The Brahmo Samaj was the earliest reform movement of the modern type which was greatly influenced by modern Western ideas. Rammohan was the founder of Brahmo Samaj. He was a very well-read man. He studied Oriental languages like Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit and attained proficiency in European languages like English, French, Latin, Greek and Hebrew.
His extensive studies freed his mind from the bigotry that characterised Bengali. Although Rammohan Roy was a man of versatile genius, the governing passion of his life was religious reform.
At a time when the Bengali youth under the influence of Western learning was drifting towards Christianity, Rammohan Roy proved to be the champion of Hinduism. While he defended Hinduism against the hostile criticism of the missionaries, he sought to purge Hinduism of the abuse that had crept into it.
At the early age of fifteen he had criticised idolatry and supported his viewpoint by quotations from the Vedas. He reinterpreted Hindu doctrines and found ample spiritual basis for humanitarianism in the Upanishads.
He started a campaign for the abolition of sati, condemned polygamy and denounced casteism, advocated the right of Hindu widows to remarry. He rejected Christianity, denied the divinity of Jesus Christ, but accepted the humanism of Europe.
Thus, Rammohan Roy sought to affect a cultural synthesis between the East and the West. Even today he is recognised as the forerunner of Modern India and a great path-finder of his century, for he embodied the new spirit of enquiry, thirst for knowledge, and broad humanitarianism- all to be achieved in the Indian setting.
In the words of Dr. Macnicol: “Rammohan Roy was the herald of new age” and the fire he kindled in India has brunt ever since. Rammohan Roy accepted the concept of one God as propounded by the Upanishads. For him God was shapeless, invisible, omnipresent and omnipotent, but the guiding spirit of the universe and omniscient.
In August 1828. Roy founded the Brahmo Sabha which was later renamed Brahmo Samaj. The Trust Deed executed in 1830 explained the object of the Brahmo Samaj as “The worship and adoration of the Eternal, Unsearchable, Immutable, Being who are the Author and Preserver of the Universe.
The Samaj declared its opposition to idol worship and no graven image, statue or sculpture, carving, painting, picture, portrait or the likeness of anything was to be allowed in the Samaj building. There was no place for priesthood in the Samaj building.
There was no place for priesthood in the Samaj nor were sacrifices of any kind allowed. The worship was performed through prayers and meditation and readings from the Upanishads.
Great emphasis was laid on “promotion of charity, morality, piety, benevolence, virtue and strengthening of the bonds of union between men of all religious persuasions and creeds.” It should be clearly understood that Rammohan Roy never intended to establish a new religion. He only wanted to purge Hinduism of the evil practices that had crept into it. Roy remained a devout Hindu till the end if his life and always more the sacred thread.
From the beginning the appeal of the Brahmo Samaj had remained limited to the intellectuals and educationally enlightened Bengalis living in the towns.
The orthodox Hindus led by Raja Radhakant Deb organised the Dharma Sabha with the object of countering the propaganda of Brahmo Samaj. The early death of Rammohan in 1833 left the Brahmo Samaj without the guiding soul and a steady decline set in.
The Brahmo Samaj had played a notable role in the Indian Renaissance. H.C.E. Zacharias writes: “Rammohan Roy and his Brahmo Samaj form the starting point for all the various Reform Movements-whether in Hindu religion, society or politics-which have agitated Modern India”.
The intellectual mind which had been cut off its moorings by the Christian propaganda found a way out in the Brahmo Samaj. In the field of religious reform the main significance of Brahmo Samaj lay out in what it retained of traditional Hinduism, but what it discarded of the old beliefs of Hinduism. Its overall contributions may be summed up thus:
(i) It discarded faith in divine Avatars’,
(ii) It denied that any scripture could enjoy the status of ultimate authority transcending human reason and conscience;
(iii) It denounced polytheism and idol-worship;
(iv) It criticised the caste system;
(v) It look no definite stand on the doctrine of Karma and transmigration of soul and left it to individual Brahmos to believe either way.
In matters of social reform, Brahmo Samaj has influenced Hindu society. It attacked many dogmas and superstitions. It condemned the prevailing Hindu prejudice against going abroad. It worked for a respectable status for woman in society-condemned sati, worked for abolition of purdah system discouraged child marriages and polygamy, crusaded for widow remarriage provision of educational facilities etc. It also attacked casteism am untouchability though in these matters it attained limited success.