In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Reform Hinduism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Intellectual and Moral Foundations of Reform
  • Debates over Strategy
  • The Categories of Reform and Revival
  • Priorities Within Reform and the Woman Question

Hinduism Reform Hinduism
Amiya P. Sen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0121


The expression “Reform Hinduism” may justly be used to describe the new religious, moral, and social order that the Western-educated Hindu intelligentsia attempted to construct in the 19th century. In historical analysis, such attempts ought to be separated from seemingly similar attempts made in the premodern era. Equally, it must be kept apart from the expression “neo-Hinduism” for all that was new in Hinduism was not necessarily reformist in substance or orientation. In hindsight, “Reform Hinduism” appears distinctive on several counts. First, more than ever before, this took Hindus to constitute a unified community and Hinduism to consist of a homogenous system of religious beliefs and practices. Second, it worked upon the presumption that the impulse and direction for reform would originate in the upper castes or classes and subsequently filter down to the lower. Understandably, lower-caste attempts at reform, which had a momentum and motives of their own, tried to overturn such presumptions. Third, modern Hindus tried to foist the very concept of reform upon new theories of social and historical change emanating in the West. Arguably, this indicates the very different order of moral and intellectual challenge confronting the modern Hindu. While revealing a general willingness to change, Reform Hinduism actually represents a very specific and selective reading of change. Thus, not all matters that called for change entered reformist agendas, and arbitrary choices were often made between issues that were otherwise closely related. Reform work was also characterized by deep-seated differences over methods and strategies, making reform a sharply contested paradigm. On the whole though, reformers believed that contemporary Hinduism was a visibly corrupted form of an idyllic Hinduism of the past and that the latter had to be brought back, however selectively. They also emphasized human mediation as a potent instrument of change, taking such mediation to be morally binding upon man. The two issues most widely and fiercely agitated within Reform Hinduism were the status of women and caste. These are important themes by themselves and deserve detailed treatment elsewhere. Of these two issues, only the first has been briefly taken up here. This article focuses on contestations around ideology, motives, and methods adopted by Hindu reformers and their varied critics. On one level, Reform Hinduism was not just about altering beliefs or practices; it also touched upon deeper questions of identity and self-understanding. It consistently sought and deliberated upon a social subject. Thus, “What is Hindu?” became deeply intertwined with “Who is a Hindu?” or “What did it mean to be a Hindu?”

General Overviews

General historical surveys of Hindu reform movements in British India have appeared since the early 20th century, a few based on firsthand information. Farquhar 1964 studies both Hindu and non-Hindu reform, but it is especially valuable for its treatment of Hindu reformist ideas and institutions of the 19th century. A general and somewhat nonproblematic narrative is found in Majumdar 1965. Natarajan 1959 is the first work to be based on consulting the old files of the now rare reformist journal, Indian Social Reformer, edited by the author’s father, Kamakshi Natarajan. However, until recently, Heimsath 1964 has been taken to be the most meticulously researched work and a standard reference volume. This work attempted a general definition of the term reform and situated the history of “Reform Hinduism” within a schematic structure, though the latter is now beginning to look suspect. A collection of informative essays dealing with reform movements in various parts of India is found in Sen 1979. The interested reader may also turn to additional bibliographical leads provided in the section immediately following in which four select regions of India are dealt with in some detail. Closer to our time, a notable work is Jones 1994, valuable for its comprehensive treatment of the subject and a detailed bibliography, arranged by region. More recently, a work that highlights the complex, conceptual nuances with Hindu reform is Sen 2003. A useful survey contextualizing Hindu reform and revival in 19th-century India is Killingley 2003.

  • Farquhar, J. N. Modern Religious Movements in India. 1st Indian ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidas, 1964.

    A work that seeks to classify Hindu reform movements from Evangelist-European perspectives. Allowing for this, Farquhar’s work represents an informative, an insightful, and, on the whole, a good introduction to the subject. First published by Macmillan in 1915.

  • Heimsath, C. H. Indian Nationalism and Hindu Social Reform. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964.

    The work to first raise important questions of definition and to hint at interesting internal differences in approach as between reformers from Bombay and Bengal. It also suggests, albeit only tangentially, how reform led by upper classes aimed at positional and not structural changes. Heimsath’s schematic structure, detailing three successive phases in Reform Hinduism, looks questionable in the light of recent research.

  • Jones, Kenneth W. Socio-Religious Reform Movements in British India. 1st Indian ed. New Cambridge History of India 3. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    A work devised essentially as a text book and covering Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh reform movements in designated geocultural areas within India. Valuable theoretical discussion is found here, especially in the opening and concluding chapters. However, Jones’s categories of “transitional” and “acculturative” movements have been shown to be somewhat unstable and fuzzy. Originally published in 1989.

  • Killingley, Dermot. “Modernity, Reform and Revival.” In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Edited by Gavin Flood, 509–525. Indian reprint. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470998694

    An essay that historicizes Hindu reform and revival in the 19th century but perceptibly leaning toward developments in Bengal and Bombay with little or no reference to other regions; also intellectually engaged with these paradigms.

  • Majumdar, Ramesh C. “Impact of Western Culture.” In British Paramountcy and the Indian Renaissance: Part II, 1818–1905. History and Culture of the Indian People 10. Edited by Ramesh C. Majumdar and Dilip K. Ghose, 89–95. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1965.

    Based on standard sources available at the time with a palpable accent on developments in 19th-century Bengal and the reportedly transformative role of Western education.

  • Natarajan, S. A. A Century of Social Reform. Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1959.

    The pioneering use of the journal Indian Social Reformer allowed Natarajan to reconstruct the history of the National Social Conference, a transregional body attempting organized reform work. On the whole though, it is more useful to consult on reform movements located in Bombay and Madras than in Bengal, the Punjab, or the North West Provinces.

  • Sen, Amiya P., ed. Social and Religious Reform: The Hindus of British India. Debates in Indian History and Society. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    A work made unique by the inclusion of rare, firsthand source material from the 19th century highlighting the inner contestations developing around the concept as well as the practical enactment of reform. The substantive introduction by the editor is especially valuable.

  • Sen, Siba P., ed. Social and Religious Reform Movements. Papers presented at the twelfth annual conference of the Institute of Historical Studies, held at Shillong, India, October 1974. Calcutta: Institute of Historical Studies, 1979.

    Includes detailed accounts of various regional movements attempting reform. The work is especially useful for its treatment of areas falling outside the all-too-familiar terrain of Bengal, Bombay, and Madras.

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