A Different Freedom Fighter for a Different Colonialism

On this day we celebrate the birth of Jyotiba Phule- a man who dared to challenge the norms of casteism in a time when people quietly acquiesced to it.
Social Reformer Mahatma Jyotirao Phule; Source: Public Domain

Social Reformer Mahatma Jyotirao Phule; Source: Public Domain

In the 4th century CE, a Chinese traveller, Fa Xian visited the land beyond the Indus, crowned by the Himalayas and throned by the great Indian Ocean. For several years he observed the great landscapes, the magnificent cities, the complex systems of administration, rich traditions and cultures, the finesse of the craft and a section of people degraded below human standards! A people considered so dirty that even the air that touched them was polluted and the road they walked on was debauched.

The atrocities done on the Shudras and Ati-Shudras are too well-known to be repeated here. Text after text of Hindu Law is filled with the anxiety to suppress and keep distance from the castes regarded as 'polluted'. One man, in the nineteenth century, two millennia since the degradation laws were in place understood the real cause of this social problem and devised ways to consider all humans as mere humans - nothing more and nothing less.

In 1827, on April 11th, Jyotirao Phule was born in a caste considered Shudra. Things would have remained pretty much the same if he wasn't thrown out of a Brahmin friend's marriage due to his lower status.

The incident sparked inside him a revolution and on the pedestal stood the knowledge systems of Brahmins - the age-old traditions and myths that held the varna and caste systems in place.

The problem, according to Phule not only lay in the institutionalization of the degradation ideologies but also the inculcation of these by the Shudras and Ati-Shudras themselves. The age-old systems had managed to make the said castes not only physical slaves but also mental slaves. Those being discriminated against did not know that they were being treated lowly.

Phule's weapon to fight the 'colonial Brahminism' was rationality. He asked questions from texts that brought forth their hollowness and contradictions.

If Brahma had created the world, argued Phule, he must menstruate and if Brahma is menstruating, how can a body that menstruates be impure? If the tradition propagates peace, why did the Brahmin Parashurama kill the Kshatriyas trying to protect their people and land? In his rational approach, he twisted the myths and theories of the glorious Brahminhood, to bring forth the egalitarianism of the lower castes.

Phule declared through his readings of the texts that the Aryans were invaders who took over the lands of the indigenous people, referred to as non-Aryans or Rakshasas in the Brahmanic texts.

Phule never considered textual knowledge as truth. He used deception to fight deception. He played the game that had been played for over 2000 years to attack the system from within.

To fight the system, Phule set up a Satya Shodhak Samaj that believed in the principles of equality among all humans including women. He emphasized education for all - women, Shudras and untouchables - to break the shackles of the old systems.

Like true companions, Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule, together fought against the Brahmanical system, their marriage being the epitome of love and questioning norms, mental slavery and inequality.

In 1888, his efforts were said to be those of a Mahatma by another social reformist of the time. Phule started a movement that was the first step towards humanity in the subcontinent and has continued till this date. His struggles for freedom were not against the foreigners of modern times but the barbaric suppressors of the past.


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