Patriots > Social and Religious Reformers > Phule,Jotirao Govindrao (Mahatma)
Phule,Jotirao Govindrao (Mahatma) (1827-1890)
Jotiba was born in Poona in 1827 in a Kshatriya Mali caste. The original name of the family was Gorhe. But because Jotiba’s father, Govindrao, and his two brothers followed the trade of florists and supplied flowers, garlands, etc, to the Peshwa’s household, the family came to be called ‘Phule’.

Jotiba attended a local Marathi school run by an old type of teacher known in Maharashtra as ‘Pantoji’. Intelligent and hard working, the boy was making rapid progress in his studies. But just at this time, some orthodox persons poisoned his father’s mind against education, pointing out to him that his son would become unfit work and turn out an irreligious person. Therefore, Govindrao removed his son from the school, and for some time Jotiba had to take the pick-axe and work in the garden.

Fortunately, Govindrao’s neighbours, Gaffhar Baig and Legit, impressed upon him value of education and prevailed upon him to send his son to a Scottish Mission School. Jotiba completed his English course in 1847.Jotiba’s colleagues were Sadashiv Ballal Govande, Moro Vithal Walvekar and Sakharam Yeshwant Paranjpe. They were his helpmates in all his undertaking. Inspired by the lives of Shivaji and Washington, they thought of emancipating their motherland and acquired proficiency in military exercises.

Jotiba was also greatly influenced by Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’ He was convinced that as we were all children of the same God, we all had equal rights, irrespective of caste or creed.

About this time, an incident took place which seriously affected his whole outlook on life. While attending the marriage procession of one of his Brahmin friends, he was scolded and insulted by a Brahmin for his audacity in joining a Brahmin procession. From that day, Jotiba took up the cudgels against Brahmin supremacy.

Realising that the real progress of the country was impossible without the education of women and of the lower classes, Jotiba, instead of working for a living decided to devote his life to the cause of the uplift of women and the poorer classes of the society. In 1848 he opened a Girls’ school for the low-caste people in the house of one Bhide in Budhwar Peth. As it was difficult in those days to secure the services of women teachers, Jotiba first taught his wife Savitribai and then appointed her as a teacher in his school.

This revolutionary act aroused the wrath of the Brahmins and the upper-class non- Brahmins of the society, and yielding to their pressure, Govindrao asked Jotiba and Savitribai to quit the house.

Jotiba was compelled to close the school and earn a living. But soon finding himself in better circumstances, he reopened the school which received financial assistance from some prominent European and Indian gentlemen and the Dakshina Prize Committee.

When this school was well established, Jotiba started other Girls’ schools, one in Budhwar Peth (1851), another in Rasta Peth (1851) and the third in Vital Peth (1852).

About the same time, Jotiba founded the first Native Library for the low-caste people.
No wonder that the Government should publicly recognize Jotiba’s efforts in the field of education by presenting him with a pair of shawls worth Rs. 200/-.

In 1854 he accepted a job as a part-time teacher in the Scottish Mission School. Here he came under the influence of the Rev. Murray Mitchell, a free-thinker, and had the opportunity to read books in which men like Professor Wilson and Sir William Jones had convincingly pointed out the defects in the Hindu religion. Jotiba realised how the Brahmins, under the pretext of religion, had tyrannized the ignorant people and turned them into their slaves. Yet he was never tempted to embrace Christianity.

In 1855 Jotiba started a Night School for adults at his house and he and his wife imparted free education to farmers and their wives for two hours every night.

Enraged at Jotiba’s activity and jealous of his success, the reactionaries planned to assassinate him. But the two assassins, both low-caste men, turned into his staunch devotees (1856).In 1857 the Government granted a plot of land measuring 6 acres and 33 gunthas known as Bhokarwadi to accommodate the school started by Jotiba for promoting the education for Mahars and Mangs.

In 1860 Jotiba founded an orphanage where widows, especially Brahmin widows who had gone astray, could secretly come either for delivery or for keeping their babies. The widows were thus saved from committing suicide or from killing their children or from

embracing the Christian faith. Jotiba and his wife adopted one of these children, born of a Brahmin widow, as their son.

After the death of his father in 1868, Jotiba had to undertake contracts from the Government to earn his livelihood as well as to meet the expenses of his various activities.In 1873 Jotiba founded the ‘Satyashodhak Samaj’ (Truth Seeking Society) with the object of securing human rights and social justice for the low-caste people and the untouchables. The membership was open to all castes, even to Jews and Muslims.

From 1876 to 1882 Jotiba was a Member of the Poona Municipality and performed his duties most conscientiously.

In 1882 Jotiba gave evidence before the Hunter Commission. It showed his solicitude for the education of women and of the lower classes.

At a reception held in Poona in 1888 in honour of the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, Jotiba warned their Highnesses not to be misled by the glitter of the assembled audience, for the major portion of Queen Victoria’s Indian population resided in the villages and was penniless, foodless, shelterless and shoeless.

In the same year, at a huge gathering of his followers in Bombay, Jotiba was honoured with the title of ‘Mahatma’. Sayajirao Gaikwad, Maharaja of Baroda, had proposed that the title of ‘Booker Thomas Washington’ be conferred upon Jotiba.

At last his sturdy constitution gave way and he suffered an attack of paralysis. Two years later, he died in 1890.

Jotiba was a theist. He was against the practice of Sati and the tonsure of widows. He encouraged widow-marriage, but opposed early marriage which was the greatest obstacle in the way of female education.

He revolutionized the marriage ceremony by dispensing with the presence of the Brahmin priest. The boy and the girl were simply to take a vow in the presence of the elders who blessed the couple in a chorus. The Satyashodhak Samaj won the case in the Bombay High court on this issue.

Jotiba was in favour of Western education, but he advocated that the Matriculation course be so framed as to prepare a pupil for an independent career in life. He demanded free and compulsory primary education upto the age of twelve years and technical education for the lower classes. Village education, he said, should consist of Modi and Balbodh scripts, accounts, general history, geography, grammar and elementary agriculture.

Jotiba declared that the Congress could not be truly national until its leaders showed genuine interest in the welfare of the lower class people.

Jotiba blessed the British rule as it conferred the rights of education and employment, peaceful work and freedom of dress, on all.

He agitated for better living conditions for the workers in the mills of Bombay as well as for the farmers. He recommended the use of modern implements in agriculture.

In 1875 Jotiba sent money on behalf of the Satyashodhak Samaj to Ahmedabad to help the victims of the floods. During the famine of 1878-79 in Poona, he opened an orphanage at the Dhankawdi Camp where 2,000 children from the age of two to twelve were fed twice a day.

Jotiba had arranged to furnish a bail of Rs. 1,000/- for Tilak and Agarkar in the Kolhapur Defamation Case and took a leading part in offering them a splendid welcome on their release from jail (October 1882).

Jotiba made extensive use of the press and the platform for the propagation of his views.

Jotiba was a handsome and grave personality. He was a terror to wrong-doers. He led a selfless life devoted to the uplift of the lower classes of the Hindu society.

His dress consisted of a piece of cloth used as head-gear, a simple short home-spun dhoti, a garment with strings, a blanket carried on the left shoulder, a staff in the right hand and sandals on feet.

Among his publications may be mentioned: ‘Dharma Tritiya Ratna’ (Exposure of the Puranas), 1855; Life of Shivaji (in poetical metre), 1869; ‘Gulamgiri’, Poona, 1873; 'Jatibhed Viveksara’,1881; ‘Cultivator’s Whipcord,’ Poona, 1883; ‘Ishara’ (A Warning), Poona, 1885; ‘Sarvajanik Satyadharma Pustak’, 1889.

Author : V.G.Hatalkar