Role of the Brahmo Samaj in social movements aimed at improving the position of Women in Bengal
The position of women in society as a topic of discussion can more often than not, be summarised into one single word – abysmal. The overwhelming presence that patriarchal societies possess, across the globe is arguably the first and foremost reason for this to be the case. Exceptions of course do show themselves to us in the form of matriarchal societies but in a massive, diverse and culturally rich country like India, there are only a minor handful, of which the Khasi tribe in Meghalaya is one. This abysmal position that women usually held was no different than the one they held in Indian societies, including Bengal. The Brahmo Samaj was established in 1828 by Raja Rammohan Roy in Bengal. The underlying purpose behind this was to purify Hinduism and propagate the concept of monotheism. While this was their goal, they were open to the teachings and practices of other religions. The foundations or pillars for their ideas were rationalism and primarily the Vedas and Upanishads. The untimely death of Rammohan Roy in 1833 was a major setback for the Brahmo Samaj mission. It was only in 1842 with the merging of Debendranath Tagore’s Tattvabodhini Sabha, that the Brahmo Samaj got back its vigour. He prioritised bringing in certain fundamental changes like supporting widow remarriage, abolishing polygamy, giving importance to women’s education and improving the conditions of peasants. This essay will discuss at length the key features and actions undertaken by the Brahmo Samaj through these changes and other such actions that were directly aimed at affecting the position of women in Bengal, its effectiveness and a brief critique on the same. While there are many sub-samitis and seceded groups that worked on certain reforms, all would have to be attributed to the original Brahmo Samaj started in 1828.
While we have established the position of women in Indian society as abysmal, the status of widows was even worse. In order to better the situation that widowed women would suffer, the Brahmo Samaj advocated for the remarriage of widows. Although there were legislative acts in favour of widow remarriage in 1856, it was the prejudices against it in the Hindu community that the Brahmo Samaj aimed to tackle. To propagate their views further, many men of age within the Samaj married widows and also supported unmarried women who are also treated poorly. Caste however was neither a discriminating factor when it came to widow remarriage, nor the actions of the Brahmo Samaj. Often, widows of lower castes were married off for economic stability but the upper caste girls had limited options as they could not marry men of a lower caste and it was seen as a low status in society if a man was to marry a widow. Two stereotypes persisted, one that widow remarriage was prohibited in Hindu society and that remarriage in itself was widely practised. Although this was contradictory, the truth lay somewhere in between where only the uppermost castes prohibited remarriage and that the actual occurrence of remarriage was quite scarce. Numerous tribal communities allowed widow remarriage. One of the greatest failures of the Widow’s Remarriage act was that it failed to provide proprietary rights over to the widow which was inherently one of the more important issues faced by them. This particular problem of proprietary rights comes all the way from the Vedic age where women enjoyed more freedoms and were given better educations (Malik, 2013). One important critique one could point out in the actions of the Brahmo Samaj is that this problem was particularly widespread only in the upper castes and for them to divert time and resources to tackling this prejudice goes against their pillar of belief involving the non-recognition of the Hindu caste system.
Sati as a custom was only a facet within the Kshatriyas but soon the Brahmanas started giving it importance as they also wished to practise this. Widows now were faced with an even more inhumane problem than being unable to remarry. Some widows, by virtue of them being young, would not have even consummated their marriage before they became widows. For this reason, their sexuality was quashed through rigorous prayers. Unwarranted sexual advances were made by their male relatives, hence the age old practice of victim blaming takes the forefront and the sexuality of widows were seen as a constant threat, attempting to ‘corrupt’ men. Lack of economic stability, treating them as taboo and curtailing their freedoms to great extent led to many preferring to carry out the practice of sati as opposed to live the tiresome life of a widow. Social reformers were the first to challenge the tradition of subordinating women and fought to give them respectable levels of status and dignity. The Brahmo Samaj created spaces for women to socialise and pursue an education. At the time that they were formed, the practices of Sati and female foeticide were at their highest and were often glorified (Malik, 2013). Raja Rammohan Roy’s first mission of social reform was to abolish the act of Sati and his relentless efforts led to this on 4th December 1829. This however did not deter the Hindus, which is another criticism one can view in the social reform movement for women- where the legislation was viewed as the goal but had little to no effect in the actual practice of sati. This showcases a lack of awareness and possibly a lack of the female perspective on the issue to see where the problems in society regarding this really lies.
Education of women, especially widows, would have ideally been a better solution to have been pursued by the Brahmo Samaj. During the leadership of Keshub Chandra Sen, the emphasis on female education increased immensely. Theology was taught to women and men on a weekly basis in the form of lectures and the popularity of this led to the formation of numerous branches. Soon they started teaching in Bengali, the local language, to be accessible to more individuals. The Brahmo Bandhu Sabha was set up in order to specifically spread education to women. The formation of prayer meetings and other establishments gave more traction to the cause of female education. Monthly journals in Bengali specifically for women were published and distributed, according to The Brahmo Samaj(n.d.). While this was a step in the right direction, it was a bit later than it should have been.
Child marriage was also a notorious issue that was prevalent in society. Again, it was Keshab Chandra Sen who went relentlessly to the British government to legislate provisions to protect girls below the age of 14 from the institution of marriage. The Special Marriage act in 1872 also made polygamy illegal, allowed inter-religious and inter-caste marriage as well as made provisions for divorce, something that was arguably way ahead of its time. Possibly the best executed legislative reform by the Brahmo Samaj would have to be this Act. However, Keshab Chandra Sen himself went ahead and married his underage daughter to a Hindu man. This caused major backlash and severe rifts within the Brahmo Samaj factions and slowed down the process of social reform.
The Bengal Renaissance had a huge role to play in changing the perception of women in society, especially the Hindu women. This ideological change can be heavily attributed to the efforts of the Brahmo Samaj. The Mahila Samiti was established in the year 1885-86, by Hemanta Kumari and other women of the Brahmo Samaj and their liberal approach boosted the morals of their followers. Some programs taken up by the samiti were to generate inquisitivity and social awareness, to inculcate the habit of reading and to work on helping the needy. The Brahmo Samaj provided space for this Samiti to meet and establish a library where they would convene to discuss ongoing affairs in various spheres. The Samaj used to organise numerous Sunday school activities to teach both boys and girls numerous subjects and tell them important and relevant stories to the reformation of Indian society. The education of the people of Shillong was also thanks to the Brahmos. The ladies were specifically working towards developing the programmes. The Brahmo Samaj highlighted that there was a need for these social reforms and organisational activities across varying communities across Bengal. There was an obvious suppression of women within the Hindu caste system and any attempts to attack this traditional perspective about the freedom of women, it would lead to a success. The context within Bengal was shared throughout the nation. Participating in activities of the Samaj was a liberating activity for women and the Samaj was successful in propagating this to as many women as possible across Bengal. On a smaller scale, one can view the Brahmo Samaj as a movement that had a deeper impact which had the goal of granting women their freedom for societal expectations, traditional beliefs and stereotypes (Chaudhuri & Chakrabarti, 1998).
Polygamy is the practice of having multiple wives at one time. With respect to polygamy, all religions had the same, common understanding that monogamy was the norm of the institution of marriage but the practice of polygamy would be allowed under certain circumstances that were often specified. Hindu husbands were believed to have been allowed to marry another woman during the lifetime of his wife, if and only if there was a strong enough justification for practising this polygamy. The British, after constant efforts by the Brahmo Samaj, attempted to change the idea of polygamy in Indian society and how marriage was practised. The Indian Penal Code banned polygamy in 1860.
Although this essay is dealing with the social reform movements in the 19th century, it is important to look at how these events and movements all come together to better the status and position of women in society. The platform that the Brahmo Samaj gave for reforming societal norms and expectations, altering widespread perceptions and empowering women is extremely understated and the importance can never be diminished. Even if the efforts of the Brahmo Samaj went completely in vain, the public display of their efforts would have been enough for other proactive members of society to take up the mantle of reform movement – something that India sorely needed in the 18th and 19th century. Not only was Bengal benefitting from this, but the whole of India took note of the brave reform movements that were undertaken by various factions of the Samaj. It is with great respect that Raja Rammohan Roy is referred to as the father of the reform movements – social, religious and political.
The efforts of the Brahmo Samaj at mobilising efforts from both men and women to better the position and status of women in Bengal are beyond excellent. Although there are minor criticisms along the way, there is no other avenue for India to have progressed from their regressive outlooks and narrow perspectives. India is a developing nation today only because of the social reform movements in the centuries preceding us. Without them, it is very possible that India might have remained an underdeveloped nation still reeling from the aftermath of the British colonial rule, or worse still, continuing to be under their rule. The education of women seems like the simple solution to almost all the problems that were faced by them. While it may seem that straightforward, it is not liberating in the slightest. The pressure and undue influences experienced by them through social currents and norms cannot be dismissed no matter the amount of education that is inculcated into them. Education on a large scale followed by actual reform movements and efforts towards ending regressive practices would be the ideal way to go forward when changing perceptions within society is the need of the hour. These Bengal reform movements propelled India as a whole to where we are today and we must take inspiration from the Brahmo Samaj and go against the common narrative.
Malik, V. (2013). Problems of Widow Remarriage in India: A Study. Journal of Business Management & SOcial Sciences Research , 2(2), 23–31. https://d1wqtxts1xzle7.cloudfront.net/33256925/1142M-with-cover-page-v2.pdf
Impact on Education. (n.d.). The Brahmo Samaj. Retrieved December 12, 2021, from https://www.thebrahmosamaj.net/impact/educationalimpact.html
Chaudhuri, S., & Chakrabarti, S. (1998). Emancipation of Women: A Note on the Brahmo Samaj. Social Movements in North-East India, 96. https://books.google.co.in/books