At the time when Brahmo Samaj was born – the whole country was steeped in a debasing form of idolatry and the grossest superstitions had taken hold of the national mind. As a result, revolting practices like the suttee, or the throwing of children into the Ganges by their mothers, committing suicide under the wheels of the chariot of Lord Jagannath became fashionable and were looked upon as great acts of virtue. As many as 309 widows were burnt alive under the jurisdiction of Calcutta in 1828.
Rammohun Roy embarked on a massive mission of social reform. His first action was to wage a tireless crusade against the act of sutte. He gave petitions to the English government and published tracts championing the cause for women. He also organised a vigilance committee who witnessed the sutte acts to see if force was used to burn the woman in the pyre. In the pages of his newspaper Sambad Kaumudi – he published a tract on “The Modern Encroachments on the Ancient Rights of Females according to Hindu Law of Inheritance.” Due to his efforts the Lord William Bentinck abolished the act of suttee on 4th December 1829. In order that the women who were saved from being burnt could survive – he requested prominent and wealthy Bengalis to make a fund which could provide subsistence to these widows. This was the first concept of the Pension Fund in India. Rammohun was also an advocator of widow re-marriage.
Swami Vivekananda emphasized that by welcoming western thoughts, Rammohun brought India into the mainstream of world history and wrote: “That we did not go out, that we did not compare notes with other nations – that has been the one great cause of our downfall, and every one of you know that the little stir, the little life that you see in India, begins from the day when Raja Rammohun broke through the walls of that exclusiveness. Since that day, the history of India has taken another turn, and it is growing with accelerated motion.” Referring to her discussions with Swamiji about Rammohun, Sister Nivedita wrote in her ‘Master As I Saw Him’ – “It was here (Nainital) too that we heard a talk on Rammohun Roy in which he pointed out three things as the dominant notes of his teacher’s message – his acceptance of Vedanta, his preaching of patriotism and the love that embraced the Mussalman along with the Hindu. In all of these three things, he claimed himself to have taken the task that the breadth and foresight of Rammohun Roy had mapped out.”
Debendranath Tagore embarked on reforming Bengal socially with a lot of zeal. He formulated a new wedding ritual by expunging all idolatrous references from the Hindu scriptures. Not content on formulating a new ritual he married off his second daughter Sukumari on 26th July 1861 according to the reformed rites thus setting an example for others to follow. Debendranath also had the noted social reformer Pt. Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar by his side as the secretary of the Tattwabodhini Sabha. Close to the heels of rejecting the Vedic infallibility came the discarding of the sacred thread. Many of the early Brahmos came from the Brahmin caste, who wore a sacred thread around their body to signify their caste superiority. From the 1850’s onwards the renunciation of the sacred thread came to symbolise this break with tradition.
The caste system has been a part of Hindu society for hundreds of years. It’s inherent divisive nature and social injustices were abhorrent to the early Brahmos. Therefore they never gave up their effort in campaigning for the removal of the caste system. In order to save the plight of women who suffered an account of the deaths of their husbands the Brahmo Samaj launched a campaign advocating widow remarriage. Despite Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar’s campaign that led to the legalisation of widow remarriage (1856) in India, Hindu society had many reservations on this issue. The Brahmos campaigned against such prejudices. To reinforce their commitment to this many young men of the Brahmo movement made a positive point of marrying widows. Besides championing the cause of widows the Brahmo Samaj also came to the aid of unmarried women as well. It wasn’t just the lower castes who suffered in the caste system. Despite their caste status, the girls from the upper caste families suffered because of their position. If a suitable bridegroom could not be found for such a girl in their caste, their options were limited, as marriage to lower caste men was not permitted. These girls often found themselves being married off to very old men who were already married several times over. Or worse still, sometimes these girls would be poisoned to death. Again the Brahmos campaigned against such unjust practices and saved the lives of many such girls.
The Brahmo Samaj had its fair share of contribution for the upliftment of the plight of the Harijans and untouchables. In Bangalore Raibahadur Arcot Narayanswamy Moodellier started the Native Philanthropic Association for educating the children of the untouchables in Ulsoor. Also mention should be made of the works of Bithalram Shinde of the Bombay Prarthana Samaj. The Depressed Classes Mission Society of South India was formed. From 1907 there were annual meetings of the All India Anti Untouchability Conference and Mahatma Gandhi was the President in the Nagpur Session in 1920. Besides a lot of orphanages were opened to look after the orphan children and give them education.
Under Keshub Chandra Sen the social movement received renewed impetus. We find that during the Christmas celebration in 1864 – a group of young Brahmos brought their wives out of the purdah and introduced the to their male friends thus setting the first steps of free mixing. It was then that the woman was allowed to come out of the house. News also came from Barisal that two Brahmo youths had publicly dined with the European officials in that station. On his return from England Keshub founded the Indian Reform Association in 1870 to dealt with Charity, Temperance and Cheap Literature along with Female Education and General and Technical Education. A monthly Bengali journal called Mad na Garal (Wine or Posion) was started with Sivnath Shastri as the editor. The Sulabh Samacharor Cheap News was the one pice paper in the country was a great success and became the forerunner of cheap journalism in this country. The other significant achievement was the Marriage Act of 1872 which fixed the age of girls to be married and was great step in marital reforms and improving the plight of women in the country. family life was encouraged by formation of Bharat Ashram and Brahmo Gram or Brahmo Village.
The effect of social reforms carried out by the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj had caused much upliftment in the position of women. Rarely did marriages of girls in the Brahmo community take place at the tender age of 14 and they were also allowed to grow up and generally choose their own husbands. There is no distinction in the point of right education between boys and girls and consequently a lot of girls received higher education and some have even obtained highest university degrees. At the same equal status in society was emphasised by allowing women to pray with men at the prayer halls. In 1881 the Brahmo Samaj at Barishal, in East Bengal, appointed the first woman Brahmo preacher in Manorama Mazumdar. Women also took part as members of Executive committee.
David Kopf, in his book writes, “The Brahmo social reform was in fact rooted in Unitarian religious humanism, which integrated piety and with obligation to help the underprivileged and the oppressed. This was a crucial issue between the Keshub and the younger Brahmos in 1870s. Keshub, obsessed with religious salvation, turned his back on humanism and social reform”.
“The legacy of the Brahmo Samaj is profoundly felt in the rise and growth of political consciousness and nationalism in India. It was in defence of Brahmoism against missionaries that Rajnarain Bose has earned the title of “Grandfather of Indian Nationalism”. The Tagore family’s response to Keshub’s universalism was beautifying and popularising the Hindu Mela – a yearly national festival started in 1867 by the combined efforts of Rajnarain Bose, Nabagopal (National) Mitra and Dwijendranath Tagore. It encouraged the local industry and was the precursor of the Swadeshi movement. Surendranath Banerjee would never have become the hero of moderate political Hindus if it were not for the suport of Ananda Mohan Bose and other Sadharan Samaj Brahmos. The Indian Association which was the precursor Indian National Congress was dominated by Sadharan Samaj Brahmos who had become sufficiently politicise by then to extend themselves beyond their customary socio – religious pursuits. Many of the key members of the Indian National Congress during the early years were Bengali Brahmos, non – Bengali Brahmos and Brahmo sympathisers. The rise of a more aggressive Hindu nationalism in Bengal at the turn of the century was under the leadership of Brahmo defectors like Brahmabandhob Upadhyay, Bipin Chandra Pal and C R Das.
The Brahmo religious identity of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj attracted both idealistic individuals and career-oriented professionals. Young Kulin Brahmans from East Bengal rebelled against the polygamous practices of their caste and joined the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj and encouraged direct action to alleviate the suffering and social injustice of Kulin women. The daring escapades of Nabakanta Chatterjee and Barada Nath Halder who rescued many poor widows and Kulin girls in trouble proved their point. Thus the Brahmo Samaj had the image of champions of the oppressed and this persisted well into the twentieth century”.