Rajarshi Shahu Maharaj & his tryst with the Arya Samaj

Lessons for our times

Credit : Indie Journal


Few years back, there was an attack on Swami Agnivesh, an Arya Samaj Sanyasi and a Human Rights Activist. Some youths from Hindu Nationalist organizations publicly humiliated him because he continuously spoke against the present ruling party, their parent organisation and its politics. For some people, it was a shock because many of the Arya Samajists are now part and parcel of the Hindu Nationalist politics. But from the late Nineteenth century, there is a faction within it, which is qualitatively different from the Hindu Nationalist one. Popularly, it is known that Arya Samaj is revivalist in theory and extremist in praxis but within Arya Samaj, there was a difference of opinions and politics. This makes it very interesting to understand the historical complexity of the Arya Samaj. 

It is impossible to understand the history of modern Maharashtra without studying Shahu Maharaj. He played a crucial role in social, religious, intellectual and political churning of modern Maharashtra. He also supported and patronized many individuals, institutes and people's movements, which created a space for the democratization of social, religious and political life of Maharashtra. He was a king of the princely state of Kolhapur but there were no geographical or territorial limitations to Shahu's legacy. Because of his social, religious, and political positions and opinions, his popularity spread equally in North India as well as South India. 

Although the new British empire emerged from a trade organization, it was related to trade and other activities and that colonial regime was unlike the present one in terms of polity. In this British regime, new forms of state, education systems, printing press, spread of printed books, newspapers, Christian missionaries and the indigenous people came together and formed a system where new social and cultural values flourished. These processes gave a new perspective to the locals to look at the political, religious, economic and cultural sides of society, which triggered political and mental transformations. (Prabhudesai, 2010, p- 70-71)

Both Shahu Maharaj and Arya Samaj were products of discursive practices and socio-religious and intellectual churning of colonial situations. There are three aims of this paper. First is to 'study and understand the intellectual background of Shahu Maharaj'. The second objective is to 'study and understand the nature of relationship between Shahu Maharaj and Arya Samaj' and lastly, 'to study and understand how did Shahu Maharaj used and interpreted Arya samaj for his socio-religious and political cause.'


A brief history of Arya Samaj 

The Arya Samaj was founded by Swami Dayanand Saraswati who was originally Mulji Shankar Karsonji Tiwari. He was born in 1824 at Tankara in the princely state of Kathiawad in the Brahmin Caste. Before him, in Bombay presidency, Karsonji Mulji who was from the Gujarati Bania community who started social reform within his community. 

He published a tract ‘Ved Dharma’ in which he ‘advocated sweeping away of all later accretions to Hinduism, such as Idol and Guru worship and returning to the simple religion of Vedas, the true ‘Arya Dharma’. Karsondas Mulji was the person who actually created the background for the formation of the Arya samaj in Bombay (Sunthankar,1993,106). After the death of Karsondas Mulji, Lakhimdas Khimji, a rich cotton merchant, who continued the mission of Karsondas Mulji. Khimji established the ‘Ved Sabha’ in Bombay with the object of reviving Vedic religion. 

In 1874, Lakhimdas Khimji invited Dayanand Saraswati, before which, Dayanand Sarasawati had lived in and visited various North Indian places. At the age of 21, he fled from his parental house to escape the bondage of marriage. From 1845 to 1860, he wandered from place to place in search of a Guru who would give him true knowledge. Towards the end of 1860, he found a person from whom he learned Sanskrit works, especially those of Panini and Patanjali. 

In 1863 Dayanand resumed his wanderings, but this time around, he began preaching the teachings of Vedas. He attacked 'superstitions' like idolatry and pilgrimages; He denounced the Bhagavata Purana as 'immoral' (Lederle, 1976, 213). In 1869, he entered the debate on the true meaning of the Shastras (scriptures) with 300 learned shastris and the leaders of Hindu theology and orthodoxy. (Sunthankar, 1993, 108) In 1872, he went to Calcutta where he met Devendranath Tagore and Keshav Chandra Sen. 



In 1874, Dayanand published his main work, 'Satyarthaprakasha' (The Elucidation of True principle). In the same year, he visited Bombay and came in close contact with the Prarthana Samaj. He recognized the good works of both Prarthana and Brahmo Samaj, but kept distance from them. He denounced Vaishnavism, the Narayan Cult, as 'opposed to the essential truth of Vedas'. He went on a tour of Gujarat, to 'deliver the message of the Vedas'. After his return to Bombay in April 1875, he founded the ‘Arya Samaj’ with the objective of religious and social reform of the authority of the Vedas. 

The Prarthana Samaj refused to believe in any sacred book as revealed by God but in the matters of rejection of idolatry, support of widow remarriages and social reforms, it was with Dayanand. Therefore, Ranade invited Dayanand Sarasawati to Pune in July 1875. In two months, Swami Dayanand delivered Fifteen lectures in Pune. He was powerful orator and he attracted a large audience. The orthodox section denounced him as the enemy of the Hindu religion and the country, because he was preaching the cause of untouchables, social justice and social equality. He stood for the restoration of the Vedic Aryan society. He proclaimed the revelatory character of the four Vedic Samhitas and wanted to solve the problems of the common life in accordance with Vedic canons. He was an uncompromising monotheist and rejected all other scriptures except the Vedas. From the very beginning, the ‘primary object’ of the Arya Samaj was to do good to the world by improving the physical, spiritual, and social condition of mankind. 

Dayanand Sarasawati died in 1883, and within a few years, controversy and difference of opinions grew between the conservative and the progressive parties within Samaj. The progressives stood for modern education, freedom in choosing one's diet, and freedom in interpreting the teachings of the founder. The Conservatives insisted on education on the traditional lines, vegetarianism, on a faith based on the word of the Vedas as interpreted by Dayanand (Lederle, P- 216). 

In the first and second decades of Twentieth century, many Arya Samajists were attracted towards Marxism and synthesized Dayanand with Marx on one hand and on the other hand, the Samaj started various works in different parts of India like untouchability eradication and purification rites. In North India, groups influenced by the Arya Samaj, like the Shraddhananda Dalituddhar Sabha (1921), All India Achhutodhar Committee, Panjab Achhut Udhar Mandal (1926), Jat Pat Todak Mandal (1922), Dalituddhar Mandal (1923) and Dayanand Dalituddhar Mandal (1925) were working in for the upliftment of the untouchables. The South Indian scenario was slightly different, but there was also strong influence of the Arya Samaj. Persons like Sundru Venkaiah and Bhagya Reddy were deeply influenced by Arya Samaj. In other words, the Arya Samaj was working in untouchable communities, with considerable participation of untouchable communities in their works. 

Although the Arya Samaj was revivalist, while advocating social reforms it also imagined its roots in tradition. Hence, people were attracted towards it because of its blend of modernity and tradition. 

Shahu Maharaj also had a similar rationale. On one hand, he was loyal to the British Raj and on the other, he wanted to overthrow the despotic rule of the brahminns on the bahujan masses. Here, Arya Samaj was perfectly suitable for Shahu Maharaj because the conservative faction of the Arya Samaj too was in favor of the British Raj and very critical of Brahmanism. 


Vedokta Controversy and Shahu’s personal interaction with Arya Samaj

In the scholarship on Shahu, there are some differences of opinion about his understanding of social situations and social problems. Some people argue that since before the Vedokta episode, he knew the dominance of the Brahmins in administration. So he systemically appointed non-Brahmins in his administration. Some people argue that after the Vedokta episode, he accepted a new social policy and slowly changed the sociology of his administration. 

The Vedokta controversy was a turning point for Shahu as he realised the Brahmanical attitude of castesupremacy. The royal Priest denied Shahu Maharaj vedic rites because he believed that Shahu was not Kshatriya. According to Brahmanical scripture, in Kaliyuga, there are only two Varnas. One, the Brahmin and the rest are Shudras. 



Reacting to it, Shahu Maharaj confiscated the rights and watan (royal land) of the Priest. Brahmins from and outside Kolhapur, collectively started a campaign against Shahu Maharaj. They spread misinformation and disinformation about Shahu Maharaj and filed a suit against him in the court of the Viceroy of India. In his actions, Shahu Maharaj had started a struggle against despotism of the Brahmins in all fields of life, like religion, society, law, administration, and economic aspects and gave patronage to various societies like the Satyashodhak Samaj, the Theosophical Society, the Parthana Samaj and the Arya Samaj. 

It does not mean that the Arya Samaj was unknown to Shahu before the Vedokta episode. In his student life, when he was on an educational tour of North India, the Arya Samaj had honored him at Mathura. In 1902, Pratap Singh Maharaj of Idhar introduced him to the philosophy and principles of Arya Samaj. When the Brahmins of Maharashtra declared him a Shudra and denied him Vedic rights, it was obvious for Shahu Maharaj to be attracted towards the message of the Arya Samaj, which believed everyone had the rights to Vedic rituals and rites (Sanskars), though he never declared himself as an Arya Samajist till 1917.


The fight against Brahmin bureaucracy and monopoly

In 1916-17, Shahu Maharaj acted against the Brahmin bureaucracy and publicly declared his affiliations to Arya Samaj. In 1914, Bal Gangadhar Tilak had started the home rule movement and people from all parts of India had participated in it. There was popular unrest against the British Raj. It resulted in a declaration of political reforms. 

At the time, there was Brahmin dominance within the Congress, hence non-Brahmin leaders declared that with political reforms, Brahminism will be more powerful and it will create an obstacle in the progress of the Non Brahmins. There was a huge impetus for the non-Bramhin political movement. In December 1917, Shahu met Montague and in their discussion, he made it clear that “it is necessary to introduce compulsory primary education In India. It is also necessary in order for home rule to be successful, that the caste system must disappear and inter-marriages to should happen. Otherwise, there is the fear of the development of an oligarchy.” (Pawar, 2019, P. 1685) 

Shahu also submitted a testimony to the Montague -Chelmsford Committee. In it he wrote, “The masses of this presidency, have now realized that five monsters are creating problems in the progress of the Majority. They are following - 1. Village Accountant (Kulkarni) 2. Brahmin Moneylender 3. Brahmin Village Schoolmaster and their Professor brothers of the City 4. Brahman Bureaucrats and 5. The village Brahmin Priest.” 

There was a dominance and hegemony of Brahmins in religious, political, social, administrative, economic, and educational fields. Therefore, Shahu reserved 50% seats for backward communities and started nearly 20 hostels for various castes. He established the ‘Shivaji Vedic School’ for democratization of the Vedic knowledge and he also wanted to trained non-Brahmins as Vedic priests. Through this he wanted to challenge the Brahmanical monopoly over the Vedas.  

Arya Samajists believed that in Vedas, there was no caste discrimination, no gender discrimination, no untouchability and it proposed adult marriages. Hence, all Arya Samajists too, supported intercaste marriages, widow remarriages and the education of women. They were also against caste discrimination and other superstitious practices.  Hence, after 1917, Shahu Maharaj passed many laws for the upliftment of  untouchable, nomadic, non-Brahmin communities and the female subaltern masses through examples such as the Act of Free and Compulsory Primary education (1917), Widow remarriage act (1917), End of Balutedari (1918), Repeal of Kulkarni Watan (1918),  Intercaste and Interreligious marriages and Sanctioning of registered marriage act (1919), Act relating to protection of Harassment of Women (1919), Divorce act (1919), Order on prohibition of Untouchability practice (1919), Illegitimate Childrens rights and Devadasi Prohibition act (1920). 

Shahu Maharaj in his speech of 14 December 1918 said that “Everybody should have the freedom of practice and thoughts. The Arya Samaj allowed it but the Brahminical Hindu Dharma does not permit it. Hence the Brahminical Hindu Dharma is creating a divide among the people and Arya dharma is to unite the people.” 

So when people say that Shahu Maharaj accepted the idea of Hindu social justice at that time, they ignore the fact that Shahu Maharaj rejected caste dominance, male dominance and religious dominance which are features of Caste patriarchy or Brahmanical patriarchy. In his thoughts, he synthesized Vedic ideas with liberal modern traditions. Hence, there is no revivalism of old Hindu ideas but imaginations of a new modern society which relates to ideas of citizenship. 


Expectations from the Arya Samaj and Shahu's vision



In other parts of Maharashtra and India, the Arya Samaj participated in communal politics. Especially in the Punjab region, the Arya Samaj started militant campaigns against Muslims and Christians. But in Kolhapur princely state, under the leadership of Shahu Maharaj, the scenario was different. Shahu Maharaj supported not only the Arya Samaj but also Christian and Muslim communities of the princely state. Shahu Maharaj started Muslim hostels and provided financial support for educational progress of the Muslims and also appointed a committee for the Marathi translation of the Quran. 

In 1917, he publicly declared himself an Arya Samajist. Thereforward, he officially spread the principles and philosophy of the Arya Samaj. He made reading of Satyarthaprakasha for a Village accountant (Talati) compulsory. He also gave his educational institutions to the Arya Samaj. 

On 14th December 1918, Shahu delivered a presidential address in the 11th Arya samaj conference, at Navasari (Gujarat). He discussed the problems of society and criticized nature of Brahminism. In same speech, he distinguished Arya dharma from Brahminical Hindu Dharma. He said that ‘through giving importance to touch, Brahmanical Hindu dharma is spreading Caste hatred while the Arya Dharma is inclusive. It is helping in uniting the peoples of different caste, cult, and religion.’ In addition, he said that, ‘In Europe, America and Japan, there is practice of equality as principle. Hence, in their own family, there are people from various religions. Similarly, it is possible to find in one's own family that a husband or wife could be an Arya Samajist and other from a different faith. In one family, brothers could be from different sects or religions.” This was the vision of Shahu Maharaj which was very similar to Jotirao Phule’s ‘Mixed Family’ of all religions.  

In 1920, Shahu said that one day, the Arya Samaj will be an Universal religion. As we observe the death centenary of Shahu Maharaj, that has not been the case. But it surely has branched across the world. The expectations of Shahu Maharaj are still not fulfilled by the Arya Samaj, because in the last hundred years,  the Arya Samaj has itself undergone through several upheavals. 


Lessons for our times 

In our present political situations many things are taking place in the name of religion. On one hand, there is a systematic invisibalisation and demonisation of minorities, exploitation and marginalization of subaltern classes and violence on women is still an everyday practice. In this context, the legacy of Shahu Maharaj is still important, especially his legal, educational and social contributions. 

The Arya samaj had developed a hard and rough critique of religious life of the Hindu society and religious scriptures. But now it is very difficult to speak publicly against inhuman religious practices. You cannot even criticise the content of religious scripture. Last month, there was a big hue and cry over the Ramacharitamanas. Shahu Maharaj invested his entire life for the democratisation of all fields of society. His role in social, religious, and political churning is very important. He was a staunch opponent of caste discrimination and the Brahminical monopoly because he wanted to have social endosmosis for social change. 

In our time, there is a need to learn many things from Shahu Maharaj, especially his values like commitment to social justice, annihilation of caste, liberation of women and religious harmony.