Brahma Sabha was founded by the Hindu reformer rammohun roy (1772-1833) in August 1828. Rammohun's quest for religious truth had led him to study with an open mind the scriptures of all major religions. Thus he had not only studied the Hindu scriptures such as the Vedas in Sanskrit; he also read the Quran in Arabic and the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. His study of different religions convinced him that since every religion had the same end, namely, the moral regeneration of mankind, each stood in need of reinterpretation and reassessment in changing circumstances of the time. Therefore, he thought there was no reason for him to give up Hinduism and accept any other religion. He would accept the universal moral teachings of every religion but without its dogma, ritual and superstition.
After a period of much groping his religious views took some definite shape by 1828 when in August of that year he established the Brahma Sabha (later Brahma Samaj) or Society of God. Although this newborn society had the claim to be regarded as a universal religion, it became and remained a sect of Hinduism. The religious tenets of the new creed were embodied in the Trust Deed of the Brahma Samaj.
The movement for religious reform received a setback after the death of Rammohun Roy in 1833 in England. Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905), the son of Rammohun's close friend and associate dwarkanath tagore (1794-1846), however, soon took the unfinished work upon himself. Under his leadership the Brahma Samaj movement assumed a new height and character.
Debendranath established a society called Tattvabodhini Sabhain 1839 that aimed at propagation of the new creed. He also began to publish a newspaper called tattvabodhini patrika, which while propagating the new faith also advocated the cause of social reform. During this period there was mounting Christian missionary propaganda offensive against Hinduism. The infallibility of the Vedas began to be questioned by the radical section of the Brahma Samaj amongst whom the most prominent was akshay kumar datta (1820-1886).
Hitherto Vedic infallibility had been regarded as the essential part of the Brahma religious creed. Around 1847 the Brahma leaders after a thorough scrutiny were convinced that the doctrine of Vedic infallibility was no longer tenable. Hence attempt was made to reconstruct the Brahma religious creed based on selected passages of the Upanisads which contained monotheistic ideas.
The revised doctrine of the Brahma Samaj was published in 1850 in the form of a book called Brahma Dharma or Religion of the Worshippers of One True God. It is to be noted that though the Vedas were repudiated, the essential Hindu character of the Brahma movement was retained. Debendranath infused a new life into the Brahma Samaj, which had become somewhat moribund after the death of Rammohun Roy. The movement became much more broad-based under the dynamic leadership of keshab chandra sen (1838-1884), who had joined the Samaj in 1857 and within a year became the right hand man of Debendranath.
But differences arose between them on the issues of observations of caste rules and social reforms. While Debendranath's approach was somewhat conservative, Keshab Sen advocated complete abolition of caste distinction and actively promoted the cause of social reform, particularly the movement for female education and emancipation. In 1868 Keshab Chandra Sen formed a new organisation called 'The Brahma Samaj of India'. The other organisation led by Debendranath Tagore came to be known as Adi Brahma Samaj (original or Early Brahma Samaj).
Keshab Sen through his lecture tours of Bombay, Madras and other places spread the message of the Brahma Samaj throughout the greater part of India. It was chiefly at his initiative that the Civil Marriage Act was passed in 1872. It provided for performance of secular marriage without religious rites. The Act also made monogamy obligatory and fixed the minimum age of bride and bridegroom at 14 and 18 respectively.
Keshab Sen redefined the Brahma religious creed introducing certain new elements. He sought to imbibe the essence of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam and produce a grand synthesis. He sincerely believed that 'all religions are true'. He, however, inculcated the popular Hindu conception of Bhakti or devotional fervour in his religious practice and stressed the doctrine of 'God in conscience'. Finally, his religious ideas took some definite shape when in January 1880 he proclaimed his new religious creed called Navavidhan or the 'New Dispensation'. It advocated faith in a living God and the several religions of the world as interpretations, diverse and fragmentary, but mutually complimentary rather than exclusive.
But certain ideas and actions of Keshab Sen caused misgivings among his followers, particularly the young and radical elements. They disliked his zealous profession of loyalty to British Government and also resented his conduct relating to the marriage of his daughter to Raja of Cooch Behar. Both the bride and the bridegroom were minor and Brahmin priests performed the marriage ceremony according to orthodox Hindu rites. This was a flagrant violation of the profession and practice of the Brahma Samaj. Keshab's authoritarian and contradictory behaviour caused irritation among many of his followers.
Eventually led by Sivnath Sastri (1847-1918) and ananda mohan bose (1847-1906) the radical elements broke away from Keshab Sen's Samaj and founded the Sadharan Brahma Samaj in 1878. It framed a constitution based on adult franchise and proclaimed its desire to promote the creation of a universal religion. Despite its lofty pretensions, however, the Brahma movement did not make much headway and began to lose its force. Renascent Hinduism of the late nineteenth century had begun to absorb most of the religious and social ideas of the Brahma Samaj movement. [AF Salahuddin Ahmed]
Bibliography SD Collet, Life and Letters of Raja Rammohun Roy, London, 1900; Sivnath Sastri, History of the Brahmo Samaj, Calcutta, 1911; JN Farquhar, Modern Religious Movements in India, New York, 1915.