Religious reform was begun in Bombay in 1840 by the Parmahans Mandali which aimed at fighting idolatry and the caste system.

Perhaps the earliest religious reformer in western India was Gopal Hari Deshmukh, known popularly as ‘Lokahit-wadi’, who wrote in Marathi, made powerful rationalist attacks on Hindu orthodoxy, and preached religious and social equality. For example, he wrote in the 1840s:

The priests are very unholy because they repeat things without under­standing their meaning and profanely reduce knowledge to such repetition. The Pandits are worse than priests; because they are more ignorant and also are haughty.

Who are the brahmins and in what respects do they differ from us? Have they twenty hands and do we lack something in us?


When such questions are now asked the brahmins should give up their foolish concepts; they must accept that all men are equal and everybody has a right to acquire knowledge.

He also said that if religion did not sanction social reforms then religion should be changed, for after all religion was made by human beings and scriptures, written long ago, might not remain relevant to later times.

Later the Prarthana Samaj was started with the aim of reforming Hindu religious thought and practice in the light of modern knowledge.

It preached the worship of one God and tried to free religion of caste orthodoxy and priestly domination. Two of its great leaders were R.G. Bhandarkar, the famous Sanskrit scholar and historian, and Mahadev Govind Ranade (1842-1901).


It was powerfully influenced by the Brahmo Samaj. Its activities also spread to south India as a result of the efforts of the Telugu reformer, Viresalingam.

One of the greatest rationalist thinkers of modern India, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, also lived and worked in Maharashtra at this time.

Agarkar was an advocate of the power of human reason. He sharply criticised any blind dependence on tradition or the false glorification of India’s past.