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Days of the Arya Samaj

[Reproduced from The Dawn, June 19, 2006] http://www.dawn.com/2006/06/19/fea.htm

LAHORE is a cruel city. It tends to forget its immediate past and yet prides itself on being one of the oldest settlements in the world. What was the city like and who were the people who inhabited it in the early years of the 20th century is a matter which has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Last week I gave you excerpts from Ravinder Kumar’s account of the city as it was just before the First World War. Those were the days of the Arya Samaj for the Hindus in the city.

Ravinder Kumar says:

The Arya Samaj set before the Hindu community an ideal according to which the good life consisted in involvement in social problems rather than in escape from them. This ideal was eloquently reflected in the character and personality of Mahatma Hans Raj, who canalized his creativity through the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic College of Lahore, over which he presided from 1888 to 1911. Hans Raj belonged to a poor Khatri family which hailed from an obscure village in the district of Hoshiarpur. Being born poor, he worked hard to overcome adverse circumstances, and graduated in 1885, after a creditable though by no means brilliant academic career. It was a period when a university degree opened up dazzling prospects before a young man. But while he was still a student Hans Raj had fallen under the spell of Dayanand, and immediately after graduation he volunteered his services to the Arya Samaj, and was appointed the Headmaster of the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic High School in Lahore. Under the leadership of Hans Raj, this school not only blossomed into a college, but it also became one of the outstanding educational institutions of Lahore. This was due largely to the remarkable personality of the individual who presided over the college. Though frail of body, Hans Raj possessed an iron will and an integrity of purpose which exercised a profound influence upon the hundreds of young men who came in contact with him. ‘We looked upon the Mahatma as one of the most creative individuals of his time,’ the writer was told by a member of the Arya Samaj who had come under the spell of Hans Raj as a young student sixty years ago, ‘and we further believed, because of his example, that it was through education rather than through politics that we could most effectively serve the nation.

(Interview with Dr. Gokul Chand Narang dated 21 November, 1965).

The activities of the Arya Samaj in Lahore centred on the mandirs where its prachararaks held their weekly meetings, and on the schools and colleges controlled by the Samaj. These activities exercised an influence over the social and intellectual life of the Hindu community whose magnitude was reflected all too inadequately in the formal membership of the movement. It would, indeed be no exaggeration to contend that there were very few middle-class Hindus who entirely escaped the influence of the Samaj. Tens of thousands of young men were educated in the institutions controlled by the Samaj, during which period they imbibed in varying degrees the ideals of the movement. After completing their education these young men went into business, or entered the civil service, or set themselves up in the professions. In this manner individuals who were influenced by the Samaj came to hold positions of responsibility in different walks of life, and they made the Samaj a powerful force in the life of the community.

Typical of the middle classes of Lahore whose values were moulded by the Arya Samaj was the rising young barrister, Gokul Chand Narang. He was born in Khatri family of modest means, and in 1896, after completing his primary schooling, he proceeded to the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic School, Lahore, where Hans Raj recognized him as a youth of exceptional promise, and nursed him as a future leader of the community. After a brief spell of teaching at Lahore, Narang proceeded to England to study law. On returning to India in 1911 he set himself up as a barrister, and within a short space of time he became one of the leading members of the bar in Lahore. Narang was short in stature and rugged in build, and he possessed an intellect which was more forceful than it was subtle. He was also endowed with the qualities of shrewdness and enterprise, and with a supreme ability to look upon men and events with a vision unclouded by mawkishness or sentimentality. His connections with the Arya Samaj and his success in the legal profession encouraged Narang to venture into business and politics, and by the end of the First World War he had established himself as a leading figure in Lahore.

The portrait of Narang may convey the impression that the Arya Samaj attracted only the young, the ambitious, and the poor. But nothing could be further from the truth. For Rai Bahadur Mukund Lal Puri, M.A. (Punjab and Oxford), Barrister-at-Law, a pillar of the Hindu establishment and the scion of a distinguished Khatri family, was as much a product of the Samaj as was Narang. Since he was educated in the institutions controlled by the Samaj before he went to Oxford, Puri spent the formative years of his life in much the same environment as Narang. Where these two worthy citizens of Lahore differed, however, was in their social background and, arising out of this difference, in their experience of life as young men. Although he was tall and distinguished of bearing, Puri lacked the intellectual toughness and the physical stamina of Narang. Nevertheless, he successfully combined a career in law with extensive interests in business and politics.

The middle classes of Lahore, however, were not exclusively drawn from the Arya Samaj, indeed, many members of the middle class were either indifferent to the Samaj or hostile to it. The distinguished jurist, Sir Shadi Lal, belonged to the former category. This may partly have been so because he was educated at the Government College, Lahore, before he proceeded to Oxford for higher studies. Sir Shadi Lal led a busy life which embraced politics over and above his professional commitment to law. But he had no connections with the Arya Samaj, or with any of the organizations connected with it. Prominent among those who were actually hostile to the Samaj was Rai Bahadur Ram Saran Das. He was a successful businessman and a distinguished citizen of Lahore, and he supported the Sanatan Dharma Sabha, which opposed all movements of reform and sought to popularize the values of orthodoxy in the Hindu community. Notwithstanding men like Sir Shadi Lal and Ram Saran Das, however, the influence of the Arya Samaj was widespread in Lahore, and it played a significant role in shaping the outlook of the middle classes of the city.

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One thought on “Arya Samaj in Lahore of early 20th century

  1. I posted this article because of the quote from Gokul Chand Narang and references to his background. Narang wrote his book “Transformation of Sikhism” (first edition in 1912) which laid the foundation of this oft repeated fallacy that “there are two types of Sikhs — Guru Nanak’s & Guru Gobind Singh’s”. It is this argument that is cited by all those who want to justify their deviation from the Guru’s path.
    The above article sheds some light on the organisational aspects of Arya Samaj as well as how it influenced the Punjabi society.

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