The Individual and Society, An anthology




Jotirao Phule

-P.K. Satapathy

1. Introduction      

Jotirao Phule is now regarded as a major social reformer of 19th century Maharashtra.  However, during his lifetime, he was often accused of fermenting hatred between the non-brahmins with his far-fetched interpretation of Indian history and the ancient texts.  His critics made fun of his lack of command over grammar and philosophy.  Jotirao Phule's acrimonious criticism of the Brahmins, for obvious reasons, did not win him many friends in upper sections of society or administration.  But it certainly marked the beginning of a challenge to the upper caste domination in society.

In this lesson, however, we shall focus on the extract 'Caste Laws' and try to understand the thrust of Phule's social reforms agenda.  We shall discuss the concepts Phule deploys in his arguments and try to appreciate the alternative point of view that he brings to bear upon the caste system.

We all know that the caste system in India (often Jati in most of North India) has existed for ages.  It exists even now though not in as acute a form in cities as in villages.  The rigidity and practice of caste may vary from state to state and region to region.  But the reality of the caste system is undeniable.  A look at the matrimonial column of any leading newspaper will reinforce these points.  The recent issue of reservation for OBC's in higher education clearly demonstrated that despite our claim to modernity, development and our aspiration to play a leadership role in the global arena, we have failed to free our society from the obnoxious practice of caste.  Without going into the merits of the issue of reservation we can safely say that there is a need to examine the issue of caste and, if possible, try to reform our society even more, so that all men are treated with dignity and equality.   Let us now move on and examine Phule's 'Caste Laws'.

2. Caste Laws          

It has already been pointed out that the present essay, 'Caste Laws" is an extract from the preface to the book 'Slavery'published in 1873.  This book (Gulamgiri) remains Jotirao Phule's most influential publication till date.  The title itself suggests Phule's approach to the subject of Caste.  Phule considered caste and caste laws a form of slavery.  Interestingly the sub-title of the book is "In the civilized British Govt under the Cloak of Brahminism".  Further the page of dedication in the original book reads:

Dedicated to the good people of the United States as token of admiration for their sublime disinterested and self-sacrificing devotion in the cause of Negro slavery and with an earnest desire, that my countrymen may take their noble example as their guide in the emancipation of their Sudra Brethren from the trammels of Brahmin thralldom. 

2.1 The subtitle and the dedication make two very important points:

a. Phule considered caste as a form of slavery perpetuated by the Brahmins and that it flourished even under the British Govt. despite its claim to a civilized government.

b. The emancipation of the Sudra's and Ati Sudra can only come about by a social movement and by the people themselves.  Consequently there was a need to awaken the people against the social domination of the Brahmins.

Further, this particular essay begins with three quotations which reinforce and add to the points emphasized in the title and the dedication.  The first quotation, from Homer, emphasizes the dehumanizing aspect of slavery.  Nothing can be worse than slavery because it robs a man of his virtue and dignity.

The second quotation draws our attention to the fact that education in India, from time immemorial has been used not to raise the status of the people, but to 'over-educate' a few so that the rest are at the mercy of the learned few.  The Brahmins perfected this practice by denying education to the lower castes as well as women.  And the British administration did no better by providing education only to a few so that they could rely on these few to exploit and suppress the majority, thus continuing with the practice of Brahminism under the guise of civilized governance. You may do well to recall the sub-title of the Book which makes a reference to the situation.

The third quotation, again from a British author, draws our attention to the ill effects of Brahminical domination and the contradictions within this system. While the Brahmins boast of vast knowledge, they jealously, perpetuate superstitious practices which degrade human dignity.  Further the author suggests that only by cutting down the brahminical domination to size the nation can hope to move forward.

Why do you think Jyoti Rao Phule begins the essay with these quotations?

Well to begin with quotations are used to support and reinforce arguments put forward by the author. What is interesting is that all the three quotations are from foreign authors.  The author here perhaps wants to present the readers with an outside objective view of Brahminsm before he presents his own critique. The first quotation sets the agenda that  caste is like slavery which robs a man of his essential dignity. The next two quotations set the tone and tenor of the critique which is sharp and pointed. It holds Brahminism responsible for the arrest of development and suggests that by getting rid of Brahminism progress for the common man can be ensured.

2.2  The Essay

Phule's Caste Laws may be split up into three parts:

a. The first part of the essay presented in the first paragraph places Brahminism in its historical context.

b. The second part of the essay (Paragraphs 2,3 and 4) presents the consolidation of Brahminism through the constitution of Caste and arrogating to themselves unimaginable powers and privileges.

c. The third part comprising paragraph 5,6,7 and 8 analyses the continued domination of the Brahmins and the failure of the Government to gets rid of the obnoxious practice of caste.  It also suggests ways of giving Sudras their rightful due in the country.

2.2.(i)   Let us examine the historical context presented by Phule in the first part of the essay. The main arguments presented in this section are:

a. The Brahmins are descendants of Aryan invaders who displaced and subjugated the original inhabitants of India, after along and protracted battle.

b. The Brahmins retain the temperament of the Aryans who were arrogant, manipulative and full of high notion of themselves as evidenced in the titles that they conferred on themselves.

c.  The Aryans hated the aborigines because of the stiff resistance they offered. This is evident in the terms they used (Chandala, Sudra, Mahar) for the aborigines.

d. The struggle is chronicled in the Brahmin myths and legends in  such a way as to portray the aborigines in very poor light (as cruel, unjust, ugly, etc). For example in the war between the Devas and Daityas, the Daitya are presented as strong but dim witted.

e. Rakshas's are portrayed as evil in the Brahmin literature but the term Rakshas denotes protection of the land. Thus the exaggerated accounts of the Rakshas's are only an indicator of the intensity of their hatred.

f.  After subjugating the aborigines, the Aryan subjected them to unimaginable cruelties.  This has a parallel in the modern times in the subjugation of the American Indians.  The cruelties displayed by Parasurama, a Brahmin God, hardly qualifies him as a god.  He looks more like a fiend.

Now if we look back at this section we will observe that Phule creates an alternate image of the past.  This section can hardly qualify as history but then that is to miss the entire point.  His critics have also done the same.  They accused him of historical inaccuracies. Phule was acutely conscious of the fact that it was imperative to challenge the Brahmin view of the past and the Brahmin ideology to break their dominance.  Hence he has tried to interpret the past in terms of a Sudra perspective.  His language is emotional and sharp.  He challenges the hierarchies of good and evil constructed around the idea of Devas and Daitya's.  He also tries to pitch Brahmins against every one else by subsuming all other castes under a broad rubric of "Kshetrias".  He is also able to present an alternate view of the Devas by presenting Parasuram as a fiend.  His argument is centered around the idea that Aryans were essentially cruel and revengeful and blood thirsty.  Thus we have a God who was so blood thirsty for revenge that he wiped out the entire Kshetria race several times over.  On the other hand he presents the aborigines as brave and simple people who were victims of unjust and cruel invaders.

2.2(ii)   In the second part of the essay Phule discuses the methods used by the Brahmins to consolidate their victory over the aborigines and to arrogate all powers and privileges to themselves.  The main argument prescribed in this section are: -

a. The deep cunning of the Brahmins is evident in the Institution of Caste.  Through this institution, the Brahmins cornered all privileges and the Sudra's and Ati-Sudras were denied even the basic human rights.

b.  The Sudra under Brahminism was reduced to the status of an animal.  His life was not worth more than a cat a frog or a dog etc. For instance if a Brahmin kills any of these animals or a Sudra he can be absolved of his sin by performing a fasting penance. On the other hand if a Sudra killed a Brahmin he had to pay for it with his life.

c. The Brahmin laws and ordinances embodied in "Manava Dharma Shastra" exemplifies the cunning with which the Brahmins reduced the others to slavery.  The 'Manava Dharma Shastra' is full of examples of the cunning with which the Brahmins established their own superiority over the Sudras and others.

d. This system of slavery was so deep rooted and so rigid that it continued unchallenged into the time of the Peshwas.  This was achieved by duping the minds of the people and keeping them ignorant.

2.2(iii)  The third section (Para 5,6,7,8) brings us up to date with the prevailing situation during Phule's times.  Phule examines the situation which prevailed during his times and points to a possible solution to the problem.  The main arguments presented in the section are:

a. The proliferation of western ideas and civilization has certainly weakened the Brahmin dominance.  Though the Brahmins of Phule's time did not have the same authority as the Brahmins under the Peshwa, they still refused to discard the erroneous notions of their own superiority.  And as long as these notions continue, the Sudra will continue to suffer and India will never achieve greatness or prosperity.

b. The Government is partly responsible for the crisis.  The government has, for its own interests, focused its time and resources on higher education and has done precious little for the education of the masses.  Ironically the greater, part of revenues of the 'India Empire' comes from the working classes whereas the higher and richer classes contribute little but corner the maximum benefits.

c. This attitude of the Government is reflected in the composition of the civil services as well.  All the higher offices in the Government have become the monopoly of the Brahmins.  The welfare of the 'Ryot' is only possible if this monopoly is broken and the Government allowed a fair representation to the other castes in the civil service.

d. However it is important to ensure that the 'Ryot' has a fair chance by making good education available to the common masses.  The Government must pay more attention to the education of masses because higher education can take care of itself. It will be easy to create a body of men from the common masses, trained and well qualified and with better 'morals' and 'manners' to man the Government.

e. Finally, it is the duty of every Sudra who has had the benefit of education to work for the upliftment of his fellow Sudra's.  They should endeavour to present the true picture of the status of Sudra's before the Government and try to emancipate themselves from the dominance of the Brahmins.  Further there should be schools in every village for the Sudras manned by Sudra teachers and not Brahmins. It is only by emancipating the Sudra that the country can hope to progress and prosper because Sudra's are the 'life and sinews' of the country.

3. Summing up          

This essay 'Caste Laws', as you know is taken from the preface to his book Gulamgiri.  The essay is intended to make people aware of the debilitating effect of the caste system on society.  The book was meant to raise awareness amongst the masses and galvanize them to work against the continued existence of caste laws.  Consequently the tone and tenor of the essay is charged and impassioned.  A rational style was not appropriate for his purposes.  A high-pitched style, as we find in this essay, often works well to galvanize people to action.

The second thing that Phule needed was a powerful image to bring out the suffering of the people under the caste system.  Hence he compares the caste system to slavery.  Slavery, as we all know is an extremely inhuman system.  A slave is stripped off all dignity and humanity.  By equating slavery with the suffering of the Sudra's,,.  Phule sends out a very powerful message.  At the same time Phule was aware that it was much more difficult to free people of mental slavery than physical slavery.  The Sudra's were kept ignorant by denying them education.  They had come to believe what was told to them by the Brahmins.  And the Brahmins, predictably told them of a divine system which had ordained that the Brahmins were God's favorites and that the Sudra's duty was to serve the Brahmins.

Such a system of beliefs could only be countered by providing an alternate picture of the past.  Thus Phule writes an alternate account of the past and tries to overturn the Daivya/Daitya hierarchy.  He tries to show that neither the Brahmins were Devas nor the Sudras were Daityas.  He tries to prove that these Brahmin stories are not only far fetched but also a proof of their cunning. The Brahmin managed to convince the Sudra that he was inferior because the Sudra was uneducated. Hence it is only through education that the Sudra can see through the cunning of the Brahmins.  But the Sudra must not be educated by the Brahmins because the Brahmins have not been inclined to discard the notions of their own superiority.  The Sudra's must be taught by the Sudra's so that he is able to recognize himself as an equal of the Brahmin. However this is only possible if the government changed its attitude towards the education of the masses.  Instead of spending time and resources on higher education which benefits the Brahmins, the Government must spend time and resources on the education of the masses. If the masses are educated then society will be free of the repugnant caste laws and there will be more harmony and peace in society. It is only then that the country can hope to progress and prosper.