Home >> History of the Brahmo Samaj
Rammohun RoyThe first phase of its history is intimately linked up with the career of its founder Rammohun Roy (1772 - 1833). The Brahmo Samaj which was launched into its eventful career on August 20, 1828, gave a concrete expression to Rammohun's concept of universal worship. Tarachand Chakravarti one of the leaders of the "Young Bengal" group was appointed the secretary of the organisation. Weekly service was held originally, every Saturday evening; later it was transferred to Wednesday, a practice which has been retained to this day at the Brahmamandir of Tagore's Shantiniketan. It consisted of three successive parts, viz. recitation of the Vedas by Telegu Brahmins in the closed apartment exclusively before the Brahmin members of the congregation, reading and exposition of the Upanishads for the general audience, and singing of religious hymns. This would correspond exactly to the reading of the Bible, the sermon and the hymns of Christian worship, and on this point Rammohun's previous Unitarian contacts had certainly been of considerable help by providing him with a model of congregational worship which was alien to the spirit of Hinduism. The parallelism however was confined exclusively to the outward form. The contents of Rammohun's universal worship were thoroughly Hindu in character. The reading of the vedas exclusively before the Brahmin participant does not apparently accord well with the universal and non-sectarian ideals of the new church as set forth in its Trust Deed. But the only custodian of Vedic rituals in Calcutta at that moment was the orthodox Telegu Brahmin community and its members could not be persuaded to recite the Vedas before Brahmins and non-Brahmins alike. That Rammohun and his fellow-organizers of the congregation had no objection to the reading of the sruti texts before the general audience, becomes clear from their arranging to have the Upanishads read and explained before the entire body of worshippers which besides non-Brahmins, sometimes even included Christians and Muslims. This task was entrusted to learned Bengali Brahmin pandits like Ramchandra Vidyavagis, Utsabananda Vidyavagis, Iswarchandra Nyayarata and others, were free from prejudices unlike their orthodox Telegu counterparts.

After the departure of Rammohun Roy for England (November 1830) and Debendranath Tagore his death there (September 1833), the Brahmo Samaj as on organisation gradually reached a moribund condition though its name, theology and social ideals continued to live and prosper among certain groups in the near Calcutta. The munificence of Rammohun's friend Dwarkanath Tagore and the single-minded devotion of Pandit Ram Chandra Vidyavagis enabled it however to tide over the period of crisis tm new life was infused into the Brahmo movement by Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905), Chhatimtala Dwarkanath's eldest son who is to be reckoned as the second great leader of the Samaj. Debendranath's interest in Brahmoism found its earliest expression in his foundation of the Tattwabodhini Sabha in 1839. He joined the Samaj in 1842 and was formally initiated into Brahmoism by Ram Chandra Vidyavagis, along with twenty other young men on December 21, 1843 (7 Poush, 1765 Saka according to the Bengali calendar), a memorable day in the cultural history of Bengal, still celebrated annually at Shantiniketan.

The Tattawabodhini Sabha soon grew into a common platform for the intellectual and cultural elite of mid-nineteenth century Bengal. Its membership came to exceed eight hundred, a Pt. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagarremarkable figure for those days. The core was no doubt formed by the group of devout Brahmos with the young Debendranath at their head and the declared objective of the body was "the propagation of the Brahmo Dharma in various ways". But at the same time there had assembled under the banner of the Sabha refonners and educationists like Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, rationalists and free-thinkers like Akshay Kumar Datta, Rakhaldas Haldar, Anangamohan Mitra, Kanailal Pyne and Durgacharan Banerjee, poets and litterateurs like Iswar chandra Gupta, Pyarichand Mitra, Kaliprasanna Sinha and Madanmohan Tarkalankar, Hindu College radicals like Tarachand Chakravarti, Chandra Sekhar Deb, Sib Chandra Deb, Ramgopal Ghosh, Ramtanu Lahiri and Hara Chandra Ghosh, scholars like Rajendralal Mitra and others all with a common ideal and programme in harmony with the religious and social ideas of Rammohun Roy. The era of the Tattwabodhini Sabha (1839-1859) thus ushered in a significant and creative epoch in the history of the Brahmo Samaj which had for once come to receive the sincere co-operation of nearly all the progressive sections of the contemporary Hindu society. The unification of these diverse elements of national life on a common platform was certainly an organisational achievement which reflects credit on the tact, foresight and earnestness of the young Debendranath.

Rammohun Roy's departure for England and his premature death had robbed him of the chance of providing we infant Brahmo Samaj with a solid organisational machinery. The task was now taken up with vigour and enthusiasm. Rituals and Adi Brahmo Samajceremonials of the new church were formulated, the most prominent among these being the system of initiation. It started with the initiation of Debendranath and his friends in 1843. The initiated Brahmo was a new phenomenon in the history of the faith. Along with initiation came the special status of membership system or compulsory subscription for the initiated was introduced. A notable doctrinal change that took place was the abandonment of the belief in the infallibility of the Vedas. Rationalists like Akshay Kumar Dutta within the fold of the Samaj, found themselves unable to believe in any apaurusheya sastra (infallible scripture). The Hindu College group of intellectuals associated with the Tattwabodhini Sabha were also sharp critics of the doctrine. Ultimately Debendranath was also convinced of the truth of the standpoint. It was decided and formally declared that the basis of Brahmoism would henceforth be no longer any infallible book, but "the human heart illumined by spiritual knowledge born of self-realisation". Hindu scriptures however continued to be respected without being considered infallible and Debendranath compiled two volumes the Brahma Dharma, a selection of suitable passages from the Hindu sastras and wrote the Brahmo Dharma Vijam (the Essence of Brahmoism) consisting of four short aphorisms for the use and guidance of worshippers.

The Brahmo movement spread rapidly in the country now and by 1872 the church had succeeded in establishing altogether one hundred and one branches throughout India and Burma. In one respect however a notable change had taken place in the nature of Brahmoism from this epoch. The Samaj had now definitely taken the shape of a religious sect or community with its own creed, rituals and regulations. This began increasingly to mark it out as a separate religious unit, distinct from other existing sects. The position is radically different from that of the universal congregation as conceived by Rammohun Roy, It should also be remembered that Brahmo leaders of this epoch regarded the adoration of the formless Brahman cultivated by them as the best and noblest phase in the development of Hinduism. Without denying the universal outlook of Brahmoism they were always eager to emphasize its special relation with Hinduism. The abolition of idolatry and superstition according to them was a step towards the purification of the national faith.

Keshub Chandra SenThe next phase of the Brahmo movement is dominated by the dynamic personality of Keshub Chandra Sen (1838-84) who joined the Samaj in 1857 and became for sometime the right-hand man of Debendranath Tagore in the field of mission work. Debendranath loved the young man like his own son and appointed him an acharya of the Samaj. Keshub was the first non-Brahmin to be elevated to that position. He at once imparted a new vigour to Samaj work and generated so much apostolic zeal that its message rapidly spread to the remotest corners of Bengal. In 1864 he undertook an extensive tour of the presidencies of Madras and Bombay and prepared the ground for the spread of t,he message of the Brahmo Samaj in Southern and WesternBrahmo Samaj of India India. The Brahmo movement certainly gained momentum at this stage through the young Keshub's endeavours and even Rev. Alexander Duff, one of its arch rivals had to admit that "the Brahmo Samaj is a power, and a power of no mean order". But for sometime past serious differences regarding creed, rituals and the attitude of the Brahmos to the social problems of the day, had arisen between Debendranath and Keshub, men of radically different temperaments and the Samaj soon split up into two groups- the old conservatives rallying round the cautious Debendranath and the young reformists led by the dynamic Keshub. The division came to the surface towards the close of 1866 with the emergence of two rival bodies, the Calcutta or Adi Brahmo Samaj consisting of the old adherents of the faith and the new order (inspired and led by Keshub) known as the Brahmo Samaj of India. The new wing proceeded to carry out its spiritual and social reform and achieved striking success within a short period. A second Indian tour of Keshub Chandra Sen in 1868 like the previous-one four years ago, did much to foster the sense of spiritual and national unity in India and his visit to England in 1870 carried the message of the Brahmo Samaj to the West.Navavidhan symbol The Samaj now adopted a much more radical and comprehensive scheme of socia1 reform placing much greater emphasis on female emancipation, female education and a total abolition all caste distinctions. Its activities 1ed to the formation of the Indian Reform Association in 1870 and the enactment of the Indian Marriage Act of 1872 validating inter-caste marriage. Doctrinally, the faith now became much more pronouncedly theistic with the sense of sin, spirit of repentance and efficacy of prayer as its prominent features, presumably due to the absorption of a great deal of Christian influence. In a sense it had also become much more universal than before since its special relation with Hinduism came to be denied and along with Hinduism other great world religions like Islam, Christianity and Buddhism were studied with greater respect. The infusion of effusive bhakti or intense devotional fervour into Brahmoism rendered it more soothing, emotional and attractive to the common people. The kirtan or devotional music after the manner of the Bengal vaishnavas was introduced in the Brahmo Samaj for the first time by Keshub who was largely helped in this matter by Vijaya Krishna Goswami, a descendant of the celebrated medieval Vaishnava saint Advaitacharya, who had joined the Brahmo Samaj. Finally, Keshub's doctrine of "God in conscience" helped to build up the moral life of the community in harmony with the new spirituality removing an contradictions that existed previously between profession and practice. During the last phase of his life Keshub's attitude of reverence towards an faiths ultimately led him to a rich and colourful synthesis of religions which he proclaimed under the title of "New Dispensation (Navavidhan) on January 25, 1880.

Inspite of the dynamic progress of the Brahmo movement under Keshub, the Samaj Sadharan Brahmo Samaj had to go through a second schism on May, 1878 when a band of Keshub Chandra Sen's followers left him to start the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj mainly because their demand for the introduction of a democratic constitution in the church was not conceded; secondly because they could not see eye to eye with Keshub on the doctrine of adesha or Divine command; and thirdly on the ground of their objection to the marriage of Keshub's daughter with the prince of Cooch Bihar allegedly in violation of the provision of the Indian Marriage Act of 1872. The body led by the veteran Derozian Shib Chandra Dev consisted of some of the most brilliant and talented young men of the time including Sivnath Shastri, Sivnath ShastriAnanda Mohan Bose, Dwarkanath Ganguli, Nagendranath Chatterjee, Ram Kumar Vidyaratna, Vijay Krishna Goswami and others. They were all Ananda Mohan Bosestaunch democrats and promptly framed a full-fledged democratic constitution based on universal adult franchise, for the new organisation. This was mainly due to the earnest endeavours of the England-returned Cambridge wrangler and lawyer Ananda Mohan Bose who received the warm support of his colleagues. According to Bipin Chandra Pal, this democratic experiment had been intended by the founders to serve as a model for the independent Indian democracy of the future. Rammohun Roy had turned a republican during his mature years. He had to conceal his republican sympathies carefully in England knowing English public opinion to be allergic to republicanism. The Sadharan Brahmo Samaj now revised this tradition of Rammohun's time. It was declared in the pages of the Bengali mouthpiece of the Samaj (Tattwakaumudi, 16 Phalgun, 1803 Saka) that the. Brahmo Samaj was about to establish a 'World wide republic" by placing inequality by equality and the power of the king by the 'power of the people" and that this all comprehensive outlook was the special attraction of the Samaj. The new body displayed, considerable vitality and dynamism in making inroads into fresh fields of philanthropy and politics. Quite a number of its leading figures took prominent part in the activities of the. Indian League (1878), the Indian Association (1878) and the nascent Indian National Congress. It has proved up till now a powerful and active branch of the Brahmo Samaj in the country. But this is not to belittle the importance and vitality of the Brahmo Samaj to India which was founded by Keshub Chandra Sen, and which still continues to serve the hopes and aspirations of the Brahmo community. Presently there is little clash of interest between these two wings of the Brahmo Samaj, i.e. the Brahmo Samaj of India and the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, and both of them cater to the needs, spiritual and otherwise, of all members of the entire Brahmo community in India.
- Taken from Prof. Dilip K Biswas's - The Brahmo Samaj its History and Principles