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Chapter: 11th History : Chapter 19 : Towards Modernity

Satya Shodhak Samaj (1873)

While the movements discussed above were largely focussed on upper castes there were some exceptional movements which mobilized lower castes and articulated their perspective.

Satya Shodhak Samaj (1873)

While the movements discussed above were largely focussed on upper castes there were some exceptional movements which mobilized lower castes and articulated their perspective. The most important among them was Jyotiba Phule, who belonged to the Mali (gardener) community. Born in 1827, he received initial education in a mission school but had to discontinue it in 1833. Jyotiba Phule waged a life-long struggle against upper caste tyranny. In his quest for the truth, Phule read the Vedas, the Manu Samhita, the Puranas, and the thought of Buddha, Mahavira and the medieval Bhakti saints extensively. He also acquainted himself with Western thought, and Christian and Islamic religions. Phule judged the whole culture and tradition through the spirit of rationality and equality. While the principle of equality called for a total rejection of caste system, authoritarian family structure and subordination of women, the principle of rationality demanded the removal of superstitions and ritualism.

Phule held radical views on social, religious, political and economic issues. He considered the caste system as an antithesis of the principle of human equality. He sought to raise the morale of the non-Brahmins and united them to revolt against the centuries old inequality and social degradation. Towards this end Phule founded the Satya Shodak Samaj (Society for Seeking Truth) in 1875. His most important book is Gulamgiri (Slavery).

Phule looked upon education of the masses as a liberating and revolutionary factor.

Since women and deprived and downtrodden were the worst sufferers in the society, Phule argued that women’s liberation was linked with the liberation of other classes in society. Equality between classes as also between men and women was stressed by Phule. During marriages he asked the bridegroom to promise the right of education to his bride.

Phule also tried to translate his ideas into actual struggles. He urged the British Government to impart compulsory primary education to the masses through teachers drawn from the cultivating classes. He started a school for girls in Poona in 1851 and one for depressed classes with the assistance of his wife Savitri. He also started schools for the "untouchables" and founded a home for widow’s children.

In his work we find the beginnings of the later day non-Brahman movement of Maharashtra.

Pandita Ramabai (1858–1922)

Pandita Ramabai was foremost among the Indian leaders who worked for the emancipation of women. She came from a learned family and was a great scholar of Sanskrit and addressed many learned groups in different parts of the country. She was given the title of “Pandita” and “Saraswati” for her deep knowledge of Sanskrit. After the death of her parents she and her brother travelled to different parts of the country. They went to Calcutta in 1878. Two years later her brother also died. A little later in 1880 she married a Bengali belonging to a family of lower social status. Thus, even at that time she was bold enough to marry a man of a different caste and different language. After the death of her husband two years later she returned to Poona and started the Arya Mahila Samaj with the help of leaders like Ranade and Bhandarkar. 300 women were educated in the Samaj in 1882.

Ramabai started the Sharada Sadan (shelter for homeless) for the destitute widows with the help of Ranade and Bhandarkar. But soon she was accused of converting Hindu women to Christianity and hence had to shift her activities to Khedgoan near Poona. She established a Mukti Sadan (freedom house) there. Soon there were 2000 children and women in the house. Vocational training was given make them self-reliant.

Sri Narayana Guru

This movement emerged in Kerala and was born out of conflict between the depressed classes and the upper castes. It was started by Sri Narayana Guru (1854-1928) spearheading a social movement of the Ezhavas of Kerala, a community of toddy tappers. The Ezhavas were the single largest group in Kerala constituting 26% of population. A great scholar in Malayalam, Tamil and Sanskrit, Sri Narayana Guru established the Sri Narayana Guru Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam in 1902. The SNDP Yogam took up several issues such as

(i) right of admission to public schools.

(ii) recruitment to government services.

(iii) access to roads and entry to temples; and

(iv) political representation.

The movement as a whole brought transformative structural changes such as upward social mobility, shift in traditional distribution of power and a federation of ‘backward classes’ into a large conglomeration. As a response to the prohibition on Ezhavas into temples, Sri Narayana Guru established new temples, and empowered the community to modernize itself. Great personalities such as the poet Kumaran Asan Dr. Palpu and Sahodaran Ayyappan emerged from the movement, and made a lasting impact in the democratization of Kerala Society. Even though the Guru himself was not directly involved in the movement, the Vaikom Satyagraha, organized to protest against the ban on the entry of Ezhavas on the temple streets of Vaikom made a deep impact on subsequent temple entry movements.

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