Down with Manu’s injunctions,
Education imparts you happiness,
Jyoti tells you with confidence.”
Mahatma Jyotirao Phule
In the year 1827, the second son of Govindrao and Chimnabai was born in Satara district of Maharashtra and into the Mali caste which was considered to be an inferior caste. He was named Jyoti which means ‘flame of light’ in Hindi. This flame of light was to become Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, the torchbearer for the distressed and the downtrodden of his country, especially the women.
Jyoti’s mother passed away when he was 9 months old. By the age of seven, Jyoti began going to a Marathi school. Govindrao, withdrew Jyoti from this school after being misled by a Brahmin clerk that the school will do no good to his sons’ future. However, observing Jyoti’s exceptional intelligence, his two neighbors advised his father to consider sending Jyoti back to school. So in 1841, Jyoti was enrolled into a missionary school. Having been given a chance to prove his worth as a student at last, Jyoti grabbed this opportunity and faired well in his studies. It was here that Thomas Paine’s book Rights of Man proved to become an inspirational text for Jyoti’s entire lifetime. In 1847, Jyoti completed his studies from the English-medium missionary school. His education here exposed him to ideas of equality, rights and freedom of man which now began to pulsate in his veins.
Having finished his schooling, thoughts of service and welfare of the people continued to pre-occupy Jyoti’s mind. While he was immersed in these thoughts, an incident took place which gave a new turn to his life. He was invited to attend the wedding ceremony of a Brahmin friend. While he was walking along with other people in the procession, an orthodox Brahmin recognized him and insulted him. Deeply hurt by the insult, he left the procession and returned home. That night, Jyoti could not sleep. He felt convinced that social slavery was worse than political slavery. He concluded that the caste system had been solid, unbreakable and had endured for ages because of the fact that the lower classes were not educated and hence had been forced into accepting mental slavery. All great changes, Jyoti believed, are preceded by a vigorous intellectual revaluation and reorganization. Thus, he resolved to raise the banner of revolt against mental slavery and to throw open the gates of knowledge to the lower classes by disseminating education amongst them. Jyoti devoted himself to the task of turning this insult into the mainspring of his actions while he upheld the belief that a valuable goal in life makes one a just man.
The year 1848 was a year of great changes all over the world. In America, the women’s emancipation movement had started. The first women’s rights convention was held in 1848 at the Wesleyan Church, in Seneca Falls, New York. But in India, women continued to be regarded as inferior and subordinate human beings. Hence, Jyoti resolved to usher in social reform in Maharashtra for the so-called ‘weaker sex’. He was barely twenty-one when he decided to emancipate Hindu women from their ancient subjugation. He had realized the truth of the proverb, “The hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world.” Jyoti thus became the first Indian to start a school for girls of the shudra and atishudra caste. By this time, the Poona Brahmins’ hatred for Jyoti had surpassed all bounds. They threatened Jyoti’s father Govindrao who, under immense pressure, had to ask his son to leave either the school or his house. Jyoti subsequently left his father’s house and had to shut down the school which was hardly eight months old.
Jyoti reopened this school at a place provided by Sadashiv Govande in Peth Joona Ganj. Help came from Brahmins friends and the English in the form of books, slates and money. For the first time in India, the gates of knowledge were opened to the lowest of the low of society. Having acquired more than two years of experience in the field of education, Jyoti now established another school for girls on July 3rd, 1851 at Annasaheb Chiplunkar’s house in Budhawar Peth. By now, Jyoti was well-acclaimed all over Maharashtra as the champion of female education and rights of the lower castes.
Jyoti was not an ordinary school teacher. He urged his students to gain their own insights and think independently. Jyoti believed that instruction should elicit knowledge and education should sharpen faculties of the mind. Admired by all, many of Jyoti’s friends heroically stood by him even at inopportune times.
Jyoti’s enlightening writing started from the year 1869 with Shivaji Powada that concentrated on working out the theoretical basis for his activity. The best known of his works, Gulamgiri (Slavery) was published on 1st June 1873. Satyashodhak Samaj (Society of the Seekers of Truth) was established on 24th September 1873.
On 11th May 1888, a huge public meeting in Pune was organized to recognize the impact of Jyoti’s academic and reformist work and it was here that the title of Mahatma was fondly bestowed on him. Nearing the end of his life, he wrote his last work Sarvajanik Satya Dharma Pustak (Book of the True Faith) in early 1889. He had suffered a heart stroke in the meanwhile, which rendered the right side of his body useless for practical work but he nonetheless labored with his left hand to finish his last book on 1st April 1889. He died in the following year on 28th November 1890. The book was published by his adopted son in the year 1891.
Mahatma Jyotirao Phule spent his life fighting for the rights of Indian women and the lower castes, paving the way for social reformers like M.G. Ranade and Vishnushastri Chiplunkar, eminent scholar of the intellectual world in Pune who came a generation after him. He was also to be succeeded by the likes of Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, the champion of social reform movement, Dhodo Keshav Karve, founder of women’s University in India, Pandita Ramabai and Mahatma Gandhi who took up a similar cause for the rights of the depressed classes.