Following are the significant religious reformers of modern India −
Ramakrishna Parmhansa (1834-1886) was a saintly person who sought religious salvation in the traditional ways of renunciation, meditation, and devotion (bhakti).
Parmhansa, again and again, emphasized that there were many roads to God and salvation and that service of man was service of God, for man was the embodiment of God.
Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), a disciple of Ramakrishan Parmhansa popularized his religious message and tried to put it in a form that would suit the needs of contemporary Indian society.
Swami Vivekananda said, “Knowledge unaccompanied by action in the actual world in which we lived was useless.”
In 1898, Swami Vivekananda wrote – “For our own motherland a junction of the two great systems, Hinduism and Islam … is the only hope.”
Vivekananda condemned the caste system and the current Hindu emphasis on rituals, ceremonies, and superstitions, and urged the people to imbibe the spirit of liberty, equality, and free thinking.
To the educated Indians, Swami Vivekananda said, “So long as the millions live in hunger and ignorance, I hold everyman a traitor who having been educated at their expense, pays not the least heed to them.”
In 1896, Vivekananda founded the Ramakrishna Mission to carry on humanitarian relief and social work.
The Mission had many branches in different parts of the country and carried on social service by opening schools, hospitals, and dispensaries, orphanages, libraries, etc.
Arya Samaj was founded in 1875 by Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1824-1883).
Swami Dayanand believed that selfish and ignorant priests had perverted Hindu religion with the aid of the Puranas, which he said were full of false teachings.
Swami Dayanand rejected all later religious thought if it conflicted with the Vedas. His total dependence on the Vedas and their infallibility gave his teachings an orthodox coloring.
Swami Dayanand was opposed to idolatry, ritual, and priesthood and particularly to the prevalent caste practices and popular Hinduism as preached by brahmins.
Some of Swami Dayanand's followers later started a network of schools and colleges in the country to impart education on western lines; Lala Hansraj played a leading part in this effort.
On the other hand, in 1902, Swami Shradhananda started the Gurukul near Hardwar to propagate the most traditional ideals of education.
The Mohammedan Literary Society was founded at Calcutta in 1863. This Society promoted discussion of religious, social, and political questions in the light of modern ideas and encouraged upper and middle class Muslims to take to western education.
The most important reformer among the Muslims was Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898). He was tremendously impressed by modern scientific thought and worked all his life to reconcile it with Islam.
Sayyid Ahmad Khan, first of all, declared that the Quran alone was the authoritative work for Islam and all other Islamic writings were secondary.
Sayyid Ahmad Khan urged the people to develop a critical approach and freedom of thought. He said, "so long as freedom of thought is not developed, there can be no civilized life."
He also warned against fanaticism, narrow-mindedness, and exclusiveness, and urged students and others to be broadminded and tolerant. A closed mind, he said, was the hallmark of social and intellectual backwardness.
Therefore promotion of modern education remained his first task throughout his life. As an official, he founded schools in many towns and had many western books translated into Urdu.
In 1875, Sayyid Ahmad Khan founded the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh as a center for spreading western sciences and culture. Later, this College grew into the Aligarh Muslim University.
Sayyd Ahmad Khan was a great believer in religious toleration. He believed that all religions had a certain underlying unity, which could be called practical morality. Believing that a person's religion was his or her private affair, he roundly condemned any sign of religious bigotry in personal relations. He was also opposed to communal friction. He appealed to Hindus and Muslims to unite.
Sayyid Ahmad Khan wrote in favor of raising the women's status in society and advocated removal of purdah and spread of education among women. He also condemned the customs of polygamy and easy divorce.
Sayyid Ahmad Khan was helped by a band of loyal followers who are collectively described as the Aligarh School.
One of the greatest poets of modern India, Muhammad Iqbal (1876- 1938) also profoundly influenced by his poetry, the philosophical and religious outlook of the younger generation of Muslims as well as of Hindus.
Iqbal was basically a humanist. In fact, he raised human action to the status of a prime virtue.