Contesting Brahmanical Hegemony o knowledge: Phule’s Path for Alternative Education

Umesh Bagade
(Professor and Head, Department of History and Ancient Indian Culture, Dr. Babsaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University, Aurangabad—431004, Mahrashtra, India)


Phule talked about power and knowledge much before Foucault. He unfolded the role of knowledge in the perpetuation of caste and patriarchy. He classified knowledge in three broad realms: knowledge of individual and social self i.e. historical knowledge, empirical knowledge and moral knowledge or knowledge of social relationships. According to him, the first realm of knowledge was historical or traditional knowledge around which individual and social group acquired their selfhood. Phule explained how Brahmanical system subjugated and enslaved the Shudra, Atishudra caste by giving them false identities of caste. Brahamanical knowledge structured a hierarchy of subjugated and enslaved caste identities where all subaltern castes consciously and unconsciously acquired their caste subject positions. Although in some occasions downtrodden castes contested their inferior place in caste hierarchy, they did so under the regime of historical world view of Brahmanism. Phule pointed that other than oral dissemination of Puranic and metaphysical knowledge of Brahmanism any access to education was denied to women and Shudratishudra masses just to prevent them from taking up explorations of their real selfhoods. Thus Shudratishudra castes voluntarily succumbed to the assigned caste subject positions which enslaved them (Phule, 1980:114).
Phule identified emanicipatory aspect of historical knowledge. He said, “True history will unravel the trickery of Brahmin caste and will lead the downtrodden caste to resist it. If downtrodden castes recover their history of glorious struggle against unjust caste system they will revolt against it. They will demolish Brahmins hegemony and caste system (Bagade 2006:331). Phule believed that the true history of Shudra-Atishudra castes would pave the way to anti-caste revolution. The distorted worldview emanating from Brahmanical history and ideology would fade away with the writing/ recovery of the true history of India. Phule was well aware of the hegemonic role of Brahminical history which was making lower-caste/subalterns docile objects instead of active subjects fighting the caste order. He felt that true history would raise the consciousness of downtrodden castes and make them active subjects who would fight against the exploitation and domination of the caste system.
Phule categorized the second sphere of knowledge as empirical knowledges. Human beings are endowed with the power of intellect and knowledge. Human beings with their intelligence have transformed nature or the objects of nature and made tremendous development in everyday life particularly enhancing the knowledge of science and technology. All the material knowledges based on empirical observations and inferences was later recorded on paper and thus was inherited, innovated and stored as a common treasure of entire mankind which has resulted in achieving amazing material progress in the contemporary world (Phule, 1980: 256).
As a hegemonic ideology of caste, the Brahmanism separated knowledge from labour and thus affected adversely on the progress of empirical knowledge. The monopoly of knowledge was entrusted to parasitical Brahmanical castes who despised labour and those subaltern castes indulged in production were denied access to education. Not only this entrenched the domination and exploitation of caste system but also aborted the growth of science and technology in India. Due to lack of education productive shudratishudra castes remained ignorant and lived with their stagnant caste specific technologies. Brahmins who monopolized knowledge loathed productive technology as impure and celebrated other-worldly knowledge. The production of social relations of caste slavery remained sole concern of the Brahmanical knowledge system. Hence, allegiances to Vedas or scriptures, divine signal and intuition were hailed as the fundamental and absolute criteria of knowledge by the Brahminism.
Brahmani knowledge rejected materialist criterion of knowledge and employed logical method of unrestrained imagination. All Brahmani literature flooded with stories of cosmogony, metaphysics and social relations were based on unrestrained imagination. Physical and natural science were interpolated by mythological accounts and was considered as divine/sacred authorities of knowledge. Phule thoroughly rejected Brahminical logical method of unrestrained imagination as non-empirical (Phule, 1980: 385) and propounded the method of Abrahmani knowledge based on empirical observation and inferences (Phule, 1980: 353).
Phule acknowledged the third sphere of knowledge as moral knowledges where human relations are instituted around social structures like (class), caste and patriarchy. Usually religion and state played important role in legislating and upholding of moral knowledges. But in India, the state was left without legislative functions, making religion as the sole authority and source of moral knowledge. Brahamnical religion in collaboration with state and its autonomous constituents like caste and village panchayats instituted ethical and legal codes of caste-patriarchal society and maintained its regime.
Phule very succinctly pointed out the hegemonic aspects of Brahminical moral regime and rejected it in totality. He argued in favour of alternative moral knowledge premising on the criteria of self-reflection (atmparikshan) (Phule, 1980:458).The individual in the processes of self-reflection undertakes a critical inquiry of his own experiences of social relations, where his personal experience of social treatment of inequality, slavery, exploitation and humiliation becomes unacceptable and, therefore, ethically unwarranted. The rigorous process of self-reflection creates, justifies and legitimizes a moral basis of society, cherishing the values like liberty, equality, fraternity, industriousness, philanthropy, etc. as the alternative set of morality of Abrahmani tradition (Bagade, 2006:334).
Phule and Foucault both dealt with power/knowledge paradigm. Nevertheless, both have different theoretical groundings. Deshpande points out that this difference as “Foucault’s post-modernist analysis came at the time when Europe has literally seen an ‘end of history’ whereas Phule’s efforts were to change in the world/society with the weapon of knowledge (Omvedt, 1994:23). Foucault’s power/knowledge paradigm was based on the critique of enlightenment humanism, rationalism and modernity whereas Phule’s knowledge- power paradigm was grounded in enlightenment values of humanism, scientific reason and modernity.
Phule’s identification of three broad terrains of knowledge approached concrete issues like historicity, materiality and socio-morality of caste. He located power/knowledge paradigm within the processes of caste subject formation under the hegemonic world view of Brahmanical knowledge. He contemplated that the knowledge of history of caste subalterns would enable them to recover insurgent subject position, bring rationalization of caste subaltern worldview, helping them in situating themselves in contemporary struggle for emancipation. He made investigations into the structure and processes of exploitation and domination of caste in order to take up confrontation against caste materiality. By offering devastating critique of Brahmanical religion and morality he made universal morality as basis of alternative society and culture.
This paper will take up broad inquiry in Phule’s conception of knowledge and education and will probe how he carved out a path for alternative education.
Experience as the foregrounding locus of knowledge:
Mahatma Phule considered social location of experience as the authentic ground for knowledge. He rejected Brahmanical knowledge because it doesn’t possess concrete experience of caste subaltern and women. There are some instances when he emphasized about the particularity and authenticity of subaltern experience. M. G. Ranade in his speech claimed that ‘under the thirty years of colonial rule, the condition of peasantry had been comparatively improved’. He also praised the work of vatandar-officials and said that, ‘castes are good if they help in social elevation’. Phule fiercely retorted these comments in Ishara by citing Kabira’s words Jis tan lage wohi tan jane bija kya jane gavara re (the affected body only can know the pain others cannot know it) and offered description of the condition of everyday experience of peasantry (Phule, 1991: 385-87). In another instance, Tarabi Shinde was criticized by his own colleagues for her fierce critique of patriarchy in her book Women-Men comparison. Phule stood in her defense. By reiterating Kabira’s word, ‘Jis tan lage wohi tan jane bija kya jane gavara re’ he claimed that the experiences of women are concrete and particular to them and no men can understand it. He writes, ‘the waves of anger of a wife of polygamous husband cannot be known to men’ (Phule, 1991: 373).
Phule used these concrete and particular experiences of women and Shudratishudras in production of knowledge. He put them in critical analytical mode and employed historicist and anthropological framework for critical exposition of the experiences. He used a mode of humanist univesalization to elevate particular and local experience to the level of knowledge. Phule claimed that subaltern experience is particular and affective. Those who experience it only can know about it. No other than subaltern can tell about their experiences. Nevertheless he accepted that others can have access to subaltern experience through brotherhood/sisterhood. While rejecting the invitation of M. G. Ranade to be part of first literary conference (Marathi granthkar sabha) he categorically made it clear that through the mode of eternal love of brotherhood and commitment for human rights even Brahmin authors can have access to the woes of shudra and atishudra (Phule, 1991: 344).
This paper will unfold Phule’s exercise of turning experience into knowledge and will situate his ideas within the philosophical debate of Prof. Guru with Prof. Sarukai on experience and theory.
Problem posing dialogic pedagogy:
While criticizing colonial and Brahmanical education system Phule raised issue of Brahamnical pedagogy. Brahamnical pedagogy was thoroughly status quoits. Its sole purpose was to nourish caste and gender inequality. It takes away the students from reality. It is so proficient in mythicizing reality that every day exploitation and domination of caste and patriarchy gets covered under mythical representations. It does not allow any scope to criticism and maintains the flow of instruction in such a way that causal analysis or hermeneutical exercise gets regulated in certain way. Phule offers devastating critique of Brahmanical pedagogy where he points out how Brahmanical pedagogy makes subaltern lose track of reality. He writes:
(Brahmanical schools) “teach them (shudratishudra students) only the basic letter and modi, some shlok in Prakrit relating to pretentious and false Puranas and few songs and teach them lavanis, making them educated enough to write such things. Never giving them sufficient knowledge even to keep account of expenses at home. So how would they enter into the mamaletdar’s office and become even clerks (Deshpande, 2012:121-22). Brahmani and colonial pedagogy does not provide thinking ability to students. The descriptive-memory based pedagogy does not generate any capacity to pose proper questions or any skills or creativity to solve these questions. It does not impart any occupational or technical skills to students. It does not respect student’s ability of thinking and treat them merely means of education.
Phule initiated a new kind of pedagogy nurturing thinking ability among students. He rejected Brahmanical teacher-student relationship prescribing commanding position to teacher and obedience to students. He encouraged inquisitiveness and inquiry among students. He introduced problem posing dialogic pedagogy which brought teacher and students on same level of active engagement. This pedagogic technique of placing questions and finding solutions made students critical thinkers. Not only it enabled students to approach the reality in critical creative way but also encouraged them to take up struggles to transform the reality.
This paper will examine Phule’s experiments in primary education and will probe his pedagogic endeavor.
(Abstract of the paper to be presented in the International Conference on Modern Transformations and Challenges of Inequalities in Education in India held on 27th to 29th November 2014 New Delhi)