Religious reforms during colonialism

Consequences of British colonialism led a rising tide of nationalism and democracy among the people of India, they started to look at education, culture with a different outlook and brought religious and social reform after 1858. National leaders like Swami Vivekanand, Keshub Chandra Sen, justice Ranade tried to bring the nationalist sentiments in the Indians. Due to the increased awareness of the world It heightened the consciousness of the backwardness of Indians and started to bring a resolve in the form of religious and social reform. Many religions tried to create awareness of western education, culture in modern lines for the growth of unity and solidarity. In an Article swami vivekanand described the conditions in india as “ a conglomeration of three million souls resembling men only in appearance”, there were worse situations india had to suffer through during colonialism, which eventually brought a solution through remodeling religion, a basic part of people’s life to suit the new needs of Indian people – while focusing on the foundation of the religions. Thus, after 1858 the earlier reforming tendency were broadened and the works of Raja Rammohun Roy and Pandit Vidyasagar was carried out by several leader which brought significance to Indian education, religion and culture.



The tradition of Raja Rammohun Roy was carried by Devandranath Tagore after 1843, who repudiated the doctrine that the vedic scriptures were infallible and after 1866 by keshub chandra sen. They gave importance to Upanishadas and Vedas and considered it as infallible. It also tried to incorporate the best aspects of modern western thought and to reason them with common sense. The Bramho samaj were opposed to idolatory and superstitious beliefs and encouraged the people to decide with their own intellect if a a principle or a religious book is wrong or right. Moreover it influence was confined to the urban educated groups and had major impact in Bengal and other parts of the country in 19th and 20th centuries. However it broke down due to the internal dissention between the members.


Religious reforms in Maharashtra has begun in 1840 by the parmahans Mandali which aimed at fighting Idolatory and caste system. Gopal Hari Deshmukh popularly known as ‘lokahit-wadi’ was the earliest reformer found in Maharashtra he made powerful attacks on hindu orthodoxy and social inequality. He said that if religions do not sanction religious reforms then the religion has to be changed, such were the powerful words of Gopal Hari Deshmukh. Later Prarthna Samaj was started by R.G Bandarkar and Mahadev Govind Ranade who tried to free religion of caste orthodoxy and practice in the light of modern knowledge. It was powerfully influenced by Bramho Samaj. It tried to reform the religious thought and the prevent the priestly domination over other castes of the society.


Ramkrishna was a saintly person who sought religious salvation in the traditional way of enunciation and meditation. In his search of religious truth or the realization of the god he spent his life with mystics of other faith and he concluded that there were many roads to god and salvation and that service of man is service of god, as man was the embodiment of God.

It was his great disciple Swami Vivekananda who popularized his teachings and above all he stressed social actions. Like his guru, he proclaimed the essential oneness of all religions and condemned any narrowness in religious matters. Thus, in 1898 he wrote about the togetherness of hindus and muslims as “for our own motherland a junction of two great systems Hinduism and Islams….. is the only hope”. He himself subscribed to Vedanta he considered as a fully rational system. He condemned the irrational caste system, superstitious beliefs and urged the people to imbibe the spirit of liberty, free-thinking and equality. In 1897 vivekananda found the Ramkrishna mission to carry on humanitarian relief and social work. It carried on social service in different parts of the country and help build schools, hospitals, dispensaries, orphanages, libraries etc.

The Arya samaj and Theosophical society

The arya samaj undertook the task of reforming hindu religion. Swami Dayanand was the founded the Arya samaj in 1875, it carried most of its work in north India. Swami Dayanand had total dependence on Vedas, they were infallible and according to him human reason should not be the deciding factor, which gave his ideologies a orthodox coloring even though they had a rational aspect. The teachings he derived from his own interpretation of Vedas. He also directed men to live life to the fullest away from the traditional beliefs and therefore he also encouraged western sciences.

The theosophical society was founded in United states by H.P Balvatsky and colonel H.S Olcott, they founded their headquarters in Madras in 1886 . the theosophists advocated revival  and strengthening of ancient religions of Hinduisms, Buddhisms and Zorastrians. It brought significant change under the leadership of Mrs Annie Besant who came to India in 1893. The theosophists were not very successful but they made a peculiar contribution in the field of social and religious reform. Theosophical society was of the westerners who glorified Indian religions and philosophies, this gave false pride among the Indian citizens and helped them recover self –confidence.


Religious reform began late in muslims, a beginning in this direction  was made when Muhammedan Literary Society was formed at Calcutta in 1863. This society promoted the discussions of  religious, social and political, they encouraged Muslims to take western education. Sayyid ahmad Khan was one of the important reformist among the muslims. He was impressed by the modern scientific thought. According to him Quran was the sole authoritative work and all other Islamic writings were secondary. He interpreted Quran in the light of contemporary rationalism and science and said that any interpretation which conflicted with human reason was a misinterpretation. He urged his students to be broadminded and tolerant and pressure them to come out of social and intellectual backwardness. He gave the importance to unity among different religions. However towards the end of his life he talked about hindu dominationation to prevent his followers from joining the rising national movement. For him education and developing the school of thought was very essential, he said that India had time to enter the political realm. Sayyid Ahmad urged Muslims to relieve themselves from religious customs of Purdah and advocated the spread of education among women. Healso condemned the customs of polygamy and easy divorce.


Naroji Furdonji, Dadabhai Naroji, S.S Bengalee and others started a religious reform among the parsi. In 1851 Rehnumai Mazdayasan sabha or Religious Reform Association was started. Parsi initiated the customs regarding the education of women, marriage and the upliftment of women social position in general. Parsis became the ost westernized section of Indian society.


The religious reforms among the Sikhs were started nearly at the end of nineteenth century when Khalsa college was started at Amritsar. It gained momentum after 1920 and the Alkali movement rose in Punjab. The gurudwaras and shrines were heavily endowed by land and money, however they had come under the management of autocratic, corrupt and selfish mahants. The sikh masses along with the help of the government started started a powerful satyagraha in 1921. Alkalis soon forced the government to pass new Gurudwara Act in 1922, which was later amended in 1925. Sometimes with the help of government or direct action, which led to the sacrifice of many Sikhs in the process.

reference –

  • Bipan Chandra (2016) – History of Modern India

Orient black swan private limited (Book)

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