1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Brahma Samaj

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BRAHMA SAMAJ, a religious association in India which owes its origin to (Raja) Ram Mohan Roy, who began teaching and writing in Calcutta soon after 1800. The name means literally the “Church of the One God,” and the word Samaj, like the word Church, bears both a local and a universal, or an individual and a collective meaning. Impressed with the perversions and corruptions of popular Hinduism, Ram Mohan Roy investigated the Hindu Shastras, the Koran and the Bible, repudiated the polytheistic worship of the Shastras as false, and inculcated the reformed principles of monotheism as found in the ancient Upanishads of the Vedas. In 1816 he established a society, consisting only of Hindus, in which texts from the Vedas were recited and theistic hymns chanted. This, however, soon died out through the opposition it received from the Hindu community. In 1830 he organized the society known as the Brahma Samaj.

The following extract from the trust-deed of the building dedicated to it will show the religious belief and the purposes of its founder. The building was intended to be “a place of public meeting for all sorts and descriptions of people, without distinction, who shall behave and conduct themselves in an orderly, sober, religious and devout manner, for the worship and adoration of the eternal, unsearchable and immutable Being, who is the author and preserver of the universe, but not under and by any other name, designation or title, peculiarly used for and applied to any particular being or beings by any man or set of men whatsoever; and that no graven image, statue or sculpture, carving, painting, picture, portrait or the likeness of anything shall be admitted within the said messuage, building, land, tenements, hereditament and premises; and that no sacrifice, offering or oblation of any kind or thing shall ever be permitted therein; and that no animal or living creature shall within or on the said messuage, &c., be deprived of life either for religious purposes or food, and that no eating or drinking (except such as shall be necessary by any accident for the preservation of life), feasting or rioting be permitted therein or thereon; and that in conducting the said worship or adoration, no object, animate or inanimate, that has been or is or shall hereafter become or be recognized as an object of worship by any man or set of men, shall be reviled or slightingly or contemptuously spoken of or alluded to, either in preaching or in the hymns or other mode of worship that may be delivered or used in the said messuage or building; and that no sermon, preaching, discourse, prayer or hymns be delivered, made or used in such worship, but such as have a tendency to the contemplation of the Author and Preserver of the universe or to the promotion of charity, morality, piety, benevolence, virtue and the strengthening of the bonds of union between men of all religious persuasions and creeds.”

The new faith at this period held to the Vedas as its basis. Ram Mohan Roy soon after left India for England, and took up his residence in Bristol, where he died in 1835. The Brahma Samaj maintained a bare existence till 1841, when Babu Debendra Nath Tagore, a member of a famous and wealthy Calcutta family, devoted himself to it. He gave a printing-press to the Samaj, and established a monthly journal called the Tattwabodhinī Patrikā, to which the Bengali language now owes much for its strength and elegance. About 1850 some of the followers of the new religion discovered that the greater part of the Vedas is polytheistic, and a schism took place,—the advanced party holding that nature and intuition form the basis of faith. Between 1847 and 1858 branch societies were formed in different parts of India, especially in Bengal, and the new society made rapid progress, for which it was largely indebted to the spread of English education and the work of Christian missionaries. In fact the whole Samaj movement is as distinct a product of the contest of Hinduism with Christianity in the 19th century, as the Panth movement was of its contest with Islam 300 years earlier.

The Brahma creed was definitively formulated as follows:—(1) The book of nature and intuition supplies the basis of religious faith. (2) Although the Brahmas do not consider any book written by man the basis of their religion, yet they do accept with respect and pleasure any religious truth contained in any book. (3) The Brahmas believe that the religious condition of man is progressive, like the other departments of his condition in this world. (4) They believe that the fundamental doctrines of their religion are also the basis of every true religion. (5) They believe in the existence of one Supreme God—a God endowed with a distinct personality, moral attributes worthy of His nature and an intelligence befitting the Governor of the universe, and they worship Him alone. They do not believe in any of His incarnations. (6) They believe in the immortality and progressive state of the soul, and declare that there is a state of conscious existence succeeding life in this world and supplementary to it as respects the action of the universal moral government. (7) They believe that repentance is the only way to salvation. They do not recognize any other mode of reconcilement to the offended but loving Father. (8) They pray for spiritual welfare and believe in the efficacy of such prayers. (9) They believe in the providential care of the divine Father. (10) They avow that love towards Him and the performances of the works which He loves, constitute His worship. (11) They recognize the necessity of public worship, but do not believe that communion with the Father depends upon meeting in any fixed place at any fixed time. They maintain that they can adore Him at any time and at any place, provided that the time and the place are calculated to compose and direct the mind towards Him. (12) They do not believe in pilgrimages and declare that holiness can only be attained by elevating and purifying the mind. (13) They put no faith in rites or ceremonies, nor do they believe in penances as instrumental in obtaining the grace of God. They declare that moral righteousness, the gaining of wisdom, divine contemplation, charity and the cultivation of devotional feelings are their rites and ceremonies. They further say, govern and regulate your feelings, discharge your duties to God and to man, and you will gain everlasting blessedness; purify your heart, cultivate devotional feelings and you will see Him who is unseen. (14) Theoretically there is no distinction of caste among the Brahmas. They declare that we are all the children of God, and therefore must consider ourselves as brothers and sisters.

For long the Brahmas did not attempt any social reforms. But about 1865 the younger section, headed by Babu Keshub Chunder Sen, who joined the Samaj in 1857, tried to carry their religious theories into practice by demanding the abandonment of the external signs of caste distinction. This, however, the older members opposed, declaring such innovations to be premature. A schism resulted, Keshub Chunder Sen and his followers founding the Progressive Samaj, while the conservative stock remained as the Adi (i.e. original) Samaj, their aim being to “fulfil” rather than to abrogate the old religion. The vitality of the movement, however, had left it, and its inconsistencies, combined with the lack of strong leadership, landed it in a position scarcely distinguishable from orthodox Hinduism. Debendra Nath Tagore sought refuge from the difficulty by becoming an ascetic. The “Brahma Samaj of India,” as Chunder Sen’s party styled itself, made considerable progress extensively and intensively until 1878, when a number of the most prominent adherents, led by Anand Mohan Bose, took umbrage at Chunder Sen’s despotic rule and at his disregard of the society’s regulations concerning child marriage. This led to the formation of the Sadharana (Universal) Brahma Samaj, now the most popular and progressive of the three sections of the movement and conspicuous for its work in the cause of literary culture, social reform and female education in India. But even when we add all sections of the Brahma Samaj together, the total number of adherents is only about 4000, mostly found in Calcutta and its neighbourhood. A small community (about 130) in Bombay, known as the Prarthna (Prayer) Samaj, was founded in 1867 through Keshub Chunder’s influence; they have a similar creed to that of the Brahma Samaj, but have broken less decisively with orthodox and ceremonial Hinduism.

See the articles on Arya Samaj, Keshub Chunder Sen, Ram Mohan Roy. Also John Robson, Hinduism and Christianity; and the Theistic Quarterly Review (the organ of the Society since 1880).