Swami Dayananda Saraswati
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, child marriages, of the inequality of women, and of hereditary caste privileges. He praised the way of the Europeans and named them 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.”