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Krishna in the dock: the 1862 Maharaja libel case and its consequences – I

The cardinal idea of the doctrine of Vallabhacharya is the incarnation in his person and in that of his descendents of Krishna, and the enjoyment for that reason, of the right to confer upon the faithful the privilege upon this earth of a personal union with the deity of their worship. Theoretically speaking, were this personal union to be regarded spiritually and held to elevate the mind to an intimate union with the highest moral principle; were it to hold forth by meditation and isolation some incentive to a consideration of self-annihilation and self-denial, this doctrine might have claims upon our attention as doing some, however limited, a good. But preached to a people who, from climatic influences and early conditions of puberty are peculiarly lascivious and prurient, the evil grows more and more enormous with the progress of the sect. …Gloomy faiths, bound to asceticism, have no real hold on the moral conduct of the professors of them, but a religion which rushes into an opposite extreme, and stimulates an evil too great already for the patience of mankind and civilisation, deserves to be trodden out.
Anthropological Review, Vol.4, No.14, 1866

I’ve referred to the 1862 Maharaja libel case several times on enfolding, so I thought it was high time to take a closer look at the case and some of its consequences. In this first post, I’ll outline some of the key points of the case itself, and follow up with some critical commentary and observations.

The Light of Truth
The libel case was brought in response to an article by Karsandas Mulji, the editor of the Bombay-based Gujurati newspaper Satya Prakash (“Light of Truth”). Titled, “The Primitive Religion of the Hindus and the Present Heterodox Opinions”, the article made a forceful case against the sect known as the Vallabhacharya Sampradaya (or Pushti Marg) – devoted to Krishna was a “new” and “heretical” religion – particularly as it had arisen within the period of the Kaliyug. Mulji argued that Hinduism must be singular, and that the idea of multiple religions branching off from that originary source was “a deceitful proposition”.

Mulji also asserted that the leaders of this sect – the Maharajas – were immoral and “lost in a sea of licentiousness”, making the specific charge that the Maharajas were engaging in unlawful (sexual) congress with the wives and daughters of their male devotees – and named one of the Maharajas – Jadunathji Maharaj: “We ask Jadunathjee Maharaj in what Ved, in what Puran, in what Shastra, and in what law-book it is written that one’s married wife should be made over to a Maharaj or to a religious preceptor before being enjoyed. Not only one’s wife, but one’s daughter also is to be made over! …. In the Kaliyug many other heresies and many other sects have arisen besides that of Vallabhacharya, but no other sectaries have ever perpetrated such shamelessness, subtility, immodesty, rascality, and deceit as have the sect of the Maharajas.”

On 14th May 1861, Jadunathji Maharaj filed a plaint in the Supreme Court of Bombay, claiming that the article in Satya Prakash was libellous, and asking for damages in the region of 50,000 rupees. The case came to trial early in 1862, and lasted for three months. The case was presided over by Sir Matthew Richard Sausse, the first chief justice of the High Court of Bombay and Judge Joseph Arnould, and both the Maharaj and Mulji were represented by English counsel. The proceedings were reported on by the Bombay Gazette and The Times of India.

The Maharaj’s case was that he was a valid religious authority and guru within his tradition; that his religous views were not heterodox within his religion, and that he was not guilty of “improper conduct.” The Defendants countered with the plea that the Maharaj was not a valid preceptor and the Vallabhacharya – being of modern date – “15th century of the Christian era” – was “altogether repugnant to and at variance with the religious doctrines and practices of the ancient Hindu religion”. The defence further averred that the religious books of the Vallabhacharya contained many passages of “indecent and immoral character” in which “adultery and fornication are encouraged and commended”, summing up with the assertion that the “supposed libel” of the the original newspaper article and its statements were true in substance and effect.

Several witnesses were called to testify that the Maharaj was a legitimate authority for his tradition – and the cross-examination shows that the officers of the court had some difficulty in establishing the beliefs on and practices of the Vallabhacharyas to their satisfaction – particularly in establishing the distinction between god and guru:

Mr Anstey: Do some Banias believe the Maharaj to be a God?

Witness: We consider him to be our gooroo.

Sir M. Sausse: Tell witness if he does not answer the question, he will be sent to jail.

Witness: What is the precise question? (interpreter explains) Some consider the Maharaj a god in the shape of gooroo.

Mr Anstey: Is Gooroo a God?

Witness: Gooroo is gooroo.

Sir M Sausse: Tell him if he does not answer the question, most indubitaly will he go to jail.

Sir Joseph Arnould: Tell him he is asked what others believe, not as to his own belief.

Witness: I don’t know if others believe him as God; I consider him as simply a gooroo. I don’t know under what name others worship him.

As Sir Joseph Arnould admitted during the proceedings, the difficulty of establishing libel was complicated by the fact that the court had no real idea about what constituted orthodoxy or heterodoxy in this context: “We don’t know what what heterodoxy is, and we don’t know what heresy is; for we don’t know what the Shastras themselves are.” The court was being tasked with making a legal judgement as to what constituted Hindu orthodoxy – and the means chosen was the comparison of ancient “Shastric” authority (texts) to local and modern practice.

As the case proceeded, the scope of the enquiry broadened out so that it was not merely a consideration of libel, but the morality of Vallabhacharya practice and beliefs – as well as the Maharaja himself that came under close scrutiny, and eventually – were found wanting.

gurus, but not gods
On 7th February 1862, Karsandas Mulji took the stand. He presented himself as a member of the Bania caste group, and one who was born into the Vallabhacharya and that he believed the Maharajas to be gurus, but not “gods”. Mulji stated that he written several pamphlets and books, in addition to being editor of Satya Prakash. He restated his assertion that the Maharajas are not Brahmins of high caste, and that the Vallabhacharya religion does not teach “self-denial”. There was some debate about whether he was to be considered a learned authority capable of interpreting the scriptural texts of the Vallabhacharyas – Mr. Bayley, the Maharaja’s counsel objected to this preferment, but he was overruled.

Mulji then presented over thirty translations of Vaishnava texts for the court’s consideration, for example:

“When the Sarasvat age shall arrive, you will be born as Gopis in Vrij. There, in the forest of Vrinda, I will gratify your desire in a chorus; and your adulterine love for me will exceed all (other love). By means of such a love, you will gain me and your object will be thus accomplished.” In this manner Shri Krishna told the Traditions to gain (him) by adulterine love. These Traditions of the Veds who became the Gopikas are called the Traditional persons.

Following the presentation of the texts, Mulji then proceeding to familiarise the court with Krishna – laying particular stress on his “marriage” to sixteen thousand gopis and that “there is no sport imputed to Krishna which is not amorous sport”. Once more he asserted that “It is a matter of general reputation in the sect that all of the Maharajas have carnal intercourse with the wives and daughters of their more zealous devotees”; that the Maharaja conducts a festival in which he has promiscuous intercourse with many women, and moreover that, during the Holi festival, the Maharaja throws gulal at the breasts of women, and that this, according to the Shastras, is a sin equal to adultery. He stated that “I am not ashamed to say that there was a time when I followed the doctrines of the Vallabhacharya religion more strictly than I do now. …I was an author and a journalist before I became a reformer. The tyranny and evil practices of the Maharaj’s induced me to write against them.” He also produced a variety of newspaper articles and pamphlets which demonstrated that there had been other attacks on the “immoral practices” of the Maharajas dating from 1855 onwards.

On the 8th February, the defence produced an “expert witness” – Dr. John Wilson, a Scottish Presbyterian missionary and Indologist – a member of the Royal Society of Great Britain, and the Bombay branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (currently honorary president). Wilson then proceeded to explain to the court that “the most ancient books of the Hindus are the Veds … they are believed to be the works of divine revelation in the highest sense of the word” and went on to explain that the “Vishnoo Puran” belongs to a later period. He asserted that:

“It is a historical fact, that the more modern religions are less moral and less pure. Very great changes have occurred in India with reference to the gods, positively for the worse, as admitted by the Hindus themselves.”

Wilson went on to describe the history of the Vallabhacharya religion and its sixteenth-century founder, Vallabha. He quoted approvingly the views of Dr. Horace H Wilson:

Amongst other articles of the new creed, Vallabha introduced one which is rather singular for a Hindu religious innovator or reformer: he taught, that privation formed no part of sanctity, and that it was the duty of the teachers and his disciples to worship their deity, not in nudity and hunger, but in costly apparel and choice food, not in solitude and mortification, but in the pleasures of society and the enjoyment of the world.

Wilson concurred with HH Wilson that the sect was “impure”. He quoted from a Sanskrit drama, in order to give “a more faithful picture” of Vallabhacharya morality:

The Veds have fled: lovely damsels now look to the gratification of sense with the descendants of Vallabh; the descendent of Vallabh is the kisser of females; he feels lust at every step for his large-eyed damsels. Offering one’s-self and one’s wives and daughters to the gooroos is in this world the only course of salvation. Carnal intercourse with females, dining and playing with them, is one of the principal offices of Krishna. The nectarine pleasure of Shree Gocul (Krishna) is better than a thousand other expedients. If copulation does not take place with Krishna, the existence of the paramour of man is worse than that of a worm.

“disgusting details”
On the 22nd April, 1862, Sir Matthew Sausse delivered judgement. Although he found judgement in favour of the plantiff (the Maharaja) in terms of three minor pleas, he ruled in favour of the defendant (Mulji) and awarded him all costs. Sausse stated that although he wanted to avoid any “reiteration of … disgusting details” he commented that “All songs connected with the God Krishna, which were brought before us were of an amorous character, and it appeared that songs of a corrupting and licentious tendency, both in idea and expression, are sung by young females to the Maharaja, upon festive occasions, in which they are identified with the God in his most licentious aspect. In these songs, as well as in stories, both written and traditional, which latter are treated as of a religious character in the sect, the subject of sexual intercourse is most prominent.”

Sir Joseph Arnould commented that “A public journalist is a public teacher: the true function of the press, that by virtue of which it has rightly grown to be one of the great powers of the modern world – is the function of teaching, elevating and enlightening those who fall within the range of its influence. To expose and denounce evil and barbarous practices; to attack usages and customs inconsistent with moral purity and social progress, is one of its highest, its most imperative duties. … As editor of the Satya Prakash the defendant was, in my opinion, acting within the clear limits of his duty in denouncing to a public … the moral delinquencies of the Maharaja.” He also felt it necessary to pronounce judgement on the worship of Krishna: “It is Krishna, the darling of the 16,000 Gopees; Krishna the love-hero – the husband of the 16,000 princesses, who is the paramount object of Vallabhacharya’s worship. This tinges the whole system with the stain of carnal sensualism, of strange, transcendental lewdness. See, for instance, how the sublime Brahminical doctrine of unition with “Brahma” is tainted and degraded mode of regarding the Deity. … The teachers of the Vallabhacharyan sect do not absolutely discard this great tenet, but they degrade it.”

History of the Sect of the Maharajas, or Vallabharyas, in Western India (Trubner & Co., London, 1865)
David Haberman On Trial: the Love of the Sixteen Thousand Gopees (History of Religions Vol.33 No.1, August 1993)

Maharaj Libel Case (Official website of the High Court of Bombay).