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Jotiba Phule: The Universal Religion of Truth
Dalitbahujan Renaissance

Jotiba Phule: The Universal Religion of Truth



Gail Omvedt

(An excerpt from her book ‘Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste’)


Jotirao Phule (1827–1890) is considered a founder not only of the anti-caste movement in India as a whole, but also of the farmers’ movement and even the women’s movement in Maharashtra. He was born in a Mali (gardener caste) community of Maharashtra, and educated first in his village, then at Pune, at that time the centre of cultural and political stirrings. While he was for a time inclined to nationalism, he quickly became disillusioned with its Brahman leadership, and instead embarked on a career as social reformer intending to awaken the ‘Shudras and Ati-Shudras’ to the reality of their slavery and their destiny. His initial efforts involved starting schools for untouchables and girls in 1849 and 1851. Then in 1875 he founded the Satyashodhak Samaj or ‘Truth-Seekers’ society, which was his answer to the various organised groups, such as the Prarthana Samaj and the Brahmo Samaj of the elite. Its purpose was to fight priestly domination, especially by organising social-religious ceremonies without them; it also encouraged the education of both boys and girls and promoted gender equality with a quite radical version of the marriage ceremony. This movement gained some influence in Bombay and in Pune district, and he collected around him a group of young radicals, led mostly by Malis in the city and Maratha-Kunbis from the rural areas, but including a wide range of Shudra castes, while maintaining links with emerging Dalit leaders.

Phule’s first major polemical work, Gulamgiri (Slavery) was published in 1873. In it he turned the ‘Aryan theory’ of European origin upside down to unleash a harsh attack on Brahmanism in all its guises. As noted, the discovery of the linguistic relationship between Sanskrit and the European languages was linked to the identification of racial ethnic groups and conquest. In interpreting caste in this way, the British identified the three upper varnas (Brahman, Kshatriya and Vaishya) as descended from the Vedic Aryans (that is, as racially akin to Europeans) while the lower castes were thought to be descended from conquered, dark-skinned indigenous peoples. While initially the elite used this to claim their own relationship to Europeans, Phule turned it upside down. In a period of emerging nationalist political organisation, while the nationalists were attacking British imperialism, Phule described the ‘Arya Bhat-Brahmans’ as the first conquerors. As his English introduction to Gulamgiri put it:

The extreme fertility of the soil in India, its rich productions, the proverbial wealth of its people, and the other innumerable gifts which this favoured land enjoys, and which have more recently tempted the cupidity of the Western nations, no doubt attracted the Aryans, who came to India not as simple emigrants with peaceful intentions of colonization, but as conquerors. They appear to have been a race imbued with very high notions of self, extremely cunning, arrogant and bigoted….The aborigines who the Aryans subjugated, or displaced, appear to have been a hardy and brave people from the determined front which they offered to these interlopers….The wars of devas and Daityas, or the Rakshasas, about who so many fictions have been found scattered over the sacred books of the Brahmans, have certainly a reference to this primeval struggle…. (Phule 1991: 118–19).

Thus, the concept of Aryan conquest proved a means by which Phule could interpret, undermine and replace Brahmanic teachings. His own historical–theoretical explanation was predominantly materialistic: the Aryans had unleashed raids into India, prompted by greed; had conquered due to military technological advantages (the bow and the horse-driven chariot), and had maintained their rule through the use of religious sanctions and by banning education for the conquered. The religion conceived by the Aryans was one of superstition, ritual and purity–pollution concerns, but their puranic legends were seen by Phule as having their material basis in the process of conquest and rule.Thus, for example, the nine avatars of Vishnu were seen simply as stages in the ‘Arya Bhat-Brahman’ assault: first the attack by sea (the tortoise), then by land (the boar), then through trickery, and finally slaughter (Parasuram’s legendary killing off of all Kshatriyas).

The legend of Raja Bali provided Phule’s alternative ‘golden age’ of India. In the story of the avatars, King Bali is a demon or raksasa, a king who is tricked by the dwarf Waman into giving him a boon. Waman asks for all that can be covered in three steps—then puts one on the earth, the second on the sky, the third on Bali Raja’s chest to push him under the earth. Among Maharashtrian farmers, however, and in regions such as Kerala, Bali is described as an ideal beneficent king, illustrated by the Marathi saying ida pida javo, Balica rajya yevo (‘let troubles and sorrows go and the kingdom of Bali come!’), Phule considers Bali as a ruler of India at the time of the assumed Aryan invasion, and depicts it be such a ‘Golden Age’ that he continually uses the name ‘Balisthan’ for India as an alternative to ‘Hindustan’. Through this conception of Raja Bali, Phule integrated many of the popular peasant deities of Maharashtra. ‘Khandoba’, ‘Jotiba’, ‘Vithoba’ and others were seen as governors and feudatories and warriors in the great realm of Raja Bali.

Phule’s second major work, Shetkaryaca Asud (The Whipcord of the Cultivator) published in 1882, extended these themes into a critique of British colonialism. This depicted the bureaucracy as the greatest exploiter of the ‘Shudra and Ati-Shudra’ farmers; the bureaucracy itself was seen as an alliance of the ‘lazy indolent white English government employees’ and the ‘cunning Arya Bhat-Brahman black government employees.’ As Phule saw it, the lazy English, ill-informed about the country they ruled, simply let their Brahman subordinates loot the peasants in their name. Along with religious extortions, quarrels were instigated in the villages by the cunning Brahmans, factions were created among the peasantry, fights incited, and once the case went to court all the clan of Brahmans at every level united to loot both sides. Along with this cheating, taxes, cess, octroi and all kinds of funds were extorted from the peasants, their land was taken over by the ‘gigantic’ Forest Department so that ‘peasants had not even an inch of land left to graze even a goat’, and nothing was done to develop agriculture; consequently the masses of people were being ruined.

Phule took nationalist themes quite seriously. In Shetkaryaca Asud he discussed the way in which the peasantry and artisans were ruined by foreign competition, and criticised the loans taken from European ‘moneylenders’ for irrigation schemes for which the farmers were overcharged and even then left without water as it never actually reaching their fields. But, he attacked the nationalists’ solution of swadeshi, which was beginning to be proclaimed at the time. Phule’s solution was different. For him, in contrast to the developing themes of ‘economic nationalism’ which emphasised autarchy, exchange and trade with other lands were foundations for development and for building understanding among peoples; in fact cutting off such commerce between peoples was one of the means Brahmans had always used to maintain their power. The solution to the problem of competition, he insisted, was not expulsion of the foreigners and closure of the country, but rather education, and access to technology.

The emphasis on education and technology was consistent with his fundamental view of human beings, in which intelligence was the major distinguishing feature:

Now… aside from knowledge, humans and all other animals are basically alike in their nature. Animals need food, sleep and sexual intercourse; they raise their young, protect themselves from their enemies and understand nothing aside from belching after they have eaten; and since there is not a speck of change in this constant behavior of theirs, there is no upheaval or basic change in their original condition. However, one marvellous specialty in the nature of human beings is intelligence. With its help, they have won superiority over all the fish, animals, birds, insects and other creatures; and with this intelligence they have invented the system of writing to put their thoughts down on paper. After this, since the people of the continents all around have kept note of all their experiences up to today, there has grown up a huge mass of experienced knowledge in the world, and with the help of this experiential knowledge and their intelligence, the Europeans send their important messages through telegraph wires thousands of miles to inform each other and bring lakhs of tons of grain by boat and train in the time of drought to save each other. And in the midst of such intelligent human beings, the Sudra Shivaji brought to ruin the Muslim Badshah who worships one god and advised the farmers to take care of all the cows and the Brahmans and their self-interested religion! (Phule 1991: 396).

Thus it was that by preventing the Dalits from using their intelligence, by denying them education the Brahmans maintained their power; and the ‘swadeshi’ alternative was attractive to them because it left them with a captive population over which to exercise hegemony. Phule also gave what could be called a materialistic alternative to the orthodox Theravada Buddhist chain of causality. Like this, Phule’s causal chain also began with ‘ignorance’; he used the term ‘vidya‘ (Pali vijja), but treated it as knowledge gained through education: vidyavihin mati geli; mativihin gati geli; gativihin vitta geli; vitavihin sudra kacle (‘Without education wisdom was lost; without wisdom development was lost; without development wealth was lost; without wealth the shudras were ruined’) (ibid.: 353). Thus, he argued for compulsory universal primary education, with teachers trained from among the ‘Shudras and Ati-Shudras’ themselves, and with a course of studies that included both simple Marathi and training in agriculture and artisanship.

Phule’s feminism, very advanced for his age, was shown ideologically in the strong defense of women raised in two pamphlets entitled Satsar, published in 1885 and focusing particularly on the two great women leaders of his time, Pandita Ramabai and Tarabai Shinde.

Though Phule had an all-around approach, political and economic as well as cultural, he came back constantly to religious and cultural themes. His critique of Brahmanic Hinduism attacked not only the caste divisions that it created and maintained, but also its ritualism, legends, sacred books and festivals. The first chapter of Shetkaryaca Asud is a scathing description of the various festivals that occur throughout the year, as well as the life-cycle rituals of a good ‘Hindu’, each and every one of which are used by Brahmans to claim gifts and food—another ‘Brahman feast of ghee and goodies’. To Phule, in fact, ‘Hinduism’ was not a true religion at all; the adjectives he used to describe it were ‘self-interested’ (matlabi), ‘artificial’ (krutrim) and ‘counterfeit’ (banavati). Thus, finding a true religion was a major part of the freeing of the masses from the yoke of Brahmanic slavery. Just as Ambedkar’s final and major book was to be The Buddha and His Dhamma, so the concluding written work of Phule’s life also focused on religion—The Sarvajanik Satya Dharma Pustak, published just after his death. In it, he gave a savage critique of the Vedas, the Ramayana and Mahabharata stories, and undertook the effort to formulate a religious alternative.

What could this alternative be? All of Phule’s writings give indications of several important criteria: a true religion should be universal; it should be founded on reason and truth and rejection of superstition, i.e., it should be suitable for a scientific age; it should be anti-ritualistic; it should be ethical; it should be equalitarian, not recognising caste or ethnic differences, and especially admitting the equality of women. (Among the few ‘rituals’ he did write was a wedding ceremony where the verses, or mangalastaka, have the wife first asking for equal rights and the husband promising them, and finally with the two together vowing to serve other human beings). And, in the context of 19th century thinking, where Thomas Paine represented the height of radicalism, he also felt that a religion had to be monotheistic.

Phule knew little about Buddhism. His interpretation was summarised in a passage in Shetkaryaca Asud:

One might wonder how farmers could be so ignorant as to be looted up until today by the Bhat-Brahmans. My answer to this is that when the original Arya Bhat-Brahman regime was started in this country, they forbade knowledge to the shudras and so have been able to loot them at will for thousands of years. Evidence for this will be found in such self-interested literature of theirs as the manusmriti. After some years, four disinterested holy wise men who disliked the prolonged misfortune founded the Buddhist religion and campaigned against the artificial religion of the Arya Brahmans to free the ignorant shudra farmers from the noose of the Aryabhats. Then the chief head of the aryas, the great cunning Shankaracharya, engaged in a wordy battle with the gentlemen of Buddhist religion and made great efforts to uproot them from hindustan. However, rather than the goodness of Buddhism being threatened even a mite, that religion kept growing day by day. Then finally Shankaracharya absorbed the turks among the marathas and with their help destroyed the buddhist religion by the sword. Afterwards the Arya Bhatjis, by banning eating beef and drinking alcohol, were able to impose an awe on the minds of the ignorant farmers through the help of Vedamantras and all kinds of magical tricks (ibid.: 236–37).

This made some important points: Buddhist non-violence, the role played by Sankaracharya and bhakti devotionalism in combating Buddhism; but it missed the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. Phule evidently also confused Buddhism with Jainism, referring at times to the ‘Buddhist Marwaris’ in his books. In this sense, while his image of Buddhism was very favourable, he never saw it as a viable religious alternative. Centuries of Brahmanic dominance had wiped it out of historical memory, and the new impact of the universalistic religions of Islam and Christianity had made it difficult to imagine a religion not based on a supreme deity.

Phule’s sarvajanik satyadharma (public religion of truth) was a constructed monotheism postulating a vague but loving ‘Creator’. It won few adherents. His general anti-Brahman cultural radicalism was too much for significant numbers of people in his time; even his closest Mali companions, Bhalekar and Lokhande, worked apart from him, Lokhande focusing on workers in Bombay, and Bhalekar becoming alienated and trying to form an organisation concentrating only on education and reforms. Yet, though he died without apparently making much of a significant impact on his era, he opened up the way to a new one.



You will find the Scribd version of the book ‘Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste’ here.