CASTE LAWS Mahatma Jotirao Phule


Mahatma Jotirao Phule 

-P.K. Satapathy

1. Introduction 

Mahatma Jotirao Phule is now regarded as a major social reformer of 19th century Maharashtra. 
However, during his lifetime, he was often accused of fermenting hatred between the non-
brahmins with his far-fetched interpretation of Indian history and the ancient texts. His critics 
made fun of his lack of command over grammar and philosophy. Jotirao Phule's acrimonious 
criticism of the Brahmins, for obvious reasons, did not win him many friends in upper sections of 
society or administration. But it certainly marked the beginning of a challenge to the upper caste 
domination in society. 
 In this lesson, however, we shall focus on the extract 'Caste Laws' and try to understand 
the thrust of Phule's social reforms agenda. We shall discuss the concepts Phule deploys in his 
arguments and try to appreciate the alternative point of view that he brings to bear upon the caste 
 We all know that the caste system in India (often Jati in most of North India) has existed 
for ages. It exists even now though not in as acute a form in cities as in villages. The rigidity 
and practice of caste may vary from state to state and region to region. But the reality of the 
caste system is undeniable. A look at the matrimonial column of any leading newspaper will 
reinforce these points. The recent issue of reservation for OBC's in higher education clearly 
demonstrated that despite our claim to modernity, development and our aspiration to play a 
leadership role in the global arena, we have failed to free our society from the obnoxious practice 
of caste. Without going into the merits of the issue of reservation we can safely say that there is 
a need to examine the issue of caste and, if possible, try to reform our society even more, so that 
all men are treated with dignity and equality. Let us now move on and examine Phule's 'Caste 
2. Caste Laws 
It has already been pointed out that the present essay, 'Caste Laws" is an extract from the 
preface to the book 'Slavery' published in 1873. This book (Gulamgiri) remains Jotirao Phule's 
most influential publication till date. The title itself suggests Phule's approach to the subject of 
Caste. Phule considered caste and caste laws a form of slavery. Interestingly the sub-title of the 
book is "In the civilized British Govt under the Cloak of Brahminism". Further the page of 
dedication in the original book reads: 
Dedicated to the good people of the United States as token of admiration for their 
sublime disinterested and self-sacrificing devotion in the cause of Negro slavery and with an 
earnest desire, that my countrymen may take their noble example as their guide in the 
emancipation of their Sudra Brethren from the trammels of Brahmin thralldom. 
2.1 The subtitle and the dedication make two very important points: 

a. Phule considered caste as a form of slavery perpetuated by the Brahmins and that it 
flourished even under the British Govt. despite its claim to a civilized government.

b. The emancipation of the Sudra's and Ati Sudra can only come about by a social 
movement and by the people themselves. Consequently there was a need to awaken 
the people against the social domination of the Brahmins. 

CASTE LAWS Mahatma Jotirao Phule questions and answers

Further, this particular essay begins with three quotations which reinforce and add to the 
points emphasized in the title and the dedication. The first quotation, from Homer, 
emphasizes the dehumanizing aspect of slavery. Nothing can be worse than slavery because 
it robs a man of his virtue and dignity. 
 The second quotation draws our attention to the fact that education in India, from time 
immemorial has been used not to raise the status of the people, but to 'over-educate' a few so 
that the rest are at the mercy of the learned few. The Brahmins perfected this practice by 
denying education to the lower castes as well as women. And the British administration did 
no better by providing education only to a few so that they could rely on these few to exploit 
and suppress the majority, thus continuing with the practice of Brahminism under the guise 
of civilized governance. You may do well to recall the sub-title of the Book which makes a 
reference to the situation. 
 The third quotation, again from a British author, draws our attention to the ill effects of 
Brahminical domination and the contradictions within this system. While the Brahmins boast 
of vast knowledge, they jealously, perpetuate superstitious practices which degrade human 
dignity. Further the author suggests that only by cutting down the brahminical domination to 
size the nation can hope to move forward. 
 Why do you think Jyoti Rao Phule begins the essay with these quotations? 
 Well to begin with quotations are used to support and reinforce arguments put forward by 
the author. What is interesting is that all the three quotations are from foreign authors. The 
author here perhaps wants to present the readers with an outside objective view of 
Brahminsm before he presents his own critique. The first quotation sets the agenda that caste 
is like slavery which robs a man of his essential dignity. The next two quotations set the tone 
and tenor of the critique which is sharp and pointed. It holds Brahminism responsible for the 
arrest of development and suggests that by getting rid of Brahminism progress for the 
common man can be ensured. 

2.2 The Essay

 Phule's Caste Laws may be split up into three parts: 
a. The first part of the essay presented in the first paragraph places Brahminism in its 
historical context. 
b. The second part of the essay (Paragraphs 2,3 and 4) presents the consolidation of 
Brahminism through the constitution of Caste and arrogating to themselves 
unimaginable powers and privileges. 
c. The third part comprising paragraph 5,6,7 and 8 analyses the continued domination of 
the Brahmins and the failure of the Government to gets rid of the obnoxious practice 
of caste. It also suggests ways of giving Sudras their rightful due in the country. 
2.2.(i) Let us examine the historical context presented by Phule in the first part of the essay. The 
main arguments presented in this section are:

a. The Brahmins are descendants of Aryan invaders who displaced and subjugated the 
original inhabitants of India, after along and protracted battle. 

b. The Brahmins retain the temperament of the Aryans who were arrogant, manipulative 
and full of high notion of themselves as evidenced in the titles that they conferred on 

c. The Aryans hated the aborigines because of the stiff resistance they offered. This is 
evident in the terms they used (Chandala, Sudra, Mahar) for the aborigines. 

d. The struggle is chronicled in the Brahmin myths and legends in such a way as to 
portray the aborigines in very poor light (as cruel, unjust, ugly, etc). For example in 
the war between the Devas and Daityas, the Daitya are presented as strong but dim 

e. Rakshas's are portrayed as evil in the Brahmin literature but the term Rakshas denotes 
protection of the land. Thus the exaggerated accounts of the Rakshas's are only an 
indicator of the intensity of their hatred.
f. After subjugating the aborigines, the Aryan subjected them to unimaginable cruelties. 
This has a parallel in the modern times in the subjugation of the American Indians. 

CASTE LAWS Mahatma Jotirao Phule question and answer

The cruelties displayed by Parasurama, a Brahmin God, hardly qualifies him as a god. 
He looks more like a fiend. 
Now if we look back at this section we will observe that Phule creates an alternate image 
of the past. This section can hardly qualify as history but then that is to miss the entire 
point. His critics have also done the same. They accused him of historical inaccuracies. 
Phule was acutely conscious of the fact that it was imperative to challenge the Brahmin 
view of the past and the Brahmin ideology to break their dominance. Hence he has tried 
to interpret the past in terms of a Sudra perspective. His language is emotional and sharp. 
He challenges the hierarchies of good and evil constructed around the idea of Devas and 
Daitya's. He also tries to pitch Brahmins against every one else by subsuming all other 
castes under a broad rubric of "Kshetrias". He is also able to present an alternate view of 
the Devas by presenting Parasuram as a fiend. His argument is centered around the idea 
that Aryans were essentially cruel and revengeful and blood thirsty. Thus we have a God 
who was so blood thirsty for revenge that he wiped out the entire Kshetria race several 
times over. On the other hand he presents the aborigines as brave and simple people who 
were victims of unjust and cruel invaders. 

2.2(ii) In the second part of the essay Phule discuses the methods used by the Brahmins to 
consolidate their victory over the aborigines and to arrogate all powers and privileges to 
themselves. The main argument prescribed in this section are: - 
a. The deep cunning of the Brahmins is evident in the Institution of Caste. Through this 
institution, the Brahmins cornered all privileges and the Sudra's and Ati-Sudras were 
denied even the basic human rights. 

CASTE LAWS Mahatma Jotirao Phule summary

b. The Sudra under Brahminism was reduced to the status of an animal. His life was not 
worth more than a cat a frog or a dog etc. For instance if a Brahmin kills any of these 
animals or a Sudra he can be absolved of his sin by performing a fasting penance. On 
the other hand if a Sudra killed a Brahmin he had to pay for it with his life. 
c. The Brahmin laws and ordinances embodied in "Manava Dharma Shastra" 
exemplifies the cunning with which the Brahmins reduced the others to slavery. The 
'Manava Dharma Shastra' is full of examples of the cunning with which the Brahmins 
established their own superiority over the Sudras and others.

d. This system of slavery was so deep rooted and so rigid that it continued unchallenged 
into the time of the Peshwas. This was achieved by duping the minds of the people 
and keeping them ignorant. 
2.2(iii) The third section (Para 5,6,7,8) brings us up to date with the prevailing situation during 
Phule's times. Phule examines the situation which prevailed during his times and points to a 
possible solution to the problem. The main arguments presented in the section are: 
a The proliferation of western ideas and civilization has certainly weakened the Brahmin 
dominance. Though the Brahmins of Phule's time did not have the same authority as the 
Brahmins under the Peshwa, they still refused to discard the erroneous notions of their 
own superiority. And as long as these notions continue, the Sudra will continue to suffer 
and India will never achieve greatness or prosperity. 
b. The Government is partly responsible for the crisis. The government has, for its own 
interests, focused its time and resources on higher education and has done precious little 
for the education of the masses. Ironically the greater, part of revenues of the 'India 
Empire' comes from the working classes whereas the higher and richer classes contribute 
little but corner the maximum benefits. 
c. This attitude of the Government is reflected in the composition of the civil services as 
well. All the higher offices in the Government have become the monopoly of the 
Brahmins. The welfare of the 'Ryot' is only possible if this monopoly is broken and the 
Government allowed a fair representation to the other castes in the civil service. 
d. However it is important to ensure that the 'Ryot' has a fair chance by making good 
education available to the common masses. The Government must pay more attention to 
the education of masses because higher education can take care of itself. It will be easy to 
create a body of men from the common masses, trained and well qualified and with better 
'morals' and 'manners' to man the Government. 
e. Finally, it is the duty of every Sudra who has had the benefit of education to work for the 
upliftment of his fellow Sudra's. They should endeavour to present the true picture of the 
status of Sudra's before the Government and try to emancipate themselves from the 
dominance of the Brahmins. Further there should be schools in every village for the 
Sudras manned by Sudra teachers and not Brahmins. It is only by emancipating the Sudra 
that the country can hope to progress and prosper because Sudra's are the 'life and sinews' 
of the country. 
3. Summing up 
This essay 'Caste Laws', as you know is taken from the preface to his book Gulamgiri. 
The essay is intended to make people aware of the debilitating effect of the caste system on 
society. The book was meant to raise awareness amongst the masses and galvanize them to work 
against the continued existence of caste laws. Consequently the tone and tenor of the essay is 
charged and impassioned. A rational style was not appropriate for his purposes. A high-pitched 
style, as we find in this essay, often works well to galvanize people to action. 
 The second thing that Phule needed was a powerful image to bring out the suffering of 
the people under the caste system. Hence he compares the caste system to slavery. Slavery, as 
we all know is an extremely inhuman system. A slave is stripped off all dignity and humanity. 
By equating slavery with the suffering of the Sudra's,,. Phule sends out a very powerful 
message. At the same time Phule was aware that it was much more difficult to free people of mental slavery than physical slavery. The Sudra's were kept ignorant by denying them 
education. They had come to believe what was told to them by the Brahmins. And the 
Brahmins, predictably told them of a divine system which had ordained that the Brahmins were 
God's favorites and that the Sudra's duty was to serve the Brahmins. 
 Such a system of beliefs could only be countered by providing an alternate picture of the 
past. Thus Phule writes an alternate account of the past and tries to overturn the Daivya/Daitya 
hierarchy. He tries to show that neither the Brahmins were Devas nor the Sudras were Daityas. 
He tries to prove that these Brahmin stories are not only far fetched but also a proof of their 
cunning. The Brahmin managed to convince the Sudra that he was inferior because the Sudra 
was uneducated. Hence it is only through education that the Sudra can see through the cunning 
of the Brahmins. But the Sudra must not be educated by the Brahmins because the Brahmins 
have not been inclined to discard the notions of their own superiority. The Sudra's must be 
taught by the Sudra's so that he is able to recognize himself as an equal of the Brahmin. However 
this is only possible if the government changed its attitude towards the education of the masses. 
Instead of spending time and resources on higher education which benefits the Brahmins, the 
Government must spend time and resources on the education of the masses. If the masses are 
educated then society will be free of the repugnant caste laws and there will be more harmony 
and peace in society. It is only then that the country can hope to progress and prosper.

questions and answers CASTE LAWS Mahatma Jotirao Phule 

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