Chapter-8 : Socio-Religious Reform Movements in 19th Century India: General Features

Arora IAS Class Notes 


  • Early 19th century: Rise of a “modern vision” among educated Indians.
  • This period is sometimes referred to as the Indian Renaissance.

Factors Giving Rise to Reform:

  • Impact of British Rule:
    • Different from past invasions – British did not assimilate into Indian culture.
    • Exposed the “stagnant” state of Indian society compared to a more scientific Europe.
  • Social Conditions Ripe for Reform:
    • Religious and Social Ills:
      • Superstition and obscurantism in Hinduism.
      • Powerful and controlling priesthood.
      • Idolatry and polytheism.
    • Depressing Position of Women:
      • Female infanticide.
      • Child marriage.
      • Sati (widow burning).
      • Limited rights and opportunities.
    • The Caste Problem:
      • Rigid social hierarchy based on birth.
      • Untouchables faced severe discrimination.
      • Limited social mobility and national unity.
      • Caste system present in other religions too.
    • Opposition to Western Culture:
      • Response to the imposition of colonial culture.
      • Desire to revitalize traditional institutions.

New Awareness among Enlightened Indians:

  • Realization of weaknesses in Indian society.
  • Diverse reactions to Western influence:
    • Some rejected Hindu traditions and embraced Western practices.
    • Common theme: Need for social and religious reform.

Strengthening the Resolve for Reform:

  • Growth of nationalism and democracy.
  • Emergence of new economic forces.
  • Spread of education.
  • Impact of modern Western ideas.
  • Increased global awareness.


Social and Ideological Bases of Reform Movements

Social Base:

  • Middle Class and Intellectuals:
    • Newly emerging group influenced by Western education.
    • Grew from government service, professions, or land ownership.
    • Inspired by European “middle class” role in modernization.

Intellectual Criteria:

  • Rationalism:
    • Judged social practices based on reason and logic.
    • e.g., Raja Rammohan Roy emphasizing causality and evidence.
    • Used to evaluate tradition and replace faith with reason.
  • Religious Universalism:
    • Sought common ground across religions.
    • e.g., Raja Rammohan Roy seeing monotheistic principles in various faiths.
    • Aimed to transcend religious identity and promote unity.
  • Humanism:
    • Emphasis on human progress and well-being.
    • Advocated individual rights and challenged priestly control.
    • Focused on this-worldly concerns over salvation or afterlife.

Two Streams of Reform:

  • Reformist Movements:
    • Focused on changing existing religions.
    • g., Brahmo Samaj, Prarthana Samaj, Aligarh Movement.
    • Used reason and conscience to reform social practices.
  • Revivalist Movements:
    • Sought to restore past purity of their religion.
    • e.g., Arya Samaj, Deobandi Movement.
    • Relied on tradition to reform but differed in the degree they did so.



Direction of Social Reform

Humanistic Ideals:

  • Social equality and individual worth inspired reform.
  • Linked to religious reforms as social ills stemmed from religion.
  • Gradually adopted a secular approach in later years.

Expanding Social Base:

  • Initially focused on upper and middle classes/castes.
  • Later movements reached lower strata for broader reform.
  • Leaders like Jyotirao Phule, B.R. Ambedkar, and others emerged.
  • National movement provided leadership and organization in the 20th century.

Reaching the Masses:

  • Use of Indian languages for wider communication.
  • Diverse media: novels, dramas, poetry, press, and later, cinema.

Two Main Areas of Focus:

  • Fight for Women’s Upliftment:
    • Low status, limited opportunities, and harmful practices like purdah, child marriage, sati.
    • Denied education, property rights, and control over marriage.
    • Reformers argued for equality based on reason and true religion.
    • Fought against polygamy, purdah, child marriage, widow remarriage restrictions.
    • Advocated for women’s education and legal reforms.


Steps Taken to Ameliorate Women’s Position in 19th Century India

Government Measures:

  • Abolition of Sati (1829):
    • Led by Raja Rammohan Roy and outlawed by Governor-General Bentinck.
    • Considered culpable homicide under Bengal Code.
    • Similar measures taken in Madras and Bombay Presidencies.
  • Preventing Female Infanticide (1795 & 1804):
    • Declared illegal and equivalent to murder under Bengal regulations.
    • 1870 Act made birth registration compulsory with verification, especially in high-risk areas.
  • Widow Remarriage (1856):
    • Pioneered by Brahmo Samaj and championed by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar.
    • Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act legalized widow remarriage and ensured legitimacy of children.
    • Supported by efforts of Vishnu Shastri Pandit, Karsandas Mulji, D.K. Karve, and Veerasalingam Pantulu.
  • Controlling Child Marriage:
    • Limited progress with Native Marriage Act (1872) excluding Hindus and Muslims.
    • Age of Consent Act (1891) raised minimum age to 12 due to B.M. Malabari’s efforts and the Rukhmabai case.
    • Child Marriage Restraint Act (1929) (Sarda Act) set minimum age at 18 for girls and 14 for boys.

Additional Points:

  • Rukhmabai case (1884-1887) highlighted child marriage and women’s rights.
  • Rukhmabai Defence Committee formed to advocate for Rukhmabai.
  • Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Act (1978) further raised minimum age in independent India.


Education of Women in 19th Century India

Pioneers and Institutions:

  • Christian Missionaries:Established Calcutta Female Juvenile Society (1819).
  • E.D. Bethune:Founded Bethune School (1849), a landmark for women’s education.
  • Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar:Associated with 35+ girls’ schools in Bengal.
  • Maharashtra:
    • Jagannath Shankarsheth: Provided space and funds for girls’ schools.
    • Bhau Daji Lad: Championed female education, had a girls’ school named after him.
  • Jyotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule:
    • Opened the first school for girls in Pune (1848).
    • Savitribai Phule became the first female teacher in modern India.
    • Faced opposition but continued to open more schools.
  • Alexandra Society of Parsis (1863):Focused on educating Parsi girls.
    • Cornelia Sorabji (1887): First female graduate of Bombay University, advocated for women’s education.

Government Support:

  • Lord Dalhousie (1854): Emphasized support for female education.
  • Charles Wood’s Despatch on Education (1854): Stressed the need for female education.

Later Developments:

  • Women’s Medical Service (1914): Trained nurses and midwives.
  • Indian Women’s University (1916): Imparted higher education to women.
  • Lady Hardinge Medical College (1916): Provided medical education for women.
  • Dufferin Hospitals (1880s): Offered healthcare facilities for women.


Women’s Organizations in Early 20th Century India

Pioneering Organizations:

  • Bharat Stree Mahamandal (1910):
    • Founded by Sarla Devi Chaudhurani.
    • Advocated for women’s education, ending purdah, and social/economic/political improvement.
  • Ladies Social Conference (1904):
    • Founded by Ramabai Ranade.
    • Focused on social reform and women’s education.
  • Arya Mahila Samaj:
    • Founded by Pandita Ramabai Saraswati.
    • Advocated for improved education and medical opportunities for women.

National Organizations:

  • National Council of Women in India (1925):
    • Indian branch of International Council of Women.
    • Led by Mehribai Tata.
    • Focused on education, social issues, and women’s participation in solving societal problems.
    • Included prominent women like Cornelia Sorabji and Maharani Sucharu Devi.
    • Criticized for an upper-class, philanthropic approach.

Egalitarian Approach:

  • All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) (1927):
    • Founded by Margaret Cousins.
    • Aimed for a society based on social justice, equal rights, and opportunity.
    • Led by figures like Sarojini Naidu and Lady Dorab Tata.
    • Worked for legislative reforms including:
      • Sarda Act (1929) – Child Marriage Restraint
      • Hindu Women’s Right to Property Act (1937)
      • Various acts promoting women’s rights and well-being


Struggle Against Caste-Based Exploitation in India

Origins of Caste System:

  • Four-fold division of Hindu society (Varnas)
  • Determined social status, profession, rights
  • Untouchables faced the worst discrimination

Factors Weakening Caste System:

  • British Rule (Indirectly):
    • Created private property, disrupting caste-linked professions.
    • Introduced a uniform legal system, reducing social and legal inequalities.
    • Opened administrative services to all castes.
    • Secular education system.
  • Social Reform Movements (Mid-19th Century Onwards):
    • Brahmo Samaj, Prarthana Samaj, Arya Samaj, Ramakrishna Mission, etc.
    • Promoted education for untouchables and fought against restrictions.
    • Criticized untouchability while defending the Varna system (some exceptions).
  • National Movement:
    • Emphasized liberty, equality, and individual rights.
    • Fought for equal civic rights and challenged caste privileges.
    • Mass participation in protests and movements fostered some unity.
    • Congress governments in provinces took steps to uplift depressed classes (e.g., free education).
    • Gandhi aimed to eradicate untouchability through reason and social reform.
      • Founded All India Harijan Sangh (1932).

Dalit Movement:

  • Jyotirao Phule (Maharashtra):
    • Fought against Brahminical dominance.
    • Opened schools for lower castes, especially girls.
  • Gopal Baba Valangkar (Maharashtra):
    • Advocated for upliftment of untouchables.
    • Published journals against caste discrimination.
    • Founded Anarya Dosh-Parihar Mandali (Society for Removal of Evils Among the Non-Aryans).
    • Launched Dalit newspaper, Vital Vidhvasak (Destroyer of Brahmanical Pollution).
  • Kisan Faguji Bansod (Maharashtra):
    • Promoted Dalit upliftment within Hinduism.
    • Published journals for Dalit awakening.
  • R. Ambedkar:
    • Experienced untouchability firsthand.
    • Launched newspapers like Mooknayak (Leader of the Voiceless) to raise awareness.
    • Formed Bahushkrit Hitakarani Sabha (Educate, Agitate, Organize) for mass mobilization.
    • Founded All India Scheduled Castes Federation (1942).
    • Condemned the caste system and advocated for its annihilation.
  • Other Movements:
    • Maharaja of Kolhapur supported the non-Brahmin movement in the South (early 20th century).
    • V. Ramaswamy Naicker led the Self-Respect Movement in South India (1920s).
    • Sri Narayana Guru (Kerala) fought against upper-caste domination.
    • Mahad Satyagraha (1927) led by Ambedkar challenged untouchability restrictions on water access.

Post-Independence Measures:

  • Indian Constitution:
    • Abolished untouchability and caste-based discrimination.
    • Guaranteed equal access to public spaces and resources.
    • Aimed to create a social order based on social, economic, and political justice.


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