Arya Samaj (Sanskrit आर्य समाज "Noble Society") is a Hindu reform movement founded in India by Swami Dayananda in 1875. He was a sannyasi (renouncer) who believed in the infallible authority of the Vedas. Dayananda advocated the doctrine of karma and reincarnation, and emphasized the ideals of brahmacharya (chastity) and sanyasa (renunciation).
Between 1869 and 1873, Swami Dayanand, a native of the Princely State of Gujarat, made his first earnest attempt at affecting a substantial and lasting reform in his native India. This attempt took the form of the establishment of several so-called ‘Vedic Schools’ which, in contradistinction to other public schools at the time, put a marked emphasis on attempting to impart Vedic values, culture and religion to its students. The first was established at Farrukhabad in 1869 and reported 50 students as being enrolled in its first year. This initial success led to the founding of four additional schools in rapid succession at Mirzapur (1870), Kasganj (1870), Chhalesar (1870) and Varanasi (1873).
The Vedic Schools represented the first practical application of Swami Dayanand’s vision of religious and social reform. They enjoyed a mixed reception. On the one hand, students were not allowed to perform traditional murtipuja at the school, and were instead expected to perform sandhya (a form of meditative prayer using mantras from the Vedas) and participate in agnihotra twice daily. Also, disciplinary action was swift and not infrequently severe. On the other hand, all meals, lodging, clothing and books were given to the students free of charge, and the study of Sanskrit was opened to non-Brahmins. The most noteworthy feature of the Schools was that only those texts which accepted the authority of the Vedas were to be taught. This, in the opinion of Swami Dayanand, was critical for the spiritual and social regeneration of Vedic culture in India.
Due primarily to organizational problems, the Vedic Schools soon ran into many difficulties. Swami Dayanand had considerable trouble finding qualified teachers who agreed with his views on religious reform, and there existed a paucity of textbooks which he considered suitable for instruction in Vedic culture. Funding was sporadic, attendance fluctuated considerably, and tangible results in the way of noteworthy student achievement were not forthcoming. Consequentially, some of the schools were forced to close shortly after opening. As early as 1874, it had become clear to Swami Dayanand that, without a wide and solid base of support among the public, setting up schools with the goal of imparting a Vedic education would prove to be an impossible task. He therefore decided to invest the greater part of his resources in the clear formulation and widespread propagation of his ideology of reform. Deprived of the full attention of Swami Dayanand, the Vedic School system all but collapsed shortly thereafter, and the last of the remaining schools (Farrukhabad) was finally closed down in 1876 due to Muslim takeover.
While traveling (1872 – 1873), Swami Dayanand came into close and extended contact with several of the leading Indian intellectuals of the age, including Raj Narayan Bose, Debendranath Tagore and Keshab Chandra Sen, all of whom were actively involved in the Brahmo Samaj. This reform organization, founded in 1828, held many views similar to those of Swami Dayanand in matters both religious (e.g. a belief in monotheism and the eternality of the soul) and social (e.g. the need to abolish the hereditary caste system and uplift the masses through education). Tagore had written a book entitled Brahmo Dharma, which serves as a comprehensive manual of religion and ethics to the members of that society, and Swami Dayanand is said to have studied it thoroughly while in Calcutta.
Although Sen tried on more than one occasion to persuade Swami Dayanand to join the Brahmo Samaj, there existed several points of contention which the Swami simply could not overlook, the most important being the position of the Vedas. Swami Dayanand held the Vedas to be divine revelation, and refused to accept any suggestions to the contrary. Despite this difference of opinion, however, it seems that the members of the Brahmo Samaj and Swami Dayanand parted on good terms, the former having publicly praised the latter’s visit to Calcutta in several journals and the latter having taken inspiration from the former’s activity in the social sphere.
Swami Dayanand made several changes in his approach to the work of reforming Hindu society after having visited Calcutta. The most significant of these changes was that he began lecturing in Hindi. Prior to his tour of Bengal, the Swami had always held his discourses and debates in Sanskrit. While this gained him a certain degree of respect among both the learned and the common people alike, it prevented him from spreading his message to the broader masses. The change to Hindi allowed him to attract increasingly larger crowds, and as a result his ideas of reform began to circulate among the lower classes of society as well.
After hearing some of Swami Dayanand’s speeches delivered in Hindi at Varanasi, Raj Jaikishen Das, a native government official there, suggested that the Swami publish his ideas in a book so that they might be distributed among the public. Witnessing the slow collapse of the Vedic Schools due to a lack of a clear statement of purpose and the resultant flagging public support, Swami Dayanand recognized the potential contained in Das’ suggestion and took immediate action.
From June to September 1874, Swami Dayanand dictated a comprehensive series of lectures to his scribe, Pundit Bhimsen Sharma, which dealt with his views and beliefs regarding a wide range of subjects including God, the Vedas, Dharma, the soul, science, philosophy, childrearing, education, government and the possible future of both India and the world. The resulting manuscript was edited by Sharma and others, and was eventually published under the title Satyarth Prakash or The Light of Truth in 1875 at Varanasi. This voluminous work would prove to play a central role in the establishment and later growth of the organization which would come to be known as the Arya Samaj.
While the manuscript of the Satyarth Prakash was being edited at Varanasi, Swami Dayanand received an invitation to travel to Bombay in order to conduct a debate with some representatives of the Vallabhacharya sect. The Swami arrived in Bombay on the 20th of October, 1874. The debate, though greatly publicised, never materialized. Despite this, however, two members of the Prarthana Samaj approached Swami Dayanand and invited him to deliver a few lectures at one of their gatherings, which were received with appreciation by all those present. The members of the Prarthana Samaj of Bombay recognized in Swami Dayanand an individual in possession of the knowledge and skills necessary for promoting their aims, the greatest and most comprehensive of which being the general uplift of Hindu society at large and its protection from what they perceived to be the advancing threat of Christian and Muslim efforts to convert Hindus.
After his having spent over a month at Bombay, 60 newfound admirers of Swami Dayanand – among them, prominent members of the Prarthana Samaj – proposed the notion of founding a ‘New Samaj’ with the Swami’s ideas serving as its spiritual and intellectual basis. A committee was formed to draw up a constitution, and a high court lawyer was employed to finalize the draft. However, pressure was exerted upon the still-forming group by high-profile orthodox caste members in the area – so much, in fact, that the effort to establish a Samaj was aborted quickly.
After having received a personal invitation from Judge Gopalrao Hari Deshmukh, Swami Dayanand left Bombay and travelled to Ahmedabad, arriving on the 11th of December, 1874. Once there, he conducted a debate with local pundits on the issue of idol worship, and emerged victorious. It is reported that the formation of a Samaj and the founding of a Vedic School at Ahmedabad was proposed following the widely acknowledged and publicised success of the debate, but it was found that not enough support for such a venture could be mustered.
On an invitation from Hargovind Das Dvarkadas, the secretary of the local Prarthana Samaj, Swami Dayanand decided to travel to Rajkot and arrived on the 31st of December, 1874. However, instead of delivering his standard program of lectures, he allowed members of the audience to choose the topics they would like to have him discourse upon. A total of eight topics were chosen, and Swami Dayanand delivered impromptu lectures on all of them to the overwhelming satisfaction of all present. Gifts were bestowed upon the Swami as tokens of gratitude for his masterly orations, and it was announced that the Rajkot Prarthana Samaj was henceforth dissolved and was ready to be reorganized as a new Samaj under the auspices of Swami Dayanand. The Swami, after much deliberation, chose the name ‘Arya Samaj’ or ‘Society of Nobles’. Swami Dayanand himself drafted a list of 28 rules and regulations for the Rajkot Arya Samaj, which he later had printed for distribution.
On his way back to Bombay, Swami Dayanand stopped off in Ahmedabad and related the news of Rajkot, distributing copies of the rules and regulations to those present. A meeting was held on the 27th of January, 1875 to discuss the proposal of forming an Arya Samaj there, yet no conclusive decision was reached. Unwilling to wait for the deliberations to come to an end, Swami Dayanand continued on his way to Bombay.
While travelling, the Swami received word that the still fragile Rajkot Arya Samaj had involved itself in some political dispute and managed to have a government warning issued against it and its members. Thus, the collapse of the just established society was already looming large.
Swami Dayanand reached Bombay on 29 January 1875, and immediately the appeal to establish an Arya Samaj there was renewed. However, the Swami did not want a protracted debate to ensue as had occurred at Ahmedabad, bringing with it the possibility of endless deliberations. Thus, a membership drive was initiated which would circumvent the need for discussions. Within a short time, 100 individuals enrolled themselves as prospective members.
While the membership drive was underway, Swami Dayanand held a now famous discourse with the congregation at Bombay. Someone in the audience asked the Swami: “Should we set up a new Samaj?” Dayanand responded:
If you are able to achieve something for the good of mankind by a Samaj, then establish a Samaj; I will not stand in your way. But if you do not organize it properly, there will be a lot of trouble in the future. As for me, I will only instruct you in the same way as I teach others, and this much you should keep clearly in mind: my beliefs are not unique, and I am not omniscient. Therefore, if in the future any error of mine should be discovered after rational examination, then set it right. If you do not act in this way, then this Samaj too will later in become just a sect. That is the way by which so many sectarian divisions have become prevalent in India: by making the guru’s word the touchstone of truth and thus fostering deep-seated prejudices which make the people religion-blind, cause quarrels and destroy all right knowledge. That is the way India arrived at her sorry contemporary state, and that is the way this Samaj too would grow to be just another sect. This is my firm opinion: even if there be many different sectarian beliefs prevalent in India, if only they all acknowledge the Vedas, then all those small rivers will reunite in the ocean of Vedic Wisdom, and the unity of dharma will come about. From that unity of dharma there will result social and economic reform, arts and crafts and other human endeavours will improve as desired, and man’s life will find fulfilment: because, by the power of that dharma all values will become accessible to him, economic values as well as psychological ones, and also the supreme value of moksha.
On the 10th of April, 1875, the Bombay Arya Samaj was officially established. The original membership amounted to exactly 100 persons, including Swami Dayanand. The members appealed to the Swami that he should serve as either the President or the Guru of the Samaj, but he kindly refused, and instead requested that he be listed as a regular member. In the list of members, which was organized alphabetically, Swami Dayanand’s name appears as No. 31.
On the 24th of June, 1877, the second major Arya Samaj was established at Lahore. However, the original list of 28 rules and regulations drafted by Dayanand for the Rajkot Arya Samaj and used for the Bombay Arya Samaj were deemed by the Lahore community to be too unwieldy. Therefore, it was proposed that the principles should be reduced and simplified, while the bylaws should be removed to a separate document. Everyone present, including Swami Dayanand, agreed, and the 10 Principles of the Arya Samaj as they are known around the world today came into existence.
All subsequently established branches of the Arya Samaj have been founded upon the Lahore principles. However, each new branch of the Society has a degree of freedom in determining the exact bylaws under which it shall operate. Everyone who wishes to become a member of the Society must agree to uphold these principles in their entirety. However, nothing beyond these 10 Principles has any binding force on any member of the Arya Samaj. For this reason, the early Samaj proved to be attractive to individuals belonging to various religious communities, and enjoyed a notable degree of support from segments of the Hindu, Sikh and Muslim populations of Indian society.
Drawing what are seen to be the logical conclusions from these principles, the Arya Samaj also unequivocally condemns practices such as polytheism, idolatry, iconolatry, animal sacrifice, ancestor worship, pilgrimage, priestcraft, the belief in avatars or incarnations of God, the hereditary caste system, untouchability and child marriage on the grounds that all these lack Vedic sanction.'''
There continues to this day a considerable controversy regarding the exact nature of the relationship which existed between the Arya Samaj and the Theosophical Society from 1877 to 1882. What follows is a report of the chain of events as understood by members of the Arya Samaj today. (For the version of the Theosophical Society, see the article: Theosophical Society of the Arya Samaj.)
In 1877, a meeting occurred in America between some leading members of the Theosophical Society, founded in 1875, and Mulji Thakarshi, an individual who had played an instrumental role in the establishment of the Bombay Arya Samaj that same year. During the course of the exchange, it became clear that the two societies held many views in common, and efforts were undertaken to bring their respective leaders into closer contact. As a result, correspondence began between Henry Steel Olcott, one of the co-founders of the New York Theosophical Society, and Harish Chandra Chintamani, the acting president of the Bombay Arya Samaj.
At the suggestion of Chintamani, Olcott composed a letter addressed to Swami Dayanand dated the 18th of February, 1878 which is reported to have contained, among other things, the following notable passage:
There exist a number of Americans and others who earnestly seek spiritual knowledge. They place themselves at your feet and pray you [sic] to enlighten them. They are united in the object of gaining wisdom and becoming better. For this purpose they organized themselves into a body called the Theosophical Society three years ago. Finding in Christianity nothing that should satisfy their reason or intention they (…) have turned to the East for light and openly proclaimed themselves foes of Christianity. We come to your feet as children to a parent and say: ‘Look at us, our teacher. Tell us what we ought to do. We place ourselves under your instructions.’
Unwilling to wait for what they were led to believe would be a positive response, the heads of the Theosophical Society decided to go ahead with their plans to recast their organization as a branch of the Arya Samaj. On the 22nd of May, 1878, the Theosophical Society was renamed ‘The Theosophical Society of the Arya Samaj of Aryavarta’ and Swami Dayanand was announced as its director in chief.
This unilateral move on the part of the Theosophists, however, eventually proved to be grossly miscalculated. While Olcott’s open profession of faith in the Vedas was positively received and publicly praised by Swami Dayanand on more than one occasion, when he came to learn of the details of the tenets held by the Theosophists, including their belief in ghosts, mediumistic abilities, miracles and other occult matters, the Swami, taking up the role of teacher, was quick to admonish Olcott for what he termed ‘humbuggery’ and ‘superstition’ unbefitting of a seeker of truth. The Theosophists, however, were unwilling to give up their faith in these matters, and the gulf which had always existed between the two societies suddenly became apparent to all involved. Therefore, in September 1878, the Theosophical Society was reverted to its former status as an independent organization. However, a second organization was simultaneously formed and given the now familiar name ‘The Theosophical Society of the Arya Samaj of Aryavarta’. It was agreed that membership of the new society, which itself was to remain a common branch of both the Theosophical Society and the Arya Samaj, would be open to any persons who wished to remain associated with both societies.
This tentative solution, however, proved incapable of bridging the growing divide. Between 1879 and 1881, the founders of the Theosophical Society, Henry Olcott and Helena Blavatsky, paid Swami Dayanand several visits while touring India. Through the course of their discussions and correspondence, it became clear that the differences between the two societies were not, as previously assumed, limited to relatively minor issues, but in fact extended to what the Swami viewed as central tenets of the Vedic Religion. The main point of contention was in regards to the nature of God. While the Theosophists asserted that the highest Divinity is an impersonal Principle, Swami Dayanand maintained that the Vedas and their allied literature clearly teach that God is a personal Being – in his words, “the Personification of Being, Knowledge and Bliss”. Thus, the line dividing the two organizations was clearly identified and neither party saw themselves in need of reconsidering their views. Therefore, on the 28th of March, 1882, Swami Dayanand announced that the Arya Samaj had officially cut off all ties with the Theosophical Society.
It has been stated that many of the difficulties and subsequent hostilities which arose between the Theosophical Society and the Arya Samaj were due to an unfortunate combination of personal intrigue and poor translations. Both parties have claimed to have been misrepresented on several occasions and members of each have accused the other of being responsible for the failure of the undertaking. Regardless, the theological and ideological differences between the Theosophical Society and the Arya Samaj persist to this day.
Arya Samaj's teachings are in lines with the Sikh religion. Many Sikhs were influenced by Arya Samaj. For example, Indian freedom fighter Sardar Bhagat Singh was earlier a follower of Arya Samaj along with his grandfather, Sardar Ajit Singh. However he wrote a book, "Why I am an Atheist" after being influenced by socialist ideals. His last photograph however indicates that he returned to Sikhism. Gurubani says: 'Ved Katev Kaho Mat Jhoote, Jhoota Voh Jo Na Vichare', 'Ved Path Paapaan Mati Laye' and cites many other examples. However Sikhs do not accept the Vedas and the tenth Sikh pontificate, Guru Gobind Singh clearly mentioned, "Ram Rahim Puran Kuran anek kahe mat ek na manyo. Simrit Shastra Ved Sabhe bahu bhed kahe hum ek na janyo" (Meaning that Ram and Raheem, Puran and Kuran say many things, but I do not believe in them. The Smriti and Shastra and Ved all say many things, but I accept not even a single one).