Jyothirao Phule – Life and Influences

Jyothirao Phule was born in 1827 to parents Chimana Phule and Govindarao Phule. Jyothirao lost his mother before the age of one and grew with his elder brother. After attending primary education where he learnt reading, writing and arithmetic Jyothirao was withdrawn from school. He joined his parents and other family members in farming and flower selling business. However, a Christian convert from the Mali caste recognised his intelligence and persuaded Phule’s father to allow Phule to attend the local Scottish Mission High School. Phule completed his English schooling in 1847 at the age of 20. As was customary, he was married young, at the age of 13, to a girl of his own community, chosen by his father. Jyothiarao started teaching his wife Savitribhai and then they started a school for girls when he was 23 years. Jyohtirao and his wife along with Usman Sheikh and his sister Fatima Sheikh in their family managed the school. In 1852, Phule was managing three schools. In, 1857, the schools were closed down. Jyothirao later started a home for pregnant Brahmin widows to give birth in a safe and secure place in 1863. On 24 September 1873 (when he was 46years), Phule formed Satyashodhak Samaj to focus on rights of depressed classes. Through this he opposed idolatry and denounced the caste system. Satyashodhak Samaj campaigned for the spread of rational thinking and rejected the need for priests. Savitribai became the head of the women’s section. In 1882 he took up trade and he was also a cultivator and municipal contractor. For period of time, he worked as a contractor for the government and supplied building materials required for the construction of a dam on the Mula-Mutha river near Pune in the 1870s. He also received contracts to provide labour for the construction of the Katraj Tunnel and the Yerawda Jail near Pune. One of Phule’s businesses, established in 1863, was to supply metal-casting equipment. Phule was appointed commissioner (municipal council member) to the then Poona municipality in 1876 and served in this unelected position until 1883. He owned 60 acres (24 ha) of farmland at Manjri, near Pune.


English education is designed to equip a person to view the Indian society from a new perspective that breaks continuity from the past. Jyothirao Phule was trained in a Scottish Mission High School during his formative years. Phule was drawn to liberal writings of American and European politicians. It is not a surprise that the book ‘Rights of Man’ which was authored by Thomas Paine had profound influence on him (Thomas Paine authored this book during French Revolution. Thomas Paine was an American politician who had participated in US government and foreign missions after declaration of freedom. He was involved in controversies and American politics and eventually resigned from his positions. Thomas Paine is an icon for liberals of modern day). Phule was influenced to take initiatives to promote education to girls. It is stated that funds were available for promoting education of girls in India from private European donations. Indian government supported and facilitated such funding. That may be the reason why Phule was able to start three schools by 1852 despite unfavorable conditions. The closure of these schools in 1857 also hints at drying up of funds from European sources. (It may be recalled that the first war of independence in 1857 altered the perceptions of British about India and they quickly started newer effective ways of manipulation techniques abandoning many older techniques). The changed scenario combined with differences in deciding about curriculum led resignation of Phule from school management. It may be observed that the motivations and actions of Phule were questioned on many occasions by his family and the society around him. The framework within which he started girls education was not approved by his family and Phule couple were isolated. In such a context, they were sheltered by a Muslim by name Usman Sheikh and his sister Fatima Sheikh. Similarly, after a few years in 1963, Phule starting a home for pregnant Brahmin widows. This initiative was also disruptive from the perspective of Indian society but was aligned with the policies of the government of that day.

In his book, Gulamgiri, Phule has thanked Christian missionaries and the British colonists for making the lower castes realise that they are worthy of all human rights. The book is concerned with women, caste and reform, was dedicated to the people in the US who were working to end slavery. The focus of Satyashodhak Samaj was also aligned with the government initiatives of the government and/or Christian missionary organizations. Satyashodhak samaj opposed idolatry, denounced varNashrama, rejected brAhmaNa purohit claiming basis on rationalism. An anecdote that might have occured in 1848 says that Jyothirao Phule participated in the customary marriage procession of a fried who was brAhmaNa by caste. Later, after the procession, Jyothirao was questioned by parents of his friend disapproving his participation in the procession of their family. Parents and family members of his friend considered participation of Jyothirao as an interference in their family affairs. Jyothirao felt insulted. This incident profoundly affected Phule. While, this incident invokes sympathy towards Phule and provides justification for his activism, it shows how English schooling initiated by British was able to motivate people to deviate suo moto on their volition from the customs and validate Christian view point about Indian social system through the experiences generated from those actions.

Who have written about Phule?

It is also interesting to observe the authors who have extensively researched on Phule to record his life events and experiences. There may be many Indian writers who have written on Phule, identifying a few representative writers may be an insightful exercise.

Rosalind O’Hanlon, MA Camb, MA PhD Lond, a Professor of Indian History and Culture associated with Oxford has written on Phule. Her research interest include Social and intellectual history of India, Histories of caste in India, Histories of empire, gender and the body, and Social and religious history of Maharashtra. She has worked on
Caste and the making of Brahman identities in early modern Maharashtra, the history of penance and purification in India, Oxford Early Modern South Asia Project and Oxford Centre for Early Modern Studies.

Dorothy Figueira holds graduate degrees in the history of religion and theology from Paris and Harvard and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in Comparative Literature. Her interests include religion and literature, translation theory, exoticism, myth theory, and travel narratives. She is the author of Aryans, Jews and Brahmins (2002), and Otherwise Occupied: Theories and Pedagogies of Alterity (2008). She co-edited (with Marc Maufort) Theatres in the Round: Multi-Ethnic, Indigenous, and Intertextual Dialogues in Drama (2011). She has served the International Comparative Literature Association, the boards of the American Comparative Literature Association and the Southern Comparative Literature Association. She has held fellowships from the American Institute for Indian Studies and was a Visiting Professor at the University Lille (France), Jadavpur University (Kolkata, India), and the Indira Gandhi Open University in New Delhi.

Dietmar Rothermund (born 1933) is a German historian best known for his research in the economy of India.

Tiffany K. Wayne is a independent scholar living and writing in Northern California. She has received a BA in Women’s Studies from the University of California, San Diego, and an MA and PhD in History from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is a former Affiliated Scholar with the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford University and has taught courses in U.S. history, cultural and intellectual history, and women’s history at UCSC and at Cabrillo College. Tiffany is a member of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers, the Western Association of Women Historians, the Thoreau Society, and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society.

All these writers are trained to view the social system in the same way. The modern academics is groomed by anti-Church, but essentially Christian society determined to preserve their material interests at the cost of the rest of the world.



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