The Brahmo Samaj
Theosophist, March, 1881
Ever since we came to India friends in Europe and America have been asking us to tell them something about the Brahmo Samaj. For their sake the following particulars are given:—This new Theistic Church, whose foundations were laid by the banks of the Hooghly and which has been for fifty years spreading its doctrine by press and missionary, has just celebrated its anniversary at Calcutta. Among the religious movements in which our century has been so fertile this is one of the most interesting. We only regret that its salient features could not have been described in these columns by one of its several gifted and eloquent leaders, as the theory of our Society is that no stranger can do full justice to another’s faith. We have been promised such an exposition of Brahmoism more than once by Brahmo friends, but until now have received none. We must, therefore, while waiting, make the best of the meagre data supplied in the Official report of the late anniversary, as found in the Samaj’s organ, the Sunday Mirror, of January 30. A splendid lecture, by the Rev. Protap Chunder Mozumdar, one of the chief Brahmo apostles, which we were so fortunate as to hear at Lahore, helps us in a degree to understand the real character of the movement. His subject was “The Relations of the Brahmo Samaj with Hinduism and Christianity,” and his discourse was fluent and eloquent in a high degree. He is a quiet, self-restraining man, with a pleasant voice, and an almost perfect command of English. Not yet having visited Calcutta, we have not had the good fortune to meet the “minister,” or chief apostle, of the “New Dispensation,” as it is now styled.
The Brahmo Samaj, as is well known, was founded by the late Raja Ram Mohun Roy, a Rarhee Brahmin, son of Ram Khant Roy of Burdwan, and one of the purest, most philanthropic, and enlightened men India ever produced. He was born about 1774, was given a thorough education in the vernacular, Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit, and, later, mastered English thoroughly, acquired a knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and studied French. His intellectual power was confessedly very great, while his manners were most refined and charming, and his moral character without a stain. Add to this a dauntless moral courage, perfect modesty, warm humanitarian bias, patriotism, and a fervid religious feeling, and we have before us the picture of a man of the noblest type. Such a person was the ideal of a religious reformer. Had his constitution been more rugged, and his sensitiveness less acute, he might have lived to see far greater fruits of his self-sacrificing labours than he did. One searches the record of his life and work in vain for any evidence of personal conceit, or a disposition to make himself figure as a heaven-sent messenger. He thought he found in the elements of Christianity the highest moral code ever given to man; but from first to last he rejected as unphilosophical and absurd the Trinitarian doctrine of the Christians. The missionaries, instead of hailing him as an ally to win the Hindus from polytheism, and bring them three-fourths of the way towards their own standing ground, bitterly attacked his unitarian views, and obliged him to publish sundry pamphlets showing the weakness of their cause and the logical strength of his own. He died in England, September 27, 1833, and was buried on the 18th of October, leaving behind him a circle of sorrowing acquaintances that included some of the best people of that country. It is said by Miss Martineau that his death was hastened by the anguish he felt to see the awful living lie that practical Christianity was in its stronghold. Miss Mary Carpenter does not touch upon this point in her Memoir of his last days in England, but she prints among other sermons that were preached after his decease one by the Rev. J. Scott Porter, a Presbyterian clergyman of Belfast, Ireland, in which he says that “Offences against the laws of morality, which are too often passed over as trivial transgressions in European society, excited the deepest horror in him.” And this is quite enough to give the colour of truth to Miss Martineau’s assertion, for we all know what the morals of Christendom are.
These particulars about the founder of the Theistic Church of India, are necessary if we would understand what Brahmoism was meant to be, in seeing what it now seems—we speak guardedly from a desire to avoid doing any injustice—from its reflection in its organ, the Mirror. We have said that Ram Mohun Roy never proclaimed himself as an apostle or redeemer; the whole tone of the evidence in Miss Carpenter’s book shows him to have been humility personified. And now let us turn to the official report of the Brahmo anniversary of January 14 and 27, ultimo.
The address of Babu Keshub Chunder Sen was delivered at the Town Hall on the 22nd to some three thousand people, and all accounts agree in saying that it was a masterly display of eloquence. The next morning an utsab, or prayer and conference meeting, was held in the Brahmo Mandir, or house of worship. The vedi, or preaching place, was decorated with plantain trees and evergreens, and “the smell of incense was felt everywhere”—reminding us, one would say, of a Catholic church. The service began at 9 and ended at half-past twelve, when there was intermission of half an hour for refreshments, “puris and sweetmeats.” At 1 there was a service in Bengali, at 2 one in Hindustani; then followed the reading of essays on the New Dispensation, hymns, and then for an hour Yoga, or silent contemplation. Then came an hour and a half of chanting (sankirtan) and arati, praise giving. At 7 P.M., the event of the day, and apparently one that almost overshadowed the lecture of Mr. Sen, came off. It was the consecration of the “Flag of the New Dispensation,” a crimson silken banner mounted upon a silver pole, and for the occasion “fixed on the open space of marble pavement in front of the pulpit.” At sunset the ceremony of unfurling this flag began; we will let the Mirror tell us what this was. “A new form of evening worship called Arati, was first gone through. . . . The Brahmos had composed a grand hymn for the occasion glorifying the many attributes of the Supreme Mother in profound language and sentiment. The worshippers held each a lighted candle in his hand, creating a brilliant and picturesque effect. Dozens of musical instruments, from the English bugle and gong to the traditional conchshell, were loudly and simultaneously performed upon. The varied and deafening peals issuing from these instruments, combined with the voices of scores of men, who stood up and went around in a circle with the burning tapers in their hands, heartily chanting the arati hymn, produced upon the immense crowd present an effect which must be felt to be described.
It will occur to everyone acquainted with Hindu national customs to compare the crimson banner of the Brahmos with the one of similar colour and material which is hoisted on the golden flagstaff of the temple of Patmanabhan at Trivandrum at the beginning of Arattu, or bathing festival. If the latter is an appendage of the idol worship which the Founder of the Brahmo Church so abhorred, is not the former? And is a festival of lights less heathenish in a Brahmo Mandir than in a Hindu temple? These things may be innocent enough in themselves, for surely many will see only aesthetic taste in the waving palms, the burning incense, the chanting worshippers marching around the silver-mounted crimson banner, with their lighted tapers. But are there not some well-wishers to the spread of pure theistic religion who will perceive in these the sure signs of the approach of a pompous ritualism, which in the progress of time will stifle what there is of spirit in the new church and leave only a gorgeous formalism in its place? This is exactly what has happened to Christianity and to Buddhism; as one may at once see by contrasting the pontifical pageantry of the Romish and Greek churches with the alleged primitive simplicity of the apostolic age, and the ornate ceremonial of modern exoteric Lamaism with the rigid asceticism and self-restraint of the primitive Buddhistic practice which many of the most learned Lamas now try to restore. It is to be hoped that the leaders of the new departure will keep in mind the sensible precept of Ram Mohun Roy (see Monthly Repository [Calcutta] for 1823, Vol. XVIII, p. 430): “If a body of men attempt to upset a system of doctrines generally established in a country and to introduce another system, they are, in my humble opinion, in duty bound, to prove the truth, or at least, the superiority of their own.” In his anniversary lecture Mr. Sen protested against being taken as a prophet or mediator between God and Man, yet at the same time he announced himself and certain of his associates as the Apostles of a New Dispensation, chosen and commissioned to usher it on its conquering career. Calling these colleagues about him in the sight of the congregation, he, as one having the superior authority, imparted to them their divine mission. “You are chosen,” said he, “by the Lord of Heaven to preach his saving truth to the world. Behold the flag of the New Dispensation before you, under the shadow of which is the reconciliation of all things. . . . Go, preach, spread the spirit of universal union which this flag before you represents. . . . In token of your vow of allegiance touch the banner, and bow down to God to give you strength and the light of faith.” Whereupon, says the Mirror, “The apostles then each and all touched the banner, and bowed their heads to God.” Here, besides the contradictions which we have italicized a few lines back, all the dramatic elements of a super-structure of divine inspiration, apostolic commission, infallible teaching, and a dogmatic creed; to arise, perhaps, even before the present “Minister’s” death. In fact, Mr. Sen appears to forecast this already for, answering to the self-formulated question whether the Brahmo Samaj is “simply a new system of religion, which human understanding has evolved,” he clearly something far higher for it. “I say it stands upon the same level with the Jewish dispensation, the Christian dispensation, and the Vaishnava dispensation through Chaitanya. It is a Divine Dispensation fully entitled to a place among the various dispensations and revelations of the world. But is it equally divine, equally authoritative?” he asks; and answers, “Christ’s Dispensation is said to be divine. I say that this Dispensation is equally divine. Assuredly the Lord of Heaven has sent this New Gospel unto the world.” And, again, “Here you see God’s special Providence working out the redemption of the land through the instrumentality of a complete dispensation with its full complement of apostles, scripture, and inspiration.” It is too much to say this is but a poetic figure of speech. Mr. Sen is a master of English and should certainly know the value of these words. The public is therefore fully warranted in recognizing in him one more bidder for the honours and distinction of an inspired apostle and messenger of God upon earth, in short, an avatar. Should his church endorse this claim, future generations of Brahmos may be laying their heads and their gifts at the feet of descendants of the Raja of Kutch-Behar, as true Mussulmans now do in the cases of lineal descendants of the Prophet’s family, and as do the Sikhs in that of Baba Kheim Singh Vedi, of Rawalpindi District, sixteenth living representative of the line of Guru Nanak.
The Brahmo Leader and Yoginism
Theosophist, March, 1881
A correspondent asks what we have to say with respect to the following paragraph, which he professes to have copied from the Indian Mirror, the organ of the Brahmo Samaj, of January 23, 1881:—“The Theosophists who are now in India profess to bring back those days of Yoga in which holiness was combined with the power of doing supernatural things. We were a little amused to hear the other day of their strong belief that the leader of our movement, whether he will confess it or not, does really possess the occult powers, being a man of Yoga himself. Fortunately for India, those days are past recall. The world will survive supernaturalism of all sorts, and the only miracles which will be believed in are those which result from the extraordinary moral forces and strong resolves of the human will directed by injunctions from the divine spirit above.”
We have only to say that some one has apparently imposed upon the good nature of our Brahmo friends. Such an idea as that of Mr. Sen’s being a Yogi never entered the head of any theosophist whom we have heard express an opinion about that gifted Bengali orator. If he is responsible for the reflections indulged in by the writer of the paragraph upon the general subject of supernaturalism, apropos of miracles and the Theosophical Society, we deeply regret that one of such talents should so grossly misconceive us and our beliefs. The more so, since he claims direct inspiration from God, and presumably should be able to get at the truth. If there is one thing more than another that our Society’s Founders do not believe in it is a miracle, whether as a disturbing effect in the laws of matter, or a special divine commission to any individual. There never was a time, in our opinion, when holiness or sinfulness “was combined with the power of doing supernatural things.”