Jyotirao Phule is the Mahatma of modern India. His remarkable influence was apparent during the dark ages when women and Shudras were denied their rights. His pioneering work in fields like education, agriculture, caste system, women and widow upliftment and removal of untouchability is remarkable.
Jyotirao Phule was born in Satara district of Maharastra state to India in a family belonging to Mali caste [shudra varna of Hindu religion] perceived to be inferior. His father, Govindrao, was a vegetable vendor. His mother died when he was nine months old. He was married at the age of 12 to Savitri Bai. His intelligence was recognised by a Muslim and a Christian neighbour, who persuaded his father to allow Jyotirao Phule to attend the local Scottish Mission’s High School, which he completed in 1847.
In 1848, an incident took place in his life that later sparked off the Dalit-revolution in the Indian society. Jyotirao Phule was invited to attend a wedding of one of his Brahmin friends. Knowing that he belonged to an inferior caste, the relatives of bridegroom insulted and abused him. Jyotirao left the procession and made up his mind to defy the prevailing caste-system and social restrictions. He then started his campaign of serving the people of lower strata of society who were deprived of all their rights as human beings.
“Lack of education lead to lack of wisdom,
Which leads to lack of morals,
Which leads to lack of progress,
Which leads to lack of money,
Which leads to the oppression of the lower classes,
See what state of the society one lack of education can cause!”
In 1848, Jyotirao Phule along with his wife started a school for girls in Pune– the first ever formal school for girls in India. The orthodox 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 Christian Missionaries. But Jyotirao was firm and continued the movement. Interestingly, Jyotirao Phule had some Brahmin friends who extended their support to make the movement successful. However, he was made to leave his house with his wife for the “crime” he had performed.
Jyotirao Phule had to suffer a lot many difficulties for the mission he had undertaken. The very first one of it was he did not have any female teacher to teach the girls. There was no question of a female teacher as the girls were not allowed to have education till then. Jyotirao Phule took a bold step and educated his wife Savitribai at home who would be the first female teacher of India. Savitribai had to suffer a lot of miseries during this course. She was ridiculed by the orthodox people, mostly the priest Brahman class, on her way to school. They even did not hesitate to throw mud or cow-dung on her. That great lady took all that humiliation as a part and parcel her mission and would go to school with two sets of clothes—one to wear on roads while going to school and then another to wear at school.
Despite the hatred this couple had to suffer, they also worked to abolish a lot many evil customs. Remarriage of the widows was not allowed. Child marriage was a social custom. Many girls would become widows even before they become women. The life of a widow was a misery. Her head was shaved. She was not allowed to enjoy the delicacies of life. Mahatma Phule conducted a strike of barbers against the custom of shaving the heads of the widows. He argued for the cause of remarrying of widows. And the most of all, he started a maternity home, where Savitribai used to give residence to the poor young widows who were made pregnant by their own people. Viewing the pathetic condition of widows and unfortunate children Jyotirao opened an orphanage in 1854. Many young widows, from the upper-caste, spent their days in the orphanage. And as a couple who to do act more than talk, they adopted one such child, grew up as their own child, and made him as their legal heir.
After tracing the history of India, Jyotirao concluded that the inhuman laws were made by the orthodox to suppress the “Shudras” and rule over them. In 1873, Jyotiba Phule formed the Satya Shodhak Samaj (Society of Seekers of Truth). The purpose of the organisation was to liberate the people of lower-strata from the suppression of the orthodox. Jyotiba Phule attacked blind faith and faith in what is given in religious books and the so called god’s words. He tore to pieces the misleading myths that were ruling over the minds of women and Shudras. Yielding to god or fate, astrology and other such rubbish rituals, sacredness, god-men, etc. were deemed irrational and absurd. Jyotiba subjected religious texts and religious behaviour to the tests of rationalism. He characterised this faith as out wardly religious but in essence politically motivated movements.
Jyotirao Phule accused them of upholding the teachings of religion and refusing to rationally analyse religious teachings. He maintained that at the root of all calamities was the blind faith that religious books were created or inspired by god. All established religious and priestly classes find this blind faith useful for their purposes and they try their best to defend it. He questioned ” if there is only one God, who created the whole mankind, why did he write the Vedas only in the Sanskrit language despite his anxiety for the welfare of the whole mankind? What about the welfare of those who do not understand this language?” Phule concludes that it is untenable to say that religious texts were God-created. To believe so is only ignorance and prejudice. All religions and their religious texts are man-made and they represent the selfish interest of the classes, has publicly conferred which are trying to pursue and protect their selfish ends by constructing such books. Jyotirao Phule was the only sociologist and humanist in his time that could put forth such bold ideas. In his view, every religious book is a product of its time and the truths it contains have no permanent and universal validity. Again these texts can never be free from the prejudices and the selfishness of the authors of such books.
Mahatma Jyotirao Phule was publicly conferred the title of Mahatma on 11 May 1888. He was termed as “Martin Luther King of India” by his biographer Dhananjay Keer. Phule was one of the three spiritual mentors of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the Father of Indian Constitution.
There is an ongoing issue about renaming the University of Pune, the city where the Phule couple primarily worked, after Savitribai Phule, the first female teacher of Modern India. This demand is still opposed by the orthodox sections of the city with the same earlier zeal.