Caste

The Essence of Jyotiba Phule's Revolution Lay in His Rationality

His legacy demands that we pledge not to submit to the slave system and graded inequalities, but rather question them, and keep the revolutionary potential alive.

Amidst the global outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the ritualisation of mindless joy through banging of utensils, clapping one’s hearts out while screaming slogans of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ on the March 22 and lighting of diyas at exactly 9 pm till 9.09 pm, on April 5, with the feeling of euphoria of being the obedient citizens of Hindu Rashtra are not strange to this land.

It’s a place where brutal acts of untouchability, sati, widowhood, caste slavery etc are practised. Right now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has appeared as not just a Ram bhakt, like all other Hindus, but a figure who himself has many bhakts — similar to what German thinker Nietzsche had conceptualised as the Übermensch or superman.

Modi is that superman whose superego makes him not just above the law of the nature, but he wills to become the law itself. Modi wants to make India ‘great’ again by reviving its traditions — the Brahminical traditions — which were threatened and challenged by anti-caste movements. The ‘great’ Indian tradition requires the master class who will perpetuate the tradition and the mental slaves who are deliberately made unquestioning beings, who will submit their availability for the masters.

The misfits, the questioning individuals, the thinking beings, the rebels are made the second class citizens or non-citizens which reflects in the current NPR-NRC-CAA trio, Transgender Bill 2019, Babri Verdict, the dilution of policy on reservation, among others. The stage has been prepared for the oppressed castes, nationalities, sexualities and genders, the questioning religions, disabled people to be thrown out of the country or to the margins, left to starve, without any state protection — a glimpse of which we can already see in the way the lockdown has turned deathly for the toiling masses whom the state has abandoned.

At this juncture of time, reading and understanding Mahatma Jyotirao Phule gives us a ray of hope. Humiliated at his Brahmin friend’s marriage for his lower caste status, he didn’t wage an armed revolution against Brahminism, but decided to attack where it hurt the most: the Brahminical knowledge system, the belief system — the traditions, myths of the Brahmins.

Also read: More Than a Reformer, Jyotirao Phule Was an Architect of Ideas

In Shetkaryaca Asud (The Whipcord of the Cultivators), Phule wrote:

“Bhat-Brahmans today consider the urine of the cows who eat the shit of farmers to be holy and become purified by that. And these Bhat-Brahmans on the strength of their self-interested religion consider the Shudra farmers to be the inferior”

Dr. Soumybrata Choudhary said that Phule as “the demystifier, the mocker, the insulter of the age-old Brahminical colonization” had used the method of ‘rational insult’ to decode the Brahminical knowledge and liberate people from it. He considered the Shudras and Ati-Shudras to be not just bodily slaves, but also mental slaves who cease to recognise the form of slavery that is being imposed on them.

The Shudra subject-hood is constituted by their availability — who have submitted their body and mind to the Brahminical cause; the foot soldiers. This form of mental slavery has been perpetuated through certain traditions, myths, stories which Phule considered as nothing but lies. Thus what he undertook was a literal reading of the Brahminical texts and threw rational questions at them to insult and overthrow them. This way he turned the Aryan theory upside down — filled a sense of pride and belonging among the lower castes, gave them a history on which they could build an egalitarian future.

Phule questions how the creator Brahma managed the time to do all these creative works of the world since to reproduce four purusha of four varnas from four body parts one has to go through menstruation for around 16 days in a month. He not only rationally questioned and exposed the lies of Purushashatra, but also insulted the focal point of the Brahminical tradition which considers a menstruating body as impure.

He said if the tradition really propagates peace and harmony, then how would one justify the inhumane slaying of Kshatriyas (ones who were protecting the Khetras), their women, children, babies in the wombs by Brahmin lord Parashurama? His attempt was not just to mock the murderous past of the Brahmins, but also offer the lower castes the glorious past – of Bali rajya. He considered demonised identities like the Rakshasa as identities of the indigenous people of this land – making an ontological investigation into the term that comes from ‘Rakshaks’. He offered the glory of indigeneity to the lower caste masses by considering Arya Brahmins as the invaders, colonisers of this land who are full of hatred, inhumanity and vengeance.

Also read: What Dr Ambedkar’s ‘Who Were the Shudras?’ Tells Us About the Sacred Books of Hinduism

But this is not all Phule limited himself to; he never considered Brahminical texts to be understood as truth, but deceptions. Thus, his analysis of the lower castes as Rakshasa or the decedents of Maha Bali was part of the great theatre he wrote to build consciousness among people — a method — but not something to be understood as truth.

One of the greatest works of his life was his quest for seeking the truth which later materialised into Satya Sodhak Samaj (Truth seeker’s Society) that he established in 1873. The Satya Sodhaks believed all humans were the children of one God, and that to connect with God, humans didn’t need intermediaries such as priests. Through Satya Sodhak marriages they abolished priesthood, dowry system and husbands pledged to educate their wives. Savitribai and Jyotiba’s son Yashwant also had a Satya Sodhak inter-caste marriage.

A portrait of Savitribai Phule. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A portrait of Savitribai Phule. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Savitribai in her letters to Jyotiba always addressed him endearingly as “The Embodiment of Truth”. In the memoir by Govind Kale, titled Amhi Pahilele Phule, translated by Sonali Kale and Tejas Harad, he wrote how Phule believed in the universal religion of truth and that Phule would accept open-mindedly how religions like Islam, Christianity, Buddhism perpetuated the notion of social equality than Hinduism. Yet, he was critical about how Jesus had been understood as an intermediary between God and people, and had debated with European missionaries about the same. This also made a point about how truth for him was revelation and reason – he could reason to know, apprehend and understand truth, and thus could embrace it.

Gail Omvedt who translated Na’at, the praise of Prophet Muhammad, praised the prophet as a fighter against the slave system, idol-worshipping, inequalities etc, and also praised Islam for having freed Shudras from slavery, alongside the Aryas from Aryadharm, and taught this Brahminical land the language of equality and fraternity.

To counter sanskritric brahminical knowledge, Jyotiba and Savitribai always advocated for modern education. Like other anti-caste thinkers and philosophers, even Phule had to go through hardships and casteist slurs from upper caste and Brahmins for getting an education.

It was precisely because Phule received his education in a Christian missionary school that he realised the importance of education in the lives of lower caste, untouchables and women. Jyotiba wished that the British administrator would impart modern English education to the lower castes rather than allying with the Bhats and Seths. On 1848, Jyotiba and Savitribai opened up their first school at Bhidewada after teaching for quite a while at Maharwada starting with only nine students when Savitri was only 17 and Jyotiba was 21 years old.

Also read: The Annihilation of Caste Requires Dismantling Hinduism’s Code of Ordinances

Both of them together moved the wheel of education for women, untouchables and Shudras. In 1850, Jyotiba and Savitri opened up two educational trusts named Native Female School, Pune and The Society for Promoting Educations of Mahars and Mangs. By 1851, Phule had established three schools at Pune having around 150 female students. Savitri was not educated during her marriage and Jyotiba after studying at Scottish missionary till grade seven taught Savitribai at home with her getting trained as a teacher later. Savitri and Jyotiba’s love story and teachings questioned everything normative, unequal, making of mental slaves, and rebelled against them.

The most relevant lesson from his life to be understood today is that he was a misfit in the slave kingdom – a radical, a rebel. He could bring about revolutionary social change because he refused to be a slave to the Brahminical mind; he could see through the Brahminical lies, he could seek out the truth, he could reason and thus could shake the Bhatji-Shethji empire.

Today with the rise of the Hindu brand of nationalism, the Bhatjis of India are working towards placing a ban on the intellectual ability of people; their thinking.

Progressive universities are criminalised, funds and seats are cut, nonsensical rituals are introduced, reservation policies are diluted, marginalised bodies are brutalised, media trails and hate-mongering have resulted in making technocratic citizens at a mass level. And at this juncture, Mahatma Phule’s legacy demands us to pledge to teach generations not to submit to the slave system, graded inequalities, but rather question it, and keep the revolutionary potential alive.

Snehashish Das is a student of Masters in Sociology from Centre of Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University.