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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 16-17, April 20, April 27, 2024

Shudra as a Historian: Implications of Jyotiba Phule’s Reinterpretation of Indian History | Suresh C

Saturday 20 April 2024, by Suresh C.



The act of writing history and its dissemination is part and parcel of hegemony-building exercise in modern times. Theorising nation and bringing one into existence is wholly predicated on the discursive practice of writing history. However, such discursive practices are mediated by the categories of caste, religion, race, class, gender and even colonialism. History writing, therefore, in modern times is a field of competing theories of nation-building with differential stakes for the competing social classes involved therein. Of the many prevailing ideas of India as a nation articulated by mainstream nationalist discourse, Jyotiba Phule’s reading of Indian history as a history of struggle between Shudratishudras and Brahminism stands out in contrast as a more nuanced and realistic view of history than the mainstream glorious versions of history that celebrate unity and continuity as their main attributes. Although Phule’s views on Indian history were articulated during colonial times, his views are as much, if not more relevant in postcolonial late modern times as an antidote for a politics characterised by caste, communal, class and gender dominance.

Keywords: Brahminism, hegemony, history, nationalist discourse, Shudratishudras, caste


Jyothiba Phule (1826-1890) is hailed a mahatma – a great soul – for his social reforms struggle aimed at the uplift of voiceless millions, namely, Dalits (Atishudras), Other Backward Classes (Shudras), Women and lay Muslims (Religious minorities). These hapless multitude were subject to a social order that divinely ordained the arbitrary rule of the so- called Upper Castes (Sanatanis) with impunity. Phule took up the cudgel of challenging the unfounded domination of the latter over the former as a lifelong mission and heralded an age of social renaissance in India which is phenomenally of a different order as compared to his contemporary upper caste/mainstream social reformers. Through his indomitable commitment and perseverance Phule did manage to bring a sense of self-consciousness and a longing for freedom among the servile classes eventually ushering an egalitarian society that is still unfolding. As a crusader against the social evils of child marriage, widowhood, caste discrimination, untouchability, peasant impoverishment that characterised the social scene of 19th century Maharashtra, Phule laid down a model of social justice struggle that still resonates and stands as relevant in the 21st century as it was during his time. What is of signal importance, if not towering accomplishment, is his contribution to rewriting of history of India in a way that instills a historical sense among the history-less people who were treated as the appendage of the upper caste ‘historied’ people of India. It is this feat – of providing Shudratishudras with a firm and empowering grounding in history and independent identity – that holds radical implications for contemporary politics that is unique to Jyothiba Phule and his social reforms struggle.

Standard textbook treatments on the theme of social reforms in India place major social reformers – such as Rammohan Roy, Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule, Panditha Ramabai, Mahadev Ranade, Dayanand Saraswati and various others – in one basket obscuring their mutually discordant ideologies and social reforms agenda. In doing this, the social reforms history in India is treated as a discursive field that discounts any contradictions among the social reformers: they are uniformly grouped as having similar and complementary motives and intentions. Such a caricaturing of history has failed to lay bare radical differences among social reformers and has resulted in a hegemonic version of history that highlights the upper caste statusquoist social reforms agenda much to the neglect of histories that carry emancipatory possibilities for the downtrodden and marginalised. This has serious socio-politico-cultural and economic implications as to how different groups with mutually opposing demands articulate their interests and mobilise themselves in the realisation of their demands. The chief concern of this paper is therefore to discuss how Jyothiba Phule’s articulation of an alternative view of history has enabled various efforts and subsequent struggles including his own to realise better life chances that modernity throws open to all and sundry. The salient questions this paper raises are: what is the nature of Phule’s intervention in historical articulation of identity as compared to contemporary Brahmin scholars? what are the implications of Phule’s non-Brahminic interpretation of history for the emancipation of Shuratishudras including Women and Muslims? How has Phule’s historical discourse influenced subsequent socio-political movements? what important lessons could be drawn by the Shudratishudra subaltern classes to assert their own democratic demands and their attendant role in nation-building exercise in post independent India from Phule’s discourse of history?

Elite-Nationalist Histography

To begin: with the advent of Europeans and especially after the consolidation of British colonial rule in India, the science of historiography – writing of history – underwent radical transformation. What is noteworthy is the fact that the task of writing history was employed often to realising contradictory goals by various actors involved in the field of historiography. Given the sheer multiplicity and competing visions of history, neither could objectivity be noticed in those historical accounts, although claims were made to this effect in the name of scientific method of writing history. Nor these accounts led to a unity of historical narratives relating to India’s past. What is more important is the telos that historians had in sight while embarking to articulate historical narratives. As Dorothy Figueira observes in her discussion on shared myths, the perceptions of history are relevant to the present since the past possesses sociopolitical instrumentality in terms of articulating and achieving present goals. It is the interpretive and, ultimately, political ends to which these interpretive resources were put that matters. For instance, while the colonisers employed their historical scholarship often in the service of achieving contradictory goals, their Indian subjects too employed their historical scholarship in interpreting past in such a way that they could reconstruct their society with differing visions. However, what this Indian past exactly meant was far from being settled among the Indian historical scholarship and was a matter of hermeneutical task – an exercise in textual interpretation (Figueira: 2002). In the backdrop of these internal differences among the historical scholarship in India, one can identify three major schools of history: the first being the colonial school of history and the other two being nationalist/elitist and the Subaltern schools.

So far as the historical scholarship of the colonial European masters was concerned, the argument goes that they initiated the study of the history of native people whom they colonised and called them Orientals. The study of Oriental culture and history was called Orientalism. As Bhikhu Parekh notes, a nationalist like Mahatma Gandhi argues that the colonial masters pressed their knowledge of India in order to justify their own rule over the natives, arguing that Indians were a civilised people in antiquity but a degenerate people now, and it is therefore necessary that the British brought the ‘unique and most precious gift of civilisation’ to Indians in modern times (Parekh,1991: p.12). This is reminiscent of what Edward Said has disapprovingly termed the discourse of orientalism through which colonisers, ‘engaged themselves in the project of painting the Orient as primitive, irrational and barbaric’ diametrically opposed to the Western world (Chakrabarty: 2023). By studying and writing about Indians, so the argument goes, the chief intention of the British was to control the Indians through epistemic exercise: by creating knowledge about India as a region, as a landscape and as a culture. In a Saidian reading, by defining and characterising their non-Western subjects as exotic beings and the region as a place of fantasy, the Europeans gave rise to a body of knowledge that helped them to control colonial subjects, without themselves having any stakes in the process. Going by the Foucauldian dictum of ‘knowledge is power’, Said says that power is inseparably connected with knowledge and that knowledge shapes all aspects of human life, including how power itself is exercised over ‘others’ and normalised in various guises (Chakrabarty, 2023: p.59).

However, such a binary reading in which the colonial masters are projected as active interpreters of history and the natives as passive receptors of such historical narratives negates the agency of the colonial subjects, especially in the subcontinent of India. For, an elite section of natives not only subscribed to the colonial historical narratives that were favourable to them, but they also actively participated in churning historical narratives that mutually benefitted their colonial masters and themselves. This gave rise to an intersubjective identity-formation through historical scholarship that was mutually beneficial. In the case of India at least, many European scholars and commentators showed Indians and their history in good light, since such a move would help forge a new and superior identity as compared to their present Christian identity. Notwithstanding their Christian status, many enlightenment and romantic scholars were critical of their religion – Christianity indeed – such as Voltaire, Friedrich Schlegel, Nietzsche, Gobineau, etc., It also included scholars of Indology such as Max Muller. What classes together these otherwise disparate set of scholars with different ideological moorings is the common denominator that they envied Jews as their religious forebears either implicitly or explicitly. That Europeans themselves were culturally indebted to Asian Jewish migrants was unpalatable to these scholars since it denotes spiritual dependency of the former over the latter. This anti-Jewish attitude later translates itself as anti-Semitism in academic circles.

The remedy for a cultural lack that the Europeans suffered found a resolution in the Aryan Myth that they came to conceive out of the Brahminical religious scriptures such as Vedas, the two epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata along with Bhagavad-Gita and Manu Smriti in 19th century India. Dorothy Figueira is of the view that the European scholars construed Aryans to be a master and superior race of antiquity and the present Europeans later branched out from the Aryans who subsequently headed eastwards settling in India. And it is in India that the Aryans preserved their culture through caste system and the Aryan culture, though degenerate in the present, the Aryan culture could be retrieved through textual exegesis of sacred Brahmanical scriptures (Figueira, 2002: p. 47-48). Simultaneously, the Indian followers of the book-religion who generally happened to be Brahmins admired their European cousins who appreciated their culture, even though now they stood in a relationship of subjection and dependency to the latter. The political inferiority of the conquered and allegedly degenerate status of Aryans in the present was compensated by the identification of cultural superiority of their spiritual ancestors.

However, the “white Aryans” of India were not only shown to be a superior people, but they were contrasted with the original inhabitants, a barbaric and a degenerate people called non-Aryans or “black aboriginals” in Indian prehistory (Bagchee and Adluri, 2015: p.2). On the one hand, by valorising Brahmin superiority through Aryan Myth and identifying themselves as their distant cousins temporally and spatially, the Europeans were able to downgrade the superior religious status that Jews enjoyed over them. On the other hand, Brahmins were also ranked as a superior people vis-à-vis non-Brahmins, placating the ire of many a displeased modern Brahmin with a superior Aryan descent which they shared with their European conquerors.
What is more intriguing is the fact that the Aryan Myth defined what stands for a true Hindu community which was more of a mental construct than a reality, since there was no such thing as a Hindu religion in the ‘religion’ sense of the term as compared to Christianity: all that there was in India was a loose collection of rival sects with their own worldviews, some claiming superior status over others. Consequently, the so-called numerous ‘little traditions’ that were oral and non-Vedic were either consigned to historical oblivion or were subsumed under the rubric of the so-called ‘great tradition’ of Sanathan Dharma. It also sanctioned Brahmins’ status as the true and privileged custodians of the Hindu religion and their scriptures the foundational texts of the “Indian culture”, though reality was recalcitrant and incompatible with what was discursively created. Brahmin scholars of all stripes took pride in the furtherance of such a cultural identity, which very well became the central plank of the nationalist movement, whether it was liberal, conservative or Marxist in character. No matter whatever goal that was intended to be accomplished (at times these happened to be contradictory goals, some advocating progressive reforms such as Mahadev Ranade, Swami Vivekananda and Dayanand Saraswati, other activists such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak taking a conservative stand on social reforms), there was a consensus among the Hindu elites about the Aryan Myth. The superiority and privilege it accorded them enabled them to take up the mantle of India’s leadership to boost its national esteem. And this privilege was zealously guarded.

The Distinctiveness of Phule’s Histography

The importance of Jyotiba Phule’s foray into historical discourse has to be made sense of in this backdrop of 19th century in which the discourse of Aryan Myth was being forged. The essence of the Aryan discourse was: a) that Aryans were superior to other racial types; b) that modern Brahmins are the inheritors of Aryan legacy; c) that by virtue of their superiority, Brahmins should assume the political, economic and cultural leadership of India; and 4) that Shudratishudras including Muslims are of a lower racial type and ought to submit themselves to the enlightened tutelage of Brahmins in their own interest. It is this discourse of Aryan supremacy that Phule comes to challenge by donning the role of the first Shudra Historian of modern India. It is clear that in the Aryan and non-Aryan relation as formulated by the national elites, the Aryan element supposedly stands for all that is vital, active and creative, therefore being the dominating element in the relation – it is the ‘ego’. As opposed to this, the other non-Aryan element in the relationship is shown as peripheral, inert and deficient – an ‘alter’ available for control and manipulation. Shudratishudras themselves had no stakes in this discursive practice. It is this convenient myth – homegrown Orientalism of sorts – of the elites that Phule upends and calls for a ‘reinterpretation of the theories of past by locating the struggles of the lower caste Shudras within the historical perspective of the Aryan Conquest of India’ (Figueira 2002: p. 147).

Phule’s role as a historian is no less revolutionary given the upper castes’ ridicule of his reading of Indian history as a history of class war between alien Arya Brahmins and indigenous Shudra Kshatriyas (warriors). He identified the Aryans as alien barbaric invaders of antiquity who conquered the powerful social groups of the time, namely Shudras (Mahars and Mangs). Not satisfied by the mere subjugation of Shudras, Aryans devised the caste system and kept them in eternal ignorance. Phule is of the view that Muslim invasion of India was no more alien than Aryan invasion of India. Though Muslims justified their invasion by bringing sophisticated culture to India, the Aryans relied on repression to sustain their rule in India. His hard-hitting account of how the ‘avatars’ of Vishnu of orthodox Hinduism can be interpreted as different stages of Aryan invasion of India in his tract ‘Gulamagiri’ meaning ‘Slavery’, is Phule’s way of inverting traditional Aryan theory. In doing this, he took his critique of Brahminism to a mass level.

What is more noteworthy, as Gail Omvedt cites G P Deshpande’s portrayal of “Phule as the first Indian System builder”, providing a dialectical logic of history as Hegel did in Europe. But, Phule’s is not merely an idealistic understanding of history in a Hegelian vein, but also a materialistic understanding of history in a Marxist sense. Phule combines both idealistic and materialistic interpretations of history by dialectically posing the deadly class struggle between Arya Brahmins and Kshatriya Shudras. In his theory of history, as Gail Omvedt describes, the two factors of ‘economic exploitation and cultural dominance are interwoven’ (Omvedt, 2013: p.26). His philosophy of history is also a philosophy that blends both theory and practice as critical theorists do. As critical theorists often stress, theory and action are mutually inextricable. For Phule, theory is practice in the sense that theory (thought process) should lead to emancipatory struggles. Phule is truly modern in the sense that he sees a clear connection between theory and purpose and calls out the pretence of many mainstream thinkers’ theories – whether historical or otherwise – as class-based theories based on exclusionary ideologies but often projected as neutral and universal in maintaining the general interest of all. Phule would have agreed with critical theorist Robert Cox’s dictum that “theory is always for someone and for some purpose” (Cox, 1981: p.198), and also Foucauldian dictum that ‘knowledge is power’. There is no such thing as pure knowledge distinguished from political knowledge (Chakrabarty, 2023: p.60). In this, Phule shares much with Marx, Gramsci and Foucault.

Based on such a reading of history, Phule identified a national culture encompassing the diverse cultures of lower castes, Dalits, Muslims and Tribals, the very culture of whom the high caste social reformers would simply discount as fractional and therefore antithetical to achieve political unity. In retelling the legend of Bali, Phule appealed to a non-Aryan myth and a mythical age that predated Aryan invasion of India. By providing a non-Aryan myth, Phule gives a clarion call for the Shudra peasant majority, the tribal community and the untouchables “to assert their group solidarity and end their oppression” (Figueira, 2002: p.149). In a Nietzschean vein, Phule gives a different spin to the Aryan Myth in juxtaposing it with non-Aryan myth of Bali and a golden age instilling a sense of ‘will to power’ among the downtrodden masses. Each of Phule’s writings takes up a specific form of Shudratishudra’s exploitation and proposes remedies. For instance: his Gulamagiri focuses on the issue of caste exploitation: Shetkaryacha Asud describes the oppression of the peasants; and Sarvajanik Satya Dharma outlines a new theistic and egalitarian religion (Omvedt, 2002: p.24).

What is pioneering about Phule is that he endows autonomous identity to Shudratishudras and as a logical extension, the power of agency to the very same people: that Shudras are capable of placing themselves in history and through its knowledge and hermeneutical skills can make history. It is where Phule left off that Dr B R Ambedkar takes over the task of further exploring deeply into Indian history and lay threadbare the contradictions that exist between Brahmins and non-Brahmins and goes much further to unearth contradictory relations between caste Hindus and Dalits.

His work Who Were the Shudras pertains to the historical exploration of the emergence of Shudras as fourth varna in the aftermath of the deadly feud that existed between Brahmins and Kshatriyas and how one section of the Kshatriyas challenging their superiority was condemned to lower Shudra status by denying them the ritual status of having Upanayana ceremony performed on them. And he cites the modern instance of anti-Shudra attitude in the denial of Rajyabhishekha (Brahmin ritual of anointing the king trough Vedic rites, thereby legitimising his Kshatriyahood and kingly status) to Shivaji in modern times and appeals to modern Shudras to take up the task of annihilation of caste as is befitting to their history.

In Conclusion

This tradition of counter-hegemonic and anti-Aryan historical discourse which was pioneered by Mahatma Phule still has resonance in the 21st century and is being sustained by Dalit-Bahujan Scholars such as Kancha Ilaiah and Braj Ranjan Mani. While Ilaiah’s work Why I am not a Hindu distinguishes between Brahmin culture as parasitic and the Dalit-Bahujan culture as economically productive and that the latter was a truly scientific culture based on the value and ethics of labour, Mani’s work DeBrahminising History is a survey of four thousand years of Indian History from the perspective of the subaltern anti-caste movement (Omvedt, 2013: p.114-115). And the list of scholars carrying this tradition forward goes on.

But one may wonder and even ask whether Phule’s tradition of history has any relevance for contemporary India. What are we today’s Indians to gain from recounting a historical tradition that belonged to pre-independent India? Have not the times changed? Aren’t we to forget the bitter past and move on without cribbing much about caste and communal relations? These are some of the questions that one surely comes across while encountering Hindu nationalists of both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ orientations.

(Author: Suresh C, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Government First Grade College for Women, Holenarasipura, Hassan District, Karnataka – 573211 | Email: soorie33[at]


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