Mahatma Jyotirao Govindrao Phule was a social reformer, activist, writer and thinker. This biography profiles his childhood, activities, social work, writings and achievements.
Born: 11 April, 1827
Place of Birth: Satara, Maharashtra
Parents: Govindrao Phule (father) and Chimnabai (mother)
Spouse: Savitri Phule
Children: Yashwantrao Phule (adopted son)
Education: Scottish Mission's High School, Pune;
Associations: Satyashodhak Samaj
Ideology: Liberal; Egalitarian; Socialism
Religious Beliefs: Hinduism
Publications: Tritiya Ratna (1855); Powada: Chatrapati Shivajiraje Bhosle Yancha (1869); Shetkarayacha Aasud (1881)
Passed Away: 28 November, 1890
Memorial: Phule Wada, Pune, Maharashtra
Jyotirao ‘Jyotiba’ Govindrao Phule was a prominent social reformer and thinker of the nineteenth century India. He led the movement against the prevailing caste-restrictions in India. He revolted against the domination of the Brahmins and struggled for the rights of peasants and other low-caste people. Mahatma Jyotiba Phule was also a pioneer for women education in India and fought for education of girls throughout his life. He is believed to be the first Hindu to start an orphanage for the unfortunate children.
Childhood & Early Life
Jyotirao Govindrao Phule was born in Satara district of Maharastra in 1827. His father, Govindrao was a vegetable-vendor at Poona. Jyotirao's family belonged to 'mali' caste and their original title was ‘Gorhay’. Malis were considered as an inferior caste by the Brahmins and were shunned socially. Jyotirao's father and uncles served as florists, so the family came to be known as `Phule'. Jyotirao's mother passed away when he was just nine months old.
Jyotirao was an intelligent boy but due to the poor financial condition at home, he had to stop his studies at an early age. He started helping his father by working on the family's farm. Recognising the talent of the child prodigy, a neighbour persuaded his father to send him to school. In 1841, Jyotirao got admission in the Scottish Mission's High School, Poona, and completed his education in 1847. There, he met Sadashiv Ballal Govande, a Brahmin, who remained his close friend throughout his life. At the age of just thirteen years, Jyotirao was married to Savitribai.
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In 1848, an incident sparked off Jyotiba’s quest against the social injustice of caste discrimination and incited a social revolution in the Indian society. Jyotirao was invited to attend the wedding of one of his friends who belonged to an upper cast Brahmin family. But at the wedding the relatives of the bridegroom insulted and abused Jyotiba when they came to know about his origins. Jyotirao left the ceremony and made up his mind to challenge the prevailing caste-system and social restrictions. He made it his life’s work to hammer away tirelessly at the helms of social majoritarian domination and aimed at emancipation of all human beings that were subjected to this social deprivation.
After reading Thomas Paine's famous book 'The Rights of Man', Jyotirao was greatly influenced by his ideas. He believed that enlightenment of the women and lower caste people was the only solution to combat the social evils.
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Efforts Towards Women Education
Jyotiba’s quest for providing women and girls with right to education was supported by his wife Savitribai Phule. One of the few literate women of the time, Savitribai was taught to read and write by her husband Jyotirao.
In 1851, Jyotiba established a girls' school and asked his wife to teach the girls in the school. Later, he opened two more schools for the girls and an indigenous school for the lower castes, especially for the Mahars and Mangs.
Jyotiba realised the pathetic conditions of widows and established an ashram for young widows and eventually became advocate of the idea of Widow Remarriage.
Around his time, society was a patriarchal and the position of women was especially abysmal. Female infanticide was a common occurrence and so was child marriage, with children sometimes being married to men much older. These women often became widows before they even hit puberty and were left without any family support. Jyotiba was pained by their plight and established an orphanage in 1854 to shelter these unfortunate souls from perishing at the society’s cruel hands.
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Efforts Towards Elimination of Caste Discrimination
Jyotirao attacked the orthodox Brahmins and other upper castes and termed them as "hypocrites". He campaigned against the authoritarianism of the upper caste people and urged the "peasants" and "proletariat" to defy the restrictions imposed upon them.
He opened his home to people from all castes and backgrounds. He was a believer in gender equality and he exemplified his beliefs by involving his wife in all his social reform activities. He believed that religious icons like Rama are implemented by the Brahmin as a means for subjugating the lower caste.
The orthodox Brahmins of the society were furious at the activities of Jyotirao. They blamed him for vitiating the norms and regulations of the society. Many accused him of acting on behalf of the Christian Missionaries. But Jyotirao was firm and decided to continue the movement. Interestingly, Jyotirao was supported by some Brahmin friends who extended their support to make the movement successful.
Satya Shodhak Samaj
In 1873, Jyotiba Phule formed the Satya Shodhak Samaj (Society of Seekers of Truth). He undertook a systematic deconstruction of existing beliefs and history, only to reconstruct an equality promoting version. Jyotirao vehemently condemned the Vedas, the ancient holy scriptures of the Hindus. He traced the history of Brahmanism through several other ancient texts and held the Brahmins responsible for framing the exploitative and inhuman laws in order to maintain their social superiority by suppressing the "shudras" and “atishudras” in the society. The purpose of the Satya Shodhak Samaj was to decontaminate the society from caste discrimination and liberate the oppressed lower-caste people from the stigmas inflicted by the Brahmins. Jyotirao Phule was the first person to coin the term ‘Dalits’ to apply to all people considered lower caste and untouchables by the Brahmins. Membership to the Samaj was open to all irrespective of caste and class. Some written records suggest that they even welcomed participation of Jews as members of the Samaj and by 1876 the 'Satya Shodhak Samaj' boasted of 316 members. In 1868, Jyotirao decided to construct a common bathing tank outside his house to exhibit his embracing attitude towards all human beings and wished to dine with everyone, regardless of their caste.
Jyotiba Phule devoted his entire life for the liberation of untouchables from the exploitation of Brahmins. Apart from being a social activist and reformer, he was also a businessman. He was also a cultivator and contractor for the Municipal Corporation. He served as Commissioner of the Poona Municipality between 1876 and 1883.
Jyotiba suffered a stroke in 1888 and was rendered paralyzed. On 28 November, 1890, the great social reformer, Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, passed away.
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Perhaps the biggest legacy of Mahatma Jyotirao Phule is the thought behind his perpetual fight against social stigma that are enormously relevant still. In the nineteenth century, people were used to accepting these discriminatory practices as social norm that needed to be enforced without question but Jyotiba sought to change this discrimination based on caste, class and colour. He was the harbinger of unheard ideas for social reforms. He started awareness campaigns that ultimately inspired the likes of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi, stalwarts who undertook major initiatives against caste discrimination later.
A biography of Jyotiba was penned by Dhananjay Keer in 1974 titled, ‘Mahatma Jyotibha Phule: Father of Our Social Revolution’. The Mahatma Phule Museum in Pune was set-up in honour of the great reformer. The Government of Maharashtra introduced the Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Jeevandayeeni Yojana which is a cashless treatment scheme for poor. A number of statues of the Mahatma have been erected as well as several street names and educational institutes have been rechristened with his name – eg. Crawford Market in Mumbai is rechristened as Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Mandai and the Maharashtra Krishi Vidyapeeth at Rahuri, Maharshtra was renamed Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth.
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Jyotiba had penned a number of literary articles and books in his lifetime and most were based on his ideology of social reforms like the ‘Shetkarayacha Aasud’. He also penned some stories like ‘Tritiya Ratna’, ‘Brahmananche Kasab’, ‘Ishara’. He wrote dramas like ‘Satsar’ Ank 1 and 2, which were enacted under his directives to spread awareness against social injustice. He also wrote books for the Satyashodhak Samaj that dealt with history of Brahminism and outlined Puja protocols that the lower caste people were not allowed to learn.
Social activist, writer, educationist and radical intellectual, Jyotirao Phule was born on April 11, 1827, in Maharashtra’s Satara district. A stanch critic of the Brahmin domination of Hindu society, he robustly analysed the caste system and its appalling effects on the lower castes. He died on November 28, 1890.
Phule’s father, Govindrao, was a vegetable vendor. Since Phule’s father and uncles once worked as florists under the Peshwas, the family began to be called ‘Phules’. Phule’s mother died when he was barely a year old. He had to leave school at an early age and get married as a child.
Seeing that he was a bright child, two neighbours of the Phules urged Govindrao to make him study further. Accordingly, in 1841, he was admitted to the Scottish Mission’s High School in Pune (then called Poona). Interestingly, some of the Brahmins that Phule met at the school remained his friends and fellow activists for life.
In 1848, Phule was insulted at the wedding of a Brahmin friend for being a member of the Mali caste, an incident which made him acutely aware of caste prejudice in the Hindu society. Influenced by Thomas Paine’s 1791 book Rights of Man, he realised that education of women and lower castes was an important measure to address social inequalities. He started teaching his wife Savitribai at home, and opened a girls' school in 1848, which had to be shut down but was subsequently reopened in 1851. He followed this with establishing more schools, including ones for lower castes like Mahars and Mangs. This angered the orthodox upper-caste Hindus, who unleashed a campaign against Phule’s activities. But such opposition did not deter him. Against all prevailing norms of that era, he asked his wife to teach at the girls' school, one of the many progressive steps he took.
The scholar and activist Gail Omvedt writes in her book Understanding Caste: From Buddha to Ambedkar and Beyond: “Apropos women, his [Phule’s] personal life stands in contrast to the compromises made by almost every other social reformer and radical: he not only educated his wife, Savitribai, and encouraged her to become a teacher in a school for girls, but also resolutely withstood all community pressures to take a second wife in spite of their childlessness…[I]n his later years…he took a stronger position describing male patriarchal power as a specific form of exploitation.”
Phule believed that the “deplorable state of education among the peasantry” was responsible for “a good deal of their poverty, their want of self-reliance, their entire dependence upon the learned and intelligent classes”.
In an essay titled Ishara, he wrote: “Not long ago, until the end of the regime of the last Arya Peshwa, Rao Baji, if a peasant committed a slight default in payment of land revenue, he was made to stand half-bent in the blazing sun, a big stone put on his back, and his wife was made to sit on it, and down in front of him was lighted a fire with chillies thrown on it. The ruler treated his subjects as animals. Their only use was to produce for the ruler and the men and women of his caste, food and clothing by toiling hard in the sun and the rain, and to keep them provided with their numerous luxuries….”
Challenging the hegemony of the Brahmins and other upper castes in Indian society was a major focus of his life and work. He established the Satya Shodhak Samaj in 1873 that aimed to prevent the Shudras and Ati Shudras from being exploited. As Omvedt puts it: “The Brahmins whom Phule attacked so strongly were not only the orthodox. They also included the ‘moderates’, liberals and reformers, grouped in organisations such as the Prarthana Samaj, Brahma Samaj, Sarvajanik Sabha and the Congress. All of these were seen by him as elite efforts, designed to deceive the masses and establish upper-caste hegemony. Caste, to him, was slavery, as vicious and brutal as the enslavement of the Africans in the United States…”
In 1876 Phule became a member of the Poona Municipality. He helped in arranging relief when a famine struck parts of Maharashtra in 1877.
Besides theorising about caste, Phule focussed on a wide range of issues including people’s livelihood and sustainable development (in today’s parlance), and many of his concerns are relevant in the 21st century. For instance, on the complex issue of state ownership of farmland and forests, he wrote: “Previously those farmers who had very little land…used to go to the hills to eat fruit from figs or jambhuis or other trees, and they could scrape together a bit of money by selling fruit and leaves from the trees and wood cut from the forest, or by grazing one or two cows or three or four goats on the village pasture… However, the European administrators…set up for the first time a gigantic forest department. Since they have included all the mountains, hills, peaks, glens, dales and all the uncultivated lands and pastures as ‘forest’, this forest department has risen to such a pinnacle of power that the poor helpless paralysed farmers have an inch of ground left on earth for their goats to even inhale the wind of the fields.”
Jyotirao Phule’s hard-hitting analyses were often ahead of their times. As the academic and Marathi playwright G. P. Deshpande put it: “Phule’s thought proved that socio-political struggles of the Indian people could generate universal criterion…[his] efforts were to change the world/society with the weapon of knowledge.”
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