Those who were influenced by and followed Dayananda included Madam Cama, Pandit Lekh Ram, Swami Shraddhanand, Pandit Guru Dutt Vidyarthi, Shyamji Krishna Varma (who established India House in England for Freedom fighters,) Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Lala Hardayal, Madan Lal Dhingra, Ram Prasad Bismil, Mahadev Govind Ranade Swami Shraddhanand, Mahatma Hansraj, Lala Lajpat Rai, and others. One of his most influential works is the book Satyarth Prakash, which contributed to the Indian independence movement.
He was a sanyasi (ascetic) from boyhood, and a scholar. He believed in the infallible authority of the Vedas. Maharshi Dayananda advocated the doctrine of Karma and Reincarnation. He emphasized the Vedic ideals of brahmacharya, including celibacy and devotion to God.
Among Maharshi Dayananda's contributions are his promoting of the equal rights for women, such as the right to education and reading of Indian scriptures, and his commentary on the Vedas from Vedic Sanskrit in Sanskrit as well as in Hindi.
Dayananda Saraswati was born on the 10th day of waning moon in the month of Purnimanta Falguna (either the 12 or 24 February 1824) on the tithi to a Hindu family in Jeevapar Tankara, Kathiawad region (now Rajkot district of Gujarat.) His original name was Mul Shankar because he was born in Dhanu Rashi and Mul Nakshatra. His father was Karshanji Lalji Tiwari, a wealthy tax collector, and mother Amrutbai. His father also served as the head of an eminent Hindu family of the village. As such Dayanand led a comfortable early life, learning Sanskrit and studying the Vedas and other religious texts.
When he was eight years old, his Yajnopavita Sanskara ceremony was performed, marking his entry into formal education. His father was a follower of Shiva and taught him the ways to impress Shiva. He was also taught the importance of keeping fasts. On the occasion of Shivratri, Dayananda sat awake the whole night in obedience to Shiva. On one of these fasts, he saw a mouse eating the offerings and running over the idol's body. After seeing this, he questioned that if Shiva could not defend himself against a mouse, then how could he be the savior of the massive world.
The deaths of his younger sister and his uncle from cholera caused Dayananda to ponder the meaning of life and death. He began asking questions which worried his parents. He was engaged in his early teens, but he decided marriage was not for him and ran away from home in 1846.
Dayananda Saraswati spent nearly twenty-five years, from 1845 to 1869, as a wandering ascetic, searching for religious truth. He gave up material goods and lived a life of self-denial, devoting himself to spiritual pursuits in forests, retreats in the Himalayan Mountains, and pilgrimage sites in northern India. During these years he practiced various forms of yoga and became a disciple of a religious teacher named Virajanand Dandeesha. Virajanand believed that Hinduism had strayed from its historical roots and that many of its practices had become impure. Dayananda Sarasvati promised Virajanand that he would devote his life to restoring the rightful place of the Vedas in the Hindu faith.
Dayanand's mission was to ask humankind for universal brotherhood through nobility as stated in the Vedas. He believed that Hinduism had been corrupted by divergence from the founding principles of the Vedas and that Hindus had been misled by the priesthood for the priests' self-aggrandizement. For this mission, he founded the Arya Samaj, enunciating the Ten Universal Principles as a code for Universalism, called Krinvanto Vishwaryam. With these principles, he intended the whole world to be an abode for Nobles (Aryas).
His next step was to reform Hinduism with a new dedication to God. He traveled the country challenging religious scholars and priests to discussions, winning repeatedly through the strength of his arguments and knowledge of Sanskrit and Vedas. Hindu priests discouraged the laity from reading Vedic scriptures, and encouraged rituals, such as bathing in the Ganges River and feeding of priests on anniversaries, which Dayananda pronounced as superstitions or self-serving practices. By exhorting the nation to reject such superstitious notions, his aim was to educate the nation to return to the teachings of the Vadis, and to follow the Vadic way of life. He also exhorted the Hindu nation to accept social reforms, including the importance of Cows for national prosperity as well as the adoption of Hindi as the national language for national integration. Through his daily life and practice of yoga and asanas, teachings, preaching, sermons and writings, he inspired the Hindu nation to aspire to Swarajya (self governance), nationalism, and spiritualism. He advocated the equal rights and respects to women and advocated for the education of all children, regardless of gender..
Swami Dayanand also logical, scientific and critical analyses of faiths including Christianity & Islam, as well as of other Indian faiths like Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. In addition to discouraging idolatry in Hinduism, he was also against what he considered to be the corruption of the true and pure faith in his own country. Unlike many other reform movements of his times within Hinduism, the Arya Samaj's appeal was addressed not only to the educated few in India, but to the world as a whole as evidenced in the sixth principle of the Arya Samaj. As a result, his teachings professed universalism for all the living beings and not for any particular sect, faith, community or nation.
Arya Samaj allows and encourages converts to Hinduism. Dayananda's concept of dharma is stated in the "Beliefs and Disbeliefs" section of Satyartha Prakash, he says:
"I accept as Dharma whatever is in full conformity with impartial justice, truthfulness and the like; that which is not opposed to the teachings of God as embodied in the Vedas. Whatever is not free from partiality and is unjust, partaking of untruth and the like, and opposed to the teachings of God as embodied in the Vedas—that I hold as adharma."
"He, who after careful thinking, is ever ready to accept truth and reject falsehood; who counts the happiness of others as he does that of his own self, him I call just."
Dayananda's Vedic message emphasized respect and reverence for other human beings, supported by the Vedic notion of the divine nature of the individual. In the ten principles of the Arya Samaj, he enshrined the idea that "All actions should be performed with the prime objective of benefiting mankind", as opposed to following dogmatic rituals or revering idols and symbols. The first five principles speak of Truth, while the last five speak of a society with nobility, civics, co-living, and disciplined life. In his own life, he interpreted moksha to be a lower calling, as it argued for benefits to the individual, rather than calling to emancipate others.
Dayananda's "back to the Vedas" message influenced many thinkers and philosophers the world over.
Dayanand is recorded to have been active since he was 14, which time he was able to recite religious verses and teach about them. He was respected at the time for taking parts in religious debates. His debates were attended by relatively large crowd of the public.
One of the most important debates took place on 22 October 1869 in Varanasi, where he won a debate against 27 scholars and approximately 12 expert pandits. The debate recorded to have been attended by over 50,000 people. The main topic was "Do the Vedas uphold deity worship?"
Swami Dayananda Saraswati's creations, the Arya Samaj, condemns practices of several different religions and communities, including such practices as idol worship, animal sacrifice, pilgrimages, priest craft, offerings made in temples, the castes, child marriages, meat eating and discrimination against women. He argues that all of these practices run contrary to good sense and the wisdom of the Vedas. The Arya Samaj discourages dogma and symbolism and encourages skepticism in beliefs that run contrary to common sense and logic.
He severely criticized the practice what he considered superstitions, including sorcery, and astrology, which were prevalent in India at the time. Below are several quotes from his book, Sathyarth Prakash:
"They should also counsel then against all things that lead to superstition, and are opposed to true religion and science, so that they may never give credence to such imaginary things as ghosts(Bhuts) and spirits (Preta)."
"All alchemists, magicians, sorcerers, wizards, spiritists, etc. are cheats and all their practices should be looked upon as nothing but downright fraud. Young people should be well counseled against all these frauds, in their very childhood, so that they may not suffer through being duped by any unprincipled person."
On Astrology, he wrote,
when these ignorant people go to an astrologer and say " O Sir! What is wrong with this person'? He replies "The sun and other stars are maleficent to him. If you were to perform a propitiatory ceremony, or have magic formulas chanted, or prayers said, or specific acts of charity done, he will recover. Otherwise I should not be surprised, even if he were to lose his life after a long period of suffering."
Inquirer - Well, Mr. Astrologer, you know, the sun and other stars are but inanimate things like this earth of ours. They can do nothing but give light, heat, etc. Do you take them for conscious being possessed of human passions, of pleasure and anger, that when offended, bring on pain and misery, and when propitiated, bestow happiness on human beings?
Astrologer - Is it not through the influence of stars, then, that some people are rich and others poor, some are rulers, whilst other are their subjects?
Inq. - No, it is all the result of their deeds….good or bad.
Ast. - Is the Science of stars untrue then?
He makes a clear distinction between jyotisha shaastra and astrology, calling astrology a fraud.
"Thereafter, they should thoroughly study the Jyotisha Shaastra - which includes Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry, Geography, Geology and astronomy in two years. They should also have practical training in these Sciences, learn the proper handling of instruments, master their mechanism, and know how to use them. But they should regard Astrology - which treats of the influence of stars and constellation on the destinies of man, of auspiciousness and nonauspiciousness of time, of horoscopes, etc. - as a fraud, and never learn or teach any books on this subject.
Dayanand Saraswati is noted to have thoroughly studied religions other than Hinduism, including Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, Sikhism, and others. He described these religions in the chapters of his book Satyarth Prakash, though his analysis seemed critical.
He viewed Islam to be waging wars and immorality. He doubted that Islam had anything to do with the God, and questioned why a God would hate every non-believer, allowing slaughter of animals, and command Muhammad to slaughter innocent people.
He further described Muhammad as "imposter", and one who held out "a bait to men and women, in the name of God, to compass his own selfish needs". He regarded Quran as "Not the Word of God. It is a human work. Hence it cannot be believed in".
His analysis of Bible is based on the comparison with scientific evidences, morality, and other properties, though he states that the Bible contains many stories and precepts that are immoral, praising cruelty, deceit and that encourage sin. One notes many discrepancies and fallacies of logic after reading Chapter XIII of Satyarth Prakash, showing e.g that God fearing Adam eating the fruit of life and becoming his equal displays jealousy. His critique has shown many logical fallacies in the Bible, and throughout he asserts that the events depicted in the Bible portray God as a man rather than an Omniscient, Omnipotent or Complete being.
He opposed the perpetual virginity of Mary, he added that such doctrines are simply against the nature of law, and that God will never break his own law because God is Omniscient and infallible.
The Arya Samaj journal, The Regenerator of the Aryavata, called Christian missionaries "pernicious" and "foul".
He regarded Guru Nanak as "not much literate", who was quite ignorant about the Vedas, Sanskrit, the Shashtras. Otherwise, according to Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Guru Nanak wouldn't be mistaken with words. A Sikh scholar wrote a response, to which Dayanand Saraswati replied that his opinion had undergone a change after having visited the Punjab, and the remarks about Sikhism would be removed in the subsequent edition of his work. However, these remarks were never removed after the assassination of Dayanand Saraswati, and later editions of Satyarth Prakash were even more critical of Sikhism.
He further pointed that followers of Sikhism are to be blamed for making up stories that Guru Nanak possessed miraculous powers and had met the Gods. He slammed Guru Gobind Singh, and other Gurus to have "invented fictitious stories", although he also recognized Guru Gobind Singh to "indeed a very brave man".
He regarded Jainism as "a most dreadful religion", writing that Jains were intolerant and hostile towards the non-Jains.
Dayanand described Buddhism as "anti-vedic" and "atheistic". He describes the type of "salvation" Buddhism as being attainable even to dogs and donkeys. He further criticized the Cosmogony of Buddhism, stating that the earth was not created.
Dayananda was subjected to many unsuccessful attempts on his life.
According to his supporters, he was poisoned on few occasions, but due to his regular practice of Hatha Yoga he survived all such attempts. One story tells that attackers once attacked attempted to drown him in a river, but Dayanand dragged the assailants into the river instead, though he released them before they drowned.
In 1883, the Maharaja of Jodhpur Swami, Jaswant Singh II, invited Dayananda to stay at his palace. The Maharaja was eager to become Dayananda's disciple, and to learn his teachings. During his stay, Dayananda went to the Maharaja's rest room and saw him with a dancing girl named Nanhi Jaan. Dayananda asked the Maharaja to forsake the girl and all unethical acts, and to follow the dharma like a true Aryan. Dayananda's suggestion offended Nanhi, who decided to take revenge.
On 29 September 1883, She bribed Dayananda's cook to mix small pieces of glass in his nightly milk. Dayananda was served glass-laden milk before bed, which he promptly drank, becoming bedridden for several days, and suffering excruciating pain. The Maharaja quickly arranged doctor's services for him. However, by the time doctors arrived, his condition had worsened, and he had developed large, bleeding sores. Upon seeing Dayananda's suffering, the cook was overwhelmed with guilt and confessed his crime to Dayananda. On his deathbed, Dayananda forgave him, and gave him a bag of money, telling him to flee the kingdom before he was found and executed by the Maharaja's men.
Later, Maharaja arranged for Swamiji to be sent to Mount Abu as per the advice of Residency, however, after staying for some time in Abu, Swamji was sent to Ajmer for better medical care. On 26 October 1883. There was no improvement in his health and he died on the morning of 30 October 1883 at 6:00 am, chanting mantras. The day coincided with Hindu festival of Diwali.
Dayananda Saraswati is most notable for influencing the freedom movement of India. His views and writings have been used by different writers, including Shyamji Krishna Varma, who founded India House in London and guided other revolutionaries was influenced by him; Subhas Chandra Bose; Lala Lajpat Rai; Madam Cama; Vinayak Damodar Savarkar; Lala Hardayal; Madan Lal Dhingra; Ram Prasad Bismil; Mahadev Govind Ranade; Swami Shraddhanand; S. Satyamurti; Pandit Lekh Ram; Mahatma Hansraj; Rajiv Dixit; and others.
He also had a notable influence on Bhagat Singh. Singh, after finishing primary school, had joined the Dayanand Anglo Vedic Middle School, of Mohan Lal road, in Lahore. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, on Shivratri day, 24 February 1964, wrote about Dayananda:
Swami Dayananda ranked highest among the makers of modern India. He had worked tirelessly for the political, religious and cultural emancipation of the country. He was guided by reason, taking Hinduism back to the Vedic foundations. He had tried to reform society with a clean sweep, which was again need today. Some of the reforms introduced in the Indian Constitution had been inspired by his teachings.
Industrialist Nanji Kalidas Mehta built the Maharshi Dayanand Science College and donated it to the Education Society of Porbandar, after naming it after Swami Dayanand Saraswati.
The places Dayanand visited during his life were often changed culturally as a result. Jodhpur adopted Hindi as main language, and later the present day Rajasthan did the as same. Other admirers included Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna, Bipin Chandra Pal, Vallabhbhai Patel, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, and Romain Rolland, who regarded Dayananda as a remarkable and unique figure.
American Spiritualist Andrew Jackson Davis described Dayanand's influence on him, calling Dayanand a "Son of God", and applauding him for restoring the status of the Nation. Sten Konow, a Swedish scholar noted that Dayanand revived the history of India.
Others who were notably influenced by him include Ninian Smart, and Benjamin Walker.
Dayananda Saraswati wrote more than 60 works in all, including a 16 volume explanation of the six Vedangas, an incomplete commentary on the Ashtadhyayi (Panini's grammar), several small tracts on ethics and morality, Vedic rituals and sacraments, and a piece on the analysis of rival doctrines (such as Advaita Vedanta, Islam and Christianity). Some of his major works include the Satyarth Prakash, Sanskarvidhi, RigvedadiBhashyaBhumika, Rigved Bhashyam (up to 7/61/2)and Yajurved Bhashyam. The Paropakarini Sabha located in the Indian city of Ajmer was founded by the Swami himself to publish and preach his works and Vedic texts.