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Prarthana Samaj – the Social Reforms and Beliefs

Prarthana Samaj was a movement for religious and social reform in Bombay, India, based on earlier reform movements, founded in 1863

Prarthana Samaj or “Prayer Society” in Sanskrit, was a movement for religious and social reform in Bombay, India, based on earlier reform movements. 

Prarthana Samaj was founded in 1863 by the Dadoba Pandurang and his brother Atmaram Pandurang when Keshub Chandra Sen visited Maharashtra. The motive behind it was to make people believe in one God and worship only one God. It became popular after Mahadev Govind Ranade joined. 

The main reformers were the intellectuals who supported reforms of the social system of the Hindus. Kandukuri Veeresalingam, a Telugu reformer and writer, helped it to spread in southern India.

When Prarthana Samaj was founded?1863
Who founded Prarthana Samaj?Dadoba Pandurang
Motive behind Parthana Samaj?Believe in One God and Worship One God
Predecessor of Prarthana Samaj?Paramahansa Sabha

How did Prarthana Samaj start?

The movement was started as a movement for religious and social reform in Maharashtra and much more like Brahmo Samaj. Paramahamsa Sabha was the forerunner of the Prarthana Samaj in Mumbai. Paramahamsa Sabha was a secret society for the promotion of liberal ideas by Ram Balkrishna Jaykar and others in Mumbai. It was secret to avoid the anger of the powerful and orthodox elements.

Comparison with Brahmo Samaj

By comparing with the parallel Brahmo Samaj of Bengal, and the ideals of intellectual or theistic belief and social reform, the Prarthana Samaj(ists) were followers of the great religious tradition of the Marathi Sant Mat like Namdev and Tukaram.

The Brahmo Samaj founders studied many world religions, including ancient Vedic texts, which subsequently were not accepted to be infallible or divine. 

Beliefs of Prarthana Samaj

Although the followers of Prarthana Samaj were devoted theists, they also did not regard the Vedas as divine or infallible. They drew their nourishment from the Hindu scriptures and used the hymns of the old Marathi “poet-saints” in their prayers.

Their ideas trace back to the devotional poems of the Vitthalas as part of the Vaishnava bhakti devotional movements of the thirteenth century in southern Maharashtra.

The Marathi poets had inspired a movement of opposition to the Mughals. But, beyond religious concerns, the primary focus of the Prarthana Samaj was on social and cultural reform.

Social reforms

Prarthana Samaj critically examined the relations between contemporary social and cultural systems and religious beliefs and gave priority to social reform. 

Their comprehensive reform movement has begun to many impressive projects of cultural change and social reform in Western India, such as the improvement of a lot of women and depressed classes, an end to the caste system, abolition of child marriages and infanticide, educational opportunities for women, and remarriage of widows. 

Its success was guided by R. G. Bhandarkar, a noted Sanskrit scholar, Atmaram Pandurang, Narayan Chandavarkar, and Mahadev Govind Ranade. Ranade emphasized that “the reformer must attempt to deal with the whole man and not to carry out reform on one side only”.

Prarthana Samaj Temple

The prayer hall of the Pune Prarthana Samaj, known commonly as the Hari Mandir, stands on a 1,700-square-metre plot in Budhwar Peth that was donated by Justice Ranade in 1878. Under the leadership of Dr R.G. Bhandarkar, the construction of Hari Mandir began in 1907. He made a sizeable contribution towards the cause. Significant contributions also came from Rajashri Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur and Maharaja Sayajirao Gaikwad of Baroda, who were both supporters of social reforms. A large portion of the cost was borne by the Samaj members.

The current premises of the Pune Prarthana Samaj contain a prayer hall, an ashram, and a stupa where the ashes of Dr R.G. Bhandarkar are preserved. On July 6, 1920 (Bhandarkar’s birth anniversary), the foundation stone for the Bhandarkar Ashram was laid by Sir Narayan Ganesh Chandavarkar in remembrance of the services rendered by him. The two-storey structure made of basalt and featuring five arches was built in 1921.

The main temple building is a simple large hall with a porch featuring three arches. The facade is a semi-circular gable (section between two sides of a ridged roof) capped with a finial (decorative fitting at the peak of a gable). Built in grey basalt, the interior of the building has a gallery and a lectern with balconies on three sides. Prayer services are conducted on Sunday evenings, and in conjunction with its principles, there are no idols placed for worship inside. As Shri Dilip Joag, physicist, researcher, and secretary of the Pune branch of the Samaj remarked, ‘In the 1870s, it was a revolution to cleanse religion of all superstitious rituals and pray to a formless God imbued with peace, knowledge, and love.’

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