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

“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.”
Horace H. Wilson Sketch of the religious sects of the Hindus (1846, pp76-78)

Before I get down to examining the 1862 Maharaja libel case in detail, I thought it would be useful to take a brief look at the particular sampradaya – at the heart of the case – the Vallabhacharyas – and examine aspects of its doctrines, practices, and historical development.

A legendary founder
The Vallabhacharyas (also known as the Pustimarg – “path of grace”) were founded in the sixteenth century by Vallabha (1479-1531) during the latter phase of the Delhi Sultanate. As Sandip Shah (2007) comments, this was a period where heterodox religious movements were flourishing in Northern India: “Sufis, Tantrikas, jogis, ulama, Brahamans, Vaishnavas, Saivas, and various streams of the Sant tradition ranging from the followers of Nanak and Kabir to Dadu and Malukas all found themselves offering competing worldviews under the watchful eye of an empire that used patronage to ensure that religious communities would be in the service of the state.” It was also a time of political upheaval, and in his short work, the Srikrsnasrayah Vallabha declares that the lands are overrun by “barbarians” and foreigners, that the gods have hidden themselves, that rituals have become ineffective and learning has been replaced by ignorance.

During his lifetime, Vallabha composed a number of works, including a group of short texts which collectively, are known as the Sonasagranthah (Sixteen Works). Vallabha’s short work, the Jalabheda (“Distinctions of Waters) for example, classifies nineteen categories of teachers 1 who have the capacity to transmit knowledge of Krishna’s form, qualities, and divine play in a manner which corresponds to the moods (bhavas) of different devotees. Vallabha also composed the Siddhantamuktavali, in which the Ganges – as water, power, and as a goddess – is interrelated to the different dimensions of Krishna’s reality; and the Yamunashtakam in praise of the river goddess, Yamuna. His longest work is Subodhini – a lengthy commentary on the Bhagavata Purana.

According to the hagiographical accounts of Vallabha’s life, when he was fourteen, Krishna appeared to him in a dream and instructed him that a svarupa form of Krishna 2 had appeared on Mount Govardhan and that he was to go to Braja. 3 At the town of Gokala – where Krishna performed his childhood lilas – Vallabha is said to have received the Brahmasambandha mantra (by which a devotee is initiated into the Pustimarg) from Krishna himself, in a vision. The next day, Vallabha conferred the mantra onto his two travelling companions, Damodaradasa and Krsnadasa, and so gained his first disciples.

Upon reaching Mount Govardhan, Vallabha viewed the svarupa icon – a standing figure in black stone, with the left arm raised above its head, which was being worshipped by the local residents as Devadamana (an epithet of Krishna – “subduer of gods”) – and revealed that the image was that of Sri Govardhannathji (“Sri Nathji”) – the “Lord of Govardhan.” Vallabha built a small shelter at the place where Sri Nathji appeared and instituted a simple practice – seva – of bathing, adorning, and feeding the deity.

Vallabha undertook a second pilgrimage, this time to the Vittalnatha temple in Marashtra. Here, it is said that the deity Vittalnatha commanded Vallabha to marry and have children (and thus enabling Vittalnatha to be born as one of Vallabha’s sons), demonstrating that marriage was not a hindrance to the achievement of liberation. In a third, and final pilgrimage, Vallabha is reputed to have visited the South Indian city of Vijayanagara, where he engaged some followers of Sankara in theological debate, and bested them, whereon the city’s ruler bestowed upon Vallabha the honorific of acarya – “great preceptor”.

Vallabha found his largest following in Gujurat, amongst the region’s farming communities and the influential, wealthy, merchant community – the baniyas.

The leadership of the Pustimarg was continued by Vallabha’s male descendents, who alone, had the authority to initiate disciples into the community. Vallabha’s second son, Vittalnatha (a gifted musician, poet and theologian), elaborated the practice of seva in various ways (see below) and secured the patronage of the Mughal emperor Akbar for the sampradaya. Vittalnatha passed on the exclusive right to initiate devotees to his seven sons, and each received the wardenship of a revered icon of Krishna. The image of Sri Nathji went to Vittalnatha’s eldest son (whose descendents were thereafter designated as tilkayat as they were given custody of the Sri Nathji image which was the principal image for adoration by devotees), and the other sons established temples for their respective deities in different regions of North India. This led to the formation of “seven houses” which came to be presided over by leaders known as maharajas or Gosvamis.

aspects of doctrine
Vallabha expounded a nondual doctrine, which came to be known as “pure nondualism” (suddhadvaita) rejecting any distinction between sacred and profane – and also rejecting the mayavada doctrine that the phenomenal world was an illusion. For Vallabha, world, atman and Brahman are ontologically identical. Krishna, according to Vallabha, is the embodiment of bliss (ananda). In the moment of creation, Krishna manifests the universe, and all individual souls (jivas) from his bliss-body, and so the world, and individual jivas both partake of Krishna’s bliss. Krishna hides this innate capacity for bliss in individual subjects through his power-of-ignorance (avidya-shakti) and so individual jivas are constantly searching for the restoration of ananda which can only occurr in Krishna’s immediate, living presence. Vallabha states in his Balabodha that “Jivas are by nature defiled. In order to eliminate this stigma, listening to the stories of the Lord, etc., must be continually cultivated. Every goal is achieved through the love that arises from these practices.”

Vallabha argued that liberation could only be achieved through the reception of Krishna’s divine grace (pusti). Pustimarg praxis requires that the the devotee is initated via the Brahmasambandha mantra – offering body, senses, breath, and wealth to Krishna and receiving an infusion of divine grace, after which the devotee (sevaka) becomes aware of his or her innate capacity to experience bliss and so fervently performs seva with an intense love for Krishna and the desire for union. The Pustimarg stress that seva requires selflessness – actions taken with the aim of acquiring merit, reward or social prestige are not true seva. Seva encompasses the cultivation of particular moods, domestic, and temple worship – it is both sadhana (“practice”, “means of accomplishment”) and phula – the “fruit” or “reward” of sadhana.

A central feature of Pustimarg practice is the ability to narrate the true form (svarupa), the qualities (gunas) and the divine play (lila) of Krishna, as detailed in the tenth section of the Bhagavata Purana. Not only does the Bhagavata Purana describe Krishna’s form, but as a living story, the Purana is identified with Krishna; that Krishna took form as the Purana – and, according to Vallabha and other Pustimarg theologians, the devotee can experience Krishna through reading, reciting, and re-enaacting the events of the Bhagavata Purana – which, for Vallabha, is not merely a sacred drama, but a continually unfolding event which encompasses – and structures – the relationship between devotee and deity.

Vallabha lived the live of a householder, and the Pustimarg attaches little importance to ascetic practices or austerities. Rather, the bhakti ideal of loving participation is enacted by utilizing all things which are considered pleasing to the senses in the service of Krishna. As Peter Bennett (1990) puts it: “The goal of devotional striving is a state of consciousness construed as an emotional absorption in Krishna. The devotee attempts neither to change the world nor to enter an ethereal other world but begins to realize the world as it really is: a world to be enjoyed as a manifestation of bliss rather than to be endured miserably as a figment of ignorance.”

Vittalnatha’s elaboration of seva included an elaborate ritualisation so that a day could be divided into eight divisions of jhankis (“glimpses”) – each of which represents a moment in Krishna’s divine play. He incorporated ritual music, scenic paintings, and complex food offerings and methods for dressing icons of Krishna into Pustimarg temple worship.

Devotees believe that Vallabhacharya and his descendents are avataras who have intervened – in this time of the Kali Yuga – in order to guide devotees in order to develop the proper experience of the world. Over time, the maharaja leaders of the Pustimarg came to be regarded as dispensers of divine grace – a position which, it was alleged during the 1862 libel case, led to a number of abuses “of an immoral nature”.

In common with other Vaishnava bhakti traditions, Pustimarg practice involves devotees adopting a particular relationship to Krishna – an emotional orientation or mood (bhava). Dasya Bhava for example, requires assuming an atttitude of loyalty and humility to Krishna, in the manner of a loyal servant to his or her master. Devotees progress to more intimate relationships, such as Sakhya Bhava the devotee takes on the mood of a close companion or playmate of Krishna; in Madhurya Bhava the devotee comes to embody the feelings of the gopis who sported with Krishna, and in Yasoda Bhava devotees strive to emulate the maternal feelings of Krishna’s foster-mother, Yashoda. This latter bhava – directed towards Krishna in his infant form, is particularly popular in Pustimarg practice. 4

In temple worship for example, the combination of sung poems (kirtana), backdrop paintings, the dressing and adornment of the living svarupa image of the deity (one of Krishna’s forms), together with food offerings, bring about a ritual space in which Krishna’s Braja – where he performs his eternal lila is present, and devotees come to share this lila. Each of the eight jhankis has a particular bhava and rasa associated with it. For example, in the morning “glimpse”, Krishna is said to enact his childhood lilas and the dominant bhava to be cultivated by devotees is the maternal affection of Yasoda Bhava. Devotees experiencing this bhava through their participation in the jhanki come to feel that they are in the living presence of Krishna sharing in his lila. As Bennett (1990) explains: “By dutifully following the rules and customs laid down by tradition, the devotee gradually begins to identify with the personalities of Krishna’s eternal play, experiencing what he believes to be the spontaneous and universal emotions of love and bliss. Participation in temple ritual is not simply a matter of learning lines and following directions, for there is supposed to come a point when the divine drama is not rehearsed but lived, when emotions are not imitated but attuned to the sublime, when identities are not assumed but real.”

relocation and royal patronage
In the seventeenth century, political upheaval 5 caused the Pustimarg to migrate from Braj to Rajasthan, and Sri Nathji’a image was relocated to a small mountain town in Mewar which came to be known as Nathdwara, now home to a wealthy and popular temple. 6 Nathdwara became a small, independent kingdom under the administrative direction of the reigning tilkayat and became a centre for Pustimarg pilgrimage.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, both the tilkayat in Nathdwara and the leaders of the seven houses, who had also established temples throughout Rajasthan had amassed considerable wealth and property, largely due to patronage from Rajasthani royalty and the financial support of wealthy members of the merchant community. Members of the baniya community collected offerings and taxes on behalf of the maharajas, managed their estates and finances, and reinforced their authority. The wealth of the maharajas, together with the various ways in which they gathered taxes from devotees, was a subject of much scrutiny during the 1862 libel case.

Peter Bennett In Nanda Baba’s House: The Devotional Experience in Pushti Marg Temples in Owen Lynch (ed) Divine Passions: The Social Construction of Emotions in India (University of California Press, 1990)
David L. Haberman On Trial: the Love of the Sixteen Thousand Gopees (History of Religions Vol.33 No.1, August 1993)
David L. Haberman River of Love in an Age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India (University of California Press, 2006)
Sandip Saha A Community of Grace: The Social and Theological World of the Pusti Marga varta Literature (Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 69, No.2 (2006), pp225-242)
Sandip Saha The Movement of Bhakti along a North-West Axis: Tracing the History of the Pustimarg between the Sixteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (International Journal of Hindu Studies, Volume 11, No.3 (December 2007) pp299-318)
Frederick M. Smith Nirodha and the Nirodhalaksana of Vallabhacarya (Journal of Indian Philosophy 26: 489-551, 1998)
Frederick M. Smith Vedic and Devotional Waters: The Jalabheda of Vallabhacharya (International Journal of Hindu Studies, Vol.8 No. 1/3, Jan 2004, pp107-136)
Raymond B. Williams An Introduction to Swaminarayan Hinduism (Cambridge University Press, 2001)


  1. Vallabha does not use the term “guru” and instead, speaks of gayakas, “singers,” or pauranikas, “expounders of the Puranas.”
  2. svarupa denotes a self-manifested, rather than man-made form of the deity.
  3. Braja is the region which is particularly associated with Krishna’s birth and childhood play.
  4. The Madhurya Bhava, in which the devotee identifies with Krishna’s gopis was highlighted in the 1862 libel case as evidence of Pustimarg licentiousness.
  5. Specifically, the Jat rebellions and the emperor Aurangzeb’s destruction of several Hindu temples.
  6. the temple was established in 1672. In Pustimarg doctrine, temples are termed haveli (“mansion, palace”) as they are considered to the dwelling places of living divinities – and so should be regarded as homes.