Any religion and culture which gives freedom to its adherents for self-introspection and self-criticism naturally paves the way for rejuvenation and renaissance. Thanks to the immense freedom of thought and expression enjoyed by its adherents, Hinduism has passed through several phases of renaissance.
The Āryasamāj founded by Svāmī Dayānanda Sarasvatī (A. D. 1824-1883) is one of the more important reform movements of Modern Hindu renaissance initiated during the 19th century. It came as a reaction to the two-way decline of the Hindu society, the first being the loss of faith in its own religion due to the impact of English education and Western culture; and the second being the devitalization brought about by the onslaughts of Islam and Christianity.
It was formally established in 1875 with a creed of 28 principles which were later reduced to 10 in the revision brought about in 1877. Belief in Brahman the one God and in the infallibility of the Vedas is the central part of the creed. Since only the Vedas were accorded the highest place, much of the later Hindu thought, belief and ritualism were given the go by. Even the Upaniṣads and the Gītā were relegated to the background.
However, the Āryasamāj fulfilled a very important and urgent need of the Hindu society by instituting the śuddhi movement (reconversion into Hinduism). A sizeable section of the Indian population which had become alienated from the Hindu religion and society due to historical and other factors, was reclaimed into the Hindu fold.
By abolishing caste among its followers, investing all of them with the yajñopa-vīta (sacred thread) and giving the Gāyatrī mantra to them, Āryasamāj has helped in the consolidation of Hindu society, at least in those parts of India which have come under its influence. It also sponsored social reform by advocating remarriage of widows, abolition of child marriage and untouchability. It has done great service in the field of education and spread of Sanskrit language. Its sphere of influence was mostly confined to Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.
The militant approach of the Āryasamāj created many enemies for it which resulted in the martyrdom of some of its leaders.
Within ten years of its founder’s death, the movement split into two, one group advocating modernism also and the other devoted to orthodoxy.
See also DAYĀNANDA SARASVATĪ, SVĀMĪ.