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Unit 2
Social Reform Movements and New Social Consciousness

Learning Outcomes

After reading this unit, the learner will:

  • be introduced to the major social reform movements of 19th century
  • learn the impact of reform movements in the rise of nationalism in India
  • analyse the importance of various reforms of the period
  • identify the various women reformers and their impact on Modern Indian history


Social and religious reform movements arise among all communities of the Indian people. Several reform movements came up in the 19th century to fight against evil practices. They attacked bigotry, superstition and the hold of the priestly class. They worked for the abolition of castes and untouchability, the purdah system, sati, child marriage, social inequalities and illiteracy. Social consciousness that developed due to English education and rational thinking led to these reform movements. The protests against the evil customs and superstitions, freedom of women, spread of education and a sense of pride in Indian culture were the common features of these movements. The social reform movements tried mainly to achieve two objectives (1) emancipation of women and extension of equal rights to them and (2) removal of caste rigidities and in particular the abolition of untouchability.

Key Words

Social reforms, reformist, revivalist, polytheism, monotheism, child marriage, widow remarriage.


4.2.1 Social Reform Movements of India

Any society is made up of different types of people, including those who belong to various castes, religions, races, genders, and other categories. It is expected that these people coexist peacefully and without discrimination; the ideal situation is one in which all social groups enjoy equality, freedom, and brotherhood. But human civilization as a whole demonstrates that many forms of exploitative behaviours are pervasive there;these behaviours were inspired by people’s appetite for power, authority, and superiority. In the long run, these unfair and exploitative acts manifest as social ills and leave a scar on the face of any civilised community. In the first part of the 19th century, casteism, superstition, Sati Pratha, female education, prohibition of remarriage, child marriage, and other social ills plagued Indian society as well, impeding our progress. Starting in the first half of the 19th century, social reform became increasingly necessary. Modern concepts like liberty, social and economic equality, fraternity, democracy, and justice were brought to India by the British and had a significant influence on Indian society.

Many religious and social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chand Vidyasagar, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Swami Vivekanad, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan were advocating the eradication of the evils prevalent at that time and were willing to bring reforms in the society so that it could face the challenges of the West. They were no longer willing to accept the traditions, beliefs and practices in the society simply because they had been observed for centuries. Indian intellectuals closely scrutinised the country’s past and found that many beliefs and practices were no longer of any use and needed to be discarded; they also discovered that many aspects of India’s cultural heritage were of intrinsic value to India’s cultural awakening. The result was the birth of many socio-religious reform movements touching almost every segment of Indian society.

The reform movements fall under two broad categories:-

  1. Reformist movements like the Brahmo Samaj, the Prarthana Samaj and the Aligarh movements.
  2. Revivalists movements like the Arya Samaj, the Ramakrishna Mission.

Both the reformist and revivalist movement depended to a varying degree on an appeal to the lost purity of the religion they sought to reform. The only difference between one reform movement and the other lay in the degree to which it relied on tradition or on reason and conscience. Revivalist movements appealed more to tradition than reason and conscience and aimed to demonstrate that ancient Indian socio-cultural ideas were progressive and rationalist. These movements relied to a greater degree on the lost purity of religion they sought to reform.

A significant aspect of all the reform movements was their emphasis on both religious and social reforms. This link was primarily due to two main reasons. First, almost every social custom and institution in India derived sustenance from religious injunctions and sanctions. This meant that no social reform could be undertaken unless the existing religious notions which sustained the social customs were also reformed. Secondly, Indian reformers well understood that close interrelation reforms precede demand for social reforms or political rights.

Characteristics of the Reform Movements
An analysis of the reform movements of the 19th century brings out several common features. All the reformers propagated the idea of one God and the basic unity of all religions. Thus, they tried to bridge the gulf between different religious beliefs. They attacked priesthood, rituals, idolatry and polytheism. The humanitarian aspect of these reform movements was expressed in their attack on the caste system and the custom of child marriage. The reformers attempted to improve the status of girls and women in society and emphasised the need for female education. By attacking the caste system and untouchability, the reformers tried to unify the people of India into one nation. The reform movements fostered feelings of self-respect, self-reliance and patriotism among the Indians.

Contribution of the Reform Movements
Many reformers like Dayanand Saraswati and Swamy Vivekananda upheld Indian philosophy and culture. This instilled in Indians a sense of pride and faith in their own culture. Female education was promoted. Schools for girls were set up. Even medical colleges were established for women. This slowly led to the development of girls’ education. The cultural and ideological struggle taken up by the socio-religious movements helped to build up national consciousness. This paved the way for the growth of nationalism.

Since they had become associated with religious beliefs, most of the movements of social reform were of religious character. A number of European and Indian scholars started the study of ancient India’s history, philosophy, science, religions and literature. This growing knowledge of India’s past glory provided the Indian people a sense of pride in their civilization. It also helped the reformers in their work of religious and social reform for the struggle against all types of inhuman practices, superstitions, etc. These social and religious reform movements arise among all communities of the Indian people. They worked for abolition of castes, untouchability, sati, child marriage, social inequalities and illiteracy. The first sounds of intellectual revolt in Maharashtra were heard in the early decades of the 19th century. Among the early intellectuals who initiated and led the movement were Balshastri Jambhekar, Dadoba Pandurang Tarkhadkar, Bhasker Pandurang Tarkhadkar, Gopal Hari Deshmukh better known as ‘Lokahitwadi’, and Vishnu Bhikaji Gokhale popularly known as Vishnubawa Brahmachari. Jambhekar was the pioneer of the intellectual movement in Maharashtra. He laid its foundations through his numerous writings, in the early 1830s. Dadoba gave it an organisational shape; he founded the Paramhansa Sabha in 1840, the first reform organisation of nineteenth century Maharashtra. Brahmachari was against caste distinctions and believed in the oneness of humanity. Although himself a Brahmin, he employed a Muslim cook and ate food served by anyone. He thus openly challenged the rigidity of the caste system and worked for an equitable social order.

In Bengal, the movement started on a religious and philosophical note; however, in Maharashtra, solely socio economic issues began to take centre stage in the reform plan. Early intellectuals took a very pragmatic approach to learning. For instance, the elimination of all caste differences was the main goal of the Paramhansa Sabha. However, the Sabha was a secret club; as a result, its meetings were held in the strictest of secrecy to avoid incurring the wrath of the orthodox. Thus, only a small number of its members participated in the fight against the caste system and other societal ills in the latter part of the nineteenth century. In the second half of the century, the reform movement grew stronger. The intellectual environment saw the emergence of numerous towering figures.

The most notable among them were Vishnu Parashuram Shastri Pandit, Jyotiba Phule, Ramkrishna Gopal Bhandarkar, Narayan Mahadev Permanand, Mahadev Gobind Ranade,Vishnushastri Chiplunkar,K.T. Telang, Ganesh Vasudev Joshi, Narayan Ganesh Chandavarkar and Gopal Ganesh Agarkar. Pandit began his public career with the advocacy of widow-marriage. He was a leading figure in the sphere of the agitation for female emancipation. He started the Vidhava Vivaha Uttejaka Mandal (Society for Encouragement of Widow Marriage) in 1865 and worked as its Secretary. He set an example by marrying a widow in 1875. Phule, born in the Mali caste, emerged as a champion of the depressed sections of the society. He was the first Indian to start a school for the untouchables in 1854. He also championed the cause of the liberation of Indian women. In 1851, Phule and his wife started a girls’ school at Poona. By his profound scholarship, Bhandarkar earned the title of ‘Maharshi’ for himself. In the teeth of conservative opposition, he allowed and arranged the marriage of his widow-daughter in 1891. He was one of the very few to strongly advocate Hindu Muslim unity. Paramanand, writing under the pen name of the ‘Political recluse’, was one of the constructive critics of the British administration, besides being a great social reformer.

Ranade was a man of many sided activities, a product of the Elphinstone College, Bombay. He was the Judge of the Bombay High Court during 1891-1901. He held that the caste distinction was the main blot on the Indian social system. He realised that the social reform movement could not move the people unless it assimilated religious reform. Under his guidance the Paramhansa Sabha was reorganised in 1867 under the name Prarthana Samaj. He guided the movement in Maharashtra with intellectual strength and pragmatism till the end of his life. The Prarthana Samaj preached monotheism and denounced priestly domination and caste distinctions. Its activities also spread to South India through the efforts of the Telugu reformer, Veeresalingam. Chiplunkar started his famous Nibandhmala in 1874, a monthly Marathi magazine, devoted to the cause of social reform. Other reformers in Bombay were Naoroji Furdonji, Dadabhai Naoroji and S.S. Bengalee. In 1851, they started a religious association called the Rehnumai Mazdayasan Sabha. It stood for the modernisation of Parsi religion and social customs. It launched a struggle for the introduction and spread of education among women, grant of a legal status to them and for uniform laws of inheritance and marriage for the Parsi community.

Impact of Reform Movement
Raja Rammohan Roy can be regarded as the central figure of India’s awakening for championing the spread of modern education, science and technology and for his relentless fight against many social evils. R.G Bhandarkar and M.G. Ranade carried out their work of religious reforms in Maharashtra through the Prarthana Samaj by propagating inter-caste marriages, freedom from priestly domination and improvement of a lot of women. Swami Dayananda Saraswati founded the Arya Samaj and pleaded for the right of individuals to interpret Vedas and free themselves from the tyranny of priests. Besides all these, the organisation fought against untouchability and caste rigidity as well as worked for promoting modern education. Swami Vivekananda, a great humanist, through his Ramakrishna Mission condemned religious narrow mindedness, advocated free thinking and emphasised on service for the poor. The Theosophical Society, under the guidance of Annie Besant, promoted studies of ancient Indian religions, philosophies and doctrines. Religious reforms among the Muslims were carried out by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan who encouraged Muslims to adopt modern education; and spoke against religious intolerance, ignorance and irrationalism.

Social Reformer
Social reformer is a person who is concerned about humanity and mankind above anything else; a person who wants to change the existing state of things for the better. Every country, in its history, has had numerous bright individuals who would live and work for the progress and upliftment of the downtrodden persons in the society; and due to their efforts, it became possible to abolish several extreme social evils. India is fortunate to have, in its long history, many extraordinary human beings who devoted all their lives for the betterment of the society and for the uplift ment of the downtrodden. A few among them are Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Debendranath Tagore, Atma Ram Pandurang, Mahavdev Govind Ranade, Keshab Chandra Sen, Henry Lui Vivian Derozio, Shah Waliullah Dehlavi, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Baba Amte, Acharya Balshastri Jambhekar, Pandita Ramabai, Gopal Hari Deshmukh Lokahitwari, Savitribai Phule, Jotirao Govind Rao Phule, Veeresalingam, Chembeti Sridharalu Naidu, T. K. Madhavan, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Behramji M. Malabari, Swami Vivekananda, Naoroji Furdonji and Dadabhai Naoraji.

4.2.2 Famous Personalities of Reform Movements and their Contributions Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar

Revered as a Bengali icon, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was a Bengali Sanskrit pundit, educator, social reformer, writer and philanthropist. He was one of the greatest intellectuals and activists of the 19th century. Born on 26 September 1820 to a Kulin Brahmin family at Birsingha in the Midnapore District in Undivided Bengal, Vidyasagar brought about some of the most far-reaching reforms against malpractices by his own community. Vidyasagar made a difference in a period when few men tried to challenge the decadent traditions of the time.

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891) was one of the pillars of Bengal renaissance who managed to continue the social reform movement that was started by Raja Rammohan Roy in the early 1800s. Vidyasagar was a well-known writer, intellectual and above all a staunch supporter of humanity. He had an imposing personality and was revered even by the British authorities of his time. He brought about a revolution in the Bengali education system and refined the way Bengali language was written and taught. His book, ‘Borno Porichoy’ (Introduction to the Letter), is still used as the introductory text to learn Bengali alphabets. The title ‘Vidyasagar’ (ocean of knowledge) was given to him due to his vast knowledge in several subjects.

Contributions of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar

Widow Remarriage
The focus of Vidyasagar’s social reform was women — and he spent his life’s energies trying to ensure an end to the practice of child marriage and initiate widow remarriage. He followed in the great reformist tradition of Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833), and argued, on the basis of scriptures and ancient commentaries, in favour of the remarriage of widows in the same way as Roy did for the abolition of Sati. Vidyasagar wrote two volumes on the mistreatment of widows, which set the tone for major social reform in the state. His earliest effort at social reform, however, came in the second half of 1850. He launched a powerful attack on the practice of marrying off girls aged ten or even younger, pointing to social, ethical, and hygiene issues, and rejecting the validity of the Dharma Shastras that advocated it. He showed that there was no prohibition on widows remarrying in the entire body of ‘Smriti’ literature (the Sutras and the Shastras).

Educational Reforms
Vidyasagar is credited with the role of thoroughly remodelling the medieval scholastic system prevailing in the Sanskrit College and bringing about modern insights into the education system. The first change that Vidyasagar made when he came back to the Sanskrit College as a Professor was to include English and Bengali as the medium of learning, besides Sanskrit. He introduced courses of European History, Philosophy and Science alongside of Vedic scriptures. He encouraged students to pursue these subjects and take away the best from both worlds. He also changed the rules of admission for students in the Sanskrit College allowing non-Brahmin students to enrol in the prestigious institution. He wrote two books ‘Upakara Monika’ and ‘Byakaran Koumudi’, interpreting complex notions of Sanskrit grammar in easy legible Bengali language. He introduced the concepts of Admission fee and tuition fee for the first time in Calcutta. He set up the Normal School for training teachers enabling uniformity in teaching methods. Through his contacts at the deputy magistrate’s office, he helped his students get jobs in government offices.

Campaign against Polygamy
Alongside the campaign for widow remarriage, he campaigned against polygamy. In 1857, a petition for the prohibition of polygamy among Kulin Brahmins was presented to the government with 25,000 signatures, led by the Maharaja of Burdwan. The mutiny of the sepoys resulted in the postponement of action on this petition, but in 1866, Vidyasagar inspired another petition, this time with 21,000 signatures. In the 1870s, the great rationalist, wrote two brilliant critiques of polygamy, arguing to the government that since polygamy was not sanctioned by the sacred texts, there could be no objection to suppressing it by legislation.

Women’s Education
He was a strong supporter of women’s education. He considered education as the key to a woman’s emancipation from the social tyranny she was subject to at the time. He went door to door, pleading with the heads of households to permit their daughters to enrol in school. He established thirty five women’s schools throughout Bengal and was successful in enrolling 1300 students. He set up the Nari Shiksha Bhandar fund to aid in women’s education. He helped John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune establish the Bethune School, India’s first permanent girls’ school. Vidyasagar lived among the Santhal tribal people for the last 18 years of his life in what is now Jharkhand, where he established what may have been India’s first school for Santhal girls. He regularly published pieces for newspapers and periodicals to communicate his thoughts. He was connected to eminent media outlets as Tattwabodhini Patrika, Somprakash, Sarbashubhankari Patrika, and Hindu Patriot.

Other Literary Works
Vidyasagar’s Borna Parichay (an introduction to the Bengali alphabet) is still the first book a Bengali child is gifted even 160 years after it was written. His contribution to the alphabet, translation of several San-skrit books, including Kalidas’s Shakuntala,has helped Bengali literature. He wrote two books which interpreted complex notions of Sanskrit Grammar in Bengali language viz. Upakaramonika and Byakaran Koumudi. He established the Sanskrit Press with an aim to produce printed books at affordable pric-es so that common people could buy them. Raja Ram Mohan Roy

Raja Ram Mohan Roy is considered the pioneer of modern Indian Renaissance for the remarkable reforms he initiated in the 18th and 19th centuries of India. The elements of modernity in him and the break with tradition are of help to discover Rammohan Roy’s image as the ‘Father of Modern lndia’.

Contributions of Raja Ram Mohan Roy

Social Reforms
The abolition of the brutal and inhuman Sati Pratha was Roy’s most prominent contribution. His efforts were also instrumental in eradicating the purdah system and child marriage. Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s name is thus etched forever as a true benefactor of women not just for helping abolish the custom of Sati, but also raising his voice against child marriage and polygamy, while demanding equal inheritance rights for women. He was also a great opponent of the rigid caste divisions of his time. He worked for the improvement of the position of women. He advocated widow remarriage and education of women.

Ram Mohan Roy paved the way to revolutionise the education system in India by establishing Hindu College in 1817 along with David Hare. It later went on to becoming one of the best educational institutions in the country producing some of the best minds in India. His efforts include combining theological doctrines along with modern rational lessons. He established the Anglo-Vedic School in 1822 followed by the Vedanta College in 1826.

In 1828, Ram Mohan Roy formed the Brahmo Samaj, uniting the Brahmos in Calcutta, a group of people, who had no faith in idol-worship and were against the caste restrictions. He looked back to the tradition in search of monotheism, and looked forward to a sort of Protestant reformation within the Hindu milieu. He implied that every religion has a philosophical core, and as for Hinduism, it was Vedanta. The Vedanta provided him with the cultural category while his interpretation of it as monotheistic yielded a comprehensive critique of culture, society and ideology.

Raja’s monotheistic Vedanta provided people with an idea of the paradigms of social change; why one paradigm is better than another. It enabled people to consider the comparative adequacy of ways of life that might claim people’s allegiance. In such humanitarian vision lies Raja’s lure and his share in India’s modernity. He stressed on rationalism and modern scientific approach.

Journalistic Contributions
Ram Mohan Roy was a staunch supporter of free speech and expression. He fought for the rights of the vernacular press. He also brought out a newspaper in Persian called ‘Mirat Ul- Akhbar’ (the Mirror of News) and a Bengali weekly called ‘Sambad Kaumudi’ (the Moon of Intelligence). Raja Ram Mohan Roy and his Brahmo Samaj played a vital role in awakening Indian society to the pressing issues plaguing society at that time and also was the forerunner of all social, religious and political movements that happened in the country.


In the nineteenth century, the women’s question was the centre of all socio-religious reform movements. The reformist and renaissance ideals of the enlightenment in Europe have usually been cited by historians as the inspiration for social reforms initiated in nineteenth century India.

Under socio-religious reform movements, reformers raised their voice against the evil practices in Indian society towards women, which include sati, child marriage, prohibition of widow remarriage, polygamy, dowry and devadasi system. Educated women who were now becoming conscious of their natural rights, also came forward to liberate the rest of the women.

Role of Indian Women in Socio Religious Reform Movements of Nineteenth Century
Many women reformers such as Pandita Ramabai also helped the cause of women’s uplift. She advocated women’s education and shed light on the plight of child brides and child widows. She founded the Arya Mahila Sabha, which is known as the first feminist organisation in India. Its aim was to provide a support network for newly educated women. She set up Mukti Mission for young widows, and Krupa Sadan and Sharada Sadan in 1889 for destitute women. She founded the Sharada Sadan, a school for widows. Her greatest legacy was her effort, the first in India, to educate widows.

Novelists like Nirupama Devi and Anurupa Devi started getting referred to in the Bengali literary circles and were even given memberships of literary clubs which were dominated by men. Imitating Ramabai’s Arya Mahila Samaj, elite women formed similar sectarian and local organisations. In 1886, Swarnakumari Debi, Rabindranath Tagore’s sister, started Sakhi Samiti (Women’s Friendship League) to spread knowledge among women and widows. Lilabati Mitra helped Bidyasagar in the 1890s to perform widow remarriages by sheltering willing grooms. Kamini Roy was active in the Ilbert Bill agitation, organising girls at the Bethune School to hold meetings and wear badges supporting the Bill. She worked with Banga Mahila Samiti in their social reform projects. She was a feminist at an age when merely getting educated was a taboo for a woman. Savitribhai Phule along with her husband founded the first girls school in Pune run by native Indians at Bhide Wada in 1848. She worked to abolish discrimination and unfair treatment of people based on caste and gender.

Gowri Lakshmi Bai
In Kerala by a Royal Proclamation in 1812, she abolished the purchase and sale of all slaves and granted them independence excepting those attached to the soil for agricultural purposes. Castes like the Ezhavas, Kaniyans, etc., were given independence from their Lords. A restriction put on the Sudras and others regarding the wearing of gold and silver ornaments was removed.

Women’s Organisations
The primary goals of most women’s associations were to improve women’s literacy and health by abolishing child marriage, enforced widowhood and purdah. By the late nineteenth century several women’s organisations began to be formed in several parts of India, such as the Banga Mahila Samaj and the Aghorekamini Nari Samiti in Bengal, the Satara Abalonnati Sabha in Maharashtra, the Mahila Seva Samaj in Bangalore, etc.

Some of these were practical social reform movements and others were discussion platforms for women. Education was foremost on their list, followed by child marriage and the problems of widows and dowry. Aghorekamini Nari Samiti was based on the principle of self help and trained women to attend to the sick and spread education amongst themselves. Aghorekamini Nari Samiti mobilised opinions against the ill-treatment of women workers by the tea planters.

Banga Mahila Vidyalaya(Bengali Women’s College)
It was the first women’s liberal arts college in India. Established at Kolkata in 1876, by the liberal section of the Brahma Samaj, it was the successor of Hindu Mahila Vidyalaya (School of Hindu Women) set up in 1873 by Annette Akroyd. Banga Mahila Vidy-alaya was merged with Bethune College in 1878. Therefore, women played a significant role in bringing out social reforms when the society was still largely conservative. Slowly more women got included in the movement and ultimately participated in huge num-bers in the Indian freedom struggle as well.


  • Characteristics and impact of social reform movements
  • Important social reformers
  • Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s contribution
  • Widow remarriage
  • Educational reforms
  • Campaign against polygamy
  • Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s social reforms
  • Important women reformers and movements

Objective type questions

  1. Who is called the father of Modern India?
  2. What were the major issues of the socio-religious reform movements of the 19th century?
  3. What is the famous work of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar used to teach Bengali alphabet?
  4. In which year Brahma Samaj was established?
  5. What was the Persian newspaper started by Raja Ram Mohan Roy?
  6. What is known as the first feminist organisation in India?
  7. Who started Sakhi Samiti?

Answer to Objective type questions

  1. Raja Ram Mohan Roy
  2. Sati, infanticide, child marriage, casteism and untouchability
  3. Bornoporichoy
  4. 1828
  5. ‘Mirat Ul- Akhbar’ (the Mirror of News)
  6. Arya Mahila Sabha
  7. Swarnakumari Deb


  1. Analyse the contributions of Raja Ram Mohan Roy in the emancipation of wom-en.
  2. Evaluate the importance of women reformers in the history of modern India.
  3. Discuss the contributions of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar as a social reformer in India.
  4. Explain the difference between reformist and revivalist movements.

Suggested Reading

  1. Desai, A.R, Social Background of Indian Nationalism, Popular Prakashan, Mum-bai, 2005.
  2. Sarkar, Sumit, Modern India, 1885-1947, Delhi:Macmillian, 1985.
  3. Chand, Tara, History of Freedom movement in India. Publication Division, 1961.
  4. Desai, A.R, Peasant Struggles in India, Delhi: OUP, 1979.
  5. Bandyopadhyay, Sekhar, From Plassey to Partition and After: A History of Mod-ern India, Orient Blackswan, 2014.
  6. Chandra, Bipan, Communalism in Modern India, 2nd edition, Delhi:Vikas, 1987.
  7. Chandra, Bipin, Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India, Delhi: Har-Anand, 2010.
  8. Chandra Bipan, India’s Struggle for Independence, Penguin Books, 1988.
  9. Dube, Ishita Banerjee, A History of Modern India, Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2015.