Jyotirao ‘Jyotiba’ Govindrao Phule was a prominent social reformer and thinker of the nineteenth century India. He led the movement against the prevailing caste-restrictions in India. He revolted against the domination of the Brahmins and struggled for the rights of peasants and other low-caste people. Mahatma Jyotiba Phule was also a pioneer for women education in India and fought for education of girls throughout his life. He is believed to be the first Hindu to start an orphanage for the unfortunate children.
Jyotirao Govindrao Phule was born in Satara district of Maharastra in 1827. His father, Govindrao was a vegetable-vendor at Poona. Jyotirao’s family belonged to ‘mali’ caste and their original title was ‘Gorhay’. Malis were considered as an inferior caste by the Brahmins and were shunned socially. Jyotirao’s father and uncles served as florists, so the family came to be known as `Phule’. Jyotirao’s mother passed away when he was just nine months old.
In 1848, an incident sparked off Jyotiba’s quest against the social injustice of caste discrimination and incited a social revolution in the Indian society. Jyotirao was invited to attend the wedding of one of his friends who belonged to an upper cast Brahmin family. But at the wedding the relatives of the bridegroom insulted and abused Jyotiba when they came to know about his origins. Jyotirao left the ceremony and made up his mind to challenge the prevailing caste-system and social restrictions. He made it his life’s work to hammer away tirelessly at the helms of social majoritarian domination and aimed at emancipation of all human beings that were subjected to this social deprivation.
Efforts Towards Women Education
Jyotiba’s quest for providing women and girls with right to education was supported by his wife Savitribai Phule. One of the few literate women of the time, Savitribai was taught to read and write by her husband Jyotirao. In 1851, Jyotiba established a girls’ school and asked his wife to teach the girls in the school. Later, he opened two more schools for the girls and an indigenous school for the lower castes, especially for the Mahars and Mangs.
Around his time, society was a patriarchal and the position of women was especially abysmal. Female infanticide was a common occurrence and so was child marriage, with children sometimes being married to men much older. These women often became widows before they even hit puberty and were left without any family support. Jyotiba was pained by their plight and established an orphanage in 1854 to shelter these unfortunate souls from perishing at the society’s cruel hands.
Satya Shodhak Samaj
In 1873, Jyotiba Phule formed the Satya Shodhak Samaj (Society of Seekers of Truth). He undertook a systematic deconstruction of existing beliefs and history, only to reconstruct an equality promoting version. Jyotirao vehemently condemned the Vedas, the ancient holy scriptures of the Hindus. He traced the history of Brahmanism through several other ancient texts and held the Brahmins responsible for framing the exploitative and inhuman laws in order to maintain their social superiority by suppressing the “shudras” and “atishudras” in the society. The purpose of the Satya Shodhak Samaj was to decontaminate the society from caste discrimination and liberate the oppressed lower-caste people from the stigmas inflicted by the Brahmins. Jyotirao Phule was the first person to coin the term ‘Dalits’ to apply to all people considered lower caste and untouchables by the Brahmins. Membership to the Samaj was open to all irrespective of caste and class. Some written records suggest that they even welcomed participation of Jews as members of the Samaj and by 1876 the ‘Satya Shodhak Samaj’ boasted of 316 members. In 1868, Jyotirao decided to construct a common bathing tank outside his house to exhibit his embracing attitude towards all human beings and wished to dine with everyone, regardless of their caste.