We all live in a modern society today. This is the very reason why we think discrimination and other evils of the society are negligible. However if we try to bury our eyes deep within our social structure, we will find a contrary answer. Nope, discrimination exist! And if in a society as educated, as reformed, civilized and advanced as ours, what would have been the condition of the disadvantaged classes when the society was ruled by the “then-evil Brahmins Hindu Ideology”? What would have been the condition of untouchables? And why only them, the ideology then was not even just to women. Women were the most disadvantaged among all. The upper caste women were to suffer the most. An era when this evil ideology was at its height, Jyotiba Phule was born. This lower caste man went on to become one of the greatest social reformers and one of the firsts to stand for the upliftment of the upper caste women and widows. The one who truly justified his title – The Mahatma!
On 11th of April 1827, Govindrao Ghorey, a poor, illiterate “Mali” (a lower caste meaning gardener) was blessed with child. Govindrao named the child Jyotirao, (Jyoti means light in Marathi; Mahatma Jyotiba Phule is also saluted with the title Kranti-Surya meaning “Sun or Light of Reform”). Govindrao and his brothers were the florists for the Peshwas, thus their last name “Phule” (Phul means flower in Marathi). Govindrao and his family enjoyed patronage under the Peshwas. This kept them away from the caste discrimination prevalent in the society. Young Jyotirao was intelligent and smart as a student. He however had to stop his schooling to support his father in farming. Due to his ability as a student, two of his neighbors, one a Muslim teacher and a Christian man persuaded Govindrao to allow him study further. The brilliant Jyotirao successfully completed his secondary schooling from Scottish Mission High School in 1847.
At the age of 13, Jyotirao Phule was married to Savitribai of the same “Mali” caste, according to the practice of child marriage. Savitribai was 9 years old then.
Jyotiba Phule and Untouchability
Jyotiba Phule writes in his most famous poem,
“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!”
Due to the patronage under Peshwas, Jyotirao and his family never encountered any discrimination in spite of being a lower caste. In 1848, when he attended the marriage of one of his Brahmin friends, he was insulted and rebuked by his friend’s parents for crossing his caste barriers and attending the ceremony. It was then that he realized what caste discrimination was. A deeply hurt Jyotirao wowed to do something against it. In the same year he started a school for untouchables and girls.
Jyotiba Phule granted access to bath tanks near his home to the untouchables in 1868. He also opened the sources of drinking water for them. He stressed the need of education among the untouchables as written in his famous poem.
Widows and Women Upliftment
With the issue of women empowerment fresh, we are on the right track if we are reading about Mahatma Jyotiba Phule. But we are never on the right track if we talk about the progress of women today but miss to start thanking the Mahatma and his wife Savitribai Phule.
Jyotiba noticed the condition of women and widows in the upper caste. The piteous condition of women left Jyotiba Phule restless. He had already taught his wife Savitribai to read and write. After the insult faced at his friends marriage ceremony, the 21 year old Jyotirao started a school for girls and untouchables. Almost 100 years before independence, it was Jyotiba Phule who started India’s first school for untouchables and girls. This initiative was obviously not a welcome move with the then-brahmin ideology. They faced opposition. Jyotiba and Savitribai were even forced out of their home by their parents fearing the orthodox Hindu society. This however did not deter them from their cause. When nobody was ready to teach the untouchable children, Jyotiba Phule insisted his wife Savitribai to teach them. Savitribai Phule became India’s first lady teacher in 1848.
Another important issue that needed to be addressed was the condition of widows. Child Marriage was widely in practice during those days. Due to high mortality rate, married girls would not even reach a mature age before their husbands died. These young widows were shaved their heads and were forced to live a life full of pity. They were usually left to live on their own. Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai started a home for the upper caste widows. Such widows during childbirth would abort their infants or abandon them. Jyotiba Phule opened India’s first orphanage (possibly the first to be started by a Hindu). He also adopted the child of a upper caste widow of his orphanage and the couple raised him as their own son.
Jyotiba Phule advocated widow remarriage. He along with his wife gave shelter to and also tried to educate widows, girls of the upper caste. They faced opposition. Upper caste people pelted stones, abused them but this great couple never deviated their cause. Such was their will to emancipate the condition of women and untouchables in the society.
Legacy And What remains of Jyotiba Phule Today
Women today learn, earn, live a life of respect and dignity. All because of whom? Every girl who is blessed enough to feel equal in the society, every girl who goes to school, colleges, universities, every girl who excel in their lives and stand tall in the society, every girl who breathes free in our country is indebted to Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule. Our own society was against girls education. Our own society propagated that girls and women are born for kilns and kids. Our own society was against our mothers’ happiness. Our own society was against our sisters’ education. This society was not the lower caste people but the highly learned Brahmins.
Hinduism, a religion with Goddess Saraswati regarded as the Goddess of Education or learning, did not allow women to be educated?
Enough to ridicule about!
Jyotiba Phule openly criticized this evil and inhumane brahmin culture and deeds. Whole of his lifetime, he continued to work for the upliftment of (specially, the upper caste) widows and women, who were the most affected by the gender inequality, and stood against caste based discrimination and untouchability. To prevent further exploitation by the then-evil Brahmins, Jyotiba Phule, along with some of his like minded followers started the Satyashodhak Samaj.
The sad part is, today even if we learn about him, the real Mahatma, in books, on the internet, how many of us do spare some time to respect these noble people? Filmstars become our heroes, Shaped stones become our Gods. Women and girls today enjoy their life, move in cars, sit on high positions in the corporate world. Women today stand equal to men in almost every field today. Who gets the credit? Ofcourse Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule and many other social reformers who stood up for them.
But, who gives the credit?
We owe them. We owe our Mothers’ lives to Mahatma Jyotiba Phule. We owe our sisters’ education to Mahatma Phule. We owe our lives to this great couple. And its really shame that we have failed as the beneficiaries of their struggle. We have failed to pay our tributes to them. Drop tributes, this is a world of social media, girls today use all kind of social media as equal as boys do. We have time to upload our useless photos, useless statuses whole year round, but we don’t even think to spread a birth wish for them on their birthdays on our walls, forget anything in the real world! More things to worry about is that these great reformers, who did for the upliftment of women of the upper caste do not find even a word of praise from their mouth. And the worst part is that they are usually sidelined or associated with a particular community.
Dear Girls and Women,
The Mahatma who agitated whole of his life so that today you could study in schools and colleges and get equal opportunities as the males, is today fading behind your selfish progress. Don’t you owe something to him? Don’t you owe something to Savitribai Phule, India’s first women teacher? Don’t you owe something to the couple who lived for your upliftment and died on the way of your welfare? Whom should they look to if not you?
Not only women, we all stand in the same queue. It is our responsibility to let the generations know about these greats. It is our responsibility to let our generations know who gave them the free air to breathe, the free lives to live!
On 11th of May, 1888; a social reformer from Bombay, Vithalrao Krishnaji Vandekar bestowed the title “Mahatma” to this great social reformer, pioneer of girls’s education, women and widow upliftment, and one of the first man to stand against the evil practice of untouchability and caste discrimination. This great light dimmed down on 28th November, 1890 but his works were continued to be carried out by his great wife Savitribai Phule.
11th April, is the birth anniversary of the man who truly justified his title, The Mahatma! The remains of a grateful nation, who is enlightened enough to respect their obligation on us, pays sincere tribute to this great Mahatma – Krantisurya Mahatma Jyotiba Phule.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are historically evident and are not meant to hurt the sentiments of any particular community of the society. The reference to the communities are based on the conditions and their ideologies during the 19th century. The author expresses views against the evils of the society that prevailed during those days.