SWAMI DAYANAND SARASWATI AND THE ARYA SAMAJ
The socio-religious movements started by Brahma Samaj and the Prarthana Samaj were inspired by Western civilization and nationalism. The awakening of India during 19th century had two facets. It looked for inspiration not merely to the West, but also to the India’s glorious past. Swami Dayanand was a great revivalist. He set his reforms against the prevalent orthodoxy of the Hindus, like caste system and practice of child marriage. It was Swami Dayanand Saraswati, who adored the glorious past of India and gave the slogan “Back to the Vedas”.
Swami Dayanand, born on 12th February, 1824 in Tankara (Gujarat), was the founder of the Hindu reform organization Arya Samaj, which he established on 7th April, 1875, in Bombay.
When he was of fourteen years, he visited the temple of Shiva along with his father. In the night he saw that a mouse crept on the image and took the offerings placed before it. It set Dayanand thinking. His parents and relatives could not convince him of the sanctity of image-worship. The second important event in his life was the death of his uncle who loved him very much. This made Dayanand seek the knowledge to overcome death. He started regarding the earthly attractions as transient. Therefore, when a marriage was arranged for him, he left home and adopted the life of an ascetic.
Throughout his life, Swami Dayanand preached against many Hindu traditions which he felt were dogmatic and oppressive. These included traditions such as idol worship, caste by birth and the exclusion of females from the study of the Vedas. One of his main messages was for Hindus to go back to the roots of their religion which are the Vedas. By doing this he felt that Hindus would be able to improve the depressive religious, social, political and economic conditions prevailing in India in his times.
From 1845, he kept wandering all over India. He received spiritual education from Swami Birajananda. Then onwards he started preaching against the falsehood of the prevailing Puranic faith. He was asked to defend this new doctrine at a public meeting in Kashi. Although the issue was not settled, Dayanand continued to preach his new doctrine. After some time he visited Calcutta and made some overtures to Brahma Samaj. Because of certain differences, he stood apart from the latter movement-insistence upon the veneration of cow, offering of daily sacrifice of butter to the hearth fire, condemnation of monotheism as preached by Islam. On the other hand, the Brahma Samaj was the rationalistic movement of the West. Moreover, the Brahma Samaj did not accept the infallibility of the Vedas or the transmigration of soul, as it was pledged to the negation of both. Although Dayanand could not be won over by the Brahma Samaj, there was one good result out of this contact. It was Keshab Chandra Sen who insisted on the importance of carrying the propaganda in the language which the people understand. This made Dayanand preach his doctrine in Hindi from then onwards.
One of Swami Dayanand’s major arguments for going back to the Vedas was that, in his own words “the four Vedas, the repositories of knowledge and religious truth, are the word of God. They are absolutely free of error and the Supreme and independent authority.” The four Vedas are Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda. To spread awareness of his movement and to revitalize Vedic knowledge, Swami Dayanand published many religious books. These include Satyartha Prakash (The Light of Truth), the Rig-Vedaadi, Bhasyya- Bhoomika and Sanskar Vidhi.
Swami Dayanand preached many messages to Hindus during his lifetime. For instance, he preached that Hindus should worship just one, formless, God. He fought against polytheism by telling people the true meaning of the names of God and established how all of them pointed at one and the same God—Paramatama, the Supreme Self. Further, Swami was “a voice against superstition, against unrighteousness which reigned supreme in the garb of true religion and against a foreign rule”.
The first Arya Samaj meeting was held in Bombay in 1875. And during the remaining eight years of his life, Dayanand spent his time preaching his new gospel and in writing books containing his new doctrine and organizing the Arya Samaj associations throughout India. The constitution that was drawn up for the Arya Samaj in 1875 laid down three principles—the Vedas alone are absolutely authoritative; every member should contribute one hundredth part of his money towards the fund of the Samaj, the Arya Vidyalaya and the paper Arya Prakash and the Vedas and the ancient Arya Granthas should be studied and taught in the Arya Vidyalaya.
Ten years later, these three principles were replaced by ten principles. The first of these principles was that as the Vedas were books of true knowledge and they should be studied. The other nine principles related to morals and virtues that one should practice. These nine principles are not much different from those of any other religion.
Apart from this doctrinal part, the Arya Samaj founded by Dayanand was important because it believed in the reform of Hindu society, although it should be carried out through Vedic rituals and in its institutions. In social field he rejected caste system and did not recognize the superiority and authority of the Brahmins. He claimed that everyone had the right to study the Vedas. He condemned the worship of Gods and Goddesses and preached that only the Supreme Being should be worshipped. Inter-caste marriages were encouraged and child marriages were decried. More important was the stress that was laid on suddhi, a method for reconverting those Hindus who had gone over either to Islam or Christianity. A few more subsidiary features in the social field were envisaged by the Arya Samaj. The Dayanand Anglo Vedic School at Lahore after developing into a college became the pattern of the many educational institutions started by it, and vigorously advocated famine-relief and the spread of education. Then, under the leadership of the Principal of the DAV College at Lahore, Lala Hans Raj, the college became the foremost agency for planting a sturdy and independent nationalism in Punjab.
As the movement grew, a split occurred in the Samaj in 1892 over the question of eating meat and the purpose of the educational institutions. The unorthodox party contended that although Dayanand did not favour eating meat, the ten principles were silent about it. Those who believed in the ten principles could pursue their own personal lives as they desired. On the other hand, the orthodox party contended that the whole teaching of Dayanand should constitute the creed of Arya Samaj but not just the ten principles. Although the unorthodox party’s view was more liberal, the triumph of their viewpoint would have meant the death of the movement, as the movement could not have had any distinct feature of its own. Gradually the orthodox party triumphed emphasizing on those distinct features which distinguished the movement from the Brahma Samaj, Ramakrishna Mission, the Prarthana Samaj and such other religious movements.
The movement not only gave an opportunity to reorganize Hinduism but also gave a momentum to the nationalist movement. Lala Hans Raj and Lala Lajpat Rai were in the forefront in the national struggle in Punjab. As the movement always had the overtones of aggressiveness towards other sects, it encouraged terrorism and the growing antagonism of the Muslim League. Swami Dayanand was indeed a heroic soul, his teachings fostered pride in the country and its past gave the people a national outlook. As a Vedic sect, with a great urge for social reforms, the Arya Samaj founded by Swami Dayanand is one of the living forces of Modern India.
Throughout his known adult life, Swami’s main message was “Back to the Vedas”. By this, Swami Dayanand meant that Hindus should stop practicing beliefs such as idol worship, caste, polytheism, pantheism, untouchability, child marriages, forced widowhood and many other practices which he felt were wrong. He challenged many of the Hindu orthodoxies if they could justify their belief in the aforementioned practices. This induced anger and wrath of many orthodox Hindus, which subsequently led to 14 attempts of poisoning
Dayanand Miraculously, he was able to use his Yogic abilities to cure himself from the first 13 attempts. However, the 14th time proved fatal. Swami Dayanand died and left the world with his legacy, Arya Samaj.
The Indian religious leader Swami Dayananda Saraswati (1824-1883) founded the Arya Samaj, or Society of Nobles, and epitomized the aggressive Hindu religious reformer.
Dayananda Saraswati was born into a wealthy Brahmin family in Gujarat, a part of western India somewhat isolated from British colonial influence. He was raised in the orthodox Hindu tradition but soon found himself unsatisfied with the archaic teachings and practices, especially idol worship and other primitivisms imposed on him. At the age of 19 he left his family and undertook a long period of rigorous, ascetic study of the ancient Vedas—the oldest core of the Hindu religion.
Dayananda concluded that current religious beliefs and social institutions were hopelessly corrupt. With this conviction he began to preach an aggressive reforming doctrine which urged a return to the pristine Vedic tradition. While his commitments seemed basically "fundamentalist" and somewhat orthodox, in fact, he advocated radical reforms such as the abolition of idol worship, of child marriages, of the inequality of women, and of hereditary caste privileges. He praised the way of the Europeans and named as the causes of their advancement their representative assemblies, education, active lives, and the fact that they "help their countrymen in trade."
In his religious teaching he accepted the old doctrine of karma and transmigration, but he developed a highly sophisticated monistic philosophy which stressed ideals of self-perfection and ethical universalism: "I believe in a religion based on universal and all-embracing principles which have always been accepted as true by mankind—the primeval eternal religion, which means that it is above the hostility of all human creeds whatsoever." In 1875 Dayananda founded the Arya Samaj in Bombay as the institutional medium for the propagation of his teaching. He preached in vernacular Hindi in an effort to break through the elitist Sanskrit culture and to reach the masses. His society was open to all men and women on the basis of personal interest and commitment. His disciples perused the Vedas in minute detail, finding there the essential precursors of Western science and technology, including electricity, microbiology, and other modern inventions.
His outspoken criticism of Hindu tradition and his reforming interests provoked the hatred of many orthodox and conservative circles, and he argued abrasively with Moslem and Christian sectarians in favor of the universal philosophy of his own interpretation of the Vedas. Numerous attempts were made on his life, and he was finally poisoned in 1883.
The Arya Samaj was one of the most influential movements of the early modern period in India. It contributed to the rise of Indian nationalism by instilling a sense of pride in the integrity of the most unique and ancient traditions of Indian heritage while simultaneously undercutting the great bulk of conservative Hindu interpretation and law. Dayananda's personality and purifying reforms earned him the epithet "the Luther of India."
Further Reading on Swami Dayananda Saraswati
Dayananda's Light of Truth was translated into English in 1906. A biography of Dayananda is Har Bilas Sarda, Life of Dayananda Saraswati, World Teacher (1946).
Additional Biography Sources
Arya, Krishan Singh, Swami Dayananda Sarasvati: a study of his life and work, Delhi: Manohar, 1987.
Bawa, Arjan Singh, Dayananda Saraswati, founder of Arya Samaj, New Delhi: Ess Ess Publications, 1979.
Autobiography of Dayanand Saraswati, New Delhi: Manohar, 1978.
Jordens, J. T. F., Dayåananda Sarasvatåi, his life and ideas, Delhi:Oxford University Press, 1978.
Lajpat Rai, Lala, Swami Dayananda Saraswati: his biography and teachings, New Delhi: Reliance Pub. House; New York, N.Y.: Distributed by Apt Books, 1991.
Pandey, Dhanpati, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India, 1985.
Prem Lata, Swami Dayåananda Sarasvatåi, New Delhi: Sumit Publications, 1990.