Mahatma Phule – India’s First Social Activist & Crusader for Social Justice.

 Source: Bhavan’s Journal Vol. 52, No.18 & 19 (30th April & 15th May, 2006).

 Article written by: Prof. J. V. Naik

Renowned Scholar-Historian and Ex-Chairman, Indian History Congress

Prof J. V. Naik has written this article while he was Chairman of the prestigious Indian History Congress in 2006. Thus, this article is an authentic material endorsed by Indian History Congress.*


Mahatma Jyotirao Phule (1827-1890) was the chief ideologue as well as the first most influential leader of the determined low caste protest movement in the 19th century Maharashtra, and by the same token, the conscience keeper and the revolutionary spokesperson of the nameless, faceless, dumb millions of India. During this lifetime he did his best to infuse a new spirit in the dormant oppressed masses to fight for their rights, and thus, in many respects, he anticipated Mahatma Gandhi on the one hand, and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, on the other. His revolutionary ideas were the product of his deep reflection on social history of India from the ancient times, of his keen perception of the existing social reality, of his appreciation of the Western influences that came in the wake of British rule, of his own painful practical experience and of his preparedness to fight every form of injustice – all informed by a comprehending credo, resulting in an irresistible urge to create a new life and new society, on the basis of rationality and equality.


A careful historical inquiry into the development of Phule’s ideology reveals that, though he had always been a liberal-radical, in the first phase of his illustrious career his “liberalism was inclusive and not exclusive of the Brahmans”, and that his later day iconoclasm displaying a militant anti-Brahmin stance, was essentially a strong reaction to the collapse of the anti-caste movement, initiated by the Dadoba Pandurang Tarkhadkar (1814-1882) in the early 1840’s through a reform association called the Paramahana Sabha, due to the reactionary aspirations of the dominant upper caste Hindu orthodoxy to maintain the status quo.


There is also enough evidence to suggest that Phule’s utter disillusionment with the Prarthana Samaj of Bombay (1867) (counterpart of the Brahmo Samaj of Bengal), which emerged out of the ashes of the Paramahansa Sabha, may have substantially contributed to his growing conviction that emancipation of the Shudras¹ and Ati-Shudras² could be achieved only through the total annihilation of Brahmanical culture system that lay at the root of all social ills. Only a powerfully original mind can emancipate itself as completely as did Phule from the centuries old load of the tyranny of custom and tradition. For a proper appreciation of Phule’s ideology of universal humanism in a historical perspective, the main features of his social philosophy needs to be first noted:


First, Mahatma Phule, in leading the low caste protest, put himself outside Brahmanical culture system, and sought to create a counter-culture based on truth, justice and humanity.


Second, his fight was against Brahmanism and not Brahmins per se. He had a number of enlightened Brahmin friends such as Govande, Walvekar, Paranjape and others who shared his perception of the existing reality and helped him in his endeavors to secure social justice to the downtrodden.


Third, Mahatma Phule, as rightly pointed out by G.P. Deshpande, took “a remarkably modern and gendered view, which saw gender itself, not Varna, as the basis of oppression that women faced”. He did not categorize women on the basis of caste and creed; he “included all women in his notion of “Shudra-Ati-Shudra” and pleaded for equal and common rights for all men and women”. He was the first Indian to do so and, by the same token, to anticipate the U.N. Charter of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first article of which states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…”


Fourth, as a Satya Shodhak or Truth Seeker, his sole concern was the human person, with value of truth as a sure guide for human conduct, the test of which lies in the promotion of human welfare, and not traditional values. He was a humanist who developed his own unique brand of radical humanism which did not exclude even God or Nirmik. Thus, as a rationalist, his position was akin to that of the founders of“Philosophical Rationalism” viz. Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz – as distinguished from empiricism of John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russel.


Fifth, for Phule, social justice was that which assures the dignity of the individual. His view of social justice was akin to “the respect-for-person view” associated with Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the famed German Philosopher and his concept of “categorical imperative” which is radically different from Contract Theory of Justice associated with Hobbes, Rousseau, and, most recently, with John Rawls as also from the Utilitarian Theory of “greatest happiness of the greatest number” of Jerome Benthan.


Kant’s maxim enunciates the principle of respect for humanity: “the people must be treated as ends in themselves and never merely as means”. “It places in the people inalienable rights that cannot be contract away, need not be established by contract, and do not depend upon whether they increase the sum of happiness”. Later Mahatma Gandhi became the votary of ‘respect-for-person’ view of Social Justice; so did his follower, Martin Luther King, in the United States. And social revolt of Periyar Ramaswami Naicker (1879-1973) and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar emanated from the same view of social justice.


Lastly, and most importantly, in its concrete, Phule’s ideology as explained by Gail Omvedt, was based upon his “identification with the peasant masses and an attachment to revolutionary values of equality and rationality”. This inevitably led him to reinterpret Indian history and culture and develop his “non-Aryan Theory” with the concomitant theory of exploitation of the masses by the dominant class – the foreign Bhatt – Brahmans.


Mahatma Jyotiba Phule’s social philosophy rested on the twin principles of rationalism and humanism. In his fight against Brahmanic culture system, it is reasonable to suggest that Mahatma Phule in some ways anticipated the Gramscian concept of “dominant ideology”, of the idea of “hegemony”; and he was, though distant, the real originator of subaltern studies in this country.


Numerous social evils that were practiced in the name of religion got aggravated in Maharashtra under the degenerate Peshwa regime especially in its last phase, the various privileges enjoyed by the Brahmans simply for their being Brahmans, and governing Brahman elite exploited the lower classes. A heartrending description of the condition of the peasantry under the last Peshwa Bajirao-II is to be found in Phule’s writings. In his essay Ishara (“Warning”) Phule writes :-


“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….”


Mahatma Phule’s career falls into two distinct phases. In the first phase, which lasted till about mid-1860’s, he concentrated mainly on practical social work, and did not develop any distinct ideology of his own. Born in Mali³ community in 1827, he could complete his education in a Mission School only in 1847.


Among the early influences on him was Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man which has a living message, “It was man’s natural right to hold what views he pleased; and civil or rights could never abrogate natural rights, out of which alone they can arise”.


At an impressionable age, Phule had read biographies of George Washington and Chhatrapati Shivaji. And for a while he entertained the idea of becoming a freedom fighter, impressed as he was by the local revolts of Kolis and Ramoshis against the British rule. But, like most social reformers and the leaders of the Moderates, he eventually welcomed the British rule as “Divine Dispensation”, for he viewed it as God’s instrument to rescue the oppressed humanity from “the clutches of the Brahman demons”. So disgusted Phule was with the old social order that he ignored the dark side of British rule which some of his contemporaries like Bhaskar Pandurang Tarkhadkar (1816-1847) had thoroughly exposed and had asserted that there was no such thing as beneficent imperialism and that there cannot be anything altruistic about the colonial rule.


Phule had the first bitter taste of the inequities of the caste system when he was abused and insulted for joining a Brahman wedding procession in 1848. This painful personal experience as well as his acute awareness of the problems of females and untouchables turned him into a genuine social reformer. In his reform program he gave priority to the education of women and Ati-Shudras. In 1848 he established the first school for Shudra-ati-Shudra girls, and two more such schools in 1851, against overwhelming odds.


In this his major collaborators, besides his noble wife Savitribai, were the Brahmins – Sadashiv Ballal Govande, Moro Vitthal Walvekar, Sakharam Yeshwant Paranjape – who shared his perception of the existing social reality. His educational activities, though highly appreciated by the authorities, incurred for him a terrible wrath not only of the orthodox Brahmans, but of his own community, so much so that his gentle father, under social pressure, had to ask him to leave home. Undeterred, he continued his social work: helped arrange a widow marriage in 1864, established a founding home for abandoned children in 1867, and in the following year, opened a small bathing tank near his house for the untouchables.


During this period he wrote just one book, a play entitled, Tritiya Ratna “The Third Eye”. Written in 1855, it remained unpublished during his lifetime. The book clearly showed his antipathy for the Brahmans for their ruthless exploitation of the ignorant and the superstitious peasants. Though it set a pattern for his later thought, he had not, at this point, completely abandoned his faith in the Brahmans’ seeing reason and mending the old social order.


He read Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason in which Paine had made the profession of his faith that: “I believe in the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy”. This seems to have made a deep impact on Phule. Equally, and perhaps even more decisive influence in shaping Phule’s religious and social thought seems to be that Theodore Parker (1810-1860) a rebellious US Clergyman, social reformer and abolitionist. Parker passionately campaigned against every form of injustice and superstition and was against slavery and worked for its abolition throughout his life.


Phule, like Parker, makes social progress dependent upon a proper understanding of religion. His understanding of religion, as expounded in his Sarvajanik Satyadharma Pustak, shows a “healthy opposition to escapism, devotionalism, externalism, hypocrisy, formalism and selfishness in religious matters”. The dignity of man rests on his reason. Phule’s humanism, as that of Parker, was universal, claiming equal rights for all and excluding all discriminating distinctions. And it is significant that he DEDICATED his book Gulamgiri (Slavery) to “The Good People of the United States as a token of admiration for their Sublime Disinterested and Self-sacrificing Devotion,” in the cause of Negro Slavery; and with an earnest desire, that my countrymen may take their noble example as their guide in the emancipation of their Shudra brethren from the trammels of Brahmin thralldom”.


From 1869 onwards Phule entered upon a new phase which is characterized by a crusade against the Brahmanical cultural system. For this, he developed an ideology to unite and mobilize the masses for their own emancipation from the dominant class – the Brahmins. The ideology of his non-Brahmin movement was enunciated in three important books he wrote between 1869-73, namely, Chhatrapati Shivaji Raje Bhonsale Yancha Pawada (1869), Brahmanache Kasab (1869), Gulamgiri (1873). Through his writings, he developed his theory of “Aryan – Non Aryan” conflict. This theory was central to his concept of exploitation of masses by the dominant class consisting of the Bhat – Brahmins who were non-Indians.


All his subsequent writings are variations of the same theme. In the year 1873, he launched the Satyashodhaka Samaj (Society of Truth-Seekers) to organize the Shudras with the object of liberating them from the religious and social domination of the Brahmins.


It is important to note that he was the first Indian to use the motto “Satyameva Jayate” on his letterhead which became the motto of Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic of India. Significantly, the labor movement in India was indeed an offshoot of Mahatma Phule’s Satyashodhak Samaj.


In his Ballad of Chhatrapati Shivaji, as rightly pointed out by Rosalind O’Hanlon, he gave a “startlingly new and overtly anti-Brahmin interpretation of Maharashtra’s history and culture”.


He gave a fresh interpretation of the word Kshatriya. Etymological the term “Kshatriya”, he said, is derived from the Marathi word Kshetra meaning a field or place, and he asserted that this term “originally denoted all those living peaceably together on the land before the arrival of the Brahmin invaders”.


He thus held that Shudras and Ati-Shudras are the descendants of the Kshatriyas of ancient India whose leader was the mythical King Bali.


These aborigines, who were all Kshatriyas, were suppressed by the Aryan invaders. He thus attempted to give a common Kshatriya identity to all the lower castes and “drew a parallel between Shivaji and the mythical King Bali as the leader of the lower castes against external oppressors”.


He completely demolished the theory of incarnation as also mythical (Purushsukta) theory of the origin of the four Varnas, and dubbed it as sheer chicanery on the part of the “Shameless” Brahmins.


In the Brahmanache Kasab (“Priestcraft Exposed”), which is a collection of ballads, he further elaborated on the ‘non-Aryan’ theory, and gave a vivid contemporary account of many pernicious customs, unmeaning ceremonies, rituals and rites fostered by the Brahmins to fleece the ignorant lower castes.


Gulamgiri is easily the most powerful book by Mahatma Phule. This together with his last work ‘Sarvajanik Satya Dharma’ nearly sums up his concerns and ideals. The English introduction which he wrote to Gulamgiri, is a master-piece. Here he uses the researches of European Scholars especially that of Dr. Pritchard, the ethnologist, to demonstrate “beyond a shadow of doubt that the Brahmins were not aborigines of India”. He narrates how the cunning Brahmins fabricated innumerable falsehoods “to dupe the minds of the ignorant and to rivet firmly on them the chains of perpetual bondage and slavery which their selfishness and cunning had forged”. He gives a heartrending account of the ruthless exploitation of the lower castes, especially the poor peasants during the degenerate Brahmanical rule in the latter part of the Maratha Kingdom.


Phule waged his ideological battle on two fronts: first he attempted to create a new collective identity for all Shudras and Ati-Shudras through his “non-Aryan” theory, through effective polemics, and by invoking folk-culture of Maharashtra for their emotional integration. Second, he sought to inform the British rulers that they had a providential task of liberating the Shudras, and they could achieve it, not by catering to the religious susceptibilities and administrative and political ambitions of the Brahmins, but by giving education and employment to the lower castes. This last point comes out brilliantly in his Sarvajaniksatyadharmapustak which is a comprehensive statement of his social, religious and moral ideas.


In conclusion, it needs to be stressed that until Phule’s appearance on the scene, the so-called nineteenth century Indian Renaissance was essentially an elitist affair and that it “suffered from a kind of original sin, detachment from the grassroots of Indian life”. Phule communicated with the common people entirely in their own idiom, language and spirit. He was the first to give expression to the misery and discontent that lay latent in the minds and hearts of the dumb millions. He raised his voice against every form of injustice. He ceaselessly worked for the moral and material improvement of the oppressed and the depressed. He blazed the trail in several vital spheres of national life.


He was the first in the country to start Schools for Shudra-Ati Shudra girls and to assert that women should have not been equal but even more rights than man. He was the FIRST SOCIAL ACTIVIST to show a deep concern for the condition of Indian agriculture production and the plight of the peasants; and his trusted lieutenant in the Satyashodhak Samaj, Narayan Meghaji Lokhande has been universally hailed as the father of the Indian Labour Movement.


His follower Tarabai Shinde, author of “Stree-Purusha Tulana (1822), is the first major feminist woman writer of India. Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj drew inspiration from him in his noble work of the upliftment of the downtrodden. Like Mahatma Gandhi, Phule called his followers in the Satyashodhak Samaj to the contemplation of God as Truth. And, like Mahatma Gandhi, he was the friend of the poorest, the loneliest and the lost. He anticipated Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar in his efforts to annihilate caste. In fact, he foreshadowed all the provisions made in the Indian Constitution to secure social justice to all his countrymen. His was Universal Humanism. He was a Mahatma in every sense of the term and deserves to be so venerated.





1.   Shudras        :        Present day Other Backward Class (OBC) community.


2.   Ati-Shudras  :        Present day Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST) communities.


3.   Mali                 :        Community falling under Shudra Varna i.e. Other Backward Class community.


*    The Indian History Congress was established in 1935, and from its inception has remained the largest academic and professional body of Indian historians, it has now over 9000 members. As defined by its constitution its primary object is the promotion and encouragement of the scientific study of Indian history. It holds annual sessions and publishes their proceedings mainly comprising research papers. It issues various publications, including monographs and collections of papers. It has sponsored the publication of a Comprehensive History of India, many volumes of which have been published. The Indian History Congress stands for collaboration with historians throughout the world, and promotes the study in India of the history of other countries.


(Courtesy: Maheshwari Samaj)