Jyotiba Phule founded the Satyashodhak Samaj in Pune (Maharashtra) on 24 September 1873. It was a social reform society that promoted education and increased social rights, justice, and political access for underprivileged groups. It was against Brahminical supremacy and primarily focused on the upliftment of Dalits, Shudras, and women in Maharashtra. Jyotiba’s wife, Savitribai, was the head of the women’s section of the society. The famous Marathi Journal ‘Deenbandhu‘, published from 1877 to 1897, served as an outlet for this Movement.
Jyotiba Phule was born in 1827 in Pune to a family that belonged to the ‘Mali (gardener) caste’. After completing his own education at a Christan Missionary school, he and his wife focused on expanding the educational opportunities for low-caste communities.
Phule was the pioneer of women’s education in India. In 1848, he, with the help of his wife Savitribai, founded the school for girls in Pune. He was also a pioneer of the widow remarriage movement in Maharashtra. He opened a home for widows in 1854. He also wrote books, such as Tritiya Ratna in 1855, Gulamagiri in 1873, and Sarvajanik Satyadharma Pustak in 1891.
In 1873, Jyotiba Phule founded the Satyashodhak Samaj (Truth Seekers’ Society), with the leadership of the Samaj coming from backward classes, malis, telis, saris, kunbis, and dhangars. He organised a powerful movement against upper caste domination and Brahminical supremacy. He advised the non-Brahmins not to employ the Brahmins for their rituals.
For his social reform work, Jyotiba Phule was bestowed with the title “Mahatma” by Maharashtrian social activist Vithalrao Krishnaji Vandekar in 1888.
Jyotiba Phule established the Satyashodhak Samaj with the ideals of unity, equality, happiness, human well-being, and easy religious principles and rituals. He believed that the Samaj could uplift deprived communities through collective action and organised Movement. The first step to doing so was educating the low-caste individuals about the misdeeds of the Brahmins. The main aims of the Movement were social services and the spread of education among women and lower caste people.
The Samaj attracted individuals of all castes, religions, and professions, including Muslims, Brahmins, peasants, landowners, agricultural labourers, lawyers, merchants, Rajputs, untouchables, and government officials.
The Satyashodhak Movement emphasised the equality inherent in all men, as bestowed upon them by a divine creator. The Samaj maintained faith in one god (monotheism), opposed idolatry (worship of idols), and denied any intermediary between god and man (rejected the need for priests in religious rituals). The Movement aimed at the total abolition of the caste system and socio-economic inequalities.
The Samaj also developed arguments against priestly social and political superiority. It argues that priestly dominance is not an inherent trait. The Samaj insisted that low-caste groups should oppose priests as middlemen between god and men in religious rituals and ceremonies.
Satyashodhak Samaj also advocated for social changes, including less expensive weddings, inter-caste marriages, the end of child marriage, and the right of the widow to remarry.
The Samaj published the Deenbandhu newspaper from 1877 to 1897 to spread their ideas more effectively. Phule’s works, ‘Gulamgiri‘ and ‘Sarvajanik Satyadharma‘, became a source of inspiration for the common masses.
Satyashodhak Movement gave a sense of identity to the disadvantaged communities as a class against those brahmins who used religion and the blind faith of the people to exploit the masses for personal monetary gain.
In addition, the Samaj emphasised the importance of English education, as it played a vital role in building occupational skills and served as the basis for the intellectual liberation of disadvantaged groups. Phule also believed that an English education might open opportunities for employment with the British government.
Samaj’s view of the colonial government went against nationalist groups at the time. They cultivated relations with British officials in order to seek benefits for low-caste groups and saw the British government as the most likely power to offer low-caste groups fair treatment.
Objectives of Satyashodhak Samaj
- The main objectives were education, access to social rights and civil liberties for lower caste groups, the underprivileged and women.
- To liberate the Sudras and ati-Shudras (or Dalits) from the exploitation of Brahmins.
- Convincing and persuading every individual that he (or she) is a child of one God, thus, everyone must obey and follow only one God.
- Claim that no medium is required to contact or communicate with God. They argued that God could hear the subject and voice of prayer before it enters the outer world through the medium’s voice.
Revival under Shahu
The non-Brahmin Movement, incorporated in Satyashodhak Samaj, had not made much difference to any sections of society in the 19th century.
The Movement declined after the death of Jyotiba Phule in 1890. However, in the early 20th century, it was revived by the Maratha ruler of the princely state of Kolhapur, Shahu Maharaj. In 1902, Shahu reserved 50% of civil service posts in Kolhapur State for all communities other than Brahmins, Parsi, and Prabhus. He also sponsored religious ceremonies that did not need a Brahmin priest to officiate.
Before the 1920s, the Samaj opposed the Indian National Movement because it was a movement led by the elites.
By the 1920s, the Samaj had established powerful roots among the rural masses in Western Maharashtra and Vidarbha and took a substantial economic overtone in its message. At that time, the organisation styled itself as the representative of the Bahujan samaj. It also defined the Brahmins, moneylenders, and merchants as the oppressors of the masses.
During the 20th century, the Later followers of the Samaj included educationalist Bhaurao Patil and Maratha leaders like Nana Patil, Keshavrao Jedhe, Khanderao Bagal, and Madhavrao Bagal.
By the 1930s, given the mass movement nature of the Indian National Congress (INC) under Mahatma Gandhi, the Samaj leaders, such as Jedhe, joined the Congress. The Samaj disbanded, and its activities withered away as leaders left to join the Congress party.