It is not possible to say with certainty as to when the Arya Samaj movement began to decay. As good a guess as any on this is 1947, the year in which Punjab was partitioned into India and Pakistan. It is probable that this dealt a grievous blow to the Arya Samaj movement because Lahore was where its heart had beat since its inception; with one fell swoop the arteries, connecting it to other parts of its body in India, were thus severed. Whether this decline is terminal is too painful a question to contemplate. Why has the slump occurred?
For a start, the modern practice of democracy must shoulder considerable blame. At its birth, the Arya Samaj movement adopted a constitution informed by the colonial system in place at that time. The legacy, left by the British legal and political system to India, includes the civil law guidance that charities should have in place an electoral system where leaders are elected by members who pay an annual subscription, on a one-member-one-vote basis. There are fatal weaknesses in this because almost anyone can become a member of an Arya Samaj through the ridiculously expedient route of paying a tiny sum of money for annual membership, and by signing a form pledging allegiance to the movement. Svami Dayanand must have recognised this flaw because, before he died, he set up the Arya Paropkarini Sabha to manage his affairs. Crucially, this Sabha was, in legal terms, a Trust – a body run by Trustees who were not elected but appointed by him (presumably on the basis that he fully trusted them to be Aryas in the true sense of the word). Dharma is about one’s conduct being compatible with Vedic ethics – it takes a life-time (if not more) for an Arya to acquire sanskaars that signally cannot be acquired instantly. It is true to say, therefore, that far too many so-called Samaj members, and leaders, have obtained their ‘brand’ identity through this completely insincere approach. Amazingly, it is even possible to purchase life membership in many Arya Samajs – this is sold on the basis that, thereby, one can pay a greatly discounted annual fee! Tragically, such is the extent of the rot that has set in within a movement intended to spread the practice of nishkaam (selfless and unconditional) yajna (altruism). Arya Samajs are therefore dangerously vulnerable to easy infiltration and sabotage by enemies intent on weakening it; could it be that this is mainly why it has been brought to its knees?
Even worse, however, is that this system of organisation spawns leaders who are elected, exactly, as are politicians. Instead of leaders being appointed on merit, they come to the fore via popularity contests. It would be fair to say that the vast majority of Arya Samajs worldwide are and have been led by people whose political skills are far superior to their Vedic morals; greed for office is the result. Is it any surprise therefore that the sublime principles and goals Svami Dayanand Sarasvati intended for preservation and propagation by the society he set up have lapsed into dormancy? For, politicians the world over are, essentially, populist. Becoming popular in order to attract votes does not mix at all well with acting in a principled manner – in fact, are these two behaviours not mutually exclusive? Almost invariably, such people are more willing to compromise key principles (to remain in power) than preserving them. For example, they fail with Principle 9 – no one should be content to promote their own good but should instead look for their own good in promoting the good of all.
Another historically alien concept that has taken root in the Arya Samaj is secular humanism. Atheistic humanism is ultimately antithetic to the Vedic dharma – principles 1, 2 and 3 of the Arya Samaj embrace, celebrate and eulogise God, unambiguously so. Unfortunately, those who are too ignorant or lazy to worship God as taught by the Vedas tend to become followers of the idea of moral relativism that now is in the ascendancy all over the world, and consequently fail in practising principle 5 of the Arya Samaj, that is, all acts should be performed in accordance with dharma by differentiating right conduct from wrong. How can people succeed in this if they are expected to accept that there are no absolute rights and wrongs? And so, we see evils such as abortion, deviant sexual behaviour and mercy killing now being promoted as examples of modern day ethics. Other such aberrations bequeathed by the so-called Age of Enlightenment are the industrialised slaughter of animals, genetic modification of living organisms and a selfish emphasis on human rights rather than selfless responsibilities – almost all resulting from the worship of science having supplanted that of God. This explains why Samajs are following and teaching what is not truly Vedic, but a contaminated or diluted version of Dharma.
For a creed that totally rejects the idea of a hereditary caste system, it is shocking that the Arya Samaj has actually been infected with the notion of Aryan identity being inherited; it is not uncommon for people in positions of leadership uttering with pride ‘my father was a great servant of the Samaj’ or ‘I come from a strong Arya Samaj family’. The intention behind such statements is to offer evidence of sincerity or authenticity of their qualifications for leadership or membership of the organisation, irrespective of the merits – or demerits – of their day-to-day conduct. Nepotism, in the form of reserving committee posts for family members, is a consequence of this. At AGMs or elections, dissensions between factions occur frequently and are settled on the basis of voter turnout. Egos run rampant, with elections being won by those who boast their achievements most volubly. It is a bitter irony that these so-called Aryas are, therefore, operating exactly like the corrupt Brahmins that have been the scourge of India for so long, justifying seizure of the status of dominant and self-perpetuating elite by dint of birth-right, and not on ability or merit.
Capitalism rears up its ugly head in the form of power-seekers trying to show that they have raised the most donations, held the biggest yajnas or organised the erection of big halls or new premises. Officers attend weekly meetings infrequently, but are unfailingly present at meetings of the executive committee. The few sincere servants in each Samaj are taken for granted or sidelined. Devout members are mocked for being unfashionably and unhealthily faithful to God. Hypocrisy is rife, as commonly exemplified by non-vegetarianism, alcohol use or sympathy for non-Vedic religious practices and beliefs. Fund-raising has become an end in itself with sizeable savings being deposited in bank accounts. Herein lies a most sinister danger; because such wealth is a magnet for the corrupt to scurrilously try to acquire power as Samaj officials in order to attempt to embezzle such funds. It is probably true to say that litigation has done more than anything else to weaken the Arya Samaj in India into a state of paralysis. The motive behind such law suits is, usually, pecuniary gain or megalomania. What has been completely forgotten is that the key reason for fund-raising through donations by the public is for the funds to be immediately spent on good causes; instead of making such charitable investments funds are being kept saved in ‘war-chests’ as an end in itself.
Sadly, what has also become vanishingly rare is the spirit of daana and seva; a painful irony in light of the sixth principle of Dayanand’s mission: that the prime object of the Arya Samaj is to do good to the world, that is, to promote the physical, social and spiritual good of all. Philanthropic works or charitable schemes are so few and far between that the Samaj can no longer claim to be meaningfully active in ongoing social reform. By becoming to depend on government funding the DAV schools have sold their soul, for he who pays the piper calls the tune. The Indian State is secular and has no interest whatsoever in prioritising or preserving the teaching of the Vedic Dharma to schoolchildren. For the DAV educational wing of the Arya Samaj to have sold out in this way was a monumental error.
Another fatal mistake made by the movement early in its history was to train and employ priests to run branches of the Samaj. The deathly blow this has delivered is twofold: firstly sustaining an apathy amongst members to study the Vedas (because svaadhyaaya for them begins and ends with listening to the occasional sermon) and secondly because many priests succumb to the evil of monetary gain – ironically one of the evils of Puranic Hinduism that Dayanand wanted to stamp out most of all. The worst consequence of this is that the weekly agnihotra has become a meaningless religious ritual not dissimilar to attending a temple to worship an idol of God (in this case the idol being a fire). This hugely important point needs further explanation. Devayajna is an act the daily performance of which is encouraged by the Vedas; this act of sacrifice is to be carried out at home for spiritual and environmental cleansing. Instead, the vast majority of Samajists see fit to observe yajna being conducted by a priest as their main contribution towards practising the Vedic dharma. Priests encourage this non-performance when their duty is actually as teachers, that is, to teach and propagate the domiciliary performance of yajna in community households. Lay members capable of conducting homa are vanishingly rare. So, purohits trained in Arya Samaj Gurukuls, with the intention of spreading the Vedic light, actually end up working to maintain darkness in community life. This entirely thwarts not only the third principle of the Arya Samaj, namely, that it is the duty of every Arya to read, study and teach the Vedas in order to deliver the ideal of krinvanto vishvam aryam – making all humanity noble by cleansing society of wrong beliefs about God but even more importantly, failing with the seventh principle of the Arya Samaj – instilling a sense of devotion to duty, the duty to make the world a better place by promoting justice, morality and fraternal love.
The sad conclusion is that the Arya Samaj movement has, effectively, become yet another sect. It was Dayanand’s intention to defeat sectarianism by uniting the entire human family and even having the lofty aspiration of a world with one country and one government. Instead, Samajs behave as do other religions, such as, having their own church or temple as well as their own tribal identity. Although communal worship is an essential means for promoting social cohesion, it should not be an end in itself. Samajs were intended to function as adult education colleges aimed at training congregation members to (i) practise the five mahayajnas at home and (ii) go out into the world to spread the word of the Vedas. Instead, members retreat inwards – by seeing their role as no more than attending a communal havan as their main act of worship. It cannot be emphasised enough that the main cause of this is having priests in situ. The great Vedic age dating back to six thousand years ago was based on preachers acting as atithis. These were ascetics with no fixed abode who served the world by delivering Vedic education by, selflessly and dedicatedly, visiting place to place. Our salaried priests, indolently, do the exact opposite (other than making money by conducting weddings and funerals).
The great philosopher Aristotle judged democracy to be the worst type of government. He argued that suffrage is a type of mob rule. Certainly, this is true for what has happened to the Arya Samaj movement – a body once great enough to play a key role in securing independence for India but now being led into irrelevance by unprincipled politicians working in cahoots with salaried priests. Ultimately, the grass-root ‘members’ must take the blame for this downfall because of their individual diffidence and disinclination towards either practising the Vedic Dharma with dedication and diligence or, more importantly, seeing it as a major priority that the upbringing of their children is founded upon the sixteen sanskaars. A key failing is that very few young people attend Arya Samaj meetings regularly; ultimately this is down to how parents bring up their children from infancy and whether parents bother with the Samaj themselves. Furthermore, income received from donations is embarrassingly low – the Arya Samaj movement is, effectively, failing with fund-raising. The format of the 3-hour long satsang is anachronistic i.e. belongs to a bygone era of 125 years ago. Arya Samajs are are failing to both spread Dayanand’s teachings as well as at putting them into a 21st century context. A measure of the extent of the decline is that the websites of most branches are either quite primitive or not regularly updated; or both.
How Dayanand’s mission can be revived and resurrected is a most forbidding challenge that needs to be addressed urgently.