Dr. SPVA Sairam
Religion has played a significant role throughout the human history and its legacy is mixed. As a means of social control, it not only divided people and subjected them to the ignominies of the worst sort, but also, at times, it acted as a unifying force, unleashing the tremendous potential within humans to seek his or her spiritual ends1.
In this context, it is interesting to know what our anti-caste thinkers have to say about it. It will be illuminating to understand how Mahatma Jotiba Phule (1827-1890) viewed it.
Jotiba and Savitribai Phule had dedicated their lives to the cause of Bahujans. They raised the banner of revolt against the exploitation and subhuman treatment meted out to Shudras, Ati Shudras and Women by the Brahmins and allied castes2.
In this piece, let us see Jotiba’s idea of universal religion and draw parallels with Thomas Paine’s philosophy.
Foundations of Unversal Religion
Jotiba regarded the religions propagated by Brahmins as untruth, with no other motive but to further their selfish caste interests.
“The Aryan Brahmins have invented many fictitious, spurious religions, to serve their own interests. While searching for the Truth, I came to realise the final -essential- secret. I am fed up with the spurious religion, and hence have abjured false practices’’3
For Jotiba “Truth” should be the foundation of a Religion, he says:
“The Universal Religion of Man is founded on Truth and Ethics, and everything else is unethical…Truth is the original home of us all. It is the foundation or corner-stone of all religions. All happiness in this world is the off-spring of the Eternal Truth. Truth is the foundation of all happiness. All else is sheer darkness. Truth is very mighty as it destroys all sham, deceit or untruth. That which is rooted in truth easily exposes or destroys hypocrites or selfish persons. Realising the might of Truth, the impostor (pretender) is mortified or anguished in his heart…I exhort all Shudras to embrace the doctrine of Truth, to abjure the spurious religious practices and to treat all human beings with fraternal love. Always speak the Truth. Abjure wicked religious dogma, and put the earth-gods (the Brahmins) to shame by educating the Shudras and Ati-Shudras”3
For Jotiba, Truth is also a means for emancipation from the travails of Brahmin thraldom; he says:
“Victory, eternal Victory, to our Eternal Truth!…The Vedic lore is totally worsted at the sun-rise of Truth, and its hollowness -untruthful nature- is thoroughly exposed on a close scrutiny. When the Spurious scriptures hear (realise) the grandeur and nobility of the Eternal Truth, they are completely mortified as if their faces are plastered with black oily pigments. The heretics are completely worsted when they see your visage, O Truth, and hang down their heads in great shame. When you treat the ignorant Shudras with due compassion and kindness, O Truth! The (so-called) earth-gods (the Brahmins) tremble with trepidation. O Truth! You are verily an ocean of compassion (for us the Shudras) and you have emancipated us from the trammels of Brahmin thraldom. Through your blessed grace, we have understood (realised) the (right) path in life” 4
Truth and Greatness – Jotiba opines
“He who is a Votary of Truth does not fear the Past, the Present or the Future (for any reason). He conducts himself in a truthful (righteous) manner at all times, and tries to make others happy in all his dealings with them. When he is no more, his children continue to be happy (like himself), and all the people (who had dealings with him) remember him with joy (and gratitude). Such a person should be called the ‘enlightened one’ or a ‘great man’ (a magnanimous man) for he is an adornment to mankind” 5
Given the significance he attached to truth, it is unsurprising that Jotiba founded Satyashodhak Samaj (Truth-seekers’ Society) a social reform society, on 24 September 1873 with Savitribai as the head of women’s section.
Parallels with Thomas Paine
It will be interesting to compare Jotiba withThomas Paine (1737 -1809), particularly with the latter’s idea of religion, because Jotiba had not only read his works but also got inspired from his life. Interestingly, both come from the lowest classes of their respective regions.6
The contributions and the legacy of Thomas Paine to the cause of Liberty are widely acknowledged. According to Robert Ingersoll: “With his (Paine) name left out, the history of Liberty cannot be written”6
Equally illuminating would also be the comparison between Jotiba and Voltaire. But let us limit ourselves to Paine for today.
Thomas Paine and Mahatma Jotiba Phule
Condemnation of Cruel Faith and the Idea of a Benevolent God
Both Paine and Jotiba opposed every custom and religion which tied humans to slavery. Paine rejected the creation myth and ridiculed the contradictory passages of Old and New Testaments and regarded mystery, miracle and prophecy as the three frauds of religion. Jotiba, on the other hand, rejected the entire religion and customs of Brahmanism with a relentless feat of logic.7
While they rejected blind faith and inhuman customs, both believed in a single Benevolent God, who is also the Creator-the Prime Mover.
Explaining about his views on God, Paine remarked:
“I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavouring to make our fellow creatures happy” 7
He believed that God is one and by eliminating priest craft and human inventions around religion, we can “return to the pure, unmixed and unadulterated belief of one God, and no more”8
Dealing about the nature of God, Jotiba opined:
“There is only one authentic Creator, and all human beings are one. Sovereign truth is his royal insignia. He has created all mankind…The Creator has created this earth (the Universe) which sustains us all…He never discriminates among human beings, and like a kind father, makes us all quite happy and contented. There should be only one religion for all human beings and they should always follow the path of Truth” 9
Interestingly, Babasaheb differs from Phule on the question of god; the former, like Buddha, rejected the notion of God as the creator and Prime Mover.
What makes Jotiba more valiant than Paine?
Though Paine became critical of Christianity and Bible towards the end of his life, he remained uncritical of it during large parts of his life.
As has been noted by Christopher Hitchens:
“Throughout the pages of Common Sense, The Crisis and even Rights of Man, he made continuous use of scriptural authority. He knew very well that the Bible was the only book he could count on many of his audience having read and he did not hesitate, for example, to claim that monarchy is discredited by the Old Testament – which, as is usual with that volume, it is in some passages, while being authorized in others”10
The case with Jotiba is completely different, since his days of youth; he has been – along with Savitrimai- actively and quite fearlessly engaged with Brahmanism and ridiculed it with a pen filled with reason morphed as ink. He continued to do so till his last breath amidst all cries of opposition and even death threats! He marked his influence in every sphere of life and was a visionary, as has been well summarized by Kuffir:
“When Phule took up the mission of educating the lowest castes and women, there was no consciousness of the need for universal education even in most of western Europe. The demand that the state should take up the cause of primary education for all gained full currency only towards the end of the nineteenth century. So what was Phule? Turban wearing advocate of universal education from the most unlikely of backward societies. It’s not just the Dayanand Saraswatis, Vivekanands, Ram Mohun Roys and Tilaks who pale before him, most of the western leaders of his time do too. “11
It is unsurprising that Dr.Ambedkar regards himself as the devotee of Jotiba Phule and calls him “The Greatest Shudra”12
Legacy of Paine and Phule
If Paine demanded freedom for Americans from British monarchy, Jotiba demanded freedom for Shudra-Ati Shudras from Brahmin theology and supremacy. If Paine opposed Slavery in USA, Phule took inspiration from that opposition to emancipate bahujans in this sub-continent. If Paine wrote pamphlets to kindle spirit among masses, Jotiba composed ballads to educate and energise his Shudra-Ati Shudra brethren. If Paine drafted legislations, Phule submitted memorials and opened schools for downtrodden girls. If Paine designed iron bridges for common use, Phule constructed wells for Untouchables. If Paine inspired abolitionist John Brown 13 to revolt against slavery, Phule influenced Babasaheb Ambedkar to speak of annihilation of the caste system.
Both were faithful to the values of Truth and Justice, and opposed all forms of oppression with action.
Hence, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state that both Paine and Phule were the catalysts of social change that altered the course of history!14
The main motive of writing this piece is to create interest among readers to further explore the writings of Jotiba and other anti-caste thinkers. It’s our moral obligation and a necessity to read the works of anti-caste thinkers, because in them lies our history and the seeds of creating a just society. Understanding of the anti-caste works must be followed by devising concrete means to bring transformative changes in society. Having said that I will conclude by quoting the profound words of Dr.Babasaheb Ambedkar, who expressed:
“Philosophy is no purely theoretic matter. It has practical potentialities. Philosophy has its roots in the problems of life and whatever theories philosophy propounds must return to society as instruments of re-constructing society. It is not enough to know. Those who know must endeavour to fulfil”15
Important Note: Please do not ignore references, facts which may kindle curiosity might be found there!
Notes and References
1. Dr.Ambedkar remarked: “ Religion has not only crossed everywhere the warp of Indian history , it forms the warp and woof of Hindu mind…To ignore religion is to ignore live wire” – Page 23, Volume 3 of Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches or BAWS.
2. Phule has documented almost every form of exploitation practiced by Brahmins against lower classes and women with historic facts.
Refer Collected works of Mahatma Jyotirao Phule or CWMJP, Volume-I and II, translated by Barrister P.G.Patil
3. Hallelujah for Eternal truth, from page 96, Volume –II, CWMJP
5. A Paean for Eternal Truth, from page 96, Volume- II CWMJP
6. The Enlightened People, from page 109, Volume –II, CWMJP
Note: To know what constitutes greatness according to Dr.Ambedkar, refer to Ranade, Gandhi and Jinnah, from page 215, Volume 1, BAWS.
7. The Works of Robert Ingersoll, from page 120, Volume-I (Dresden Edition)
Note: In a letter to George Washington, Paine wrote: “A share in two revolutions (American and French) is living to some purpose”.
* This letter can be accessed at https://founders.archives.gov/
* Also refer to Thomas Paine by A.J. Ayer for scintillating biography of Paine.
8. The Age of Reason; Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology, by Thomas Paine (Published in parts from 1797-1804).
9. Interestingly, both Paine and Phule considered Jesus as Man (not god). Jotiba speaks about Paine while discussing about Christ, see below.
For Paine, Jesus signifies “most excellent morality and the equality of man…By exposing corruption… heundoubtedly incurred the anger and loathing of… priests who accused him of sedition and conspiracy against the Roman Empire—enough to get anyone executed in that era” (An Appreciation of the Character of Jesus Christ, and his history, Age of Reason authored by Thomas Paine)
For Jotiba, Jesus is Baliraja of the west, he says:
“Baliraja (Jesus) is the great champion of the downtrodden, the holiest of the holy, the great sage and lover of Truth…He undertook the task of releasing his poor oppressed brethren from the bondage of slavery by wicked, cunning and treacherous hunters like the Brahmans and strove to establish the kingdom of God on earth. Ancestors of great scholars like Thomas Paine, became his followers and attained eternal joy” (Part X, Slavery)
10. Poems given at the end of “The Universal Religion of Truth”, Page 97,107 Volume –II, CWMJP
11. Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography by Christopher Hitchens, from page 124, Chapter 5
*To see the connection between Key of Bastille, Paine and May Day, see page 6
* Kuffir’s post – https://www.facebook.com/kuffir/posts/10156000751937195
12. From Dedication part of Who Were the Shudras, volume 7, BAWS
13. John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights BY DAVID S.KNOPF
14. Dr.Ambedkar once described himself as a “Rock which doesn’t melt but turns the course of rivers” – At Election Campaign, Ramdaspur (Punjab), Speech Number 7, Ambedkar Speaks Volume 1, edited by Dr.Narendra Jadhav
15. Riddles in Hinduism, Riddle No 22, Volume 4, BAWS.
Sources of Images
Thomas Paine – https://www.biography.com/scholar/thomas-paine
Jotiba Phule – From cover photo of Gail Omvedt’s book – Jotirao Phule and the Ideology of social revolution in India.
Dr. SPVA Sairam is a dentist by profession.