The Arya Samaj

Arya Samaj: The Hinduism Reform Movement

Hinduism is a religion rich and diverse in terms of the culture, the language spoken, and the practices and traditions followed. Through its history, many reform and unorthodox movements have emerged that have attempted to modify its cultural practices. One of these reform movements that attempted to reinstate the sacrosanctity of the Vedas was founded by Dayananda Sarasvati in the late 1800s and was known as Arya Samaj (Jorden xiii). The characteristics of this movement, which is still thriving in the world today, are that it opposed many social evils existing in Hinduism at the time, and provided roots for Indian nationalism. (Rai 3-6).

Dayananda Sarasvati was the eldest child of a Saivite Brahmin family of the Samavedi branch of the Audichya caste in the state of Mourvi (Jordens 4). During his early years, he was strictly encouraged to participate in Saivite rituals. Throughout his childhood he started noticing, what he perceived as flaws and misbeliefs that were a very important part of his orthodox family such as idol worship and sraddha rituals (Jordens 14). After leaving his family and devoting most of his life to the study of Vedantas (particularly Yoga and Sanskrit grammar Vedantas), he was convinced that the deepest secret of religion and moksa were present in the Hindu scriptures, specifically the Vedas (Jordens 32). Eventually, between 1863 and 1872, this sanyasi became a social and religious reformer by being partially influenced by anglicised Bengalis and Marathas (Jones 34). Focusing solely on the Brahmin class in the earlier years as a reformer, he travelled across upper India attempting to reform others’ ideals (Jordens 34).  Additionally, learning from other reform movements like the Brahmo Samaj, he changed his mode of proselytization from Sanksrit to Hindi, and continuously travelled experimenting and attempting to form an organization (Jordens 34-35). Finally, in 1875, Dayananda Sarasvati first published his book the Satyarth Prakash, which summarised his ideas and beliefs in detail. However, his ideas about idol worship, caste system, etc., met huge criticism during these early years of the reform (Jordens 34-35).

Eventually, in 1875, he setup his first successful organization, the Arya Samaj, when he met with his followers in Bombay and created the ten principles(niyams) of the Samaj, which were finalized later on in 1877 in Lahore (Jones 35). Even though this movement failed to set its roots in southern India, it started to develop a bigger following in the northern states of Gujarat, Rajashtan, and mainly Punjab (Jones 36-40). Despite the criticisms and opposition from the leaders of the Brahmo Samaj about the sanctity of the Vedas, he held his ground. Not only did he believe that the Vedas were inspired by a divine body, he considered them prehistoric and pre-human, and thus considered them the ultimate source and guide for Hinduism (Rai 4). Dayananda Sarasvati aimed to revive Vedic religion and eliminate the abuses and misnomers that he believed had emerged in Hindu belief with time (Dhanpati 17).

The ten principles that were decided upon by the Arya Samaj are an exposition of the organization’s doctrines. The Arya Samaj’s teaching about the Vedas and its representation of God is explained in the first three principles. The Ten Principles of Arya Samaj are as follows:

  1. God is the primary source of all true knowledge, and of all that is known by its means.
  2. God is All-truth, All-knowledge, All-Beautitude, Incorporeal, Almighty, Just, Merciful, Unbegotten, Infinite, Changeless, Without a beginning, Incomparable, the Support and Lord of all, All-pervading, Omniscient, Imperishable, Immortal, Exempt from fear, Eternal, Holy and the Maker of the Universe. To him alone is worship due.
  3. The Vedas are the books of all true knowledge. It is the paramount duty of all Aryas to read them and to instruct others in them, to hear them read, and to recite them to others
  4. All persons should remain ever ready to accept the Truth and to renounce untruth
  5. All actions ought to be performed in conformity to virtue, i.e. after due consideration of right and wrong.
  6. The primary aim of Arya Samaj is to do good to mankind i.e. to amerliorate the physical, spiritual and social condition of all men.
  7. All ought to be treated with love, justice, and due regard to their merits.
  8. Ignorance ought to be dispelled and knowledge diffused.
  9. No one ought to remain satisfied with his own welfare. The welfare of the individual should be regarded as included in the welfare of all.
  10. In matters which affect the well-being of all, the individual should subordinate his personal likings; in matters that affect him alone, he is to enjoy freedom of action. (Jones 321).

Laid out in simple terms, these principles are thought to be free of controversy, and are organized so that the Arya Samaj could be made as “catholic” as possible without losing its Hindu character (Rai 3).  To become the member of the Arya Samaj, the requirement is the belief and obedience of the ten principles or niyams, regardless of the opinions on other matters (Rai 9). Dayananda Sarasvati refrained purposefully from including any particular doctrines or philosophical questions within the principles so as to make it more approachable by an average man (Rai 12).

Other than the ten principles, there are beliefs and religious teachings that the institution has come to be known for. One such belief is that some persons might be more divine than others, and even though they are not priests in the sense that they are in Christianity, they should be treated with higher respect as they are the benefactors of the human race (Rai 30). Furthermore, despite the fact that enlightenment is possible by being in contact with these divine humans, moksa or salvation can only be attained at an individual level and not by demonstrating faith and devotion to another human soul (Rai 30). In other words, being in contact with these divine humans can help one to be in a higher state of spirituality, but this alone will not be able to grant moksa (Rai 30). Another strong ideal of the Arya Samaj is that “to err is human”, and thus every individual is bound to make mistakes regardless of his spiritual state (Rai 30). The Arya Samaj’s only approved forms of worship are contemplation, communion, and prayer (stuti, prasthna and upasana) performed with pure thoughts, words and deeds (Rai 30). There is a strong belief in the doctrine of karma by the Arya Samaj, and thus it is maintained that all actions have a consequence which cannot be recompensed by any actions (Rai 30). Despite the strong belief in karma, the Samaj negates any belief in fate, unless it is presented alongside karma (Rai 31). As well, any ancestor-worship is not believed in by the Samaj, but respect and remembrance is considered to be a more appropriate sentiment towards them (Rai 31). Finally, the Samaj also encourages its followers to have a strong belief in the Vedas and to interpret their own personal meanings from them (Rai 31).

Along with these religious teachings, the Samaj advises some particular religious observances and practices. There are five mahayajnas that should be observed by the members of the Arya Samaj every day. These include the brahma yajna which is a bipartite practice including sandhya and swadhyae (Rai 32). Sandhya means worshipping god twice a day, in the morning and the evening, by the three ways contemplation, communion and prayer (Rai 32). Swadhyae means daily reading of the some part of the scriptures at least once every day (Rai 32). The second is the deva yajna which is more commonly known as the homa or the sacrificial fire where ghi (clarified butter) is burned in order to purify the household physically and spiritually and has very strong Vedic importance (Rai 32). Pitri yajna is the third of the mahayajnas which requires a daily act that serves the parents (Rai 33). The fourth is the athithi yajna which obliges the members to feed an ascetic or another learned man who has not been invited to the household before (Rai 33). Lastly, the bali vaishva deva yajna requires every member to give food to any one of the following beings according to one’s resources: poor, disabled, orphans, or animals (Rai 33). The Arya Samaj maintains that in combination with these five daily mahayajnas, the sixteen Sanskars (sacred ceremonies) that serve as the sixteen mile-stones in each individual’s life, must be performed. These rituals are common in Hinduism, but others that were superstitious in the view of Arya Samaj and that had eventually become the Hindu norm, are excluded. The Sanskar Vidhi is the book that defines these rituals in more detail and was compiled by Dayananda Sarasvati himself (Rai 34-35).

Moreover, the Arya Samaj maintains a strong social ideology along with the religious observances and practices. The ideology is based upon the ultimate fatherhood of God, the brotherly nature of man, the equality between the two sexes, justice and fairness between men and between different nations, availability of equal opportunities for everyone depending on their nature, merit and karma, and finally love for all (Rai 36-37). Dayananda was strictly against the caste system of the Hindus and believed in their salvation, and since there was no caste by birth in India during the Vedic times, the Arya Samaj believes in providing equal opportunities to all men and women (Rai 38). Due to this belief, many alienated castes started feeling more comfortable with the customs and attitudes of their surrounding societies after becoming members of the Arya Samaj (Jones xii). The Arya Samaj attempted to uplift the lower castes by allowing everyone to wear the sacred thread of twice born, regardless of the caste, and eliminating classes, such as the untouchables (Rai 122).  As well, the Arya Samaj emphasized a lot on gender equality. The conditions of Indian women at the time Arya Samaj was emerging were believed to be disgraceful. The society became one of the top most agencies providing education to Indian women in Punjab, Agra, and Oude regions (Rai 44).  Like Vyasa, Dayananda disapproved of multiple marriages, but he believed that couples who would like to remarry for the sake of having offspring should be allowed (Rai 46-47). As well, the Arya Samaj stood strongly in opposition to child marriage (Rai 49).

In combination with its social concerns, the Arya Samaj vigorously promotes education. Since it is part of the ten principles to impart knowledge to others, providing educational institutions for men and women of all castes and backgrounds was part of its agenda (Jones 67). Dayananda Sarasvati believed that the filtration theory of education that was in practice at the time was not going to solve the problem of illiteracy, and thus he believed in free and compulsory education for all, regardless of caste or gender (Yadav 10-11). As well, Dayananda believed that the curriculum should be widespread so that it represented all branches of knowledge and provided knowledge about languages, arts, sciences, technology and social equality (Yadav 11). The Dayananda Anglo-Vedic College was opened at Lahore, Punjab and Gurukula near Hardwar followed by many more colleges and gurukulas that followed Arya Samajic principles and Dayananda’s ideals about education (Yadav 10-11).

Apart from the religious and educational agendas, the Arya Samaj engaged in charitable efforts at a very grand scale, also known as the shuddhi (Rai 111). Some of this work included setting up orphanages and widow homes, participating in famine reliefs during many famine-stricken years, and social services like medical relief during times of calamities (Yadav 11-12 & Rai 111-120). Furthermore, lectures and educational information was provided in order to eliminate slavery and the caste system (Rai 122-133).

Dayananda Sarasvati also believed that national consciousness needed to be aroused in the country, especially since India was under British control at the time (Yadav 11). Thus, the Arya Samaj did not believe in using Western ideologies to reform Indian society, but instead turned to principles found in the Vedas (Dhanpati 21). Sarasvati strongly believed that if Indians became strong, religiously pure and simple, their freedom would not be very far (Dhanpati 21). The Arya Samaj stressed on the fact that swarajya was most important (Yadav 15). Two major leaders to the Indian National Congress who advocated for social reform, the swadeshi movement and political freedom of India, Lala Lajpat Rai and Swami Shraddhananda, belonged to the Arya Samaj (Dhanpati 175-194). By providing equal rights and education to so many of the estranged classes, the Arya Samaj was responsible for creating a sense of unity and promoting nationalism among its members (Dhanpati 58-62).

The Arya Samaj is a movement that targeted to reform not just the religious aspect of the nation, but the educational, social, and political aspects with it. It is still socially vibrant and continues to promote its agenda in modern India and around the world.

Bibliography and Related Readings:

Pandey, Dhanpati (1972) The Arya Samaj & Indian Nationalism. New Delhi: S. Chand Publications.

Kenneth, Jones (1976) Arya Dharm: Hindu Consciousness in 19th Century Punjab. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rai, Lala Lajpat (1991) Arya Samaj: an Account of its Origin, Doctrines & Activities. (Edited by S.K. Bhatia).  New Delhi: Reliance Publication House.

Jordens, J.T.F (1978): Dayananda Sarasvati: his Life and Ideas. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Sarasvati, Dayananda (1978) Autobiography of Dayananda Sarasvati (Edited by K.C. Yadav). New Delhi: Manohar.

Related Research Topics:

The Brahmo Samaj

Dayananda Sarasvati


The Indian Independence




Idol Worship in Hinduism

Widows and Widowers in Hinduism

The Caste System

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Article written by Shuchi Talwar (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.