Son of Harananda Bhattacharya, a native of Majilpur, in 24 Parganas, he was born in the house of his maternal uncle at Chingripota village, 24 Parganas, on 31 January 1847. The family were Vedic Brahmins, possibly migrated from the South. According to family hearsay, they had come from Jajpur in Orissa and settled in Majilpur. Most of the members of the family were learned and poor, and many of them engaged in priestcraft.
He started attending the local pathsala and when an English school was established at Majilpur with the support of the local zemindar, he joined it. During his childhood, one of the villagers, Brajanath Dutta and his son, Shib Krishna Dutta, used to subscribe to the Tattwabodhini Patrika and discuss religious and social matters with learned people. They had later influenced other villagers, such as Umesh Chandra Dutta, to convert to the Brahmo Samaj.
At the age of nine, he went to Kolkata and joined Sanskrit Collegiate School. He used to stay near to the house of his maternal grand father. His maternal uncle, Dwarakanath Vidyabhusan, was a learned person teaching in the Sanskrit College. They were close to Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, who used to visit their house regularly. As a child, he went and attended the first widow remarriage at Sukea Street on 7 December 1856. In 1858, Dwarakanath Vidyabhusan started the newspaper Somprakash. The press and other arrangements were set up in the house itself. Thus, Sivanath Sastri grew up in a varied environment of education, initiative and reform.
He used to attend lectures of Debendranath Tagore, Keshub Chunder Sen and Ajodhyanath Pakrashi in the Bhawanipur branch of the Brahmo Samaj as early as 1862. The movement had already affected his native village and when the Brahmos opened a girls’ school in the village, his mother admitted his sisters in the school. However, when the zemindar of the village saw that the Brahmos were progressively gaining ground in the village, he started opposing them directly and asked all the guardians not to send their daughters to the school. Everybody acceded but the two sisters of Sivanath Sastri continued to go to school.
While his family was well disposed towards the Brahmo Samaj, they had not joined it and retained their foothold in the orthodox society. Sivanath Sastri had class friends such as Aghore Nath Gupta and Vijay Krishna Goswami, who had joined the Brahmo Samaj. Another Brahmo, Umesh Chandra Mukhopadhyay influenced him. He started attending prayers of the Brahmo Samaj against the wishes of his father. Keshub Chunder Sen formally initiated him into the Brahmo Samaj in 1869. Twenty other persons were also initiated on the same day. That included Ananda Mohan Bose, Krishna Behari Sen, Rajaninath Roy and Srinath Dutta. He abandoned his sacred thread. His father virtually interned him in the house for over a month trying to convince him to stay back in the traditional fold, retaining his sacred thread. People in the area had never heard of anybody giving up his sacred thread. There was commotion not only in the village but also in the entire area. People from all around poured in to see him. Some of them thought he had gone mad. Ultimately, his father turned him out of the house.
Sivanath Sastri moved to Kolkata. He virtually survived on his scholarship. He passed B.A. and then when he passed M.A. in Sanskrit in 1872, from theUniversity of Calcutta and subsequently was bestowed the title of ‘Sastri’, which he used the rest of his life. In spite of his radical ways, his near and dear ones loved him for his idealism, determination and his sweet behaviour. They ultimately softened down the attitude of his father. During this period, he met people, such as Ramtanu Lahiri and Dwarkanath Ganguly, who had a great impact on his life.
In 1872, when Keshub Chunder Sen established Bharat Ashram he shifted to the place as a boarder. When his maternal uncle, Dwarakanath Vidyabhusan, was ill in 1873, he had to go and look after Somprakash, his school at Majilpur, and his property. During the period, he also took interest in the affairs of Harinavi Brahmo Samaj and Harinavi School. Harinavi was a village adjacent to Majilpur. He appointed his friend Prakash Chandra Roy as the second master of the school. In 1874, he took over as headmaster of South Suburban School. In 1876, he joined as head pundit of Hare School but gave up government service after a short period and devoted himself fully to the work of the Brahmo Samaj.
Till then, women in the Brahmo Samaj used to sit in purdah, behind a screen. Some of the leading Brahmos such as Dwarkanath Ganguly, Durgamohan Das, Rajaninath Roy and Annadacharan Khastagir and their families desired that women should sit in the open and ultimately they prevailed in getting some of the screens removed. Disputes surfaced regarding education of women. There also were minor clashes within the Brahmo Samaj regarding some of the views and activities of Keshub Chunder Sen. Finally, when Keshub Chunder Sen’s daughter was married to the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, the Brahmo Samaj of India split into two. A bitter struggle followed in the Brahmo Samaj. Sivanath Sastri was not only one of the leaders but also the principal ideologue of the group opposing Keshub Chunder Sen. They were initially called the Samadarshi group and in 1878 formed the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj. There was a small group of five people – Sivanath Sastri, Kedarnath Roy, Nagendranath Chaterjee, Kalinath Dutta, and Umesh Chandra Dutta – who engaged in religious discussions amongst themselves. They came to be known as ‘Panchapradip’
According to Sivanath Sastri in his History of the Brahmo Samaj, “At the time of its foundation, the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj was headed by three men universally esteemed in Brahmo society for their high moral character. They were Ananda Mohan Bose, Sib Chandra Deb and Umesh Chandra Dutta.” Bijay Krishna Goswami, Ramkumar Vidyaratna, Sivanath Sastri and Ganesh Chandra Ghosh were appointed ‘the first preachers of the Samaj, with authority to minister to the spiritual needs of the body and also to visit the provincial Samajes for the purpose of propagating their new faith.
In October 1919, the Indian Messenger wrote about him, “Since the foundation of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, Sivanath became the life and soul of the Samaj – as an organiser of the Samaj, as missionary and as minister of its chief congregation – so much so that it is but bare justice to say that his life and thought has been as a leaven that leavened the whole mass of its activities and aspirations. He was associated with Ananda Mohan Bose in the establishment of City School – City College, Kolkata and School – and was its first Secretary. He was editor of Tattwakaumudi, the Bengali organ of Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, for many years; he contributed regularly to the columns of Brahmo Public Opinion and when the paper ceased to exist, he was chiefly instrumental in starting theIndian Messenger. He helped in the establishment of the Brahmo Balika Shikshlaya and became its Secretary when it was in sore need of his powerful aid. He founded the Ram Mohun Roy Seminary at Patna. He established the Sadhan Asram as a centre of spiritual activity and a home for the training of mission workers.”
Another important event of the period was the setting up of the Indian Association in 1876 with Ananda Mohan Bose as its president and Surendranath Banerjee as its secretary. Sivanath Sastri was amongst the committee members. In a way, it was forerunner of the Indian National Congress.
He had devoted the later part of his life to the cause of the Brahmo Samaj. He continued his missionary work with zeal, travelling extensively, without any money in his pocket. A strong disciplinarian, he was perfect with his time keeping. A notable event was his visit to England in 1888, where he observed things keenly during his six-month long stay. There is a detailed description of England of the period in his Atmacharit (Autobiography), as well as in Englander Diary.
He died on 30 September 1919.