Born: 11 April 1827
Born In: Katgun, Satara district of Maharashtra.
Also Known As: Mahatma Phule, Jyotiba Phule, Jotiba Phule, Joti, Jotirao Phule.
Father: Govindrao Phule
Mother: Chimnabai Phule
Spouse/Partner: Savitribai Jyotiba Phule
Children: Yashwantrao Phule (adopted son)
Nationality: Indian
Education: Scottish Mission's High School, Pune.
Associations: Satyashodhak Samaj.
Ideology: Liberal; Egalitarian; Socialism
Religious Beliefs: Hinduism
Publications: Tritiya Ratna (1855), Powada: Chatrapati Shivajiraje Bhosle Yancha (1869), Shetkarayacha Aasud (1881)
Memorial: Phule Wada, Pune, Maharashtra
Died On: 28 November, 1890
Died At Age: 63 years
Place Of Death: Pune / Poona, India

Jotirao Phule was one of the foremost exponents of modem humanitarian thought in India, though there have been several others such as Raja Rammohun Roy in Bengal, Swami Dayanand in Gujarat, etc. Tradition had made Indian society inert and devoid of dynamism or energy. These reformers went to the root of the problem and preached an ideology that would create a new and integrated social structure. As a result of modern education in the nineteenth century, the youth had begun to be acquainted with ideas that challenged traditional beliefs and constraints. Jotirao had the courage to be inspired by modern thought. He was one of the first Indians to forcefully introduce the values of freedom, equality and fraternity, as proclaimed by the French Revolution, into the Indian way of thinking. He introduced the notion of ‘slavery’ which was an integral part of the ancient social system, but had never found a foothold in India. One of the characteristics of the slave system was that the master enjoyed complete personal and physical authority over a slave. One does not find this feature in the ancient Indian social system. However, India had another social evil, which allowed no scope for social progress or development, and that was the caste system which determined the social standing at birth—the highest caste being the Brahmins and the lowest, the untouchables or the Mahars, Mangs, Chamars, Dhers, etc. The Brahmins formed the priestly class, who imparted religious instruction with the help of religious texts known as Srutis, Smritis and Puranas. A Brahmin was considered the most holy person. The remaining castes came between the two extremes of pure and impure. According to Jotirao, the Brahmins arbitrarily took upon themselves the right to govern society, and the society accepted this right. Jotirao challenged this right with his concept of slavery and warned in his writings that the Indian mind could achieve all-round progress only if it freed itself from the shackles of this particular form of slavery. The biography of Jotirao is the biography of a great man of action.

Jotirao’s ancestral lineage can be traced back to one Shetiba. The native village of his ancestors was Khanavali in the Purandar division of Pune district. Shetiba had three sons: Panoji, Govinda and Krishna. Their original family name was Gorhe but after they started a florist’s business they began to be known as Phule. In the latter days of the Peshwa rule, Jotirao’s ancestors supplied flowers and various articles made from flowers: flower mattresses, pillows and garments to the Peshwas. The latter gifted them with a garden and 35 acres of land. Prior to this Jotirao’s ancestors were greengrocers.

Jotirao’s father, Govinda or Govindrao married a girl called Chimana, daughter of one Zagde Patil from Dhanakwadi near Pune. They had two sons, one of whom, Joti, was born in 1827.

During Jotirao’s father’s time, the power and glory of the Peshwas had ebbed considerably. In the latter days of the Peshwas, the rulers had given up governing in a just manner. The Brahmins were the favoured caste. Merit was not considered while giving them high posts. For many crimes, the Brahmins were given milder punishment instead of the severe ones as stipulated by law. They would manage to get their land tax reduced by half or even less. During the time of Bajirao n the Brahmins were especially showered with alms and given lavish feasts. In contrast, the farmers were miserable, caught as they were in the grip of money-lenders, who were mostly the Brahmins. The Brahmins reigned supreme owing to the blind acceptance of their caste superiority. So deep-rooted was this belief in the caste system that a Hindu felt polluted even if the shadow of an ‘untouchable’ fell on him. It was believed that one could cleanse one’s sins by giving alms to a Brahmin or by drinking the water obtained by washing the feet of a priest. The latter custom still prevails in some regions of India.

The Brahmin community ensured that women remained uneducated and illiterate. In the last days of the Peshwas, even the religious beliefs had become debased. Worship of shakti had taken deep roots even among the respectable Brahmins of Pune. The majority of the higher officials of Bajirao were Brahmins and they practised shakti worship. This worship comprised acceptance of fives M’s— madya (alcohol), mansa (meat), matsya (fish) maithuna (coitus), and mudra (consumption of roasted or puffed rice). The Maratha kingdom established by Shivaji had expanded under the leadership of the first four Peshwas. But, after the death of Shahu, towards the end of Peshwa reign, the Brahmins became all powerful. Shivaji’s governing policy, which laid emphasis on justice and merit, collapsed. Justice and competence lost their place in the administration of the state. Lokahitavadi, who held a high place among the educated class which came into being during British rule, has drawn an excellent comparison between the rule of the Peshwas and the British in his book Shatapatre (One Hundred Letters).

The history of nineteenth century India is the story of the impetus for social reform, in which the introduction and spread of modern education was an important element. Schools which taught English language were opened not so much to educate the masses but to groom Indian staff to run the British government. Christian missionaries opened a Marathi school in Pune for the public. During this transitional phase, even though education was open to the masses, the common man was not aware of its importance. Notwithstanding this, Govindrao got his son Joti admitted to a Marathi primary school at the age of seven. However, on the advice of his Brahmin clerk, Govindrao thereafter withdrew Joti out of the school and set him to work on his vegetable farm (Joti excelled in this work).

Jotirao’s mother, Chimanabai, had died when Joti was a child. His father Govindrao felt the loss deeply, but instead of remarrying, appointed a nurse to look after Joti. She brought up Joti and his brother Raja ram with great love and care. By the time Joti finished primary school; he could read and write well, and had learnt accounting too. Lokahitavadi Gopalrao Deshmukh writes of this in Shatapatre in 1850:

If a Brahmin were to come across a clerk of the Maratha caste or of a caste other than his own, he would get livid. The Brahmin would say that kaliyug was here, that learning (which had been held sacred) was being polluted by being imparted to the lower castes. Thus we see that the Brahmins held the belief that the other castes should not be imparted education; hence, the Brahmin clerk’s advice to Govindrao to withdraw Joti from school.

As a result of acquiring a sound primary education, Jotirao became fond of reading. He would read in the flickering light of a sama (a tall brass lamp) before going to bed or while at his farm. There were two scholars among his neighbours. One of them, Gaffar Baig Munshi, was a teacher of Persian language; the other, called Lizit, was a Christian missionary. They advised Govindrao that Joti needed to study further. So in 1841, Govindrao admitted Joti to a school run by a Scottish mission. Joti was then fourteenyears old. He had got married at thirteen to the eight-year old daughter of Zagde Patil from the village Dhanakwadi, near Pune. At the government school in Budhwar Wada, Joti made friends with Sadashiv Ballal Govande, a Brahmin. He also had Muslim friends with whom he discussed the relative merits of Hinduism and Islam. In the Scottish Mission School Joti’s other friends were two Brahmin boys, Moro Vithal Valvekar and Sakharam Paranjape.

Joti finished his ‘English’ education in 1847. Drawing inspiration from the American struggle for independence, he thought deeply on humanitarian values of equality and freedom. The thought of driving out the British from India occupied his mind continuously. In Joti’s student days there were a number of big and small revolts against the British, both in Maharashtra and outside; these included the agitations by Umaji Naik in 1826, the fishermen of Pune district in 1830, Bhau Khare, Chimanaji Jadhav and Nana Darbare in 1839 and 1846, Bapu Mangare and Radoji Mangare in 1848—all of which were suppressed by the British. The aim to overthrow the British and make the country free and strong, with the help of his friends, took deep roots in Joti’s mind early in his very prime. He even records in his book Gulamgiri (Slavery) that his thoughts regarding freedom were conditioned by Brahmin students and teachers. After the decline of the Peshwas, a section of the Brahmin community in Maharashtra began seriously thinking about ways and means for overthrowing the British.

Jotirao set himself to the task of seeking educational reforms. He was convinced that both the women and the Sudras from the Hindu community should avail themselves of modern education. At the time, even the Brahmins were opposed to educating their women. He decided to open a school for girls, for, if a woman were educated, the home could become a school where the educated mother could teach her children. Meanwhile his friend, Sadashivrao Govande took him to Ahmednagar, the centre of education run by Christian missionaries. They visited the mission school of Madame Farrar, who too lamented that education of women had been sadly neglected in India. She felt that each Indian male should take to educating his wife who could then help him in the spread of education. Accordingly, when Jotirao returned to Pune, he persuaded his wife to get educated; She did so and later started a school for girls belonging to the lower castes. The school began functioning in August 1848 at Bhide Wada in Budhwar Peth. Joti’s associates, Paranjape, Hate and Govande, gave him financial assistance to help run the school. This school was open to girls from the untouchable castes such as Mahars, Mangs and Chamars. This was the time when Pune in particular was the bastion of ultraconservative Hindu leaders, who looked upon an institution which imparted education to Sudra and Ati-Sudra women as an offence against God, and against the Shastras, religion and society. According to these leaders, Hindu religion prohibited women and Sudras from learning, when in reality; it is only the Vedas which are prohibited to the women and Sudras, and not education. However, learning had been denied to women by leaders of various castes. The Brahmins and the caste leaders feared that the social edifice of the caste structure would receive a severe jolt if women became educated. They felt that a woman, if educated, could go astray and destroy family happiness. Those were the days when women were not allowed to use footwear or umbrellas or speak to their husbands in the presence of others; a newly-married couple could not converse with each other in the presence of elders; a woman could not sit down to a meal with her husband. Educating women was considered as bad as playing with fire, as it could lead women to cross the boundaries of family decorum and make elders lose their authority.

Jotirao’s father, Govindrao Phule, being a man of tradition, was deeply troubled by his son’s actions. However, Govindrao’s friends of the same caste convinced him that Jotirao was right in taking action against age-old Hindu religious beliefs. Jotirao argued with his father but to no avail. Govindrao in a fit of anger told his son to go his own way and ordered Jotirao and his wife to leave his house. Jotirao’s wife, Savitribai, stood by her husband in this period of trial. Thus Jotirao and his wife moved out. Meanwhile the school closed down temporarily due to lack of sufficient funds. When the finances improved somewhat, Jotirao reopened the school in the space donated by his friend Govande in old Ganjpeth. Soon, with the number of girls in the school increasing, Jotirao found a bigger place to run the school, which he took on rent from a Muslim. Major Candy provided books to the school. On 3 July 1851, Jotirao started a girls’ school in Anna Chiplunkar’s mansion at Budhwar Peth, where he taught for four hours daily without taking any salary. He set up an acting committee and handed over the management of the school to the committee, which comprised of Keshav Shivram Bhavalkar, Anna Sahastrabuddhe, Bapuraoji Mande, Vishnu Bhide, Krishnashastri Chiplunkar and Vishnushastri Pandit. Vishnushastri Pandit later became famous as the supporter of widow remarriage. The school first began with merely eight girls on the roll; soon their number rose to forty-eight. Since the financial position of the school was not very sound, Jotirao’s wife began teaching on an honorary basis; she also became its principal. Jotirao became an important figure in the promotion of women’s education. He opened a second school for girls in Rasta Peth on 17 September 1851 and a third in Vithal Peth on 15 March 1859. The curriculum comprised of reading, grammar, arithmetic, geography, history, map reading, etc. Major Candy, supervisor of the school, said in a report: “I am happy to note the intelligence and progress of the girls.”

On 17 February 1852 Jotirao’s school was publicly inspected, following which there was a speech by Bhansaheb Mande. “It is a pity that the citizens of our country are not yet convinced of the need to educate women,” he said. A judge named Brown was present on this occasion. In his speech he quoted Milton and said, “Educating women will strengthen family happiness and utility of the institution of the family.”

A fourteen-year old girl from one of Jotirao’s schools for untouchables wrote an essay in which she said, “The Brahmins say that other castes should not read the Vedas; this leaves us without a scripture. Thus, are we without religion? Oh God, please tell us, what is our religion? God, by Your Grace, you sent us the kindly British government. This has brought relief and welfare. Before the British came the Mahars and Mangs were beheaded when they committed an offence against the people of higher castes. Earlier we were not allowed to move about freely in the bazaar of Sultekadi; now we can.” Such was the freedom given to girls in schools run by Jotiba.

Dadoba Pandurang Tarkhadkar was the supervisor of the local government schools. On 16 October 1851, he inspected the first school set up by Jotirao in Budhwar Peth. He remarked that it went to the credit of those who ran the school which had made such remarkable progress in so short a time. Meanwhile, Jotirao set up a library for his students, since he felt that a library is an important means of imparting education. The number of students in Jotirao’s school grew ten times more than that in government schools. This amazing transformation was due to the excellent conditions present and the conducive atmosphere for teaching. On 16 November 1852 the government called a meeting of local leaders in Vishram Wada to felicitate Jotirao. On behalf of the government, Jotirao was honoured with a shawl—an honour hitherto conferred only on Brahmins. Apart from Bapurao Mande, Pandit Moreshwarshastri, Principal of Pune College, spoke at the function.

The movement to educate women began to spread to other regions of the country. A literary and scientific society for students was established in Bombay. The first four presidents of the society were Europeans. The society set up eight schools in Bombay on 1 October 1849. These schools were open to children of all castes. British governors and judges visited the schools. Describing the condition prevalent then, Lokahitavadi said:

The Brahmins have monopolised learning through unfair means. They have decreed that other castes should not be educated. Today, the Brahmins have captured all the means of livelihood. The Brahmin pandits have threatened to leave their profession rather than teach the holy language Sanskrit to non-Brahmin students.

The newsletter Dnanodaya wrote: “It is high time the Brahmins stopped entertaining such strange ideas.” Between 1820 and 1825, a Brahmin pandit from Pune, Gangadhar Phadke, used to make a living by teaching Sanskrit to Europeans in Bombay. The Pune Brahmins ostracized him. Neelkanthshastri Bhat and five other pandits refused to teach Sanskrit to non-Brahmin students, for which they were transferred to the Oriential Research Institute on a lower salary. Pandit Dhondoshastri Dengvekar and Pandit Krishnashastri Rajwade were severely persecuted by the Pune Brahmins for teaching Sanskrit to non-Brahmin students.

After founding educational institutions, Jotirao turned his attention to social reforms by striking at age-old social traditions. Earlier, Rammohun Roy had fought against the practice of sati in Bengal which was subsequently abolished in 1829. The issue of widow remarriage was extremely sensitive and Jotirao was deeply moved by the plight of Hindu widows, in 1864 he got a widower of the Shenvi caste remarried. He founded an antiabortion centre where widows could deliver their babies and have them cared for. This was the first institution of its kind. It saved the widows from loneliness and from the killing of their infants.

Jotirao himself had no children. Although even his father-in-law advised him to remarry but Jotirao remained firm. He said, “If a woman cannot beget a child from her first husband, will she be justified in getting a second husband? This male practice of a second marriage because there is no issue from the first is an extremely cruel one.” On the death of his father, Jotirao performed the last rites, but not according to tradition. He fed orphans and invalids. On his father’s first death anniversary, he distributed food among the poor and books among students. His wife who was herself childless served the children in the anti-abortion centre with tender affection.

Had Jotirao opted for government service, he would have prospered but he chose public service as he considered it his moral duty towards society. He engaged in private business to support his family. When the government drew up a plan for the construction of the Khadakvasala dam, Jotirao along with his friend Sakharam Paranjape, acquired the contract for the supply of stone. In this line of business, Jotirao came into contact with workers and government officials, especially engineers. Concerned about the welfare of the workers, Jotirao fought for their rights. He impressed upon them the value of education for their children. He became a staunch critic of corrupt practices in such business enterprises. By and by, he undertook other jobs, like supplying lime for the construction of the Yerwada Bridge. His spare time he devoted to reading, especially poetry and books on history written by Christian missionaries.

In 1865, Jotirao published a book which created a stir. Called Jatibhedviveksar, it was written by his friend, Tukaram Tatya Podwal. In the preface to its second edition, the author says,

author says, In the delineation of caste distinction in Hindu scriptures, one finds a corrupt form of caste distinction which has shackled the minds of the Hindus. There is no task more important than liberating them from the isolation resulting from such caste distinctions.

The Brahmins according to the author acquired superiority merely on the strength of their birth, even when they did not have a trace of learning or knowledge or righteous behaviour. Podwal says in his book that the Puranas, by promising happiness in the next world, subjected the masses to performing all kinds of services for the Brahmins. Caste distinctions were founded on the Brahminical notion that a Sudra can never be superior even if he is virtuous or has conquered his pasions.

The whole world is under the control of the gods, the gods are under the control of mantras, the mantras are under the control of Brahmins and the Brahmins are my deity.

All the holy waters of the earth are contained in the sea and all the holy water in the sea is contained in the right foot of the Brahmin—such was the belief which formed the basis for the caste system. The first edition of this analytical book had earlier been published in August 1861 by Vasudeo Navarange, a progressive individual. He was a Shroff. In England, when his business failed he paid off all the money he owed to the merchants abroad and came to Bombay. Here, he participated enthusiastically in the activities of the Prarthana Samaj. In 1870 he married a widow.

In 1873, a Brahmin widow named Kashibai gave birth to a baby boy in the antiabortion centre. The boy was named Yashwant. Jotirao’s wife, Savitribai, brought up the boy like her own son. Reformers such as Lokahitavadi, Bhandarkar, Madan Shrikrishna, Mama Paramananda and Tukaram Fodwal, specially commended this act.

Jotirao was a poet too and wrote poetry well. He published a book of povadas. A magazine, called Vividha Dnanavistar, published his poems, although the intention was to highlight that Jotirao’s views were wrong. According to Jotirao, the Brahmins were the real Aryans who came to India from Iran and were responsible for the degradation of the original inhabitants of this country (the Kshatriyas), whom they looked down upon as the Sudras. He painted an authentic picture of the social conditions of the time. The government earned tax from the farmers, but the farmers’ children did not go to government schools. In his povadas, Jotirao sent a petition to Queen Victoria:

Please save the farmers from the Brahmins’ clutches.
Please appoint clerks and teachers from other castes.

Inspired by Jotirao’s message, young non-Brahmins took to education and acquired government jobs. Jotirao’s spoke in his povadas against the upper caste, especially the Brahmins. However, his exposition of history did not appear to be convincing and is not available in print today. The povada that Jotirao wrote on Shivaji was published in 1869. It runs into forty-five pages. As composer of the povada, Jotirao describes himself as kulwadibhooshan (a credit to the Kulwadis, i.e. the Kunbi caste). In the povada, according to Jotirao, Shivaji ‘planted the flag of the Hindus’ with the blessings of his mother and the help of his brave and loyal associates. He also mentions that Shivaji made Ramdas his guru, and “the beloved child of Jijabai became a messenger of death for the Mohammedans. I sing the ballad of Shivaji. The ornament of the Kunbis sings the ballad of the Bhosla of Chhatrapati Shivaji.”

In his collection of poems called Brahmanache Kasab (The Cleverness of Brahmins), Jotirao says that the ignorant and gullible farmers perform religious rites according to the dictates of Brahmin priests and mendicants, blissfully unaware that they are being exploited. He ruthlessly attacked this kind of religious naiveté and custom, the details of which he gave in the poem.

Jotirao’s chief aim was to strike at the social structure. Towards this end he was determined to remove ignorance, illiteracy, prejudices and caste-based beliefs among the lower castes and free them from the mental slavery resulting from centuries of Brahmin dominance. In 1872 he wrote the book, Gulamgiri (Slavery). In the first part of the book he invoked Parshuram, because the latter is considered to have lived for 432 million years, as stated by Brahmin scriptures. He published two manifestos under the title Brahamani Dharmcharya Aadpadadyat (Behind the Screen of Brahminical Religion). In them he asserted the ideals, proclaimed by the French Revolution, for freedom, equality and fraternity. Inspired by Abraham Lincoln, the champion of human freedom, who had abolished slavery in America in 1863, Jotirao dedicated his book to the Black population of America.

He begins his book with the famous quote from Homer: ‘The day a man becomes a slave, he loses half his virtue.’ The book is in the form of questions and answers. It has 16 chapters. In the first nine which relate the history of Brahminical dominance in India, Jotirao asserts with confidence that:

The Sudras are the life of this nation. In times of economic and political crises the government should rely on them rather than on the Brahmins. If care is taken to ensure that the Sudras are kept happy and contented, the government will have no cause for doubting their loyalty.

In the first half of 1877, thought-provoking lectures were given in the Satyashodhak Samaj Griha in Vithal Peth in Pune in order to inculcate a spirit of rationalism and a scientific outlook among the followers. One such lecture was on the problem of poverty in India. Elocution contests were held. Prizes were given at essay and speech contests. The same year Jotirao sent a notice to the members informing them that the Victoria Children’s Home started by the Samaj for famine-affected children whose numbers were on the increase, especially in the villages of Idarpur, Maraj and Tasgaon, had started functioning.

In 1875, farmers from Ahmedabad, Pune, Satara, Sholapur rose in revolt against the money-lenders who had been defrauding the poor by making them sign bonds worth more than the loan advanced. The government appointed a committee to investigate into the matter. On the committee’s recommendation, the government passed the Deccan Agricultural Relief Act, with a view to improve relations between the money-lenders and the farmers. There were provisions to ensure that the bonds were bonafide and the rights of the farmers protected. Jotirao’s weekly, Deenbandhu supported these regulations.

Jotirao participated enthusiastically in the work of the Pune municipality. He was deeply concerned about the rights of the citizens. Dr Ghole and Jotirao Phule wielded special influence in the municipality.

Meanwhile, Jotirao’s good work in the Pune municipality continued unabated. In June 1890, Hari Raoji Chiplunkar put forth the resolution that the election of the acting committee of the municipality should be held by a vote from all members, before the commencement of every working year. Jotirao supported this resolution. Conscious of the welfare of the public he believed that the resolution would prevent power from being concentrated in the hands of any one group. He displayed exemplary courage in his conviction when the municipality voted for approval of the expenses to be borne by it during Viceroy Lord Lytton’s impending visit to Pune. A thousand rupees were to be spent on cleaning up the city to welcome Lytton. Out of the thirty-two members, all except one voted in favour of incurring the expenses. The sole opposition was from Jotirao. He opposed the expenses to be incurred on a citation for the Viceroy, saying that the amount should instead be spent on the poor. He demonstrated by his opposition that office bearers had the right to oppose resolutions which were against public good.

Influence of Jotirao’s work and leadership began to be felt widely in Maharashtra. He became the mouthpiece for the grievances of the downtrodden. There was no leader quite like him. He paved the way for the new era of social activism.

In January 1890, still struggling with paralysis, Jotirao achieved a major victory. A certain Balaji Kusaji Patil of Otur village had performed a wedding at home without inviting a Brahmin priest. No rites were performed except for the exchange of garlands by the bride and the bridegroom. It was around this time that the Chief Justice of Supreme Court, Sir Charles Sergeant, passed the verdict that the village priest had no right to the dakshina given in a wedding ceremony.

February 1890 saw another victory for Jotirao’s movement against the forcible tonsure of widows, which papers like Subodhpatrika and Induprakash also roundly condemned. The barber community also lent its support to the move to end this practice.

On 27 November 1890, Jotirao’s condition worsened. It became clear that the end was near. He sent for his wife and pleaded with her to have courage. He asked Yashwant to pray to God and then himself said a prayer. He was conscious till the end. His face was calm and happy when this greatest of men departed from the world at 2.20 a.m. on 28 November 1890.

The news of Jotirao’s death spread like wild fire. By dawn people began to flock to pay their last respects to the departed soul. Hordes of Satyashodhak activists from villages around Pune rushed to the city. People of all faiths and castes—Hindus, Muslims, Brahmins, Mahars and Mangs, even women—joined the funeral procession. Newspapers paid rich tributes.

Mama Parmananda, well-wisher and close friend of Jotirao, persuaded Sayajirao, ruler of Baroda, to provide financial help to Savitribai and Yashwant. In Feburary 1892 Sayaji Gaekwad donated a thousand rupees to Mama Parmananda. Savitribai was given fifty rupees out of this amount every three months. Mama Parmananda also set up a fund to raise a memorial for Jotirao. Barely six years after Jotirao’s death, Savitribai and Yashwant died in a plague epidemic in Pune, in 1897.