Jotirao Phule

From PhalkeFactory

Excerpt from Writing Regional Consciousness: Writing Maratha History and Regional Identity in Modern Maharashtra. Prachi Deshpande [1]

New engagements with the Past

The low caste thinker and activist Jotirao Phule, who also wrote at length on Indian history, presented an early, radical alternative to the Indologists. Phule was not only well versed in the ongoing debates between Christian missionaries and Brahmans over Hindu philosophy and ritual, but was also aware of the ongoing philological and ethnological debates over ‘the Aryan race’ in the nineteenth century. To many Brahman intellectuals of the time, this ‘Aryan’ classification of ancient Indian history was an affirmation of Brahman leadership over Hindu society, the Brahmans being seen as the creators and inheritors of this ‘Aryan’ heritage. Skilfully turning these debates on their head, Phule, applied these insights as well as the emerging research on the closeness of the Indo- European languages to depict Brahmans only as the earliest of many invaders who had exploited the aboroginal peoples of India. In his 1873 book, Gulamgiri (slavery) he wrote:

Recent researches have demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that the Brahmans were not the aborigines of India. At some remote period in antiquity, probably more than 3,000 years ago, the Aryan progenitors of the present Brahman Race descended upon the plain of Hindoostan from regions lying beyond the Indus…The affinity existing between the Zend, the Persian and the Sanskrit languages, unmistakably points to a common source of origin, the proverbial wealth of [India]…which has more recently tempted the cupidity of the Western nations, no doubt attracted the Aryans subjugated… appear to have been a hardy and brave people from the determined front which they offered to these interlopers18.

Phule elaborated on this argument through detailed and polemical analyses of ancient myths and terms used to describe aboriginal people in Sanskrit texts and legends, especially legend of Parshurama 19. he was also the earliest to recognize the emotive power of the legend of Shivaji and its potential, with all the ingredients of heroism and determination, for a politics of resistance. Accordingly, his 1860 ballad on Shivaji depicted him as Kulavadi Bhushan, the leader and pride of toiling peasants, the aboroginal masses. In Phule’s interpretation, Shivaji protected the Maratha lands from the Yavanas( foreigners), who had managed to conquer it due to Brahman misrule and mismanagement. 20.

Phule’s approach to the past presented greater potential than Indological research, as a rich resource upon which a viable and substantive patriotic identity could be built. The legend of Shivaji had shades of political assertion as opposed to a mere cultural efflorescence. At the same time, It was rooted in the poular culture and language of the peasant masses of Maharashtra who could related to it and draw sustenance from it. His explicit mention of these masses in the preface of his ballad and attempts to cast it in a popular medium to make it more widely accessible suggest his sensitivity to the possibilities of moulding historical symbols for a popular politics.

Despite his keen awareness of the historical and cultural symbolism to political activity, Phule’s ingenious invocation of Maratha history too did not inspire the nationalist imagination in Maharashtra. The principal reason for this marginalisation was that it questioned the legitimacy of Brahmans, the very social group that was increasingly dominating public activity, in discursive and overtly political ways, in late nineteenth century Maharashtra. Moreover, given the positivistic intellectual environment of the time, he was also writing against the grain. At a time when history was being increasingly perceived as being fact-based truth in prose backed up by proof, his broad arguments struck a discordant note and the predominantly Brahman intelligensia could dismiss his polemic as being without any historical basis or proof. The popular literary journal Vividh Dnyan Vistaar dismissed the ballad as a ‘sheer disgrace’. ..Ironically, even Phule’s friend and fellow radical Baba Padmanji, whom Phule had thanked for help with the piece in the introduction, wrote to the Dnyanodaya and disclaimed responsibility for the ballad saying it went against the evidence of history. 21

18. English preface to Ghulamgiri ( Slavery) [1873] in .D.Phadke ed. Mahatma Phule Samagra Vanmaya ( Collected Works of Mahatma Phule), Revised 5th ed., Mumbai, 1991, pp. 117-118. 19. Rosalind O’ Hanlon, Caste, Conflict and Ideology: Mahatama Jotirao Phule and Low Caste Protest in Nineteenth Century Western India, Cambridge, 1985, pp. 143- 146. The Parshuram myth is a particularly contentious myth and has been the subject of much caste- related controversy throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Maharashtra. An origin myth about the Chitpavan Brahman community, Parshuram, a Brahman, is described as destroying all Kshatriyas in the world, leaving it with only Brahmans and Shudras. He is also described as bringing to life from a pile of ashes a group of people who became Chitpavan Brahmans, literally “purified from the ashes”. Brahman polemicits in the colonial period used this myth to argue that all non-Brahmans were Shudras. 20. Jotirao Phule, “Chattrapati Shivaji Raja Bhosale Yancha Povada” ( The Ballad of Chhatrapati Shivaji Raja Bhosale) [1869], in Phadke ed. Mahatma Phule Samagra Vanmaya( Collected Works of Mahatma Phule), p.42 21. Quoted in O’Hanlon, Caste, Conflict and Ideology, p. 175