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The Life and Work of Dayanand Saraswati


Recently, Prime Minister paid tribute to Dayanand Saraswati on the 200th birth anniversary of the social reformer, hailing his contributions towards the fight against social discrimination and untouchability.


GS I: History

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. The Life and Work of Dayanand Saraswati
  2. Hinduism Under 19th-century Colonial Rule
  3. Founding the Arya Samaj and Vedic Schools
  4. Dayanand’s philosophy
  5. Death and Legacy of Dayanand Saraswati

The Life and Work of Dayanand Saraswati

  • Dayanand Saraswati (1824-1883) was a prominent figure in 19th-century India.
  • He believed in the supreme authority of the Vedas and established the Arya Samaj in 1875.
  • He led a reform movement within orthodox Hinduism, rejecting idolatry and overly ritualistic traditions.
  • He supported women’s education, denounced child marriage, and opposed untouchability.
  • His book, Satyarth Prakash (1875), emphasized a “return to Vedic principles” as a modern religious philosophy and organization.

Hinduism Under 19th-century Colonial Rule

  • During the 18th century, the British established their presence in India, bringing missionaries to spread the Christian faith.
  • Missionaries provided an ideological justification for an exploitative imperial project as part of the West’s “civilizing mission.”
  • Through their growing influence, they also created a degree of subservience to the Empire, especially among certain sections of the population.
  • Dayanand Saraswati believed that Hindus had moved away from the teachings and traditions of the Vedas, which were the source of the “ultimate truth” in the world.
  • The departure from the true Sanatan Dharma resulted in practices such as idolatry, untouchability, sectarianism, sati, and primacy of the priestly class becoming commonplace.
  • These so-called “regressive practices” provided a reason for the success of Christian missionaries in the Indian subcontinent and an audience for their message among populations worst treated within the traditional Hindu fold.

Founding the Arya Samaj and Vedic Schools

  • Preaching the supremacy of the Vedas and rejecting the ritualistic excesses of orthodox Hinduism
  • Establishing the Arya Samaj as a monotheistic Hindu order
  • Founding Vedic schools as an alternative to break the monopoly of brahmans on Vedic knowledge

Dayanand’s philosophy

  • Preaching respect and reverence for other human beings based on the Vedic notion of the divine nature of the individual
  • Advocating for activities to be done for the benefit of humankind as a whole
  • Advocating for significant reform within the caste system based on individual talents and disposition instead of hereditary caste
  • Opposing the practice of untouchability and advocating Vedic education for all castes
  • Campaigning for the education of women and against regressive practices such as child marriage.

Death and Legacy of Dayanand Saraswati

Mysterious death

  • Dayanand Saraswati died under suspicious circumstances in 1883, after publicly criticizing the Maharaja of Jodhpur.
  • Some speculate that he was poisoned by the Maharaja’s cook, but the charge was never proven in court.
  • According to a popular story about his death, the killer confessed to Dayanand Saraswati and was subsequently forgiven.

Enduring legacy

  • Dayanand Saraswati’s message was particularly important at a time when nationalist sentiment in India was rising.
  • He is credited with first using the term swaraj (self-rule) in 1875, which would later be picked up by the likes of Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi.
  • His criticism of the British from a religious point of view as well as providing an ancient Indian alternative was crucial to the nationalist discourse of the time.

Consolidation of Hindus

  • Through the organization of Arya Samaj, Dayanand Saraswati was among the first to advocate “conversion” into the Hindu fold.
  • He supported the idea of shuddhi, to bring back Islamic or Christian converts into Hinduism.
  • This became a very popular movement by the early 20th century, especially aimed at lower caste converts who were given a higher social status and self-esteem under the more egalitarian Arya Samaji philosophy.

Continuing legacy

  • Dayanand Saraswati’s legacy carries on through the Arya Samaj centers found across India as well as the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic schools and colleges.
  • The DAV schools have become popular for providing quality education, even in the most remote places.
  • Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, India’s second President and an influential educationist, called Dayanand Saraswati “a maker of modern India.”

-Source: Indian Express

November 2023