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A Brahmo web resource devoted to History of the Brahmo Samaj and development of modern Brahmoism with reference to evolution of its main branches the Adi Brahmo Samaj and the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj.

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A Historical Sketch of the Brahmo Samaj

History of the Brahmo Samaj

Reform movement in Hinduism:

From the earliest times the history of Hinduism has been marked by repeated endeavours at reform. Almost at every epoch there has been some effort to purge and purify the current religion and to establish in is place the spiritual worship of the One God. From the times of the Rishis of the Upanishads there has scarcely been a generation but,in some part of India or other, some nobly inspired soul has raised his protest against the idolatry, unspirituality and ceremonialism of the popular religion.

Ram Mohun the founder of the World Religion:

To its founder, Rajab Ram Mohun Roy, was vouchsafed the sublime ideal of a universal religion which knew no barriers of caste, colour, race or nationality but united men and women of all classes and countries in the spiritual worship of the One Eternal God, the Creator and Father of all.

His close aqaintenace with Hindu, Buddhist, Mohammedan and Christian Cultures:

Ram Mohun Roy was eminently fitted, as though by a special ordination of God, to be the prophet of this world-religion, in that he combined and harmonised in himself the spiritual culture of all the great existing religions. Born and brought up in an orthodox Hindu family and possessed of a thorough and intimate knowledge of the profound spiritual culture and vast religious literature of Hinduism, the Rajah early in his life came into close contact with Islam and made an earnest study of its literature. Later in his career, he made a strenuous and searching study of Christianity, having learnt Greek and Hebrew in order to be able to study the Bible in the original. He had also opportunities of being acquainted with Buddhism in close quarters, having spent some time in Tibet in search of religious truth in early manhood when turned out of home by his father on account of his bold religious speculations.

Ram Mohun’s message and method:

After a varied and eventful career, in the course of which he traveled far and wide even beyond the borders of India to the then unknown Tibet, learnt sixteen languages and studied the Hindu, Mahommadan, Jewish and Christian Scriptures in original, he at length settled down to Calcutta in 1814, at the age of forty, with the object of propagating his religion among his countrymen and the world at large. To this task he consecrated all his resources. time, power and energy.

Foundation of the Brahmo Sabha:

For fourteen years he laboured on his mission, delivering his message in earnest conversation to the circle of friends who clustered round him and through written discourses to the wider public. The generality of Hindus and Christians failed to understand him and attacked him vehemently. Rajah Ram Mohun Roy tried to silence both by the authority of their own respective scriptures. To the Hindu opponent he showed that the most ancient and authoritative scriptures of Hinduism enjoined the worship of One Eternal God who is without form or shape; Single-handed and under very trying circumstances, he fought against the assaults of bigoted Hindus and orthodox Christians to establish the universal religion of ‘One God, one humanity’, till at length on the 2nd August, 1828, he succeeded in organising a weekly meeting for the worship of God irrespective of caste and creed in a hired house in the northern part of Calcutta. The First Congregation: Two years later, with the help of some friends, he erected a modest building for the Brahmo Sabha, as it came to be called, in a central part of Calcutta; and this exists and is known as the Adi Brahmo Samaj. Here, week after week, a motley gathering used to meet for the worship of the One God without regard to caste, creed or colour. The worship consisted in reciting verses from the Upanishads and singing hymns and reading religious discourses written by Ram Mohun Roy. Prior to this public service, portions of the Vedas used to be read by Brahmins in a back-room to which only Brahmins were admitted.

Ram Mohun’s visit to England and Death:

In August 1830, Rajah Ram Mohun Roy embarked for England, leaving the infant movement in the care of Ram Chandra Vidyabagish and his friend Prince Dwarkanath Tagore. And there he died on 27th September, 1833. in the meanwhile, in Calcutta the Sabha languished; most of its members, who had been drawn to it mainly through the influence of Rajah Ram Mohun Roy, ceased to take any interest in it after his departure for England. Only the faithful Ram Chandra Vidyabagish remained steadfast; and for seven years he regularly and punctually conducted the weekly service, as directed by Rajah, often alone like the solitary watcher by the dim burning pyre at the burning ghat. At length, help came from an unexpected quarter.

Conversion of Devendra Nath Tagore:

In the year 1838, Devendra Nath Tagore, eldest son of Dwarka Nath Tagore, the friend and fellow-worker of Rajah Ram Mohun Roy, began to take interest in the Brahmo Samaj. As a boy, Devendra Nath had often seen Rajah Ram Mohun Roy and had been, in fact, a pet of his. It is said the Rajah foresaw the young boy would grow to carry on his own life-work. But, for many years, there was no sign of any religious tendency or interest in Devendra Nath. His early youth was like that of any other scion of wealthy families. In the year 1838, while attending on his grand-mother in her last moments at the burning-ghat, a strange feeling came over him : he experienced an indescribable joy in the felt presence of God. The pleasures and riches of the world appeared trivial to him. From that time a great change came over his life. He spent many days in meditation and felt that the idols they worshipped were nor God, that God was one and could not be perceived by the senses. Then the memory of Rajah Ram Mohun Roy came back to him ;he inquired about his Brabmo Samaj and sent for its Minister, Ram Chandra Vidyabagish.

Tattwabodhini Sabha:

Devendra Nath began to read the Upanishads under Ram Chandra Vidyabagish and established a society. the Tattwabodhini Sabha, for the study and diffusion of the ancient Theistic literature of India. This institution, which was at first composed of the brothers and cousins of Dvendra Nath, began to expand rapidly. Ram Chandra Vidyabagish was appointed its minister ; its anniversary was celebrated with great eclat in 1840. The Brahmo Samaj at this time was at the lowest ebb of its life. Fortunately, the Tattwabodhini Sabha came to its rescue at this juncture. The members resolved to take charge of it; the separate monthly service of the Tattwa Bodhini Sabha was discontinued and they began to attend the services of the Brabmo Samaj. Through their youthful energy and enthusiasm the Brahmo Samaj soon revived; and a period of great and growing activity followed. The faithful old Minister of the Brahmo Samaj, Pandit Ram Chandra Vidyabagish, had at last the satisfaction of seeing his devotion rewarded. But for his loyal perseverance, the sapling planted by Rajah Ram Mohun Roy might have perished in the dark days following the death of the founder,

Rapid progress of the Brahmo Samaj under fostering care of Devendra Nath:

The Brahmo Sama; now passed into the safe keeping of Devendra Nath. Drawn by his influence, many young men joined the Samaj. His active mind devised many new measures for the development of the Samaj. 1 1842 the Tattwabodhfni Patrika was founded as the organ of the Brahmo Samaj. which exercised a very powerful influence over the rising generation of Bengal. The Brahmo Samaj, up to the time when Maharshi Devendra Nath Tagore joined it, was nothing but a motley congregation which occasionally met together in a half-serious, half-comical mood for listening to hymns, recitations from the Sanskrit Scriptures and religious discourses. There was neither any definite aim nor any settled conviction. The noble provision of the Trust Deed about the equal rights of all without regard to caste, creed or nationality was openly violated by disallowing the presence of non-Brahmins at the reading of the Vedas; doctrines about idolatry and incarnation were often preached from the pulpit. No sooner had Maharshi Devendra Nath joined the Brahmo Samaj than he turned his attention to rectifying these irregularities. Institution of a Brahmo Covenant and Initiation: Under his influence and inspiration, it soon developed into a purely theistic congregation, He found that those who came to the service of the Brahmo Samaj were not inspired and animated by one common conviction. In their individual lives and at their homes they were idolaters as the ordinary Hindus.

Nucleus of a Brahmo Community:

In order to make the Brahmo Samaj a body of men believing in the One God and worshipping Him in truth and spirit only, Devendra Nath drew up a Brahmo convenant containing a number of vows enjoining the renunciation of idolatry, the worship of the One Only in the Vedanta and the practice of virtue. God as described Devendra Nath himself took the lead in being initiated into Brahmoism by Ram Chandra Vidyabagish by signing this Covenant in Dec. 1843 ; twenty of his friends followed him in this new and momentous departure, Thus was formed the nucleus of a Brahmo community; and by 1874 the number of covenanted Brahmos rose to 767.

Infallibility of Vedas discarded:

Up to this time, Brahmoism was tacitly under stood to be based on the Upanishads. In his religious controversies, Rajah Ram Mohun Roy used to refute the arguments of his Hindu opponents by citing passages from the Upanishada in support of his views, as, in his Controversies with Christian opponents, he would refute theirs by the authority of the Bible. In order to show to his countrymen that all Hindu scriptures were not idolatrous, he published some of the Upanishads in original Sanskrit and also translated them into English and Bengali. His followers took it to mean that he based Brahmoism on the Upanishads. The religion of the Brahmo Samaj at the beginning was, known to be Vedantisrn. The doctrine of the infallibility of the Vedas was tacitly accepted by the Brahmo Samaj. It found a stimulus in the ill-feeling against the Christian missionaries which was at that time raging strong on account of the conversion of a Hindu lad of a respectable family into Christianity. Compilation of Brahmo Dharma: Though the genesis of Devendra Nath’s own faith in Brahmoisrn was independent of the Upanishads. he had a great reverence and predilection for them and was rather disposed to accept them as the basis of Brahmoism, rejecting all other Hindu scriptures including the Samhitas. But by this time a younger generation had grown up who were not ready to accept even the Upanishads as infallible. The controversy went on in the Brahmo Samaj for several years. Maharshi Devendra Nath had the question carefully considered. He sent four students to Benares to study the four Vedas. He himsif went to Benares to discuss the question with reputed Vedic teachers. At last, to his great regret, he found that the doctrine of the infallibility of the Vedas or of the Upanishads was untenable and, much against his natural inclination, he gave it up in 1848; thus the early Vedantic Unitarianism came to be superseded by natural Universal Theism. Soon after, he compiled a book called the Brahmo Dharma, a collection of theistic passages from the Upanishads dictated by him from memory and taken down by Babu Akshaya Kumar Dutt, the whole work being finished in two hours.

Missionary Activities of Devendra Nath:

All these changes were formally announced during the anniversary festival of 1850, which was now being celebrated on the 11th of Magh, the day on which the Prayer Hall at the Chitpore Road had been consecrated. The reconstructed Samaj entered upon a carer of great propagandistic activity. Maharshi Devendra Nath visited different parts of the country and established many new Samajas in mofussil towns. He also trained up a small band of preachers who carried the message of Brahmoism throughout Bengal. For several years the work went on with unabated enthusiasm. In 1857 Maharshi Devendra Nath retired to the Himalayan regions near Simla to spend his days in study, meditation and communion. He had no desire to return to the bustle and tumult of society. But, at the end of a year and a half, one day he felt a distant call to go down and work among his countrymen, however unpleasant the task might be. Sorely against his will he came back to Calcutta. The result was a period of unusual sctivity and enthusiasm in the Brabmo Samaj. The sermons he used to deliver at this time from the pulpit of the Samaj kindled a new fire among the younger generation.

Idolatry and Caste strictly interdicted:

There was also a great development in the faith and practice of the Brahmo Samaj during this period. The Brahmos, though they had ceased to worship idols, were not able to get rid of caste distinctions as yet. On occasions of domestic ceremonies, such as, marriages, sraddhas (funeral rites) &c., they still resorted to idolatrous practices. Maharshi Devendra Nath had already shown the way by refusing, against the universal wish of his relatives and to the consternation of the entire Calcutta society, to perform the sraddha of his father according to orthodox Hindu rites in 1846. But so far none had dared to follow him. In 1861, Malarshi Devendra Nath married one of his daughters according to Brahmo rites ; other Brahmo marriages followed.