The first phase of the history of the Brahmo Samaj is intimately linked up with the career of its founder Rammohun Roy (1772 – 1833). The Brahmo Samaj which was launched on August 20, 1828, gave a concrete expression to Rammohun’s concept of universal worship.
Tarachand Chakravarti one of the leaders of the “Young Bengal” group was appointed the secretary of the organisation. Weekly service was held originally, every Saturday evening; later it was transferred to Wednesday.It consisted of three successive parts, viz. recitation of the Vedas by Telegu Brahmins in the closed apartment exclusively before the Brahmin members of the congregation, reading and exposition of the Upanishads for the general audience, and singing of religious hymns. This would correspond exactly to the reading of the Bible, the sermon and the hymns of Christian worship, and on this point Rammohun’s previous Unitarian contacts had certainly been of considerable help by providing him with a model of congregational worship which was alien to the spirit of Hinduism.
The parallelism however was confined exclusively to the outward form. The contents of Rammohun’s universal worship were thoroughly Hindu in character. That Rammohun and his fellow-organizers of the congregation had no objection to the reading of the sruti texts before the general audience, becomes clear from their arranging to have the Upanishads read and explained before the entire body of worshippers which besides non-Brahmins, sometimes even included Christians and Muslims. This task was entrusted to learned Bengali Brahmin pundits.
After the departure of Rammohun Roy for England (November 1830) and his death there (September 1833), the Brahmo Samaj as on organisation gradually reached a moribund condition though its name, theology and social ideals continued to live and prosper among certain groups in the near Calcutta.
Raja Rammohan Roy
Rammohun Roy was born in the village called Radhanagore of Khanakul, Hooghly a district in West Bengal on May 22, 1772. His father Ramakanta Roy was an orthodox Brahmin and his mother was Tarini Devi. Rammohun was educated in Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit & Bengali. He studied the works of great scholars and evolved into a free thinker. This also led him to leave home on more than once occasion and finally be driven away from his home by his father.
In 1814 Rammohun came and settled in Calcutta and in 1815 founded the Atmiya Sabha, an association for the dissemination of the religious truth and the promotion of free discussions of theological subjects.
In 1819 there took place a celebrated debate between Rammohun and Subrahmanya Sastri on the subject of idol worship in presence of the leading citizens of Calcutta including Raja Radhakanta Deb and Rammohun vanquished his adversary.
During the course of his researches into the domain of Sanskrit literature Rammohun was struck by the purity of the monotheistic doctrines of the Upanishads which were in sharp contrast with the prevailing corruptions of Hindu idolatry. He decided to publish the Upansihads with his own preface and translations. These books produced an intense and wide spread agitation in the Indian society.
Ramohun was also instrumental in setting up the Hindoo College in 1817 in Calcutta, which was renamed as Presidency College in 1856 when it was taken over by the government.
Brahmo Samaj after Roy (1817-1905)
Debendranath framed a covenant for the adoption of the Church and to introduce a regular form of Church service, including thanks giving, praise and prayer. Having framed this covenant, 20 of his young associates joined him on December 21, 1843. This led the step for converting Brahmo Samaj into a spiritual fraternity. This day is still commemorated by holding the annual Poush Mela at Shantiniketan.
The Patrika wrote articles supporting female education, widow re-marriage, crying against intemperance, denouncing polygamy, rationalise Brahmo doctrines and run the church on constitutional principles. A noteworthy feature of this period was the establishment of various Samajes in and around Calcutta. Debendranath kept himself aloof and retired to the hills of Simla in 1856 and occupied himself with prayer and meditation and studied closely the works Kant, Fichte, Victor Cousin etc. as well as writings of Hindu theologians and the Persian poet Hafiz. As a result of his studies he concluded that the broad universal basis of natural theism was that it was religion that explains the scriptures and not the scriptures religion.
Debendranath was essentially a Hindu in all his spiritual aims and aspirations. For his ideals of religion he never turned to the West. In matters of spiritual life he never made any visible approach, even of sympathising friendship towards Christ and his church. In his work with the Brahmo Samaj he had two princples – 1) the Brahmo Samaj is a purely Hindu institution intended for Hindus and deals with the highest form of Hinduism and 2) its mission is chiefly religious rather than social. He was one of the first men in Bengal to open the doors of high education to women and indeed in his own family.
Second Schism in Brahmoism
Inspite of the dynamic progress of the Brahmo movement under Keshub, the Samaj had to go through a second schism on May, 1878 when a band of Keshub Chandra Sen’s followers left him to start the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj mainly because their demand for the introduction of a democratic constitution in the church was not conceded; secondly because they could not see eye to eye with Keshub on the doctrine of adesha or Divine command; and thirdly on the ground of their objection to the marriage of Keshub’s daughter with the prince of Cooch Bihar allegedly in violation of the provision of the Indian Marriage Act of 1872.