The concept of monotheism is taken to mean belief in just one god, deity, the creator. This is contrasted with polytheism which belief in many gods, as well as atheism which is denial of such a supernatural being. But is it just so simple? Has this monotheist narrative now spilled over into what we would regard as the secular sphere, the daily life of people who are devoid of religious beliefs?
This may seem like a far proposition but as we examine matters closely we find that the monotheist discourse saturates everything from politics, economics to science fiction. Society is geared to believe in the ultimate redemption by a messiah figure who will cleanse the world of evil.
This could be the cult leader, the charismatic politician, the self-help guru, or even the superhero from comics. Along with the messianic eschatology there is the belief in the future being progress, something unique to cultures shaped by monotheism which have a linear sense of time, as opposed to a cyclical one.
Ironically in this regard, science fiction is an incredible revelation when compared with the narratives we are constantly fed in reality. The futuristic utopia, begun after the most well-meaning idealism, often degenerates into a crass dystopia. John Gray, page 1 of Black Mass:
The world in which we find ourselves at the start of the new millennium is littered with the debris of utopian projects, which though they were framed in secular terms that denied the truth of religion were in fact vehicles for religious myths.
Yet the quest for the one solution remains. Now what does all this have to do with monotheist religion? Because at its core there is not even the need for a god. When Napoleon asked physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace where god fitted into his concept of the universe, the latter replied:
“I had no need of that hypothesis of which you speak.”
So that is what the monotheist god really is. Not even a supernatural being. Just a ‘hypothesis’.
Hindu Desperation to become Monotheist
Hindus are constantly on the back foot when asked to explain what they believe. They are at pains to convince that all these many gods are but aspects of the single god, that they too are monotheists. As well as inaccurate this type of apologetics betrays an intense inferiority complex as if to cover up some heinous crime. Indeed why is monotheism even seen as superior to polytheism? If that were so then atheism must be the next level up from monotheism. In fact it is.
Hindus are constantly asked what they are ‘Bible’ is. Even secular ideologies have their sacred text, for example Das Kapital of communism. This should come as no surprise considering that Marx formulated ideas from his monotheistic environment. But what is the central Hindu text?
Some say Vedas. Most commonly now is said to be the Bhagavad Gita. But these are texts codified at a certain point in time with a functional purpose. Vedas are not prayer books but formulations on how to execute precise rituals. There is simply no equivalent in Hinduism.
Yet that is seen as a vice. But why is it? Why do we need to reduce an entire library of thoughts transmitted over thousands of years to just one text? What about all the others? And why the desperation to insist that texts such as Vedas, Upanishads and Gita speak of one god when they most clearly do not? To paraphrase Laplace, they have no need of that ‘hypothesis’.
Profane and Sacred
Christian Protestant Reformation and the subsequent Enlightenment shaped the western view of religion. With colonial conquests, western dominance and the Eurocentrism at the core of academia, this was then transplanted to the vanquished.
The physical world was bifurcated between sacred and profane. Religion was based on text, and always a single text; origins of the easy download app. Culture was created by human hands. Of course this bore no relation to the reality, especially in India with its multiplicity of seemingly competing sects, texts and practices. Western mind not only could not understand it. It still does not understand it.
What it does not understand it fears. But with the might of British rule in India the power was in the hands of colonial masters who would reshape an ancient culture in their own image or destroy it. There could be no middle ground. This ‘Hinduism’ was condemned as a hodgepodge of evil, backward and superstitious practices which held India back from development. It was a view propagated not just by aggressive Christian missionaries, but their heirs in the ‘secular’ monotheism of ‘progressive’ ideas in eugenics and Marxism.
Bengal’s Hindu Protestant Reformation
Bengal was where the British had first established a political foothold in India. Indeed Calcutta was founded as a trading post of the East India Company. A new social group had formed of English-educated intellectuals, closely associated with British administration and trade, who had begun to compare their own cultural norms with that of their colonial masters.
How apt then that it was in this city in 1828 that Ram Mohan Roy and Debendranath Tagore founded the Brahmo Sabha, to reform Hinduism of ‘superstition’ and remould it by aping the monotheism of the white Christian masters.
The Brahmo Samaj was part of the Bengal Renaissance and was influential in creating the concept of modern India. Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) has been dubbed “The Father of Modern India” for his work in helping the ‘banning of sati, the appalling treatment of widows, female education and eradicating child marriage.’
JTF Jordens was reader in South Asian Civilization at the Australian National University in Canberra. He contributed ‘Hindu Religious and Social Reform in British India’ to AL Basham’s 1975 book, ‘A Cultural History of India’. Page 367:
In the religious sphere Ram Mohan’s main target of attack was the Hindu system of idolatry, its mythology and cult. He proposed as an alternative a deistic type of theism, strongly influenced by European deism and the ideology of the Unitarians with whom he had close links. His remote, transcendent God was to be praised and adored from a distance without the quest for intercession or mystical union.
His study of other religions convinced him that below their dogmas, rituals, and superstitions there lay hidden a common core of rational religion and humanitarian ethics. …he claimed that his reformed Hinduism was to be found in the ancient Upanishads, some of which he translated, and in the Vedanta. In fact his very schematic religious creed has, apart from the name of Brahma, practically no specifically Hindu content.
After internal dissension the movement led to the founding of the Brahmo Samaj in Lahore in 1861 by Nobin Roy, to spread the new Adi Dharma message of casteless Vedic Aryanism as the original Hindu religion, and thus rescue Christian converts to the fold of this new national religion. In 1866 Bengali thinker Keshub Chandra Sen formed his breakaway Brahmo Samaj.
In 1855, he had become Secretary to the Goodwill Fraternity, a Masonic lodge associated with the Unitarian Rev.Charles Dall and a Christian missionary Rev. James Long who also helped Sen establish a “British Indian Association” in the same year. In 1863 he wrote The Brahma Samaj Vindicated.
He strongly criticized Christianity and travelled about the country lecturing and preaching that the Brahmo Samaj was intended to revitalize Hindu religion through use of ancient Hindu sources and the authority of the Vedas. By 1865, however, Sen was convinced that only Christian doctrine could bring new life to Hindu society.
With encouragement of Dall he joined another new organisation Bharat Barshiya Brohmo Samaj (Brahmo Samaj of India) as its Secretary (the President being “God”). Tagore’s Brahmo Samaj then quickly purged itself of Sen’s Christian teaching and encouraged being described as Adi Brahmo Samaj to distinguish itself.
In 1866 Sen delivered an address on Jesus Christ, Europe and Asia, in which he proclaimed that “India would be for Christ alone who already stalks the land”. In 1870 he travelled to England but was disillusioned as he confessed to Max Muller, godfather of the Aryan Invasion Theory:
“The British public ought to know how the most advanced type of Hinduism in India is trying to absorb and assimilate the Christianity of Christ, and how it is establishing and spreading, under the name of the New Dispensation, a new Hinduism, which combines Yoga and Bhakti, and also a new Christianity, which blends together Apostolical faith and modern civilisation and science. It is this Christianity”
Yet Sen became a loyalist and his church was modelled on Christian theology believing that the British Raj served a divine purpose. He established a syncretic school of spiritualism, called the Nabo Bidhan or ‘New Dispensation’, which he intended to amalgamate the best principles of Christianity and of the western spiritual tradition with Hinduism.
The Brahmo Samaj is of special importance as it was the first attempt to mould Hinduism into a monotheistic religion in order to neutralise the endeavours of aggressive Christian proselytisation by the British, such as William Wilberforce. Denouncing caste, idol worship, belief in avataras, and being vague on karma and rebirth were the first steps in making Hinduism both apologetic and monotheistic.
India’s Martin Luther
From 1840 we have a social reform movement in Maharashtra that agitated against perceived Brahmin dominance beginning with the English-educated Gopal Hari Deshmukh (1823-92), as part of his wider attacks on caste inequality and social problems.
His friend Jotiba Govind Phule (1827-90) put anti-Brahmin invective into his writings and formed the Satyasodhak Samaj for uplift of the power castes, poor, and peasants. Phule saw the Bhakti movement of Medieval India as being analogous to the Protestant Reformation in Europe.
In 1867 a visit by Keshub Chnadra Sen as Brahmo missionary led to the foundation of the Prarthana Samaj, which rejected idolatry, the Vedas, and caste system, but kept its links to local Bhakti saints. Both Brahmo Samaj and Prarthana Samaj were to influence Swami Dayananda after his encounter with them.
At age of 22 Mool Shankar permanently left his home in Rajkot district of Gujarat to become a wandering ascetic, Swami Dayananda Saraswati.
He finally became a disciple of Swami Virajanand Dandeesha, a blind sage and scholar in Mathura, who was originally from Kartapur in Punjab. Virajanand was learned in Sanskrit, Vedas and Upanishads and ordered Dayananda to throw away his texts on Sanskrit grammar if he wanted to learn under him.
Virjanand was a very hard task master and he expected a very high standard of diligence and discipline from his students.
He extracted a promise from Dayananda that he would devote his life to spread “arsha” literature and knowledge of Vedas in the country. Virajanand believed that Hinduism had strayed from its historical roots and that many of its practices had become impure. Dayananda promised Virajanand that he would devote his life to restoring the rightful place of the Vedas in Hinduism. His uncompromising belief in the Vedas as infallible scripture which were revelation of a jealous monotheistic god prevented him from joining the Brahmo Samaj, despite the similarity with his organisation in its reformist outlook.
But his first attempt at starting schools known as gurukuls ended in failure by 1874 due to lack of qualified teachers. However by the next year Dayandanda founded the Arya Samaj to cleanse Hinduism of what he saw as post-Vedic accretions which had led to caste system, idol worship, superstition and self-serving power of priests and scam artists. Originally established in Bombay, the original Samaj foundered. However it met with great success in Punjab where many prominent freedom fighters such as Lala Lajpat Rai, Ajit Singh and Swami Shraddhanda.
One of the reasons that Arya Samaj met with such success in Punjab was due to the distinctive social brew in that part of India. The conquest by the British had led to massive efforts by Christian missionaries to convert that region. While targeting the so-called untouchable castes with offers of free food and schooling, the missionaries also converted prominent landed families of Sikhs such as Raja Harnam Singh of the princely house of Kapurthala.
The biggest prize was of course Maharaja Dalip Singh, who was shipped off to England along with the Kohinoor diamond, and converted to Christianity. Sadhu Sunder Singh became India’s very own version of Saint Paul when he claimed Jesus spoke to him and asked why he persecuted his followers.
In October 1906, he set out on his journey as a new Christian, wearing a turban and the yellow robe of a Hindu sadhu. Singh viewed himself as a sadhu, albeit one within Christianity rather than Hinduism, because he realised Christianity could not penetrate India unless it was in an Indian way.
So this region as already being heavily denuded of its Hindu past and offered fertile ground for the Arya Samaj.
The main difference between the Brahmo Samaj and Dayananda’s organisation was that the Arya Samaj sought actively to combat Christian and Islamic attempts to convert Hindus. In Satyarth Prakash (Light of Truth), Dayananda devotes whole chapters to attacking not just Shaivas, Vaishnavites, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists, but dedicates whole chapters to analyse Islam and Christianity, respectively. As with Hindu sects he denigrates them as idol worshippers. His followers picked up the mantle. Pandit Lekh Ram was active in converting Muslims to this neo-Vedic preaching. His attacks on Islam made him a controversial figure.
He is famous for his encounters with the founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. He also wrote a book in falsification of Ahmad’s Barahin-e-Ahmadiyya and named it Takzeeb e Barahin Ahmadiyya (A falsification of the Barahin e Ahmadiyya).
He was assassinated on March 6, 1897 due to his activities. A similar fate was to befall Swami Shraddhananda in 1926 when Abdul Rashid murdered him for an activity which Arya Samaj pioneered: shuddi, or bringing Muslims and Christians into the Hindu fold.
But while it attacked other beliefs and sects for being idol worshippers, the fervent iconoclasm of the Arya Samaj betrayed a dark secret much like Nietzsche’s rejection of Christianity.
The constant attacks by that nineteenth century German thinker revealed just how much he had been influenced by the very ancestral faith he purportedly rejected. At the time this was pragmatic. Against the juggernaut of well-funded missionary apparatus, traditional Hindu practices were seen as ineffectual.
This was not just in terms of wealth and power channelled through charity work by Christian missionaries in the very country which their colonial paymasters were busy bleeding dry causing an unprecedented rate of famine, deindustrialisation and forced labour. It was psychological.
The Arya Samaj helped to brainwash the Hindu mind into accepting that monotheism was a higher ideal. Everything else was superstition, backward, or the means by which a devious priestcraft kept the masses ignorant. Dayananda was very much the Martin Luther of India.
In Satyarth Prakash he even refers to evil priests and “popes”. Koenraad Elst in his 2012 article, ‘Hindus and Monotheism’:
Unfortunately, in its opposition to the predatory religions of Islam and Christianity, it interiorized some of their beliefs and attitudes. Foremost among these was the assumption that monotheism, the belief in a single God annex the condemnation of all worship offered to any being but Him, is the supreme form of religion. Hence, the Arya Samaj decreed that the Vedic religion had always been monotheistic, so that Islamic and Christian missionaries had nothing to teach the Vedicists about the true religion of the One God.
If Hinduism now seemed like the polytheistic religion par excellence, this was partly due to post-Vedic degenerative developments and partly to textual misinterpretation of the seemingly numerous god-names in the Vedas. In reality, or so the Arya Samaj claimed, these many gods were only different faces of the One God.
Until Independence (completed by the struggle against the Nizam of Hyderabad for Hyderabad’s accesion to the Indian Union in 1948, in which the later Arya Samaj president Vandematharam Ramachandra Rao took a leadership role), this monotheistic reinterpretation of the Vedas could be excused as a tactical device useful in the Arya Samaj’s main struggle, viz. against the predatory monotheistic religions.
Ever since, however, and especially in the recent most decades, the Arya Samaj seems to have forgotten its original mission, and is now turning the bulk of its polemics against fellow Hindus who have not embraced this monotheistic reading of the Vedas. In effect, the Arya Samaj has become Christianity’s and Islam’s first line of attack against Hindu polytheism.
Understandably Dayananda was entirely unaware of the philosophical debates which had taken place in the West, and was not very broadly informed even about those in India. Lala Lajpat Rai himself alluded to this in his 1914 book, ‘The Arya Samaj’ where he asked “Will the Arya Samaj Become Christian?” and examined the Delhi Mission Report for 1898 by Frank Lillington, on page 182 of his book:
On pages 38-39 of the same Report it is said that “in – a branch of the Arya Samaj has been established which I cannot help looking upon as an indirect result of our work…..I believe that it is a real move forward and an attempt to accept Christianity without the ‘offence of the Cross’. “
Arya Samaj also had other unintended consequences. Ghulam Ahmad founded the Ahmadiyya Movement on 23 March 1889, but had been engaged in debates with Arya Samaj for three years prior to this. In this religious ferment of nineteenth century Punjab the influence of Dayananda’s teaching on what became denounced by other Muslims as a heretical sect cannot be discounted. In 1888 Giani Ditt Singh devoted his full time activities to the Sikh reform sect Singh Sabha.
Yet for many years he had also been in the Arya Samaj, and was originally known as Ditt Ram Vedanti. Both Ditt Singh and Jawahir Singh Kapur had joined Arya Samaj in 1877 following meetings with Dayananda, and became preachers for that organisation. Ditt Singh left to join Singh Sabha in 1888. Jawahir Singh joined him, but not before having served as secretary of the Lahore Arya Samaj and promoter of that city’s Dayananda Anglo-Vedic College.
Indeed it is from this period that we see attempts to make Sikhism a separate monotheistic faith from Hinduism by efforts of the Lahore Singh Sabha; similar to how Arya Samaj held itself to be the authentic original pure Hinduism or Arya Dharm, as distinct from the idol worshipping popes of Sanatan Hinduism.
Religious or Political Creed?
Arya Samaj has important lessons therefore not just how it infected Hindu thought with the apologetics of monotheism but also how this reductionist approach to spirituality came about. While it pioneered social and humanitarian work such as famine relief, amelioration of the condition of widows, establishing orphanages and founding schools (gurukulas), it was in the political sphere that Arya Samaj had major impact, acting as the springboard for modern Indian nationalism. Dayananda was among the earliest proponents of Hindi as India’s national language as well as Swadeshi: the reliance on homemade goods.
Lajpat Rai.Ajit Singh, Hans Raj and Swami Shraddhananda were pioneers in India’s freedom struggle. Bhagat Singh was nephew of Ajit Singh, a self-proclaimed atheist and follower of Lenin.
This may be surprising but the organisation was not just the ideological forefather of modern Hindu groups such as the Hindu Mahasabha and Bharatiya Jana Sangha.
Arya Samajists were prominent in the early Indian National Congress and later the Marxist and socialist parties. But then this becomes understandable when we realise that secular philosophies such as Marxism are merely monotheistic religions shorn of their supernatural deity.
Arya Samaj, Brahmo Samaj and similar organisations were the result of an intense cultural warfare against the ancient civilisation of India. The sense of inferiority and the need to combat the ideological weapons of mass destruction led to Hindus adopting that same polemic as a self-defence mechanism.
Unfortunately the roots of this have been forgotten when Hindus beg to be accepted at the monotheistic dining table. Ram Swarup on page 111 of his book ‘Hindu View of Christianity and Islam’:
During the days of Islamic and Christian rule, Hindus tried to cope with the situation in several ways. First, they tried to ‘reform’ themselves and be like their rulers; they claimed that Hinduism already had all the ‘virtues’ of Christianity and Islam – one God, a revealed Book, and prophets.
While Arya Samaj, Brahmo Samaj, Satyasodhak Samaj and Prarthana Samaj may have made their valuable contributions to social reform and Indian nationalism, they were ultimately pragmatic attempts to deal with a political situation thrust upon them by the British. Yet at its core monotheism itself was not a religious development but a reflection of political conditions at a certain point in time, an aberration in the course of human history which has still not been fully examined, and is taken as the norm. As we will find out it is the diametric opposite.