Life of Mahatma Jyotiba Phule

  • Article tells you about Jyotiba’s struggles and achievements in brief.

Jyotirao Govindrao Phule, also known as Jotiba Phule is regarded as the foremost reformer, social activist and a pioneer of women education in India during the 19th century. Jotiba Phule and his wife Savitribai Phule, played an important role in women empowerment and welfare then.


The relentless efforts of Mahatma Jotiba Phule in removing the evils of the caste system that had degenerated from its original concept, made him an icon of social justice for the Depressed Classes. Noted that Ambedkar always used the word Depressed Classes to describe those belonging to his community.


Phule’s reforms contributed to removal of untouchability, caste discrimination and women empowerment.


He and his supporters founded Satyashodhak Samaj (Truth-seekers' Society) in Pune. It was a social reform society that fought for equal rights for the depressed classes. Soon, people from all sections of society joined and worked for upliftment of the backward classes.


Childhood and Education


In 1827 was born Jyotirao Govindrao Phule in Maharashtra’s Satara district. His father, Govindrao worked as a florist and vegetable vendor. The family belonged to 'Mali' caste. They were considered to be a lower caste and looked down upon by others. Note that NCP leader, the rich and powerful, Chagan Bhujbal also belongs to the Mali community.


Jyotirao lost his mother when he was only nine months old. From early days, Jyotirao was a bright and talented student. However, the family’s deteriorating financial condition compelled him to stop studying and join the family business.


Sensing that the young Jyotirao was talented a neighbour persuaded his father to send him back to school. Jyotirao’s father then decided to give his son the best education that he could afford.


During school days Jyotirao came in contact with Sadashiv Ballal Govande, a Brahmin boy. They soon became close and lifelong friends. Both Jyotirao and Govande were highly influenced by Thomas Paine's ideas of human equality. Two more friends of Jyotirao Moro Vithal Valvekar and Sakharam Yashwant Paranjapye, who belonged to the upper caste supported his reform activities in later years.


Notwithstanding the problems faced by the depressed classes then, three upper caste boys were Jyotirao’s friends or and supported his reform activities.


Then children married at an early age. So following the prevalent custom Jyotirao Phule was married, at the age of thirteen, to nine year old Savitribai in the year 1840.


It was Jyotirao who taught Savitribai to read and write after he saw her enthusiasm to learn and educate herself. He also supported her decision to become a teacher and undertake social reform.

The beginning of social reform activities


In 1848, an ugly incident at a friend’s wedding spurred Jyotirao to fight against the caste system. It motivated him to start a social movement to eradicate social evils prevalent then.


Jyotirao was invited to attend the wedding of one of his Brahmin friends, but at the wedding, family members of his friend insulted Jyotirao when they came to know about his caste.


Jyotirao left the venue in anger and decided to uproot the existing caste-system and its unfair practices. He made it his life’s aim to hit relentlessly at the system of upper caste domination and decided to fight for those who were subjected to this social discrimination.


American activist Thomas Paine's famous book 'The Rights of Man', left an everlasting influence on young Jyotirao's mind. He strongly believed that education is the most powerful tool which could change the world. Education is the only weapon that can bring about social change and remove the evils from society.


Notwithstanding the above note that according to noted Gandhian Dharampalji, the maximum number of scholars in the schools of Madras Presidency ie parts of modern day Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, were Sudras. Do read link one.


His Role in Women Education and Empowerment


Jyotirao also worked hard towards raising consciousness about women rights and social injustice faced by women. He was a strong believer of gender equality and led by example by giving his wife equal rights in every sphere. His wife Savitribai, supported Jyotirao’s quest for women empowerment and education.


In 1851 Jyotirao set up a school for girls and requested his wife Savitribai to become a teacher there. After a few years, he managed to establish two more schools for girls and a local school for backward communities like Mahars and Mangs.


Dirt, mud and stones were flung at Savitribai every time she left her house to teach lower caste oppressed women. It did not deter her however.


Jyotirao felt deeply about the pathetic condition of widows in Indian society. In 1863, Jyotirao and Savitribai also started a Care Centre for widows of young age and provided them a secure place to live. The husband wife duo advocated widow remarriage and worked against child marriage too.


Like societies in other countries then, Indian society was a male dominated one. The women were deliberately denied opportunities for growth and suffered from denial of freedom.


Child marriages were not uncommon. Sometimes girls were married off to much older men, these girls often became widows at an early age and then left with zero financial support. Jyotirao felt the pain of these young women and raised his voice.


Just to put matters in perspective, “The British Parliament granted franchise to its women in 1918. Down to 1850 A.D. in England, a woman could not take a walk, much less a journey, alone, nor could she ask a fellow worker to visit her, unless the worker was a girl. When two ladies spoke at a meeting convened for the purpose of supporting a women’s cause in Parliament, a Member of Parliament said “Two ladies have disgraced themselves for speaking in public”. When the House of Commons was built in 1844, it was great difficulty that a Ladies Gallery was sanctioned.” Apparently, gender discrimination wasn’t only prevalent it India. It then existed across the world.


Having said that we must remember two 18-19th century queens whose names are immortal. First is Ahilyabai Holkar of Maheshwar, able ruler and administrator from 1767 to 1795. She belonged to the Dhangar or shepherd community. And the second is Rani of Jhansi’s rebellion in 1857.


His Efforts towards the Elimination of Caste Discrimination


“The great reformer from Mumbai, Rao Bahadur Vithalrao Krishnaji Vandekar gave Jyotirao Phule the title of “Mahatma” in May 1888 in recognition of his selfless services to humanity”.


Jyotirao criticized the upper castes and called them "hypocrites". He spoke against the blind submission to Brahmins and other upper castes. Simultaneously, he urged the lower castes to disobey the rules imposed upon them. 


He advocated social equality and welcomed people from all castes and religions. The upper castes were angry with his reforms. Both were held responsible for defying the rules and regulations of the society. Some said they were agents of Christian Missionaries. But nothing could deter Jyotirao from his revolt against social injustice.


It must be noted that some of Jyotirao’s Brahmin friends openly supported his reform movement. Jyotirao also wrote dramas to mobilise people against what was wrong with society then.


To put matters in perspective Veer Savarkar was another great social reformer too though in a later period. To read about his role as a social reformer


The Formation of Satya Shodhak Samaj


In 1873, Jyotiba Phule laid the foundation of Satya Shodhak Samaj (aka Truth seeker’s society). He presented a socio-cultural analysis that was highly critical of caste based domination. He advocated social democracy and justice.


Phule also criticized age-old ‘Chaturvarnya’ theory of gradation and separation of man based on birth.


In spite of difficult situations and continuous disapproval, the Phule duo continued social reform.


The sole purpose of the formation of “Satya Shodhak Samaj” was to eradicate caste discrimination and liberate lower castes from upper caste domination.


Jyotirao Phule invented the term 'Dalit' for the untouchables. It must however be mentioned that Dr Ambedkar always said he belonged to the Depressed Classes. The word Dalit entered the national discourse in the 1990’s. Many believe it was done at the behest of the Church to encourage conversions.


Membership to the “Satya Shodhak Samaj” was given to everyone regardless of their caste and religion. By 1876 'Satya Shodhak Samaj' had 316 members.


In 1868, Jyotirao showed his embracing attitude by making a common bathing water tank near his house and sat to dine with people of all castes.


Later life and Death

Mahatma Jyotiba Phule and his wife dedicated their entire lives for the betterment of oppressed sections. Phule’s idea of ideal society was based on equality, liberty and justice to all.

Apart from being a social reformer, he was also a businessman, farmer and contractor for the Municipal Corporation. In 1888, Mahatma Jyotiba Phule suffered a massive stroke. He passed away on 28 November 1890.

Do read his biography by respected author Dhananjay Keer titled, ‘Mahatma Jyotibha Phule: Father of Our Social Revolution’. I hope to visit The Mahatma Phule Museum in Pune on my next visit.

Also read

1 Were Backward Classes always suppressed in India?

2 History of the word Dalit

3 Status of Indigenous Education around 1820 by Dharampalji

4 Jnanadanandini Devi Tagore is an unsung heroine who led a social revolution in Bengal during the 19th century

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