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Date(s) - 05/11/2019
3:00 pm - 5:00 pm

Seminar Hall


Project: Hindu Social Reform: A Study of the Framework of Jotirao Phule
Title: “The Making of Mahatma Phule: Life, Influences and Mind”

– Prof. S. K. Chahal (Fellow, IIAS, Shimla)

This presentation is a humble attempt to grok the making of Mahatam Jotirao Govindrao Phule (1827-1890), the foremost social reformer and thinker as well as one of the nation-builders of modern India. A great reformer of 19th century India, Phule showed extreme concern for the marginalized sections of Hindu society, and started a crusade against the Brahmanical orthodoxy and the ‘slavery’ it imposed upon the downtrodden sections for centuries. He started a radical reform movement in colonial Maharashtra which inspired many similar movements in modern India. He came out with a unique framework of Hindu social reform. He also emerged as a first advocate and champion of human rights in India. The question arises what made Phule a radical reformer? How his life took such a turn that he became a social revolutionary? What were the influences/inspirations that shaped his mind? And what were the perspectives and prospects of his actions and ideas?

All of these questions become more pertinent when we come to know that Jotirao Phule hailed from a humble social background. He was born in Mali caste of horticulturists having Shudra status in Hindu society. Here, some hagiographers/biographers indicate that Phule suffered caste humiliation at the hands of the orthodox Brahmans when, during his high school days sometime in 1848, he attended the marriage ceremony of one of his Brahman friends. Such authors (e.g., Dhananjay Keer) suggest that this event had an indelible effect on the course of his life, and, we know, the year of 1848 marked a turning point in his life and career as he decided to open his first school for Untouchable girls in Poona that year.

The critics of Phule, however, alternatively express that he was solely under the influence of the Christian missionaries and, being a product of a Scottish Mission School, he was particularly influenced by John Wilson, a missionary of the Free Church of Scotland. It is true that he was an admirer of Christianity and also found missionaries like Wilson closer to his own understanding of Brahmanism; he, however, did not believe that conversion to Christianity could be a right way for the amelioration of the lower classes. Some serious historians of the subject (like Rosalind O’Hanlon etc.) point out that Phule could become a religious radical because he was intellectually influenced by Thomas Paine, a religious radical of America, who was a great critic of the Christian fundamentalism. Phule was, no doubt, an admirer of Paine and also some other western thinkers and emerging liberal democracies of the west, but, it also comes into view that he, by and large, developed his thoughts on the ideological and cultural bedrock of the indigenous Shramanic and Bhakti traditions. He wrote many writings which include plays, poems and polemical works, and it appears from his writings that he had a revolutionary, but religious vision and also an alternative blueprint of the reformed Hinduism.

My presentation suggests that, since Phule hailed from the lower strata of Hindu society, he naturally comes out as, to apply Antonio Gramsci’s term, an organic intellectual. Hence, apart from his experiences and inspirations, his social location largely helped him to develop his perspective – which was a perspective from below or that of the downtrodden sections of Hindu society – and from this perspective, he initiated a reformation movement in Hinduism, just like Martin Luther did in Christianity.