Who was Dayanand Saraswati, whose 200th birth anniversary is being celebrated this year?
Context- Prime Minister Narendra Modi Sunday (February 12) paid tribute to Dayanand Saraswati on the 200th birth anniversary of the social reformer, hailing his contributions towards the fight against social discrimination and untouchability. “Evils that were falsely attributed to religion, swamiji removed them with the light of religion itself,” Modi said.
Dayanand Saraswati (1824-1883) was one of the most influential figures of 19th-century India. A believer in the supreme authority of the vedas, he established the Arya Samaj in 1875, leading a reform movement within orthodox Hinduism. Among his various beliefs included a rejection of idolatry and the overly ritualistic traditions of Hinduism, support for women’s education, denunciation of child marriage and an opposition to untouchability.
Hinduism under 19th-century colonial rule
- From the 18th century, as the British got ever so entrenched in India, they brought with them missionaries to spread the Christian faith. As part of the West’s “civilising mission”, missionaries provided an ideological justification for what was an exploitative imperial project.
- Furthermore, through their growing influence, they also created a degree of subservience to the Empire, especially in certain sections of the population.
- A reason for the success of Christian missionaries in the Indian subcontinent was the nature of native culture and belief systems at the time. As Dayanand Saraswati himself put it, over the centuries, Hindus had moved away from the teachings and traditions of the Vedas, which were the source of the “ultimate truth” in the world.
- This departure from the true Sanatan Dharma (what he referred Vedic religion as) resulted in practices such as idolatry, untouchability, sectarianism, sati, primacy of the priestly class, etc. becoming commonplace.
- For missionaries, these so-called ‘regressive practices’ provided not only the reason for their “civilizing” mission, but also an audience for their message among populations worst treated within the traditional Hindu fold.
Founding the Arya Samaj and Vedic Schools
- By preaching the supremacy of the Vedas, Dayanand Saraswati harkened to a “better time” where true Sanatan Dharma was prevalent.
- While his teachings were very much in tune with the prevailing social conditions of his day, his message was formulated in the language of revivalism rather than progressive reform. This only added to his influence, especially among more conservative sections of society.
- A major part of his mission was to address the fragmented nature of Hindu society. According to Dayanand Saraswati, the priestly class were primarily to blame for this – they had corrupted the Sanatan Dharma in order to maintain and grow their own status and influence in society.
- By depriving the laity of Vedic knowledge, they were successful in warping Hindu religion into something it was not, without the kind of theological backlash that they should have received.
- To propagate his message, he toured across India, debating with pandits and religious scholars. He was extremely eloquent and would defeat even the most erudite of Hindu scholars with his sheer oratorical prowess.
- During his tours, he began to gather a following. Thus, he founded the Arya Samaj in 1875. This was a monotheistic Hindu order that rejected the ritualistic excesses and social dogmas of orthodox Hinduism
- Dayanand Saraswati preached respect and reverence for other human beings, supported by the Vedic notion of the divine nature of the individual. Crucial among his “ten founding principles of Arya Samaj” is the idea that all activities must be done for the benefit of humankind as a whole, rather than individuals or even idols and religious symbols.
- This universalism was directly antithetical to the caste system. While Dayanand did not fully oppose the institution of caste itself, he advocated for significant reform within it. Citing the Vedas, he claimed that caste is not supposed to be hereditary but rather on the basis of an individual’s talents and disposition.
- His views on women were also against the grain of orthodox Hindu thinking at the time. He campaigned for the education of women as well as against ‘regressive practices’ such as child marriage.
Death and legacy
- Dayanand Saraswati died under suspicious circumstances in 1883, after his public criticism of the Maharaja of Jodhpur. Some alleged he was poisoned by the Maharaja’s cook.
- Dayanand Saraswati’s legacy has had an enduring influence. First, his message was particularly important at a time when nationalist sentiment in India was rising. He is credited to have first used the term swaraj (self-rule) in 1875, which would later be picked up by the likes of Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi.
- Second, his work was also important for the consolidation of Hindus. Through the organization of Arya Samaj, he was among the first to advocate ‘conversion’ into the Hindu fold – he supported the idea of shuddhi, to bring back Islamic or Christian converts into Hinduism.
- Today, Dayanand Saraswati’s legacy carries on through the Arya Samaj centers found across India as well as the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic schools and colleges.
Conclusion- Dayanand Saraswati played a significant role in bringing social reform during the 19th century. As such his legacy will be remembered for all the years to come.
Source- Indian Express
Syllabus- GS-1; Historical Personalities