Reformers like Raja Rammohan Roy, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Jyotiba Phule, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Pandita Ramabai understood that ignorance and backwardness in the society was responsible for hindering its progress and development. This realisation was reinforced when they came in contact with the Europeans and found that life was very different in other parts of the world.
When the British missionaries started spreading Christianity, they criticized and questioned many of our social and religious practices. Many of their ideas were accepted by our reformers. The desire to reform the society was so strong that these reformers were now ready to face challenges as well as resistance from the orthodox Indians. They started several movements to bring desirable changes in the society.
These were made possible by enlightened people like Swami Dayanand Saraswati and Raja Ram Mohan Roy. They studied the religious scriptures and criticized the prevalent religious and social practices. According to them, society should be based on the concepts of liberty and equality both for men and women and this was possible only by the spread of modern and scientific education especially among the women.
These movements came to be called socio-religious movement because the reformers felt that no change is possible in a society without reforming the religion.
Since ancient times, Indian society had a caste system which was originally occupation based. Over a period of time, interpretation of religious texts by the upper caste and lack of access to religious scriptures by the lower caste led to several superstitious practices in the name of religion. This also resulted in power being concentrated in upper caste and exploitation of the lower caste.
Hindu society was based on the Varna system, that is, Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. According to this system people were divided on the basis of their occupation. The people who were engaged in praying and worshiping the Gods were categorized as Brahmins. Those who were engaged in wars were called Kshatriyas. Those whose occupation was agriculture and trading were known as Vaishyas and those who used to serve the upper three Varnas were known as Shudras.
This caste system, which was purely based on occupation, had become hereditary. A person born in a particular caste could not change his or her caste even though they might have changed their work. This created inequality in society. It also led to the exploitation of the lower castes. Therefore, caste system had became a major hindrance in the development of a healthy, democratic and progressive society.
Many socio-religious reformers and organizations stepped forward to fight against this social practice. Organizations, such as Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, Prarthana Samaj, Ramakrishna Mission and reformers like Jyotiba Phule, Pandita Ramabai, Sri Narayana Guru, Periyar, Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and many others strongly protested against its rigidity. Most reformers considered the prevalent caste practices
as against the original spirit of the Vedas and other scriptures. They considered the caste system as irrational and unscientific. They felt it was against the basic rules of humanity. The untiring and relentless efforts of the social reformers helped people to become more tolerant towards each other.
Most of the social practices were done in the name of religion. Hence, social reform had no meaning without religious reform. Reformers were deeply rooted in Indian tradition and philosophy and had a sound knowledge of the scriptures. They were able to blend positive Indian values with western ideas and the principles of democracy and equality.
On the basis of this understanding, they challenged the rigidity and superstitious practices in religion. They cited the scriptures to show that the practices prevalent during nineteenth century find no sanction in them. The enlightened and the rationalistic among them questioned the popular religion which was full of superstitions and was exploited by the corrupt priests.
The reformers wanted society to accept the rational and scientific approach. They also believed in the principle of human dignity and social equality of all men and women.
In the 19th century, many children, especially girls, were not sent to school. Education was imparted in traditional Paathshalas, Madrasas, Mosques and Gurukuls. Religious Education was imparted along with subjects like Sanskrit, Grammar, Arithmetic, Religion and Philosophy. Science and technology had no place in the curriculum.
Many superstitious beliefs existed in the society. In certain communities girls were not allowed to be educated. It was thought that educated women would soon become widows after marriage. But in reality lack of education and awareness was the root cause of social and religious backwardness among the Indians. So it was important to promote modern education.
All socio-religious reformers whether Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs or Parsis aimed at the spread of modern education. They believed that education was the most effective tool to awaken and modernize our society.