Keshab was the leader of the Brahmo Samaj, one of the two great movements
that, during the latter part of the nineteenth century, played an
important part in shaping the course of the renascence of India. The founder
of the Brahmo movement had been the great Raja Rammohan Roy (1774-1833).
Though born in an orthodox brahmin family, Rammohan Roy had
shown great sympathy for Islam and Christianity. He had gone to Tibet in
search of the Buddhist mysteries. He had extracted from Christianity its
ethical system, but had rejected the divinity of Christ as he had denied the
Hindu Incarnations. The religion of Islam influenced him, to a great extent,
in the formulation of his monotheistic doctrines. But he always went back
to the Vedas for his spiritual inspiration. The Brahmo Samaj, which he
founded in 1828, was dedicated to the "worship and adoration of the Eternal,
the Unsearchable, the Immutable Being, who is the Author and Preserver of
the Universe". The Samaj was open to all without distinction of colour,
creed, caste, nation, or religion.
The real organizer of the Samaj was Devendranath Tagore (1817-1905), the father of the poet Rabindranath. His physical and spiritual beauty, aristocratic aloofness, penetrating intellect, and poetic sensibility made him the foremost leader of the educated Bengalis. These addressed him by the respectful epithet of Maharshi, the "Great Seer". The Maharshi was a Sanskrit scholar and, unlike Raja Rammohan Roy, drew his inspiration entirely from the Upanishads. He was an implacable enemy of image worship ship and also fought to stop the infiltration of Christian ideas into the Samaj. He gave the movement its faith and ritual. Under his influence the Brahmo Samaj professed One Self-existent Supreme Being who had created the universe out of nothing, the God of Truth, Infinite Wisdom, Goodness, and Power, the Eternal and Omnipotent, the One without a Second. Man should love Him and do His will, believe in Him and worship Him, and thus merit salvation in the world to come.
By far the ablest leader of the Brahmo movement was Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-1884). Unlike Raja Rammohan Roy and Devendranath Tagore, Keshab was born of a middle-class Bengali family and had been brought up in an English school. He did not know Sanskrit and very soon broke away from the popular Hindu religion. Even at an early age he came under the spell of Christ and professed to have experienced the special favour of John the Baptist, Christ, and St. Paul. When he strove to introduce Christ to the Brahmo Samaj, a rupture became inevitable with Devendranath. In 1868 Keshab broke with the older leader and founded the Brahmo Samaj of India, Devendra retaining leadership of the first Brahmo Samaj, now called the Adi Samaj.
Keshab possessed a complex nature. When passing through a great moral crisis, he spent much of his time in solitude and felt that he heard the voice of God, When a devotional form of worship was introduced into the Brahmo Samaj, he spent hours in singing kirtan with his followers. He visited England land in 1870 and impressed the English people with his musical voice, his simple English, and his spiritual fervour. He was entertained by Queen Victoria. Returning to India, he founded centres of the Brahmo Samaj in various parts of the country. Not unlike a professor of comparative religion in a European university, he began to discover, about the time of his first contact with Sri Ramakrishna, the harmony of religions. He became sympathetic toward the Hindu gods and goddesses, explaining them in a liberal fashion. Further, he believed that he was called by God to dictate to the world God's newly revealed law, the New Dispensation, the Navavidhan.
In 1878 a schism divided Keshab's Samaj. Some of his influential followers accused him of infringing the Brahmo principles by marrying his daughter to a wealthy man before she had attained the marriageable age approved by the Samaj. This group seceded and established the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, Keshab remaining the leader of the Navavidhan. Keshab now began to be drawn more and more toward the Christ ideal, though under the influence of Sri Ramakrishna his devotion to the Divine Mother also deepened. His mental oscillation between Christ and the Divine Mother of Hinduism found no position of rest. In Bengal and some other parts of India the Brahmo movement took the form of unitarian Christianity, scoffed at Hindu rituals, and preached a crusade against image worship. Influenced by Western culture, it declared the supremacy of reason, advocated the ideals of the French Revolution, abolished the caste-system among its own members, stood for the emancipation of women, agitated for the abolition of early marriage, sanctioned the remarriage of widows, and encouraged various educational and social-reform movements. The immediate effect of the Brahmo movement in Bengal was the checking of the proselytizing activities of the Christian missionaries. It also raised Indian culture in the estimation of its English masters. But it was an intellectual and eclectic religious ferment born of the necessity of the time. Unlike Hinduism, it was not founded on the deep inner experiences of sages and prophets. Its influence was confined to a comparatively few educated men and women of the country, and the vast masses of the Hindus remained outside it. It sounded monotonously only one of the notes in the rich gamut of the Eternal Religion of the Hindus.