DEV SAMĀJ, a religious and social reform society, was founded on 16 February 1887 in Lahore by Paṇḍit Shiv Nārāyaṇ Agnihotrī (1850-1929). The story of the Dev Samāj is in essence the story of its founder. Paṇḍit Agnihotrī was born in the village of Akbarpur, in Uttar Pradesh, on 20 December 1850. At sixteen he went to Thomson College of Engineering at Roorkee. In November 1873, he moved to Lahore taking a position as drawing master at the Government College. Paṇḍit Agnihotrī, who had already begun seriously to question orthodox Hinduism through the influence of Munshī Kanhayālāl Alakhdhārī and his personal gurū, Paṇḍit Shiv Dayāl, soon joined the Lahore Brahmo Samāj. He was a dramatic and effective speaker, a prolific writer of tracts and pamphlets and a successful journalist. In all, he wrote nearly 300 books and pamphlets during his lifetime.
Initially Paṇḍit Agnihotrī accepted the rational, eclectic, and reformist ideology of the Brahmo Samāj. He wrote and spoke in favour of marriage reform, against the evils of child marriage, and supported vegetarianism. In 1877, he met Swāmī Dayānand and although they agreed on many of the values commonly shared, Dayānand and Agnihotrī clashed persistently. In the years that followed, Paṇḍit Agnihotrī defended Brahmo ideals in opposition to the new Ārya Samāj. Agnihotrī also defended Sikhism against attacks made by the Ārya Samāj in 1888-89.
Agnihotrī dedicated more and more of his energy to the Brahmo cause. He became a Brahmo missionary travelling extensively throughout the Punjab and, finally, on 20 December 1882, he took sannyās with the new name, Satyānand Agnihotrī. He decided to devote his entire life to religious pursuit and social service. Factional strife, competition for leadership, differences over beliefs and the resulting tensions began to impinge on Agnihotrī's commitment to the Brahmo Samāj. He found himself less and less comfortable within the Brahmo movement, and finally resigned from the Punjab Brahmo Samāj in 1886.
The founding of the Dev Samāj in 1887 provided Agnihotrī with a new opening. By the end of 1887, he and his new organization began to move away from the central ideology of the Brahmo Samāj. In place of the eclectic rationalism of the Brahmos based on a reinterpretation of traditional Hindu texts, the Dev Samāj made the 'Gurū' Paṇḍit Agnihotrī, and his own personal revelations the central principle. "Book revelations" whether Ārya, Brahmo, Christian, or Islamic were rejected; the 'gurū' became all. In 1892, Agnihotrī initiated a policy of dual worship, both of himself and of God. Three years later the worship of God ended, leaving only the 'Gurū' Paṇḍit Agnihotrī as the focus of worship and of all ideological innovation.
Although the Dev Samāj followed patterns of leadership and legitimization different from those of other reform movements within Punjabi Hinduism, its ideology remained similar. As with the Brahmos and Āryas, the Dev Samāj rejected contemporary Hinduism. Its rituals and deities were replaced by worship of the true 'Gurū, ' Dev Bhagvān Ātmā. All caste restrictions were rejected. Members of the Dev Samāj were expected to practise interdining and intercaste marriage. Paṇḍit Agnihotrī also sought to change the role of women through the elimination of child marriage; he set the approved age of marriage at twenty for boys and sixteen for girls. He discouraged excessive dowries, pardah, and the traditional mourning rites carried out by Punjabi women. Agnihotrī taught that widow marriage was acceptable and married a widow himself following the death of his first wife. The Dev Samāj maintained that women as well as men should be educated and, to further this end, it opened a co-educational school at Mogā on 29 October 1899. This later became the Dev Samāj High School, and in 1901 the Samāj opened a separate girls' school, the Dev Samāj Bālikā Vidyālayā. Over the years the Dev Samāj founded other schools and colleges in many parts of the Punjab.
Above all else, the Dev Samāj taught a strongly moral doctrine. Its members were urged to be completely honest in both their public and private lives. They should not lie, steal, cheat, accept bribes, or gamble. They should take neither liquor nor drugs and should practise strict vegetarianism. The Samāj members were divided into three classes, Sahāyaks, or sympathizers and Navajīvan Yāftās, those who had found a new life. The former joined the Dev Samāj, paid Rs 10 per year, and accepted the leadership of Paṇḍit Agnihotrī. The latter members were expected to follow the strict moral code of the Dev Samāj, to reject all "false" religious symbols and to donate one-tenth of their income to the Samāj. A third section of members included those who had taken a strict religious vow dedicating themselves to the pursuit of Dev Dharam.
The strict moral code of the Dev Dharam appealed to educated Punjabis, who came to make up the membership of the Samāj. Dev Samājīs were almost all educated, literate men and even a large percentage of their women were literate. Their position in society gave the movement far greater influence than sheer numbers would allow. The Samāj was always an elite organization even at its peak during the 1920's. Following the death of Paṇḍit Agnihotrī the movement declined, but did not disappear. Partition saw the loss of its properties in Lahore and as a result the centre of the movement shifted to the Mogā-Fīrozpur area where it still continues to adhere to the Vigyān Mūlak Dharam, the Science Grounded Religion of Paṇḍit Śhiv Nārāyaṇ Agnihotrī.
Kenneth W. Jones