Social Reformers of India


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Prelims: History of India and the Indian National Movement.

Mains: Modern Indian history from about the middle of the 18th century until the present- significant events, personalities, issues, The Freedom Struggle – its various stages and important contributors /contributions from different parts of the country.

Social Reformers of India: The 19th century in India witnessed the emergence of remarkable socio-religious reform leaders who spearheaded significant changes in society. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, and Sayyid Ahmed Khan and females like Savitribai Phule, Pandita Ramabai, Sister Nivedita etc were prominent figures who championed social justice, rationality, and progress. They passionately challenged outdated customs and practices, such as Sati, child marriage, and discrimination against women. 

These reformers advocated for widow remarriage, women's education, and the promotion of critical thinking. Through their efforts and socio-religious movements like the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj, they laid the groundwork for a more inclusive and enlightened India, fostering ideals of social equality, education, and religious tolerance that continue to resonate in the country's cultural fabric.

Who is a Social Reformer?

People in India have always been vocal when they notice something is wrong. There are countless accounts of social reforms in India. 

  • There are people whose entire lives have been devoted to advancing society. They have had a clear sense of their mission and vision. These people came to be known as “Social Reformers”
  • A broad term used to describe movements started by members of a community with the intention of changing their society is social reform.
  • These changes frequently focus on fairness and how a society currently functions by committing injustices against certain groups. 
  • A reform movement is a type of social movement that favours gradual change in particular facets of society rather than quick or radical change. A reform movement is distinct from social movements that are more radical, like revolutions. 

List of Social Reformers of India

The contributions of visionary social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, and Swami Dayanand Saraswati were instrumental in shaping the modern Indian Renaissance during the 19th century.

  • These trailblazing leaders spearheaded significant social, educational, and religious reforms, challenging oppressive customs and advocating for equality, women's rights, widow remarriage, and the promotion of rational education.
  • Their enduring impact continues to resonate in India's pursuit of social justice, inclusivity, and progress.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy


Raja Ram Mohan Roy

Early Life: 

- Raja Ram Mohan Roy was born in 1774 in Hooghly district, Bengal Presidency. 

- He got married at the age of nine and later served the East India Company as a clerk. 

- He learned Bengali, Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic. He also took up English, which greatly influenced his spiritual and religious beliefs. 

Social Reforms: 

- He is also known as the Father of the ‘Indian Renaissance’ 

- During the late 18th century, Bengal society was burdened with customs like child marriage, polygamy, and the brutal practice of Sati. 

- Raja Ram Mohan Roy abhorred Sati and raised his voice against it. In 1830, he went to the UK as a Mughal ambassador to protect the ban on Sati by Bengal Sati Regulation, 1829.

- He was a champion of women's rights, working to abolish Sati and advocating against child marriage and polygamy. 

- He also opposed the rigid caste divisions of his time.

Educational Reforms:

- Raja Ram Mohan Roy appreciated English literature and recognised the need for scientific and rational education that was lacking in traditional Indian texts. 

- To address this, he advocated for an English Education System in India, with subjects like Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, and Botany. 

- His educational initiatives included co-founding Hindu College in 1817, which became a prestigious institution, and establishing the Anglo-Vedic School in 1822 and the Vedanta College in 1826.

Religious Contributions: 

- Ram Mohan Roy strongly opposed unnecessary ceremonialism and idolatry advocated by priests. 

- He played a key role in reorganising the Atmiya Sabha (1815) into the Brahma Sabha, a precursor to the Brahmo Samaj (1828). 

- This new movement emphasised monotheism, independence from scriptures, and renunciation of the caste system. 

- Brahmo religious practices were stripped of Hindu ceremonialism and adapted elements from Christian or Islamic prayer practices. 

- The Brahma Samaj became a progressive force driving social reforms in Bengal, particularly advocating for women's education.

Journalistic Contributions:

- A supporter of free speech, Ram Mohan Roy fought for the rights of the vernacular press, advocating their freedom to publish without government interference. 

- He established newspapers 'Mirat-ul-Akhbar' in Persian and 'Sambad Kaumudi' in Bengali. 

- Protested against press control: He asserted that newspapers should remain free and the truth should not be suppressed based on government preferences.

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar

Early Life:

- Ishwar Chandra Bandopadhyaya was born in 1820 in Midnapore district, Bengal. 

- His parents, Thakurdas Bandyopadhyay and Bhagavati Devi, were religious people. 

- In 1826, he went to Calcutta with his father and learned the basics of Sanskrit at a village pathshala.


- Vidyasagar joined Fort William College in 1841 as the Head Pandit in the Sanskrit department. 

- He later became the Principal of "Sanskrit College" after resigning and rejoining due to an altercation with Rasomoy Dutta. 

- In 1855, he assumed the responsibilities of a special inspector of schools, travelling to remote Bengal villages to oversee the quality of education.

Educational Reforms:

- Vidyasagar is credited with remodelling the scholastic system at Sanskrit College, introducing courses in European History, Philosophy, and Science alongside Vedic scriptures. 

- He also changed admission rules, introduced admission and tuition fees, and established the Normal School for teacher training. 

- Advocating for women's education, he opened 35 schools for girls in Bengal and supported the establishment of the first permanent girls' school in India, the Bethune School.

Social Reforms:

- A vocal advocate against women's oppression, Vidyasagar played a pivotal role in the passage of the Hindu Widows' Remarriage Act in 1856, which legalised widow remarriage and provided relief to widows. 

- He challenged Brahminical authorities and presented arguments that proved Vedic scriptures sanctioned widow remarriage. 

- Vidyasagar went beyond advocacy, personally arranging several marriages for child or adolescent widows within respectable families.

Swami Dayanand Saraswati

Swami Dayanand Saraswati

Dayanand Saraswati and Arya Samaj:

- He founded the Arya Samaj in 1875 to steer Hinduism away from fictitious beliefs. 

- The Arya Samaj's principles included love, righteousness, justice, dispelling ignorance (Avidya), and promoting knowledge (Vidya). 

- It encouraged followers to question beliefs and rituals that were not aligned with Vedic principles.

Social Reforms:

- The Arya Samaj actively advocated for widow remarriage and women's education, seeking to eliminate discriminatory practices and provide equal opportunities for women. 

- Dayanand stressed the importance of education for both men and women in fostering social progress.


- Dayanand propounded the idea of “Suddhi”, that the individuals who had converted to other religions, should reconvert toHinduism.

  • However, the Movement was started later in the 1920s, by the Arya Samajists and other orthodox Hindus.

- Dayanand's disciples established the Dayanand Anglo Vedic College Trust and Management Society after his death in 1883, further promoting Vedic knowledge through educational institutions like DAV schools.

Sayyid Ahmed Khan (1817-1898)

Sayyid Ahmed Khan

- Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) was a leading Muslim socialreformer. He was deeply impressed by modern scientific thought and dedicated his life to reconciling it with Islam. 

- Religious reform movements among Muslims were slow to emerge. The upper classes tended to avoid Western education and culture.

- Influence of the Revolt of 1857: After the Revolt of 1857, modern ideas of religious reform began to gain prominence among Muslims.

- Quran as the Authoritative Source: He declared the Quran as the sole authoritative work for Islam, considering all other Islamic writings as secondary. 

  • He interpreted the Quran in the light of contemporary rationalism and science.

- Promotion of Critical Thinking: Throughout his life, Sayyid Ahmad Khan opposed blind obedience to tradition, dependence on custom, and irrationalism. 

  • He urged people to develop critical thinking and freedom of thought, emphasising that civilised life requires freedom of thought.

- Emphasis on Modern Education: Sayyid Ahmad Khan believed that Muslims could improve their religious and social life by embracing modern Western scientific knowledge and culture. 

  • Promoting modern education remained his primary goal, leading to the establishment of the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College in 1875, which later became the Aligarh Muslim University.

- Social Reforms: Khan advocated for progressive social changes in Islam. He urged Muslims to abandon medieval customs and thoughts. 

  • He particularly emphasised raising the status of women in society, advocating for the removal of purdah and promoting education among women. 
  • He also criticised practices like polygamy and easy divorce.

- Political Thought:

  • In the initial phase, he stood for the Hindu-Muslim unity and was nationalistic in his point of view.
  • In his later years, he discouraged his followers from participating in the national movement started by Congress.
  • He felt that more populated and educated Hindus would dominate over the less numerous and less educated Muslims. 
  • Thus, the interests of Hindus and Muslims were different. 
  • Later his idea was carried forward by the believers of the two-nation theory.

- Legacy of Reform: Sayyid Ahmad Khan's reformist zeal left a lasting impact on Muslim society, encouraging them to embrace modern education, critical thinking, and progressive social changes.



Female Social Reformers of India

The important female social reformers of nineteenth-century India were Savitribai Phule, Annie Besant, Pandita Ramabai, Tarabai Shinde, Ramabai Ranade, Fatima Sheikh, Swarnakumari Devi, Sister Nivedita, Kadambini Ganguly, Pandita Ramabai etc. Their developments are explained below.

Savitribai PhuleSavitribai Phule


- A well-known social reformer, educator, and poet of India, Savitribai Phule played a crucial role in the education and empowerment of women. 

- Role in Women's Education and Empowerment:

  • Establishment of Girls' School: In 1848, Jyotirao and Savitribai opened India’s first girls' school in Pune. Savitribai became the first lady teacher in India.
  • Education for the Oppressed: In addition to the girls' school, Jyotirao and Savitribai also started schools for children from the Mang and Mahar castes, who were considered untouchables. 
  • Mahila Seva Mandal: Savitribai started the Mahila Seva Mandal in 1852, aiming to raise awareness among women about their rights, dignity, and social issues.
  •  She founded Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha, a shelter home for pregnant widows.

- Satya Shodak Samaj: She was also associated with a social reform society called ‘Satyashodhak Samaj’ founded by Jyotiba Phule.

- Literary works: 

  • Kavya Phule or the Poetry’s Blossoms (her first collection of poems), 
  • Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar, or The Ocean of Pure Gems

Sister Nivedita


- Sister Nivedita was born as Margaret Elizabeth Noble, an Irish woman who became an ardent follower of Swami Vivekananda and moved to Calcutta, India.

- She was also a vocal advocate of the Independence movement that was gaining ground in the State.

- She was an educationist from a very early age; in India, she was the pioneer in women's education. In North Calcutta, for the upliftment of women, she started a school.

- She visited Midnapore in 1903 to inaugurate the first Akhara (a place of practice for martial arts and physical training)at Miyabazar. It was opened in Mr Abdul Kaddar’s (ex-Deputy Magistrate) house.

- She supported the cultural resistance against the British. She had a significant impact on promoting and reconstructing the "Indianness" of Indian Art as a result of her activities, which were primarily in Calcutta.

- In cooperation with Ananda Coomaraswamy, she defended Indian Art against the British misconception that Indian Art was not original but influenced by Hellenic Art.

- Sister Nivedita urged young artists to avoid being influenced by Western Art in the months after Abanindranath Tagore's establishing of the Bengal School of Art, a cultural movement opposing the imitational style of Western Art.

- She wasinfluential in sending young artists to the caves in Ajanta, Maharashtra, to document the ancient pieces of art and bore their expenses as well. 

Pandita Ramabai Saraswati (1858-1922)

Pandita Ramabai

- Ramabai, a prominent advocate for women's rights and a social reformer, was the only woman in the male-dominated world of gender reforms. 

- She excelled in Sanskrit and was rewarded with titles like 'Pandita' (Scholar) and 'Saraswati' (Goddess of Learning).

- Ramabai travelled extensively in Bengal, addressing women's education and emancipation, drawing on mythological figures of educated and independent women.

- in 1882, she established Arya Mahila Samaj at Poona to educate the women and save them from child marriage and other evil customs.

- She wrote “Stree Dharma Niti” and “The Cry of Indian Women” (both in Marathi) and “High Caste Hindu Women” (in English)

- Ramabai faced resistance when she established the Arya Mahila Samaj in 1882 in Poona, mobilising women and causing hostility.

- She established a home for high-caste Hindu widows and appealed to the Hunter Commission (1882) for women's training in teaching and medicine, enabling them to serve others.

- She founded Sharda Sadan for widows and unmarried girls in 1883. 

- She got the Kaisar-e-Hind Gold medal in 1919.

- She was heavily criticised for the alleged propagation of Christianity.

Annie Besant (1847-1933)

Annie Besant

- Annie Besant, born in London, was a social reformer, theosophist, and Indian independence leader.

- She was an ardent supporter of Irish and Indian Self - Rule.

- She became a theosophist after coming under the influence of Madame Blavatsky of the Theosophical Society.

- The reform movement in India was strengthened by the Theosophical Society as a result of the leadership given to it by Annie Besant.

- In 1914, she transitioned from her educational and socio-religious activities to the political arena after joining Congress.

- In 1916, she started the Home Rule Movement, a parallel to the Tilak’s efforts. 

- She also established the Central Hindu School at Benaras.

PYQs on Social Reformers of India

Q) Who among the following was associated as Secretary with Hindu Female School which later came to be known as Bethune Female School? (UPSC Prelims 2021)

a) Annie Besant

b) Debendranath Tagore

c) Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar

d) Sarojini Naidu

Answer: (c) 

Q) Which of the following statements is/are correct regarding Brahmo Samaj? (UPSC Prelims 2012)

  1. It opposed idolatry.
  2. It denied the need for a priestly class for interpreting the religious texts.
  3. It popularised the doctrine that the Vedas are infallible.

Select the correct answer using the codes given below:

a) 1 only

b) 1 and 2 only

c) 3 only

d) 1, 2 and 3

Answer: (b) 

Q) Annie Besant was (UPSC Prelims 2013)

  1. Responsible for starting the Home Rule Movement
  2. The founder of the Theosophical Society
  3. Once the President of the Indian National Congress

Select the correct statement/statements using the codes given below.

a) 1 only

b) 2 and 3 only

c) 1 and 3 only

d) 1, 2 and 3

Answer: (c)

FAQs on Social Reformers of India

Who were the important social reformers of 19th-century India?

The reformers of the Indian national movement were leaders and activists who played crucial roles in advocating for social, political, and economic reforms and were instrumental in the struggle for India's independence from British rule. It includes Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Swami Dayanand Saraswati and Sayyid Ahmed Khan.

What was the contribution of Raja Ram Mohan Roy to the social reform movement?

One prominent Indian nationalist social reformer was Raja Ram Mohan Roy. He is considered the pioneer of the modern Indian Renaissance and was a key figure in advocating for social reforms, women's rights, and the eradication of regressive customs during the 18th and 19th centuries.

What was the role of social reformers in awakening nationalism in India?

Social reformers in India played a pivotal role in awakening nationalism by promoting cultural identity, fostering national consciousness, challenging oppressive customs, and advocating for education and women's empowerment.

What was the contribution of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar to the social reform movement?

Vidyasagar is credited with remodelling the scholastic system at Sanskrit College, introducing courses in European History, Philosophy, and Science alongside Vedic scriptures. Advocating for women's education, he opened 35 schools for girls in Bengal and supported the establishment of the first permanent girls' school in India, the Bethune School.

What was the contribution of Swami Dayanand Saraswati as a social reformer?

He founded the Arya Samaj in 1875 to steer Hinduism away from fictitious beliefs. The Arya Samaj actively advocated for widow remarriage and women's education, seeking to eliminate discriminatory practices and provide equal opportunities for women. Dayanand stressed the importance of education for both men and women in fostering social progress.