The Arya Samaj undertook the task of reforming Hindu religion in north India. It was founded in 1875 by Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1824-83). Swami Dayanand believed that selfish and ignorant priests had perverted Hindu religion with the aid of the Puranas which, he said, were full of false teachings.
For his own inspiration, Swami Dayanand went to the Vedas which he regarded as infallible, being the inspired word of God, and as the fount of all knowledge.
He rejected such later religious thought as conflicted with the Vedas. This total dependence on the Vedas and their infallibility gave his teachings an orthodox colouring, for infallibility meant that human reason was not to be the final deciding factor.
However, his approach had a rationalist aspect, because the Vedas, though revealed, were to be rationally interpreted by him and others, who were human beings. Thus individual reason was the decisive factor.
He believed that every person had the right of direct access to God. Moreover, instead of supporting Hindu orthodoxy, he attacked it and led a revolt against it.
The teachings he derived from his own interpretation of the Vedas were consequently similar to the religious and social reforms that other Indian reformers were advocating.
He was opposed to idolatry, ritual and priesthood, and particularly to the prevalent caste practices and popular Hinduism as preached by Brahmins.
He also directed attention towards problems of men as they lived in this real world and away from the traditional belief in the other world. He also favored the study of western sciences.
Interestingly enough, Swami Dayanand had met and had discussions with Keshub Chandra Sen, Vidyasagar, Justice Ranade, Gopal Hari Deshmukh and other modern religious and social reformers.
In fact, the ideas of the Arya Samaj with its Sunday meeting resembled the practices of the Brahmo Samaj and the Prarthana Samaj in this respect.
Some of Swami Dayanand’s followers later started a network of schools and colleges in the country to impart education on western lines. Lala Hansraj played a leading part in this effort.
On the other hand, in 1902, Swami Shradhananda started the Gurukul near Hardwar to propagate the more traditional ideals of education.
The Arya Samajists were vigorous advocates of social reform and worked actively to improve the condition of women, and to spread education among them. They fought untouchability and the rigidities of the hereditary caste system.
They were thus advocates of social equality and promoted social solidarity and consolidation. They also inculcated a spirit of self-respect and self-reliance among the people. This promoted nationalism. At the same time, one of the Arya Samaj’s objectives was to prevent the conversion of Hindus to other religions.
This led it to start a crusade against other religions. This crusade became a contributory factor in the growth ofcommunalism in India in the twentieth century.
While the Arya Samaj’s reformist work tended to remove social ills and to unite people, its religious work tended, though perhaps unconsciously, to divide the growing national unity among Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Sikhs and Christians.
It was not seen clearly that in India national unity had to be secular and above religion so that it would embrace the people of all religions.