During the latter part of the eighteenth century and the early part of the nineteenth, the Hindu society was in a state of turmoil. English education and Christian culture imposed on a subject nation by the British rulers and their comrades, the Christian Church, had had a devastating effect on the minds of the younger generation. They were fast losing faith in their mother religion, Hinduism, as also in the Hindu values of life and culture. It was at this critical juncture that three renaissance movements sprang forth from the bosom of Hinduism. The Brahma Samāj (also spelt as Brāhmo Samāj) was the earliest in the series, followed by the Ārya Samāj and the Ramakrishna Movement.
Rājā Rāmmohan Roy (A.D. 1772-1833), the founder of the Brahma Samāj was born in a village in the Hoogly district of Bengal in 1772. Not much is known of his early life. He settled down in Calcutta in 1814. By the time he came into prominence he was already a good scholar in Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic languages. Later on, he mastered the English language also. Being dissatisfied with the various Hindu religious practices of his times like idol worship, child-marriage and Satī (burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands) as also the problems of young widows, and, after studying deeply the dharmaśāstras (Hindu law-books) he came to the conclusion that these were later accretions responsible for the decadence of the Hindu society. With a view to reforming the Hindu social values and practices and take them back to their original source, viz., the Upaniṣads, he established the Brahma Samāj on August 20, 1828. Scholars of repute like Rāmacandra Vidyā-vāgīśa, Utsavānanda Vidyāvāgīśa and Tārācandra Cakravartī were his collaborators in this work. He succeeded in building a permanent home for it in 1830.
When he passed away in 1833, there was a temporary setback to the movement. However, the entry of Dvārakānāth Ṭhākūr and his son Devendranāth Ṭhākūr (father of the famous poet, Rabindranath Tagore) rejuvenated the movement, the contribution of the latter being much more.
It was the ‘Maharṣi’ Devendranāth Ṭhākūr (as he was popularly known) that introduced the study of the Upaniṣads and allied literature through a formal seat of learning which he named as ‘Tattvabodhinī Sabhā’. This Sabhā attracted the attention of the elite and its membership swelled. He also composed the text of the oath that every member of the Samāj had to take at the time of admission into it and framed a code of conduct to be followed by all.
Keśavacandra Sen (A. D. 1838-1884), the younger contemporary of the Maharṣi Devendranāth was the next important leader of this movement. He became the ācārya or minister when he was hardly twentyfour. He paid much greater attention to the propagation of the Brāhmo ideals and social reforms. He started the Vāmābodhinī, a Bengali journal meant exclusively for women as also the English journal Indian Mirror. He toured the country extensively, delivering lectures and opened a branch—the Veda Samāja—at Madras in 1864. Serious differences with his mentor Devendranāth led to his parting of ways and establishing his own organization, the ‘Brahma Samāj of India’ (‘Bhārat-Varṣīya Brahma Samāj’) in 1866. The parent body came to be known as the ‘Ādi Brahma Samāj’. Whereas the latter considered the Brahma Samāj movement as an integral part of Hinduism, the doors of the former were open to the non-Hindus also. Keśavacandra Sen’s Samāj suffered a serious setback when Paṇḍit Śivnāth Śāstrī got separated from him and established the ‘Sādhāraṇ Brahma Samāj’ in 1878. Keśav’s marrying his minor daughter to the prince of Cooch Bihar, against the rules of the Samāj which he himself had framed or endorsed, was one of the main reasons for this schism.
After Keśavacandra Sen, there being no leaders of comparable eminence, the influence of the Brāhmo movement gradually waned and it is now almost a spent force.
According to the famous Trust Deed of the Brahma Samāj created by Rājā Rāmmohan Roy, image worship in any form is to be totally abjured, though its practice by others shall not be reviled. It accepts the philosophy of the Upaniṣads but rejects Vedic ritualism and the worship of several deities current in the Hindu society. It believes in one God, Brahman, the formless Supreme Reality. It lays great emphasis on the cultivation of moral virtues and advocates social reforms like education of women, remarriage of widows, equal share for women in parental property, toning down of the caste distinctions and so on.
The pratijñā or the oath to be taken by every member at the time of admission into the Samāj, as introduced by Devendra-nāth, emphasised the need to repeat the Gāyatrīmantra before food, to give up image worship in any form, to pay the prescribed subscription to the Samāj regularly and to shape one’s life according to the principles of Vedānta advocated by the founder.
Devendranāth also systematised the rites to be performed at birth, at the time of naming the child, during marriage and at the time of death—all in consonance with the basic principles of the Samāj.
The service conducted during the weekly meetings generally consisted of Vedic chanting behind a screen, readings from the Upaniṣads, discourses and prayers. Singing of devotional songs was added later on by Keśavacandra Sen.
The Brahma Samāj rendered useful service to the Hindu society by popularising social reforms like the abolition of the practice of the Satī, by preventing conversion of the Hindus to Christianity and by rousing the orthodox Hindus to revive their ancient religion. However, its refusal to recognize the accepted canon of Hindu scriptures and certain deep-rooted beliefs like the faith in the Avatāras or incarnations of God, undermined its credibility in the eyes of the common Hindu masses. This may be the chief reason for its listless existence now.