Education for liberation: Exploring Mahatma Phule’s work in education

A statue of Jotirao Phule
A statue of Jotirao Phule

The world into which Mahatma Jotirao Phule was born in 1827 was in the throes of change. Following the establishment of a Maratha kingdom in the last quarter of the seventeenth century by Shivaji, power had later effectively slipped from the grasp of Shivaji’s successors, based in Satara, into the hands of the Peshwas, based in Pune, who ruled in the name of the monarch, but effectively controlled all decision making. Pune, the city of Phule’s birth, had been the stronghold of the Peshwas for well over a century, and this rule had come to an end only a few years before Phule’s birth. In February 1818, the East India Company took over the administration of the territories that were formerly in the ambit of the Peshwa (Gordon, 2012). 

Peshwa-controlled society was relatively ‘closed’ (O’Hanlon, 2002) and there was virtually no scope for upward mobility for members of the lower castes. But East India Company rule also did not automatically result in the opening up of opportunities for the lower castes. However, the influx of Protestant missionaries into areas that had earlier been a no-go for them resulted in the establishment of a number of schools and colleges that were open to all, including the lower castes. The British administrative system also created a number of administrative and clerical positions requiring a degree of fluency in English, a professional qualification, and some experience in administration (O’Hanlon, 2002). Brahmins were quick to grab these opportunities and in time came to dominate the lower echelons of the administration. Having done that, they guarded their privileges jealously and were quick to block entry for other castes. 

Phule was born into a family of some means. His father had been rewarded by the Peshwa with a land grant, which he subsequently used for growing vegetables and thereby attained a modicum of prosperity. The changed political circumstances enabled Phule to go to school. He attended a Marathi-medium institution at first and later joined the Scottish Mission’s High School in Pune. The school gave the young Phule a modern education, which shaped his world-view. He completed his course of study in 1847–48. Two important incidents occurred soon after that set the scene for his life’s work. First, he chanced to read a number of works by Thomas Paine (The Age of Reason and Rights of Man among others), and, second, he was insulted and excluded from the wedding procession of a Brahmin acquaintance on account of his lower-caste origins. Phule’s expulsion from the wedding procession, coming as it did when he was steeped in Paine’s works, was perhaps just the motivation he needed to embark on a life of iconoclasm and deep social engagement. 

Phule opened his first school for low-caste (Shudratishudra) girls in 1848. In this endeavour, he had the support of his wife, Savitribai (they were married in 1840). This act on the part of the couple resulted in their estrangement from Phule’s father who was under pressure from the conservative elements both from within his own caste and from others in Pune’s casteist society. In 1851, Phule established another school for girls of all castes. In 1855, he set up an evening school for working people. 

After 1858, Phule’s work went beyond education and encompassed a number of activities, including writing, most of which countered the prevalent Brahminical theology that sought to justify the workings of the caste system. He also engaged in vigorous social activism, aimed at empowering the Shudratishudra masses, on the one hand, and at exposing both Brahminical orthodoxy and attempts by a section of the Brahmins (the so-called progressive Brahmins) to ‘reform’ Hindu society from the top, on the other hand. Although Phule did not consciously work in the field of education after 1858, he nevertheless kept an eye on the progress of education in the Shudratishudra community. His two key works, Gulamgiri and Shetkaryacha Asud (the extracts featured here are all from Gulamgiri and Shetkaryacha Asud), while not being specifically about educational matters alone, have much to say about education and how it is key to the liberation of the Shudratishudra community. 

Gulamgiri (Slavery), published in 1873, is a work of great importance in understanding Phule, his world-view, his social activism, and his views on education. It is an analysis of the contradictions that abound in casteist Hindu society. The final aim is complete liberation from the prejudices and misapprehensions that, in Phule’s view, keep Shudratishudras in a condition of slavery, subject to Brahmin injunctions and trickery.

Gulamgiri begins with an exposition of how Brahmins came to be in India, tracing their origins to Central Asia, their usurpation of land through deceitful means, and the early establishment of Brahmin hegemony through the insertion of several convenient passages (convenient to the Brahmins, that is) into the ‘sacred’ texts and the institutionalisation of several practices that pushed Shudratishudras into the abyss of a ‘divinely sanctioned’ slavery. 

Phule examines the Dashavatara myth in some detail, reading into the story the saga of the arrival, usurpation, and subsequent domination of the Brahmins. As part of his investigation of the Dashavatara myth, Phule discusses the story of Vamana and Bali Raja. Phule celebrates Bali Raja as a pious figure worthy of admiration as opposed to the Brahmin’s characterisation of Bali Raja as an evil figure who was cast into the netherworld by the pious Brahmin, Vamana. 

Phule scientifically interrogates other ancient Hindu texts and, on several occasions, demolishes the belief in the ‘sacredness’ of Hindu texts and questions their motives. He regards these texts as unscientific. To see through these myths and stories is perhaps the first step towards liberation.

During the period of British rule too, the Brahmin in Phule’s description of the times continues to exercise great power. He prevents Shudra children from acquiring an education by denying them admission in school. He abuses his government position and exploits the farmer in several ways. In this, he is helped in no small measure by the indolence of British officers who rely on Brahmin advice entirely in making their decisions and do not bother to assess the circumstances or the conditions on the ground for themselves. Yet Phule sees hope in British rule. He believes that continued appeals will eventually force the British to act in favour of the Shudratishudra community. In light of this expectation, Phule offers a few concrete proposals that he believes will set society on the right path. He opines that British officers need to do away with their reliance on Brahmin intermediaries. In the short term, he advocates that Brahmins in government service be replaced by British personnel to ensure justice for the Shudras. He attacks the complicity of educated Shudras with the Brahmins and the British, and calls on them to act honestly and truthfully. 

Gulamgiri is a manifesto for rebellion and offers an altogether radical view of society that seeks to be the starting point of Shudratishudra resurgence and a movement for reclaiming their rightful position in society. 

Shetkaryacha Asud (Cultivator’s Whip), published in 1883, looks closely at the material condition of the Shudratishudra community, which is largely dependent on agriculture, and examines the reasons for their poverty. The book commences with Phule lamenting the lack of knowledge among Shudra farmers and describing how this lack of knowledge leads to myriad problems for them. That this has led to the current poverty-stricken state of Shudra farmers is one of Phule’s important contentions. He devotes an entire chapter on poverty among farmers, examining the role of excessive expenditure on religious rituals and the role of this factor in farmer impoverishment. Perhaps the most significant part of this chapter is the question that Phule poses in all seriousness: why does the government collect taxes from farmers, but do nothing for their welfare, choosing instead to spend money on things that benefit the Brahmin who has actually not paid these taxes? He also discusses double-dealing by Brahmins in government departments which results in the exploitation of Shudras and blames the indolence of British higher officials for being partly responsible for the domination of Brahmins. 

Here, Phule also makes his case for drawing or recruiting teachers from among the Shudras themselves, who, in his opinion, would better understand the plight of their fellow Shudras, and therefore deliver an education of value. Phule also argues for a temporary freeze on recruitment in order to end the domination of Brahmins in government departments till such time that educated Shudras emerge in sufficient numbers. Phule also makes suggestions for improving the financial condition of farmers. He offers ideas for the improvement of irrigation, the introduction of mechanisation in agriculture, and the training of farmers’ children in vocational trades. He repeatedly stresses that the farmer is paying tax and is therefore truly deserving of some kind of direct benefit from the government.

There is considerable repetition in Shetkaryacha Asud. On a number of occasions, Phule goes over the same ground he has already covered in Gulamgiri. This needs to be understood in context. The second half of the nineteenth century saw considerable movement and churning in the politics of Maharashtra. Attempts were made by upper-caste reformers to reform Hindu society. Phule, however, remained suspicious of these attempts. He was firm in his belief that Shudratishudra society needed to move ahead under its own steam and on the basis of its own efforts. He was not begging for crumbs. He was striving for equality and for an admission by the Brahmins of the injustice of their practices. 

Both Shetkaryacha Asud and Gulamgiri are calls for action on the part of Shudratishudra society. Both these works exhibit a strong anti-Brahminical streak. Brahmin cunning and their use (or abuse) of religion to acquire wealth and power are mentioned several times. In particular, Phule is strongly opposed to the use of the so-called sacred texts to impose rules on Shudras. Phule is not enamoured of these texts and rejects the notion of Shudras being ‘allowed’ to learn these texts because these texts hold no value for him. In effect, Phule is trying to give Shudratishudras a larger world-view that is fundamentally opposed to the Brahminical world-view. This vision, more than anything else, considerably influenced his educational views. 

An attempt is made below to present an overall picture of Phule’s views on education as gleaned from Gulamgiri and Shetkaryacha Asud.  

  1. Phule viewed the education of the Shudratishudra community as essential from the point of view of social justice. He firmly believed that the labour of the Shudratishudra contributed to the coffers of the empire. “It is an admitted fact that the greater portion of the revenues of the Indian Empire are derived from the Ryot’s labour—from the sweat of his brow” (Gulamgiri, p. 33). Given this state of affairs, he acutely felt the injustice of the British government’s decision to spend the revenue so derived on “the education of the higher classes” (Gulamgiri, p. 33).
  1. While the issue of social justice demanded attention, Phule also keenly felt the hidden hand of Brahmin cunning behind many British administrative decisions. A recurrent and constant theme in Phule’s writings is Brahmin duplicity in the preparation of reports for British officials. Phule contended that Brahmins twisted facts to suit their own ends. The British, forced as they were to rely on Brahmins for ground-level knowledge, were unaware of the real situation and went by whatever Brahmins said. Phule made two radical suggestions in this regard—first, the appointment of an English or Scottish preacher in every village to offer an alternative point of view, and, second, the need to ensure that the job of the village accountant (patil and kulkarni) was not the preserve of one caste alone. In this regard, Phule proposed the establishment of government-aided schools that would admit students of all castes and would train them to clear the examinations for various government posts. Phule’s ultimate objective, as one can readily see from this proposal, was to ensure the end of the Brahmin monopoly on government jobs, which he believed would ultimately benefit the tiller of the soil. Phule’s concern was social reform in this case. 
  1. Phule also viewed education as necessary for the Shudratishudra community to realise their sense of self-worth. He writes: “. . . they still remain ignorant and captive in the mental slavery which the Brahmans have perpetuated through their books” (Gulamgiri, p. 45). As stressed previously, he sought to uproot and replace Brahminical cultural and religious hegemony. Phule strongly resented the scriptural hold exerted by Brahmins over the Shudratishudra community. Indeed, Gulamgiri is a fiery polemic against the Vedic and Brahmin world-view. Written in the form of a dialogue between Jotirao (presumably Phule himself) and Dhondiba, a friend, it attacks the prevailing orthodox views of caste origins (Brahmins emerging from Brahma’s mouth, Shudras emerging from his feet, etc.), upturns the myth of Vamana and the banishment of Bali, delves deep into Vishnu’s avatar as Narasimha, and questions a number of other myths that sought to justify caste hegemony perpetuated by the Brahmins. Phule, with his own thinking grounded in the missionary tradition, which owed something to the Enlightenment (science was one of the subjects that Phule had studied at school), felt keenly the humiliations that his community had to undergo on account of the low status assigned to it by the ‘holy’ scriptures, scriptures that Phule himself regarded as works of manipulation aimed primarily at ensuring the continuing domination of the Brahmins. Education therefore was the way out. Through education, the shudraatishudra community would be empowered to see through the supposed superiority of the scriptures and also see through the hollowness of the brahminical claim of divine punishment that was supposed to accompany disregard for the scriptures. The Shudratishudra community would realise the depth of its own contribution to society and cease to regard the Brahmin as a superior and ‘higher’ figure. 
  1. As previously stated, Phule had studied science as a subject at the Scottish Mission school. As an educated individual in the nineteenth century, he was also likely to have been aware of the goings-on in the western world. He was aware of the impact of the manufacturing industries in Bombay beginning in the early 1850s. He also had some ideas about vocational education for children of Shudratishudra caste groups, and held strong views on the irreconcilability of western science and native Brahminical tradition. One sees here a very modern approach to education, influenced in part by Phule’s own educational background and in part by the view that science could be a key vehicle for bringing progress to the Shudratishudra community.
  1. Having established that education could lead to social justice and social reform, Phule makes some concrete suggestions for the actual operationalisation of reforms in education in order to ensure ground-level change. Phule talks of two important steps that needed to be taken: 
    1. Brahmin teachers were unwilling to, or were incapable of, honestly educating the Shudratishudras. Phule sees this in terms of Brahmins wishing to maintain their scriptural and material power intact. Phule, therefore, emphasises the need for teachers to be drawn from the farming community who would be better disposed to both disseminate education as well as appreciate the lot of the tiller and to be able to understand the background of their students.
    2. Phule castigates educated peasants for turning their backs on their own community, referring to them as “abject slaves to Brahman employees” in Cultivator’s Whip (p. 186). He believes that it is necessary that they publicly discuss ways of ensuring that education reaches their brethren. Clearly, Phule sees a greater role for educated people from within the non-Brahmin castes. He urges them to ensure the greater good of their community. 

In addition to Gulamgiri and Shetkaryacha Asud, Phule’s Memorial Addressed to the Education Commission specifically talks about education. Two other works of Phule also deal with matters of education: Tritiya Ratna, a play, and Brahman Teachers in the Education Department, a ballad. 

In October 1882, Phule prepared his well-known Memorial Addressed to the Education Commission. The Indian Education Commission—also known as the Hunter Commission after its chairman, Sir William Hunter—was appointed in 1882 by the Viceroy Lord Ripon. This short text presents most of Phule’s views on education and makes a strong case for furthering the educational cause of the Shudratishudra community. Phule in this petition emphasises the need for immediate attention to primary education. He also stresses once again the requirement for non-Brahmin teachers and presents a list of subjects that in his view needed to be taught in primary schools: some history, geography, and grammar, some agriculture, lessons in moral duties and sanitation, and lessons in technical education. Phule also shares his thoughts on school fees and the modalities of school inspection. He proposes that municipalities maintain schools. He expresses deep concern about the indigenous schools run by people “from the dregs of Brahminical society”. He argues for governmental involvement in higher education to ensure that the profit motive is kept out, so that education can have a wide reach. Clearly, Phule sees governmental involvement as a bulwark against Brahminical domination of education, which already existed to a great extent and was proving difficult to dislodge. Lastly, Phule stresses that the government needs to pay special attention to the education of women. 

The Memorial Addressed to the Education Commission foregrounds certain critical issues in Phule’s thinking. Phule’s choice of subjects highlights his modern view of the world. His own education had been modern, and he evidently saw a modern education with an emphasis on science as an important and crucial force in demolishing the Brahminical view of the world and in ensuring that the Shudratishudras would be ready to embrace the coming industrial change and to claim their rightful place in the world. 

Phule also demanded that the government pay special attention to the education of women. That Phule began his work by starting a school for girls is an indication of his sensitivity to the gender issue. He also withstood considerable social pressure to marry a second time since his wife could not conceive, which further underlines his commitment to the cause of gender equality. With respect to gender equality, mention must also be made of the case of Mukta Salve, a 14-year-old girl student of Savitribai Phule’s school. In a hard-hitting essay, ‘About the Grief of Mahars and Mangs’, Mukta Salve questioned Brahminical injunctions against textual knowledge being imparted to Shudratishudras, described the difficulties of a Dalit woman’s life, and insisted that education alone would liberate the Shudratishudras. In this essay, two critical aspects of Phule’s views on education are seen to converge—critical thinking and women’s empowerment. That a girl was making these comments shows that Phule was successful in infusing his girl students with a feeling of empowerment. 

In 1869, Phule wrote a ballad, ‘Brahman Teachers in the Education Department’, which details the ill-effects of Brahmin domination of the Education Department, Brahmin attempts to discourage the education of the lower castes, and the two-faced nature of Brahmin ‘progressiveness’. Brahmins are portrayed as ill-treating Shudratishudra students, attempting to make their life in school miserable, and sending misleading reports about their [lack of] aptitude for studies to the British. The British are accused of indolence and of having blind faith in the Brahmins. 

Phule also authored a play, ‘Tritiya Ratna’, which too deals with education. ‘Tritiya Ratna’, written in 1855, was Phule’s first work, though it was not published in his lifetime. In the play, a Brahmin priest dupes a farmer couple by forcing them to perform certain rituals to supposedly ensure the well-being of their unborn child. After having been duped, the couple chances upon a Christian missionary who talks to them of God as being good and kind and who questions the caste system. The play ends with the couple resolving to get themselves educated at Phule’s night school. Education is held here as the Tritiya Ratna, the ‘third eye’, which would alleviate Shudratishudra misery, a point also emphasised by Mukta Salve. ‘Tritiya Ratna’ projects Phule’s vision of education. It has been used as a frame by several scholars to understand education as a new mode of social perception. 

The Memorial was pretty much Phule’s last significant educational intervention. He died in 1890. 

Several of Phule’s educational ideas were pioneering ones. While he is universally acknowledged as a social reformer and a fiery writer, his path-breaking work in the field of education has been largely overlooked. 

Phule had very enlightened ideas about the place of the teacher in the student’s life. He believed that the teacher needed to understand the student’s world to be able to teach well. His objection to Brahmin teachers instructing Shudratishudra students was precisely on this account. By and large, the Brahmin in the nineteenth century was far removed from the exigencies of Shudratishudra life. He retained a superior attitude and looked down upon the Shudratishudra. For Phule, the chasm was far too wide to be bridged. Traditional views eulogised the teacher, placed them on a pedestal, and held them in reverence. Phule’s view of the teacher’s role was that they should be one with their students without losing their ability to instruct them.  

In Gulamgiri, Phule proposes the idea of testing the ability of aspirants for government service and only then admitting them, instead of following the caste-based (that is, Brahmin) model that was the norm then. He was also one of the first advocates of the idea of the competitive examination. He also spoke in terms of the need for affirmative action, that is, reservation. Equally noteworthy is Phule’s stress on the role of the administration in providing education both at the school level and at the higher education level. He was extremely suspicious of private initiatives in education as he believed that the profit motive would harm what he considered a great and noble vocation. 

In Phule’s vision of education, the individual was empowered to think for himself and to question the status quo. In his view, the power and ability to dissent from, and to disagree with, existing social and cultural norms were key. His discourse on education can, in effect, be said to constitute an alternative educational view, even in the modern context. Alternative educational thinkers need to pay sufficient attention to Phule as a well-spring of non-mainstream thought (Rege, 2010).

Mahatma Phule deserves his place in the pantheon of Indian education innovators as a thinker very much in tune with rational ideas and as a committed practitioner who sought to implement his ideas in a variety of meaningful ways.

References:

  • G. P. Deshpande (ed.) (2002): Selected writings of Jotirao Phule, New Delhi: Leftword Books.
  • Gordon, S. (2012): The Marathas, 1600–1818. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • O’Hanlon, R. ( 2002): Caste, Conflict and Ideology: Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Low Caste Protest in Nineteenth-century Western India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Omvedt, G. (2008): Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals, New Delhi: Navayana Publications.
  • Rege, S. (2010): “Education as Trutiya Ratna: Towards Phule-Ambedkarite Feminist Pedagogical Practice,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 45, No 44–45, pp 88–98.

This article was originally published in the issue of Contemporary Education Dialogue, Vol 13, No 1. It has been republished here with a few changes.

Karthik Venkatesh is an editor and writer based in Bangalore.

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