The Other Mahatma

Gail Omvedt

(First published in May, 2002)

The publication of a collection of English translations of the writings of Jotirao Phule, the nineteenth century social radical, by LeftWord publications marks, hopefully, a transition in the attitude of the left towards the struggle against Brahmanism.

It also marks an increasing recognition of the importance of Phule, who has become next to Ambedkar a growing focus of interest for low-caste movements throughout India. This recognition takes on intensified importance in the aftermath of the "humanquake" of Gujarat, when the question is of rebuilding a national identity not on the foundation of an empty "secularism" uniting people of two religious communities both defined in terms of faith, but rather on the foundation of a common Indianness that finds its cultural definition beyond religion.

jotiba_8Phule, like Gandhi, was given the title of "Mahatma" by his compatriots in recognition of his compassion for the oppressed masses of Indians. But in almost all other ways he contrasts with the more well-known Mahatma. One was a man of religious faith, a representative of the elite who sought to bring the masses into the movement for independence with a religious coloring; the other an iconoclast and an intellectual from the masses, who opposed the same elite which Gandhi represented and sought to build a society free from caste oppression.

Their differences are strikingly clear in the symbols they used to represent India itself: Gandhi's "Ram Raj," and Phule's "Bali Raja". The contrast between these is a multilayered one.

For Gandhi, "Ram Raj" as a symbol was meant not simply as a recognition of a religious-cultural binding for the nation. It also expressed his own absorption in the emotional satisfactions of religion and legend. Yet, in choosing from among the incredible wealth of cultural-religious meaning systems available in Indian tradition, Gandhi chose one of the most problematic. The story of Ram brings together all the powerful symbols of patriarchy, feudalism and caste. The ideal family, with the devoted brother, the faithful wife, the loyal servant, may have appealed to those trying to construct a new "Hindu woman," but it is inevitably hierarchical. And the nature of Ram's realm was symbolised, perhaps, most of all in the story of the killing of Shambuk, the Shudra ascetic, for the "sin" of attempting to achieve liberation through Brahmanic methods of fasting and penance.

To be sure, Gandhi's interpretation, like that of many well-meaning devotees of Ram, glossed over these inequalities. Yet, his desire to have a noble, loving Ram did not make it easy to avoid the realities represented by the structure of the story itself. Since the period of Muslim incursions first under the Turks, much of the whole theme of Ram had taken shape as a response and reaction to Islam - Ram was implicitly the defender of Hinduism and of its value system against the demonic invaders, kidnappers of women, slaughterers of the masses. Gandhi sought to achieve Hindu-Muslim unity, indeed fought for it all his life; but paradoxically, his way of trying to organise both Hindu and Muslim communities increased community consciousness among them and fostered the more hardline interpretations of each.

jotiba_6"Ram Raj" was more than just a vision of an independent India; it was a religiously defined utopia, taken without criticism or questioning from Indian tradition. It embodied an idealised village society and an idealised feudal kingdom, based on a conception of human beings that was ultimately pre-modern. Gandhi's attitude towards Hindu tradition was not a critical one; he sought to pick and choose and he gave his own interpretations, including the rather astounding one of nonviolence for the Gita; yet he never investigated the role of these traditions in the inequalities of Indian society that he claimed to oppose.

Phule's use of the symbol of Bali Raj in that sense was very different, as was the nature of the symbol. "Bali" was not taken from the straightforward orthodox presentation of mythology; he was a re-interpreted symbol. He was part of Phule's project of turning the "Aryan theory" upside down to identify with the nonAryans, the conquered indigenous inhabitants. In orthodox thinking, Bali was a rakshasa; a demon-king who had been defeated and sent down into hell by the Brahman avatar Waman. Phule's reinterpretation drew on a very widespread peasant tradition, to be sure. The Maharashtrian peasantry remembered Bali as an ideal king, represented in the saying, "let troubles and sorrows go, and the kingdom of Bali come." In Kerala his festival is celebrated as Oman, the time when for a moment this ideal king returns to earth. In choosing Bali, Phule was challenging Brahmanic orthodoxy in a project of giving a kind of historical materialist meaning to the conflict of Aryan and nonAryan. Gandhi believed in Ram, believed in such a way that he could construct an idealised god-king that ignored the uncomfortable caste-patriarchal implications of the story. Phule did not "believe" in Bali in the same sense; his "satyashodhak" attitude was one that sought to go beyond faith to find the sense of history and to build a rationalist equalitarian society. Thus, "Bali's kingdom" did not represent an idealised utopia for Phule; in using the term "Balisthan" for India, the aim was instead to call to mind the whole process of caste and subjugation experience by the masses. There was no particular projection of utopia: rather, that would have to be built through education, struggle, achievement.

jotiba_wellGandhi's "Ram Raj" was the ideal village, harmonious, stable; anti-industrial. He saw human beings as needlessly tossed by emotion and greed. Their wants should be brought under control; they should live as devotees, with limited material needs. The charkha symbolised not only self-reliance, but the kind of self-sufficiency that would do away with the need for the inhuman machines of industrialisation. This stood in contrast to Phule's vision of humanity as imaginative, a creator, an inventor, an entrepreneur, changing himself and the world through his thoughts and aspirations. He saw the basic difference between humans and animals in the process of constant change that human ingenuity made possible. In this, Phule (and after him, Ambedkar), resembled Marx in contrast to Gandhi. Whatever the conquests, exploitation, oppressions, violence involved in human history, to the extent that it was a development of the forces of production it was also a development of human capacities. Industrialisation was an achievement, a step towards prosperity, not simply a new enslavement.

In defining his vision of an independent India in terms of "Ram Raj," Gandhi was linking it to a religious legend that had anti-Muslim as well as anti-Dalit (pro-varnashrama dharma) connotations. It was to give legitimacy to those who wanted to make acceptance of Rama a criterion for patriotism itself. In contrast to this fostering of a backward consciousness, Phule's historical interpretations, his reworking of legendary themes such as Bali Raja, his identification with the oppressed majority laid a different kind of foundation for the future of India.


[Courtesy: Ambedkar.org, May 8, 2002]

Pictures of Jotiba Phule's home in Pune and his samadhi (last picture) courtesy: Gouri Patwardhan.

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