Caste, Conflict, and Ideology
Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Low Caste Protest in Nineteenth-Century Western India
By Rosalind O'Hanlon
Cambridge South Asian Studies (No. 30)
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print Publication Year: 1985
Online Publication Date:October 2009
Chapter DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511563379.007
Introduction: The Third Eye
Phule did not intend his distinctive focus upon Brahmans, and Brahmanic religion, as the ultimate cause of the deprivations of the lower castes to remain a matter of private disagreement between himself and his colleagues. In 1855, setting a pattern that he was to follow throughout his life, he described his position in detail in a polemical tract, a play entitled The Third Eye. In this play, he rejected decisively the view that the sufferings of the lower castes were the product of a social system supported by all except untouchable castes, whose own backwardness was a part of the problem.
The subject of the play was the exploitation of an ignorant and superstitious peasant couple by a cunning Brahman priest, and their subsequent enlightenment by a Christian missionary. It clearly set out the argument that Hindu religion represented both an ideological imposition upon the lower castes and, in its insistence on ritual and ceremony, a cause of their material impoverishment. At the same time, Phule made this issue much wider and more overtly political by relating it to some of the social effects of British rule. He was concerned in particular with the use of education and the skills of literacy as a vital social resource that conferred great power on Brahman social groups. They formed by far the largest proportion of those in the new vernacular schools and government English schools, and in the new administrative, educational, judicial, and revenue institutions of the Raj. The result was a virtual monopoly by Brahmans of the strategic position of administrative intermediaries between the British government and the masses of Hindu society.