Forerunners of a divine multitude, / Out of the paths of the morning star they came / Into the little room of mortal life. / I saw them cross the twilight of an age / The sun-eyed children of a marvellous dawn…” Sri Aurobindo’s verses from the epic Savitri (Book III, Canto 4) present a metaphysical poetic context to the age that gave us Raja Rammohun Roy, Mahatma Rajnarain Basu, Bankimchandra Chatterjee, Keshub Chandra Sen, Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, and Swami Dayanand Saraswati, all of whom, Sri Aurobindo included, contributed to the intellectual foundations of the freedom struggle.
With the commencement of the 200th birth anniversary celebrations of Swami Dayanand, the militant monk born in Kathiawad in 1824, it is time to realize how these giants stood on each other’s shoulders and contributed to the genesis and development of nationalism in the 19th and 20th century.
The story begins with Raja Rammohun Roy who remains the pioneer from Bengal; his 250th birth anniversary commemorations began in 2022. Historians go so far as to say modern India owes to Raja Rammohun Roy the vision and the general orientation of her social, political and spiritual evolution. This powerfully sweeping statement is tagged with Rabindranath Tagore’s description that Roy was “the man who is to represent in his life the complete significance of the spirit and the mission of the land to which he belonged.”
The key to the pioneering work of Rammohun Roy lay in his restoration of the traditional spiritual teachings of the Vedanta. From the age of 11, when he was in Benaras studying Sanskrit and sacred texts, Roy began his journey to absorb the principles of Vedanta. It was not merely a philosophical or scholarly quest; it was a life-transforming and life-affirming journey which culminated in the formation of the Brahma Sabha in 1828, which gave back to the Brahmanical order a pure and pristine vision of the Vedas. The Sabha evolved into the Brahmo Samaj by 1830.
Raja Rammohun Roy was acutely aware of global events and their revolutionary impact. In the aftermath of the American and French revolutions, the clarion calls for equality and liberty made him a global thinker-activist ready to denounce social injustices perpetuated by Hindu orthodoxy. In his philosophical bearings and his activism, he was able to join these dots which were spread across historical time and geographical space. His ideals, ideas and ideology reveal a unique synchronicity for he remained up-to-date with British and French texts on philosophy and politics, yet never lost sight of Vedantic principles of the unity of God and a rejection of social-religious injustices and impurities.
Roy’s passion for education exemplified this achievement. While he worked to endow the country with Western education, knowing that English was the language for opening the doors of modernism, he undertook the translation of Sanskrit texts in English and Bangla for the use of the common man. In Roy’s patriotism, we discern the fundamental principles of justice and security for the individual and the community which he considered sacrosanct.
Often hailed as a Maharishi or Mahatma, it was Rajnarain Basu who now upheld the patriotic mission of Roy. His father, Nandakishore Basu had been a disciple and secretary of Rammohun Roy. The flaming torch of patriotism, learning and reform was now in equally strong hands. Maharishi Rajnarain and Devendranath Tagore in the 1840s and 1850s set about structuring the Brahmo religion, highlighting the spiritual essence of Hinduism in Brahmo Samaj.
“Religion is not an occasional handling of the feelings, it is life itself,” said Rajnarain Basu, adding “Live constantly in an ambience of love, since religion is nothing but love.” These quotes of Mahatma Rajnarain, from a biography in Bangla, were heard once again, more than half a century later, when the other Mahatma from Kathiawad gave a similar message of love, peace, and nonviolence to ultimately become the ‘Father of the Nation’.
Swami Dayanand Saraswati, like Rammohun Roy, was disillusioned by the abuse of power in the name of religion, and social practices based on ignorance and exploitation. He sought the true spiritual life from Hindu scriptures and set about reviving Vedic teachings. His mission was to solve contemporary problems, be they religious, social, political, or cultural through Vedic principles. Swami Dayanand worked to regenerate the Indian nation, just as the Brahmo Samaj had begun in Bengal.
In Rig-vedadi-bhashya-bhumika or ‘Introduction to the commentaries of the Rigveda’, Swami Dayanand interpreted Vedic verses in the light of burning issues of the day, namely colonial exploitation. He underscored the fundamental unity of the Indian people despite the plurality of languages, religious sects, social mores, and customs which were bewildering. Through its quest for political independence, however fierce that struggle may be, he wanted India to reveal a new spiritual light for all of humanity.
Once again, education came to the fore. There was an arduous programme of intellectual studies that Swamiji recommended. Spread over 22 years, as an obligatory educational system for all children based on the Vedic model of gurukula, it included:
1) Phonetics; the grammar of Panini and Mahabhashya of Patanjali for 3 years;
2) Study of Nirukta or Vedic lexicon for 8 months;
3) Pingala and mathematical studies for 4 months;
4) The Laws of Manu and the Epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata for 1 year;
5) The six darshana of Indian philosophy and the ten main Upanishads for 2 years;
6) All the four Vedas and the supplementary Brahmanas for 6 years;
7) Ayurveda, including medical and surgical treatises for 4 years;
8) Music, arithmetic, algebra, geometry, geography, geology, and astronomy for 3 years;
9) Economics, civil policies and military protections for 2 years.
Swami Dayanand was convinced that as physical activities of students in the Gurukuls grow, the intellect becomes subtle and is able understand the nuances of Vedic thought and philosophy. He foresaw students having access to the highest knowledge before they found a man or woman of their choice and began a family to emerge as responsible citizens. The personal integrity, character and health of the teachers was equally, if not more, important. They should have the truthfulness in words, in acts and thoughts, decorum, the selfcontrol, sweetness of conduct, he said.
Historians and chroniclers have seen in Swamiji’s Gurukula educational system the seeds of the educational community founded by Mahatma Gandhi at Sabarmati; at Santiniketan and Visvabharati, the school and university founded by Tagore; and at Pondicherry, the International Centre of Education founded by the Mother based on Sri Aurobindo’s teachings.
Swami Dayanand, after journeys across the length and breadth of India, emphasized on Hindi as the national language to be accepted by all; and the Vedas as the source of people’s religious life.
These convictions went hand in hand with his anti-colonial, anti-establishment campaigns. However powerful the sovereign power, he was not ready to face their humiliation. It was the people who were sovereign; and their president or head had to be elected by universal suffrage.
Leaders, or heads of the people, should demonstrate their learning and knowledge, besides their human qualities, he preached in public meetings. Three colleges, comprising elected citizens, would form the State: the legislative college, the religious college, and the college of fine arts and sciences. Swamiji presented the Vedic guidelines and the movement for national emancipation.
On 10 April 1875 was established the Society of the Men with Higher Principles (the Arya Samaj) by Swami Dayanand in Bombay. In its first Charter, Swami Dayanand declared the well-being of the whole humanity will be the objective of the Samaja. The objective was to improve the physical, spiritual, and social conditions of humanity.
In Satyartha Prakash (The Light of the Truth), Swami Dayanand wrote: “I believe in a religion based on all-embracing universal principles, that have always been accepted as truths by mankind and will continue to be obeyed down the ages to come. I call this the Eternal Primitive Religion: because it is above the hostility of all human beliefs…”
Years later Sri Aurobindo evaluated Swami Dayanand’s contributions and said that he was the personification of pure energy, the highest clarity, the discerning perspicacity, a master and a dominant figure in one word, herald of the Vedic World. Swamiji became the very symbol of the Extremist ideal for militant patriots of the future.
(The writer is a researcher- writer on history and heritage issues and former deputy curator of Pradhanmantri Sanghralaya)