Long before Mahatma Gandhi was given the title of Mahatma, there was another social reformer on whom the title of Mahatma was bestowed. Mahatma Phule, as he was also known, was an Indian social reformer and an activist who worked towards equality regardless of caste.
Jyotirao Govindrao Phule was a thinker and a writer. His work related mainly to eradication of untouchability and caste system, emancipation and empowerment of women, reform of Hindu family life.
He coined the word “Dalit” for the downtrodden lower caste people of India. He also formed in 1873, the Satyashodhak Samaj for demanding equal rights for people from lower castes. Phule is considered as one of the most prominent personalities who brought social reforms in Maharashtra.
Along with his wife, Savitribai Phule, he is regarded as pioneers of women’s education in India. They were the first native Indians to open a school for girls in India way back in August 1848.
Childhood and Early Life
Jyotirao Govindrao Phule was born in 1827 in Satara district of Maharashtra.
His family belonged to Gorhe caste, which was considered lowly. Due to their expertise in growing and selling flowers, they took up the surname Phule or flower-dealer. They also delivered flowers to Peshwa Baji Rao II, who granted them 35 acres of land. His father Govindrao and mother Chimnabai also grew and sold flowers. Jyotirao was the youngest of two brothers.
Jyotirao attended primary school and then left further schooling to do his family work of growing and selling flowers. He was married at the age of 13, to a girl of his community.
He was persuaded to attend the local Scottish Mission High School, from where he completed his English schooling in 1847.
Starting the First Indigenous Girls’ School at Pune
In 1848, an incident occurred that changed his life. Phule had gone to attend the marriage ceremony of one of his Brahmin friend. He was insulted by his friend’s parents that as he belonged to the low caste, he should have stayed away.
Phule visited the first girls’ school in Ahmadnagar which was run by Christian missionaries. He was also influenced by Thomas Paine’s book Rights of Man.
He realized that lower castes and women were the most disadvantaged sections of society and only education can emancipate them.
He encouraged and helped his wife Savitribai to read and write. Then the couple started the first indigenously-run school for girls in Pune.
Since they were ostracized by their community, they stayed in the home of their friend Usman Sheikh and his sister Fatima Sheikh, in whose premises the school was run.
He started schools for the Mahar and Mang castes, which were considered untouchables.
Phule also worked for widow remarriage and in 1863, opened a home for pregnant Brahmin widows to give birth in a safe and secure place.
He opened an orphanage to avoid infanticide.
He also tried to eliminate untouchability and opened his house and use of his well to people from the lower castes.
His Views on Religion, Caste
Phule considered the Aryans as a barbaric race who suppressed the indigenous people and instituted the caste system as a framework for subjugation and ensure the pre-eminence of the Brahmins. He had similar views for the Muslim conquest of India.
He considered the British as relatively enlightened and liberal. In his book, Gulamgiri, he thanked them to make the lower caste realize they were worthy of human rights. He dedicated his book to the people of America who were abolishing slavery.
Phule saw Rama as a symbol of oppression stemming from the Aryan conquest. He also attacked the Vedas and considered them to be a form of false consciousness.
He Coined the Word ‘Dalit’
Jyotirao Phule is credited with introducing the Marathi word Dalit, meaning broken or crushed to describe those who belonged to lower caste and outside the traditional caste or varna system. This term was later popularized in the 1970s by the Dalit Panthers and also found a place in literature.
In 1884, at an education commission hearing, he demanded making primary education compulsory in villages and special incentives for lower-caste people in high schools and colleges.
Founding of Satyashodhak Samaj
In 1873, Phule founded the Satyashodhak Samaj, or the Society of Seekers of Truth, for the rights of depressed classes, to denounce the caste system and to spread rational thinking.
His wife Savitribai became the head of the women’s section. They also took up the issue of widow-remarriage.
Last Days and Sad Demise
Jyotiba Phule spent his entire life for the emancipation of women through education, and liberation of untouchables from the vicious caste-system. For financial resources he worked as a merchant, cultivator and municipal contractor. He owned farmland at Manjri, near Pune.
He also became the municipal commissioner of the Poona municipality in 1876 and served till 1883.
He has also written more than 16 books including poems and plays. The most famous of his books were Gulamgiri (1873), Shetkarayacha Aasud, or Cultivator’s Whipcord (1881), Satyashodhak Samajokt Mangalashtakasah Sarva Puja-vidhi (1887) amd many more.
In 1888, Jyotiba suffered a stroke and was rendered paralyzed. On 28 November, 1890, the great social reformer, Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, passed away.
Commemoration of His Legacies
A number of biographies and books has been written on him and his thoughts by several renowned authors. Mahatma Phule has become an icon of social reforms.
The Government of Maharashtra has taken several steps to further his cause, which includes several government schemes for the Dalits, installation of his statues, and naming public places and institutions after him.
Mahatma Jyotirao Phule will be most remembered for his efforts to educate women and lower caste people. He questioned and challenged the discrimination on the basis of caste; which was being accepted for generations as a social norm. He was the harbinger of social reforms. His work and awareness campaigns influenced and inspired Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi, who took up these issues further.