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147 Years of ‘Truth Seeking’

24th September: Formation of Satyashodhak Samaj by Jyotiba Phule

We can’t talk about Dalit politics and the rise of downtrodden masses in India without mentioning the Satyashodhak Samaj founded by the feminist trailbrazer Jyothiba. Satyashodhak Samaj (Truth-seekers' Society) was a social reform society founded by Jyotirao Phule in PuneMaharashtra, on 24 September 1873. It espoused a mission of education and increased social rights and political access for underprivileged groups, focused especially on women, Shudras, and Dalits, in Maharashtra. Jyotirao's wife, Savitribai was the head of the women's section of the society.

Phule was a radical and liberal thinker who received his early education in a Mission School. Mahatma Phule worked for the uplift of the lower castes. He believed that Hindu tradition was dominated by the Brahmin thought and culture and subscribed to the prevailing Aryan invasion theory of history, proposing that the Aryan conquerors of India, whom the theory's proponents considered to be racially superior, were barbaric suppressors of the indigenous people. He believed that they had instituted the caste system as a framework for subjugation and social division that ensured the pre-eminence of their Brahmin successors. He saw the subsequent Muslim conquests of the Indian subcontinent similar in nature, being a repressive alien regime, but considered British to be relatively enlightened and not supporters of the ‘varna’ system which had been conceptualised and then perpetuated by the previous invaders.

Jyothiba Phule always condemned organisations like the Prarthana Samaj and the Sarvajanik Sabha as these organisations worked solely for the Brahmin. He aimed at replacing the Hindu religion with the 'Sarvajanik Ishwar Pranit Satya' literally meaning ‘God’s truth made public’. Phule wanted to organize his followers and workers so that they might assimilate his rational ideas and bring them into effect. He repeatedly said to his followers that lost rights are not secured without a struggle. Having known that the Brahmins are not only unsympathetic but also intolerant, Phule understood that the tradition-mongers would not easily give up their privileges, position, and power. There was no question of them expecting to get their due political rights as they had no strength and organization backing them. Hence, Jyotiba decided to set up an organization to preach his ideology and mobilise individuals. Accordingly, on September 24 1873, Phule convened a meeting of all his admirers and disciples at Poona. About sixty men from many important centers of the Maharashtra region assembled. In this gathering, Jotirao delivered an introductory speech and elaborated on the necessity of a central institution for the guidance of the movement and to help systematise mobilisation.

After several discussions and deliberations, the institution was considerably conceptualised. Jotirao named this institution as ‘Satyashodhak Samaj’. The Samaj was created to help spread education among women and other communities who were considered lower castes. Jyotiba was elected as the first president and treasurer of the Samaj and Narayanrao Govindrao Kadalak served as the first secretary.  

Beliefs of the Samaj

The ideology of Satyashodhak Samaj was based on Phule's ideological framework which aimed to unite all Shudra and Ati Shudra masses. Phule’s ideology rejected all kinds of Brahmin domination and exploitation based on religion, caste or the notions of purity. This was the most radical tenet of the Satya Shodhak ideology, which was the heart of the ‘non-Brahmanism movement'. In their dissent against the much prevalent Brahmanical culture, Satyashodhak ideology dreamed to establish an ideal and egalitarian society based on a few core principles. Firstly, faith in one God (or creator) was paramount along with rejection of any belief in the existence of an intermediary between God and Man. Secondly, the ideology aimed to reject the caste system based on the four fold Varna division and perpetuated the belief that an individual's supremacy had to be determined by his qualities, instead of his/her/their caste. Furthermore, faith in equality, freedom, and communal brotherhood were central to the Satyashodhak ideology. Membership of the Satyashodhak Samaj was open to all castes, sects, and religions. Anyone who accepted its ideology and acted accordingly by taking an oath could be a member of the Samaj. The Samaj attracted people from all walks of life, and members from diverse religious groups. 

Samaj acted as a non-political body whose objective was to strive for the emancipation of the Shudras and Ati Shudras by fighting against centuries-old discriminatory practices. The Samaj not only sought to restore their rights but also aimed for remedial action for the misery of the oppressed. It insisted the members worship only our creator and honor the pure rights that have been given by the creator to all human beings by rejecting the belief that some men are born inferior by refusing to treat anyone as their inferior. Each member was also obliged to facilitate the education of their children, so that they may fully understand their rights. The Samaj insisted that education plays a vital role not only for providing occupational skills but also for the intellectual emancipation of the lower castes. Hence, educational empowerment was an important tenet of the action plan followed by Satyashodhak Samaj. Phule proposed the program and appealed the Samaj that worship a supreme God (creator) and avoid the role of the Brahman priest in performing the socio-religious ceremonies thereby dispensing the hegemonic ideology of the Brahmans and establishing the Shudras and Ati-Shudras as a community with new beliefs.

Tamashas as an effective weapon

In the early 20th century, the Samaj faced difficulty in connecting with the peasant areas of Maharashtra. As the traditional lectures were ineffective, the Samaj turned to tamashas or popular folk dramas, to communicate their ideas. Satyashodhak tamashas followed the traditional format but subverted the pro-Brahman elements of the dramas. They began with an invocation to Ganpati, a traditional Brahmin deity, but added an explanation that the actual meaning of the word came from gan (people) and pati (leader). The invocation to Ganpati was therefore an invocation to the people as a source of rule. The plays continued with a discussion of Brahmanical tyranny, followed by a story about the efforts of Brahmins to cheat peasants. 


Phule told them how the little money they had was drained away by the cunning and selfish Brahmin priests in the names of rites. He urged them to send their children to schools so that they might learn what was law, what was religion, what was a god. They were men of farmers stock and they could not bring to their task learning and reason, although they displayed much energy and earnestness! Deenbandhu, the mouthpiece of the Satya Shodhak Samaj, played an important role in the Satyashodhak Samaj’s movement. Deenbandhu Weekly articulated the grievances of the peasants and workers. 

Samaj and Congress

After Jotiba died in 1890, there was a period of lull, when the flame lit by Jotiba waned. His movement was kept alive by Shahu Maharaj, Krantisinha Nana Patil, and many other leaders after him. On his deathbed, Phule is rumored to have turned to his wife and had said, “You must carry on our work with the same determination and spirit.” The Satya Shodhak Samaj movement was a social movement which had  nothing to do with politics, but the members of Satya Shodhak Samaj dissolved Satya Shodhak Samaj.

Even though there has been criticism against Satyashodak Samaj based on the inclination towards British, Christianity, and Jyotibas interpretation of history. Jyotiba institution struggled a lot for the uplift of the masses. The Satyashodhak Samaj was thus the first institution to launch a social movement in modern India. It raised its voice against slavery, destitude of the lower castes and demanded social justice and redressal. It was the shrill voice of dissent of the long-suppressed hindustanis.


By Devadeth K Reji

Devadath is a student of political science and a member of The Symposium society. Besides having a keen interest in everything political and the domestic affairs, he is fond of books and a cinephile. He loves interactions with anyone comes across him. He wants to spare his career for the welfare of society.