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.
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.