Famous Personalities of Reform Movements

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar:

Revered as a Bengali icon, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was a Bengali Sanskrit pundit, educator, social reformer, writer and philanthropist. He was one of the greatest intellectuals and activists of the 19th century. Born on 26th September, 1820 to a Kulin Brahmin family at Birsingha in the Midnapore District in Undivided Bengal Vidyasagar brought about some of the most far-reaching reform against malpractices by his own community. Vidyasagar made a difference in a period when few men tried to challenge the decadent traditions of the time.

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891) was as one of the pillars of Bengal renaissance who managed to continue the social reforms movement that was started by Raja Rammohan Roy in the early 1800s. Vidyasagar was a well-known writer, intellectual and above all a staunch supporter of humanity. He had an imposing personality and was revered even by the British authorities of his time. He brought about a revolution in the Bengali education system and refined the way Bengali language was written and taught. His book, ‘Borno Porichoy’ (Introduction to the letter), is still used as the introductory text to learn Bengali alphabets. The title ‘Vidyasagar’ (ocean of knowledge) was given to him due to his vast knowledge in several subjects.

Widow Remarriage:

  • The focus of his social reform was women — and he spent his life’s energies trying to ensure an end to the practice of child marriage and initiate widow remarriage.
  • He followed in the great reformist tradition of Raja Ram Mohun Roy (1772-1833), and argued, on the basis of scriptures and old commentaries, in favour of the remarriage of widows in the same way as Roy did for the abolition of Sati.
  • Vidyasagar wrote two volumes on the mistreatment of widows, which set the tone for major social reform in the state.
  • His earliest effort at social reform, however, came in the second half of 1850 when, in a paper on the evils of child marriage.
  • He launched a powerful attack on the practice of marrying off girls aged 10 or even younger, pointing to social, ethical, and hygiene issues, and rejecting the validity of the Dharma Shastras that advocated it.
  • He showed that there was no prohibition on widows remarrying in the entire body of ‘Smriti’ literature (the Sutras and the Shastras).

Educational Reforms:

  • Vidyasagar is credited with the role of thoroughly remodelling medieval scholastic system prevailing in Sanskrit College and bring about modern insights into the education system.
  • The first change that Vidyasagar made when he came back to the Sanskrit College as a Professor was to include English and Bengali as the medium of learning, besides Sanskrit.
  • He introduced courses of European History, Philosophy and Science alongside of Vedic scriptures. He encouraged students to pursue these subjects and take away the best from both worlds.
  • He also changed the rules of admission for students in Sanskrit College allowing non-Brahmin students to enrol in the prestigious institution.
  • He wrote two books ‘Upakramonika’ and ‘Byakaran Koumudi’, interpreting complex notions of Sanskrit grammar in easy legible Bengali language.
  • He introduced the concepts of Admission fee and tuition fee for the first time in Calcutta. He set up the Normal School for training teachers enabling uniformity in teaching methods. Through his contacts at the deputy magistrate’s office he would help his students get jobs in government offices.

Campaign against polygamy:

  • Alongside the campaign for widow remarriage, he campaigned against polygamy.
  • In 1857, a petition for the prohibition of polygamy among Kulin Brahmins was presented to the government with 25,000 signatures, led by the Maharaja of Burdwan.
  • The mutiny of the sepoys resulted in the postponement of action on this petition, but in 1866, Vidyasagar inspired another petition, this time with 21,000 signatures.
  • In the 1870s, the great rationalist, wrote two brilliant critiques of polygamy, arguing to the government that since polygamy was not sanctioned by the sacred texts, there could be no objection to suppressing it by legislation.

Women’s education:

  • He was a keen advocate of education for women. He rightly viewed education as the primary way for women to emancipate themselves from all the social oppression they had to face at the time.
  • He went door to door, asking family heads to allow their daughters to be enrolled in schools. Across Bengal, he opened 35 women’s schools and succeeded in enrolling 1300 students.
  • To support women education, he organized a fund called Nari Shiksha Bhandar.
  • He supported Drinkwater Bethune to establish the first permanent girls’ school in India, the Bethune School.
  • Vidyasagar spent the last 18 years of his life living among Santhal tribals in present day Jharkhand, where he started what is possibly India’s first school for Santhal girls.
  • He expressed his ideas through regular articles he wrote for periodicals and newspapers. He was associated with prestigious journalistic publications like ‘Tattwabodhini Patrika’, ‘Somprakash’, ‘Sarbashubhankari Patrika’ and ‘Hindu Patriot’.

Other literary works:

  • Vidyasagar’s Barna Parichay (an introduction to the Bengali alphabet) is still the first book a Bengali child is handed more than 160 years after it was written.
  • His contribution to the alphabet, translation of several Sanskrit books, including Kalidas’s Shankuntala, has helped Bengali literature.
  • He wrote two books which interpreted complex notions of Sanskrit Grammar in Bengali language viz. Upakaramonika and Byakaran Koumudi.
  • He established the Sanskrit Press with an aim to produce printed books at affordable prices so that common people could buy them

Raja Ram Mohan Roy:


▪ Raja Ram Mohan Roy is considered as the pioneer of modern Indian Renaissance for the remarkable reforms he brought in the 18th and 19th century India. The elements of modernity in him and the break with tradition are of help to discover Rammohan Roy’s image as the ‘Father of Modern lndia’.

Contribution of Raja Ram Mohan Roy 

Social reforms 

▪ The abolition of the brutal and inhuman Sati Pratha was the most prominent.

▪ His efforts were also instrumental in eradicating the purdah system and child marriage.

▪ Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s name is thus etched forever as a true benefactor of women not just for helping abolish the custom of Sati, but also raising his voice against child marriage and polygamy, while demanding equal inheritance rights for women.

▪ He was also a great opponent of the rigid caste divisions of his time.

▪ He worked for the improvement in the position of women. He advocated widow remarriage and education of women.


▪ He paved the way to revolutionizing education system in India by establishing Hindu College in 1817 along with David Hare which later went on to become one of the best educational institutions in the country producing some of the best minds in India.

▪ His efforts to combine true to the roots theological doctrines along with modern rational lessons saw him establish the Anglo-Vedic School in 1822 followed by the Vedanta College in 1826.


▪ In 1828, Ram Mohan Roy formed the Brahmo Samaj, uniting the Bhramos in Calcutta, a group of people, who had no faith in idol-worship and were against the caste restrictions.

▪ He looked back to a tradition in search of monotheism, and looked forward to a sort of Protestant reformation within the Hindu milieu.

▪ He implied that every religion has a philosophical core, and as for Hinduism it was Vedanta .The Vedanta provided him with the cultural category while his interpretation of it as monotheistic yielded a comprehensive, holistic theory, which provided a comprehensive critique of culture, society and ideology.

▪ Raja’s monotheistic Vedanta provided people with an idea of the paradigms of social change; why one paradigm is better than another. It enabled people to consider the comparative adequacy of ways of life that might claim people’s allegiance. In such humanitarian vision lies Raja’s lure and his share in India’s modernity.

▪ He stressed on rationalism and modern scientific approach.

Journalistic Contributions

▪ Ram Mohan Roy was a staunch supporter of free speech and expression. He fought for the rights of vernacular press.

▪ He also brought out a newspaper in Persian called ‘Miratul- Akhbar’ (the Mirror of News) and a Bengali weekly called ‘Sambad Kaumudi’ (the Moon of Intelligence).


Raja Ram Mohan Roy and his Brahmo Samaj played a vital role in awakening Indian society to the pressing issues plaguing society at that time and also was the forerunner of all social, religious and political movements that happened in the country since.

Sri Narayana Guru:


▪ Narayana Guru is a saint, prophet and social reformer from Kerala. His words and deeds ignited sparks of revolution that led to a remarkable cultural renaissance in the profligate society of Kerala.


Temple entry 

▪ Aravipuram Movement was launched by Sri Narayana Guru in1888. On that day, Sri Narayana Guru defied the religious restrictions traditionally placed on the Ezhava community, and consecrated an idol of Shiva at Aravipuram.

▪ In 1925 Guru supported the famous Vaikom Satyagraha movement, which demanded entry for lower caste people in the Shiva temple at Vaikom and all temples in Kerala.

▪ He redeemed the downtrodden human from the curse of casteism. ‘Oneness of Humanity’ was his dream.

▪ His famous message “One Caste, One Religion and One God to Mankind”, which was a clarion call to the mankind to unite, instead of breaking down in the name of caste and religion.

▪ He believed that other than the freedom from the curse of untouchability, the downtrodden classes needed education and wealth. They needed opportunities to improve like others.

▪ Sri Narayana Guru articulated a doctrine aimed at improving the Ezhavas’ social position. He urged them to abandon the occupation of toddy-tapping and to abstain from liquor.

▪ He formed a programme of action known as the Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam

▪ The Yogam took up several issues, including the right of admission to public schools, recruitment to government employment, entry into temples, on roads and political representation.

▪ Guru did not approve polygamy and polyandry. He discouraged some unnecessary traditions in marriage.


▪ He considered all religions to be a way for man’s goodness and welfare and thus are equal.

He held that the essence of all religions is one and the same, and advocated the comparative study of all faiths.


▪ Sree Narayana Guru had proficiency in Sanskrit, Malayalam and Tamil and had written by way of hymns of prayer to different gods in all three languages, translations, philosophy and teachings.

▪ Some of the notable ones are “Atmopadesa Sathakam” and “Darsanamala” which give in condensed way the moral and spiritual principles.

▪ Sree Narayana Guru has made a silent revolution, without any blood shed or hatred, but with evoking respect and cooperation from all concerned.



  • In nineteenth century, the women question was center of all socio-religious reform movements. The reformist and renaissance ideals of the enlightenment in Europe have usually been cited by historians as the inspiration for social reforms initiated in nineteenth century India
  • Under socio-religious reform movements reformers raised their voice against the evil practices towards women of Indian societies such as sati, child marriage, prohibition of widow remarriage, polygamy, dowry and devadasi system. Educated women who were now becoming conscious of their natural rights, also came forward to liberate the rest of the women

Role of Indian women in socio religious reform movements of the nineteenth century 

  • Pandita Ramabhai:-
    • Many woman reformers such as Pundita Ramabai also helped the cause of women’s upliftmen
    • She advocated women’s education and shed light on the plight of child brides and child widows.
    • She founded the Arya Mahila Sabha, which is known as the first feminist organisation in India. Its aim was to provide a support network for newly educated women
    • She set up Mukti Mission for young widows, and Krupa Sadan and Sharda Sadan in 1889 for destitute women
    • She founded the Sharda Sadan, a school for widows. Her greatest legacy was her effort, the first in India, to educate widows.
  • Novelists like Nirupama Devi and Anurupa Devi :-
    • They started getting referred to in the Bengali literary circles and were even given memberships of literary clubs which were dominated by men.
  • Swarnakumari deb:-
    • Imitating Ramabai’s Arya Mahila Samaj, elite women formed similar sectarian and local organizations. In 1886, Swarnakumari Debi Rabindranath Tagore’s sister, started Sakhi Samiti (Women’s Friendship League)to spread knowledge among women and widows.
  • Lilabati Mitra helped Bidyasagar in 1890s to perform widow re-marriages by sheltering willing grooms.
  • Kamini Roy was active in the Ilbert Bill agitation, organising girls at the Bethune School to hold meetings and wear badges supporting the Bill. She worked with Banga Mahila Samiti in their social reform projects.
    • She was a feminist at an age when merely getting educated was a taboo for a woman.
  • Savitrabhai phule along with her husband founded the first girls school in Pune run by native Indians at Bhide Wada in 1848.She worked to abolish discrimination and unfair treatment of people based on caste and gender
  • Gowri laxmi Bayi:-
    • In Kerala by a Royal Proclamation in 1812 she abolished the purchase and sale of all slaves and granted them independence excepting those attached to the soil for agricultural purposes.
    • Castes like the Ezhavas, Kaniyans etc. were given independence from their Lords. A restriction put on the Sudras and others regarding the wearing of gold and silver ornaments was removed.
  • Women’s organisations:-
    • The primary goals of most women’s associations were to improve women’s literacy and health by abolishing child marriage, enforced widowhood, and purdah.
    • By the late nineteenth century several women’s organisations began to be formed in several parts of India such as the Banga Mahila Samaj and the Aghorekamini Nari Samiti in Bengal, the Satara Abalonnati Sabha in Maharashtra, the Mahila Seva Samaj in Bangalore etc.
      • Some of these were practical social reform movements and others were discussion platforms for women .
    • Education was foremost on their list, followed by child marriage and the problems of widows and dowry.
    • Aghorekamini Nari Samiti was based on the principle of self help and trained women to attend the sick and spread education amongst themselves.
      • Aghorekamini Nari Samiti mobilised opinions against the ill-treatment of women workers by the tea planters.
    • Banga Mahila Vidyalaya(Bengali Women’s College) :-
      • It was the first women’s liberal arts college in India. Established at Kolkata in 1876, by the liberal section of the Brahmo Samaj, it was successor of Hindu Mahila Vidyalaya (School of Hindu Women) set up in 1873 by Annette Akroyd.
      • Banga Mahila Vidyalaya was merged with Bethune College in 1878.

Therefore, women played a significant role in bringing out social reforms when the society was still largely conservative. Slowly more women got included in the movement and ultimately participated in huge numbers in the Indian freedom struggle as well.