progressive move tooth and nail. Today, it is difficult to believe that such a strong opposition to social progress flourished in what many think of as educated and enlightened sections of society, and that too not in such a distant past.
Books about Brahmo Samaj
Brahmo Samaj has always evoked enthusiasm and interest for knowledge seekers. There is no end to discussions about it. Fortunately, for those who are interested, a number of good books are available.
Friedrich Max Muller and Romain Rolland are of course there. They were amongst the first persons in the West to see India in a somewhat different light in an age when things were badly tinted with distorted subjective thinking. However, their opinions continue to be controversial. Unfortunately, David Kopf’s The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind is out of print. Those who can lay hands on a copy will find it worth reading. The book has a fresh approach. Being an American historian, he does not have any nostalgia about the Raj and came and studied things in India. The Scientific Edge by Jayant Narlikar is about science but has an illuminating chapter on Raja Rammohun Roy. Some people may start wondering what did the Raja have to do with science, but the book really provokes some new thinking.
Some meaningful books are available with Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, 211 Bidhan Sarani, Kolkata 700 006. History of the Brahmo Samaj by Pandit Sivanath Sastri is a collector’s item (but the history is up to the first decade of the twentieth century as it was first published in 1911-12.) The Life and Letters of Raja Rammohun Roy by Sophia Dobson Collet, was first published in 1900 but a recent version edited by Dilip Kumar Biswas and Prabhat Chandra Ganguli, is available.
Maharshi Devendranath Tagore wrote Brahmo Dharma in 1848. The objective was to give a systematic exposition of the principles of the Brahmo Samaj and this he did with great effectiveness in the language of the Upanishads. The entire contents of the first part are from the Upanishads. The second part, which was compiled sometime after the first part, consists of the enumeration of the daily duties of the theistic householder according to the ideal of the Brahmo Samaj. The contents of the second part have been taken from Manu Samhita, Mahabharata, Gita, Mahanirvana Tantra etc. This is currently available in both English and Bengali with Sadharan Brahmo Samaj.
Keshub Chunder Sen took the initiative for the compilation of Slokasangraha, collecting its contents from the scriptures of important religions. A current reprint is available with the Nava Bidhan Samaj on Keshub Sen Street.
- [Official website]
- [Brahma Sabha] in the Banglapedia
- [Brahmo Samaj] in the Encyclopedia Britannica
- ["The Tagores & Society"] from the Rabindra Bharati Museum at Rabindra Bharati University
- [Information from the Brahmo Samaj of Delhi]
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