The modern era maybe considered, for purposes of this book, to be from the period of English rule in India. Even though there were many indignities and exploitations associated with British foreign rule, there was also a wave of fresh air. The long period of religious repression was over, and a new age of science and democracy spanned the globe. This led to a spurt of activity in Hindu society.
The contribution of many Western scholars of Hindu theology and ancient Sanskrit scriptures has been enormous. Although partly backed by the Christian missionary movement and zeal for conversion, there was also a genuine academic interest, combined with a spiritual inclination for Hindu philosophy. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, British Orientalists, who were interested in making a serious study of Sanskrit literature, centered themselves in Bengal. Among these were Sir William Jones (1746–1794), C. Wilkins (1749–1836), and Thomas Colebrook (1765–1837)68, who together steered what came to be known as the field of Indology. Later, the formation of a seven-volume Sanskrit dictionary—in German by R. Roth and Otto Bothlingk, and in English by Monier Monier-—gave further embellishment to such efforts. The arduous work of Friedrich Max Muller (1823–1900) in translating and editing the Upanishads and other sacred books was of pioneer nature. Indeed, his prodigious, scholarly, dedicated, and inspired life may be regarded as the heroic consummation of the pioneering work of all Western thinkers who came before him.69
The wave of Hindu philosophy spread to many countries of Europe, including England, France, Germany, and Russia. In the United States, too, a similar phenomenon took place. William Dwight Whitney (1827–1894), C. R. Lanman (1850–1941), and Maurice Bloomfield (1885–1925) developed Indology at many centers; for example, at New York, Yale, and Harvard universities. Major figures like Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) were also influenced by it. It was mainly because of these scholarly toils that Hinduism came to the center stage in the world. Hindu spiritual teachings, which had remained hidden for millennia, became available to anyone, including the Hindus themselves! Earlier Hindu scriptures written in Sanskrit had remained the monopoly of the Brahmin community, who regarded themselves as the sole guardians of the religion.
Apart from the better known scholars, there were number of unsung heroes who toiled hard to study and present the Hindu scriptures in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which may be regarded as the golden period of Hindu philosophy with regard to world impact. Jewish Frenchman Anquetil Duperron (1731–1805)70 and Greek national Demetrius Galanos (1760–1833)71 both worked with unparalleled passion under most difficult circumstances in this field. No less is the contribution of Swami Tathagatananda of the Vedanta Society, New York, in unearthing all these gems of Indology, and publishing their enormous contribution in his masterly book, Journey of the Upanishads to the West.
Spiritual philosophy in the world, like science, has evolved over millennia as the combined effort of seers and thinkers; their broad vision transgressed the geographical borders time and again. Sanskrit scholar Friedrich Max Muller’s comments in this regard are noteworthy: “How imperfect our knowledge of universal history, our insights into the development of human intellect, must always remain, if we narrow our horizon to the history of Greeks and Romans, Saxons and Celts, with a dim background of Palestine, Egypt, and Babylon, and leave sight of our nearest relatives, the Aryans of India, the framers of the most wonderful language, the Sanskrit, the fellow workers in the construction of our fundamental concepts, the fathers of our natural religions, the makers of the most transparent of mythologies, the inventors of the most subtle philosophy, and givers of the most elaborate laws.” 72
There has been harsh criticism of Muller and other Westerners for inaccurately depicting ancient Indian history. It is more likely that these were errors of human limitations and not deliberate attempts at misguidance.
What follows is a description of some of the important Hindu spiritual leaders from the modern era. Each contributed significantly to the re-emergence of Hinduism in modern times and its spread to more distant lands:
In the beginning of the nineteenth century, Bengal was the epicenter of education and culture. Raja Rammohan Roy (1772–1833) was one of the earliest social and religious reformers of this time. Inspired by the Western scientific education system, he propagated a modern approach to the old Hindu system. He advocated the basic Upanishadic teachings but discarded many of the Puranic and especially the Tantric methods of worship. He also discredited the idol, or murti puja. He believed in giving higher education to women. He founded a religious organization, Brahmo Samaj, which propagated many liberal reforms for Hindu women, who had long suffered from suffocating customs. One of the most horrendous customs prevalent in Hindu society in some parts of India, particularly amongst certain Rajput tribes, was the Sati ritual—the burning alive of a wife along with her dead husband. A wave of awakening was brought to Hindu society with the Brahmo Samaj movement, and many such harmful practices were stopped.
Sahajanand Swami (1781–1830), a saint of highest spiritual caliber, who later was known as Bhagwan Swaminarayan, developed a large following in Gujarat. His devotees established the Swaminarayan sect in 1907. Swaminarayan temples are famous for their grandeur and elegance. It also opened its gates to the lower castes that had been barred from such places. Mahant Swami Maharaj (1933-) is the present head. Pramukh Swami Maharaj (1921–2016), the earlier head, with his tireless efforts, was instrumental in erecting over 1100 Hindu temple around the world–some of them most stupendous and gorgeous. He also rendered greatest service in organizing massive aid projects in times of natural calamities as well as teaching and training innumerable devotees to get rid of their vices and addictions.
Akkalkot Niwasi Shri Swami Samartha (-1878) is a household name in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. He came to Akkalkot in 1856 where he continued his physical existence for 22 years. He died in 1878.
Swami Shiv Dayal Singh Ji (1818–1878) started a new type of religious organization, Radha Swami Satsang, at Agra, North India, around 1850. In 1891, Jaimal Singh Ji Mahraj established a separate division, Radha Soami Satsang Beas, at Beas in Punjab, which now has many branches in India and abroad. This congregation stressed the teaching of true spirituality to devotees, in place of many hollow rituals. The main importance was on having a living master who initiated the devotee to the Divine. Shri Gurinder Singh Dhillon-Babaji (1954–) is the current head of this sect.
Swami Dayananda Sarswati (1824–1883) was born in Gujarat and later moved to North India. He was a giant social reformer and started Arya Samaj, which worked vigorously for uplifting the condition of women. He heavily stressed the original Vedic teachings but advocated many simple rituals in place of lengthy and complicated customs, which had plagued the Hindu society.
Sri Ramakrishna Paramhans (1836–1886) and his celebrated disciple, Swami Vivekananda, brought about new perceptions in Hindu philosophy. Sri Ramakrishna Paramhans taught the oneness of God for all mankind, as the ancient Upanishads had pronounced. He has been recognized as God incarnate. After he passed away, his consort Sri Sarda Devi (1853–1920) successfully took on the mantle of leadership of the spiritual denomination for thirty-four years until her own death. Only five days before she passed away, she gave a message, the substance of which she had lived all her life: “If you want peace, do not find fault with others. See your own faults. Learn to make the whole world your own. Nobody is a stranger, my dear. The entire world belongs to you.”
Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), who was the chief disciple of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhans, had the great honor of introducing the East to the West. At the World Conference of Religions in Chicago in 1893, he entranced his audience with his very first speech. The essence of Vedanta, he taught, lies in the unity of entire cosmos! His spirituality was rather dynamic, as he said, “First build your muscles, and then work on your soul!” He did not believe in empty rhetoric—when he led his Sanyasin disciples to take up brooms and clean the streets of dirt and squalor, he joined them in their work. It was Swami Vivekananda who promoted Hinduism as a pluralistic and scientific religion and who projected the idea of neo-Vedanta as a philosophy of religion beyond borders.
Shirdi Sai Baba (-1918) was a spiritual person of very high caliber. His origin is not clear, but he preached love and humility. Many miracles are woven around him. He was a man of utter simplicity.
Maharishi Aurbindo (1872–1950) abandoned politics to enter the spiritual field, and he established a well-known meditation center at Pondicherry, South India. His deep knowledge of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and yoga attracted many seekers to come to him for guidance from all over the world. After his death, his chief disciple, a French woman affectionately called Mother, became the head of the center. She remained at the helm until her death in 1973.
Swami Rama Tirtha (1873–1906) was born in Punjab. He started his career as a professor of mathematics but was later pulled into the spiritual life. He toured Japan and America, where he vigorously spread the message of the Hindu philosophy. Later, he established his center in the Himalayas and remained there until his death.
Swami Sivananda (1877–1963) was born in the state of Tamilnadu. He studied medicine and practiced as doctor in Malaysia for few years before joining the spiritual quest. He settled in the Himalayas and founded the Divine Life Society in 1936 at Rishikesh, North India. Swami Vimalananda (1932- ) is the current head of the society.
Raman Maharishi (1879–1950) was a true sage of deep spirituality. He renounced everything to lead the life of an ascetic in Arunachala Hill, South India. His quest in which he asked “Who am I?” encouraged many devotees from far and wide to come to him. He was a man of few words and guided others by mystical communications.
Sadhu T. L. Vaswani (1879–1966) was a saint of sterling spiritual height. He founded his humble cottage in Pune, India, after the partition of India. He propagated simple and truthful living and taught his devotees to render service to the poor and needy. He even cared for animals and birds. Dada Jashan Vaswani (1918–), who has been hailed as spiritual master par excellence, is the current head of this mission. He has traveled extensively to all parts of the world, meeting devotees, conducting spiritual retreats, giving public discourses, and offering programs on TV. He is the author of many popular religious books.
With the advent of successive Western Colonial Powers like the Portuguese, Dutch, and British, the precious jewel of Hinduism that was laying subdued and hidden as an embedded spore for a long time under the Muslim rule, was suddenly transformed into a bright shining diamond! These Western Powers had probably planned and hoped to convert the whole country of India into Christianity as they had done in other places, but instead got themselves largely influenced and swayed by the richness of ancient Hindu scriptures. These Sanskrit sacred classics, though meticulously preserved by the small valiant Brahmin community under most adverse circumstances, had remained largely veiled, even from mainstream Hindus themselves. All this became possible because of the new fresh air of democracy and individual liberty expanding in many European countries. There was an unmatched interest in the Hindu religion and philosophy by scholars from across Europe and USA. Innumerable translations and commentaries on these Hindu scriptures were published. University professors were interested enough to do their own research and presented numerous papers highlighting essential descriptions about India and the Hindu culture. Hinduism has continued to arouse interest and curiosity ever since. A number of European and American followers became very seriously involved, donating large estates and resources to help establish great spiritual centers promoting teachings based on Hinduism. Inevitably, some also became skeptic and started negative propaganda, especially about the religion’s customs and rituals etc., occasionally leading to conflicts and tensions. For Hindus, it may be worthwhile to remain patient with utmost goodwill and to follow the lead given by celebrated groundbreakers like Swami Vivekananda and Paramhansa Yogananda, who worked under much harder conditions and established prodigious places of worship, which have been growing and mounting until today!
Essentially the British rule, despite the harmful and detrimental effects that it brought, also generated the fresh air of social reform in Hindu society. As the colonial rule was first established in Bengal, the maximum impact of the new wave also became more visible there. The literacy spread by leaps and bounds; old, sick customs like the ill treatment of women, especially widows, were squarely challenged. The Murti Puja (idol worship), which had become an integral part of Hindu religion, after the Puranic times, too came under serious opposition in this reform movement. In another corner of the country during the same period, the Swaminarayan Sanstha was born, professing many reforms aimed at eradicating the evils of the caste system, uplifting the poor etc., but highly promoting the temple culture, including Murti Puja. Thus, Hinduism has simultaneously accepted different, rather even opposite viewpoints, without any bloodshed and violence. It would not be uncommon for members of one family living under one roof to profess different sects without any tension or conflict. Soon, another organization Radha Swami Satsang came on the scene; it stressed on prayers, devotion to God, service of the needy and weaning from the use of meat and alcohol. This Sanstha also downplayed the rituals and Murti Puja.
After the initial reform drive, which mainly aimed at social changes, Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa founded the core of sanyasins in Bengal, what would later become a major religious group, the Vedanta Society. He taught the ancient Vedic teaching of oneness of God, and equality of all religions-Ekam Sat, Viprah Bahuti. His chief disciple Swami Vivekananda became the pioneer who carried the message from the East to the West. He laid more stress on service activities, and promoted pluralism in religion. It will not be incorrect to state that Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Swami Vivekananda sowed the seeds of Inter-faith movement in their unique humble way, without much fanfare and formal proclamations.
During this period, Maharishi Aurbindo also joined the scene; many English educated scholars got interested in Hindu philosophy, freely inter-mingling with their Western counterparts, thereby creating a new type of Hindu spiritual group. They propagated and exchanged their spiritual views and comments in a more modern style, pulling more educated and sophisticated followers both from India and abroad, into ancient Hindu philosophies.
Such was the highly charged interest that many Westerners came all the way to meet and get blessings from spiritual persons like Raman Maharishi who hardly talked and did not communicate with them easily. In fact these holy centers started by the spiritual giants are still very popular and continue to attract crowds, both local and foreigners, by their spiritual vibrations.
Yet another university professor Sadhu T.L. Vaswani from Sindh (now Pakistan), who later moved to Pune after the partition of India, joined the spiritual caravan of literary spiritualists, teaching a universal approach to religion, away from fanatic narrow-minded rigid thoughts and opinions. His main disciple Dada Jashan Vaswani has continued to carry on his mantle of spirituality and service projects zealously till today.
This period of time has truly been most dynamic and productive for Hindu thought and philosophy. There was a huge exchange of ideas and mindsets between the East and the West. Although there may have been some degree of exploitation and abuse, more genuine cooperation and mutual respect was observed in most places. For Hindus who still had fresh memories of the more harsh and severe Muslim rule, such a democratic and autonomous atmosphere was naturally a matter of great joy and elation. For the first time, many university educated persons became interested in religion. There was a power-shift from the hereditary Brahmin class to more learned and genuinely spiritual masters. In religious arena, the role of Brahmins became subdued and limited to performing temple duties and rites.