Rates as one of the most powerful revivalist movements in modern India, the Arya Samaj was founded by Swami Dayanand Saraswati at Rajkot (Saurashtra) in 1875; another body answering to that name was set up at Ahmedabad and Bombay later that year. The principal objective of the organisation was to counteract the proselytizing activities of Muslims and Christians, and to launch a programme of a social reform.
The Samaj does not believe in caste based on birth, but in one resting on function or work; nor in inequality of man to man or between the sexs. Arya Samajists regard the Vedas as infallible, eternal and divine. The Samaj maintains that the Vedic religion alone was true and universal. Aryans were the chosen people, the Vedas their gospel and India their homeland. It followed that all other religions were a shade less perfect. One way or another, Dayanand’s call was: “Back to the Vedas”.
Elaborately organized at the village level on a democratic basis, the Samaj graduates through a hierarchy to the general assembly which is the top policy-making body. Some of the workers who preach its tenets are paid; others work in an honorary capacity. Apart from the main body, its front organisations include the Arya Kumar Sabha, the Shri Samaj and a tract society responsible for publications.
The Samaj’s message resulted in changed attitudes towards prevalent practices and the Depressed Classes. Idolatry was condemned, as was untouchability and child marriage. The subjection of women was decried, inter-caste marriages encouraged as well as the remarriage of widows. Members involved themselves actively in such social work as famine relief, funning orphanages and widow homes.
From the purely defensive, the Samaj soon veered round to the offensive. Dayanand’s Satyartha Prakash (1879), in so far as it underlined the weaknesses in Islam and Christianity, became highly polemical. So also did such movements as protection of the cow and ‘Shuddhi’, re-conversion to the faith of those who, willingly, or under duress, had renounced it earlier.
The Samaj aimed at achieving ‘social, religious and political unity’, created great interest in the initial stages but later provoked rabid controversies. While it succeeded in a ‘national awakening’ restricted to a narrow Hindu base, it also encouraged retaliatory measures of other religious groups (viz. ‘Tabligh’ among the Muslims). Similarly, the protection of the cow, for most part unexceptional, became a subject of controversy for some Muslim theologians and their followers among the poor and uneducated sections of the community. All this led to an upsurge of communal tension inspired by religious jealousies which continued, especially in the Punjab, until the partition of the country in 1947.
The Samaj’s greatest contribution lay in the field of education, although the choice of the system to be followed became a matter of some controversy and debate. The Gurukula school was a hark-back to vedic times the rival college group recognised the value of English education and spread a network of Dayanand Anglo Vedic Schools and Colleges throughout the country. The premier Dayanand Anglo-Vedic College established in 1886 at Lahore with the veteran Lala Hans Raj as its Principal served as a model for similar institutions all over northern India. The curriculum attempted to achieving synthesis between modern and traditional learning.
Because of its unrelenting opposition to alien rule, the British accused the Samaj of being a political body. Assuredly some leading Arya Samajists like Lala Lajpat Rai and Bhai Permananda were political activists, but the Samaj per se had no political affiliations. None the less, the contrary impressions somehow persisted during the extremists agitation (1907-17) and some known Samajists were dismissed from government service.
The Arya Samaj is not merely a society which from the time of its inception has initiated drastic reform in Hindu society, customs and practices; it also stands for a cosmopolitan religion and a precise, and profound philosophy derived from the Vedas and its founder. Its religion and philosophy are in a true sense, the religion and philosophy of the Vedas, God, Soul and Matter are the dominant factors in the metaphysics of the Arya Samaj, while its theory of knowledge is based on the knowledge of two – the knower and the knowable.
Swami Dayanand’s programme was practical; he insisted on the superiority of practice over belief and devotion. The field of service of the Arya Samaj included all – women and untouchables among the Hindus. Indeed all afflicted people without distinction of caste or creed. Dayanand’s followers rejected idol worship, scoffed at contemporary belief in astrology and refused to concede that heavenly bodies were either interested in human affairs or could be propitiated.
Dayanand’s presentation of India’s past made the Arya Samaj a revivalist body. The golden age that he pictured was certainly a thing of the past but he believed and inspired millions to believe – that it could be recaptured.
Unlike the Brahmo Samaj, the Prathana Samaj and several other 19th century reformist movements, the Arya Samaj never cut itself aloof from the mainstream of Hindu thought. Even as Dayanand had done, its members rather claimed to be true Hindus, basing themselves as they did on the Vedas which every Hindu equally respected.
In bringing about a national awakening in the country, the Samaj played a dual role at once progressive and retrogressive. Thus in attacking religious superstition, propagating mass education, inculcating equality of man to man as well as between man and woman, it acted as a catalyst for progressive reform. Yet in proclaiming the Vedas to be infallible, it denied the individual the exercise of his own independent judgement and substituted one supremacy, that of the Brahmins, by another. In its formative phase the Samaj made a signal contribution to the nationalist upsurge, yet after the twenties it contributed, however, unwillingly, to the growth of what has been called a ‘belligerent religio- communal atmosphere’.