Skip to navigation | Skip to content

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

“Through a long night of superstition and darkness, vile creatures like this Maharaj have been able to make their dens of vice and debauchery seem to their spell-bound followers to be the holy temples of God. But as soon as the morning light comes, the place is found in full corruption and uncleanness; magical spells lose all effect; and men of a better sort rise disgusted, and at any cost break loose from such a haunt.”
Times of India May 2, 1862

Some recent correspondence has reminded me that I had more to say about the Maharaja libel case. For this post, I’m going to examine some of the intersecting factors which allowed Gujurati social reformers to enter into a strategic alliance with Imperial law, with far-reaching effects.

despotic priests?
The libel case took place just over three years after the Great Rebellion, at a time when the imperial authorities were consolidating their governance of the colony. In 1861, Parliament passed the Indian High Courts Act, which removed the dual system of Crown Courts and Company Courts – replacing them with single High Courts in Bombay, Madras and Bengal. The Act also abolished the position of Indian law officers – Hindu shastris and Muslim maulvis – who had, previously, assisted Imperial judges on matters of textual interpretation and Hindu or Muslim personal law – leaving all matters of judgement and interpretation to European judges. The judges presiding at the 1862 libel case spent a good deal of time pondering the appropriateness (and possibility) of deciding what constituted Hindu orthodoxy. Sir Richard Sausse, who presided over the libel case, was the first chief justice of the High Court of Bombay.

David Haberman (1993) observes that after the Great Rebellion, British attitudes to Indian religions shifted markedly – and that “religion was now seen as a dangerous force lurking beneath the fragile surface of the empire”. Although Indian religions could not be attacked openly, he says, “Colonial policy … continued to be deeply committed to undermining established authority” (pp49-50).

“What is required for India is a despotism – unquestionable, but kindly; a fatherly despotism controlled only by fatherly justice and wisdom; strong to punish as the native Sovereigns have generally been, but prompter than they have ever shown themselves to do justice and mercy.”
Illustrated London News 22 August, 1857

The rebellion also did much to reinforce the theory of oriental despotism. From the late eighteenth century on, a common trope in orientalist discourse on India was that the mass of the Indian population was held in superstitious thrall by its despotic rulers – and in particular, its Brahmin priesthood. Works such as Charles Grant’s Observations on the State of Society among the Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain (1813),William Howitt’s Popular History of Priestcraft (1833) and the writings of William Ward 1 all promoted the belief, to varying degrees, that India’s pluralistic religious traditions were, in effect, a single pan-continental system maintained by the Brahmanical elite. Britain’s “civilising mission”, it was argued, necessitated both the removal of the power of the Brahmins -in the words of Charles Grant – “a crafty and imperious priesthood” and of the exposure of Hindu religion as “a system of delusive fraud” which had, over time, degenerated from its origins. Education – and the press – were considered to be primary tools of this “exposure”. John Bentley, for example, in his essay “On the Effect of a Native Press in India” (1823), whilst lamenting the “low taste” of Hindoos for printing legendary tales – “which may tend to strengthen immorality” – looks forwards to a new era of regeneration, during which the publication of Hindoo “rites and mysteries” will “render Brahmuns of less consequence than they were in times of greater ignorance” (p153).

The importance of education
The defendant in the Libel Case, Karsandas Mulji (1832-871) and many of his supporters were alumni of Elphinstone College, which had been founded in 1834 with the purpose of introducing western ideas and learning into India, in the hope that it would bring about cultural and moral development in line with Imperial ideology 2. Students were not only taught mathematics and physics but also English literature, political theory, and philosophy. In 1844, Lord Hardinge, the then Governor-General, had passed a resolution affirming that preferential treatment for public appointments would be given to those who had acquired an English education.

Students at Elphinstone were also encouraged to write about the various social problems of India, and one of Mulji’s supporters, Dr. Bhau Daji mentioned in court that he had won a prize for an essay on female infanticide. Mulji and his fellow Elphinstone graduates – sometimes known as “Young Bombay” – played a key role in championing social and political reform. Mulji himself participated in the Gnan Prasarak Mandali – a student’s association with a strong interest in advocating social reform. According to Mulji’s biographer, when he announced his intention to enter an essay competition on the subject of widow remarriage, his aunt threw Mulji and his wife out of her house.

Transcripts of the Libel Case proceedings show that the Judges drew a very clear distinction between the witnesses called in support of Karsandas Mulji and the witnesses who testified on behalf of the Maharaj. These latter were held up to be duplicitous to varying degrees, and it was pointed out that “Nearly all of them were cautioned; two were fined; one was sent to gaol; one was under three year’s surveillance by the police at Baroda; and another formed the subject of a report to Government for being concerned in a double murder!” (1865, p158) and that – with the exception of the Maharaj and one or two others – “there was not a single member of the Vallabhacharya sect who could give a satisfactory account of the opinions of the sect”. Chisholm Anstey, in concluding the case for the defence, also highlighted the difference between the two sets of witnesses – pointing out that as the witnesses for the defence were “men of position and respectability” their testimony should be given greater weight than the “devotees of the Maharajas” who were from “the lower classes of society”.

The Power of the Press

“A public journalist, is a public teacher; the true function of the press, by that 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.”
Sir Joseph Arnould

The public criticism of the Vallabhacaryas and Jadunathji Maharaja which brought about the 1862 libel case had been brewing for some time. Karsandas Mulji had, throughout the late 1850s, published several critical articles regarding the Vallabhacarya Maharajas, through his own Satya Prakash paper, and also, the Parsi-run paper, Rast Goftar. In 1855, for example, Mulji had reported on a dispute between Maharajas and the Brahmin keepers of the Bhuleshwar Shiva temple in Bombay. In 1860, a public debate was held between Jadunathji Maharaja and one of Mulji’s co-reformists, the celebrated poet and linguist Narmad (Narmadāśaṃkar Lālśaṃkar) on the subject of the remarriage of widows. By all accounts, this debate ended badly, with the reformers castigated as atheists and heretics (Thakkar, 1997, p48). Mulji and his cohorts continued their press campaign (fueled by countering the output of Jadunathji Maharaja’s own journal – The Propogator of True Religion and Destroyer of Doubt) and in October 1860, Mulji published “The Primitive Religion of the Hindus and the Present Heterdox Opinions” which eventually landed him in court.

The 1862 libel case itself was preceded by what came to be known as the “Bhattai Conspiracy Case”. Many of Jadunathji Maharaja’s followers were members of the Bania and Bhattai castes – two of Bombay’s wealthy merchant communities. Each caste was divided into sub-castes, each of which was presided over by a council. Councils met periodically to discuss matters pertaining to the caste as a whole. Whilst the councils had once had the power to declare individual members as outcaste – to “excommunicate” them; this power had been severely constrained by British Law. The Maharajas also did not want to defile themselves by appearing in court, or for that matter, be seen to be bowing to British rule. In 1859, caste leaders circulated a caste contract which pledged its signatories to support the expulsion of dissenters, and help keep the Maharajas out of court. In September 1861, two thousand members of the Bhattai caste met, resolving that whoever testified against the Maharaja in court would be excluded from caste membership.

Karsandas Mulji heard about this decision and brought a charge of conspiracy against caste leaders – publishing an article entitled “The Slavery Bond” The “Bhattai Conspiracy Case” was heard in December 1861 and the caste leaders were fined for “obstructing justice”. The court’s ruling implied that it was the state – not local or civic bodies – which had power over individual rights. This ruling became significant in the 1862 libel case, in that the Maharaja’s religious authority was very much bound up in caste affiliations.

Orientalist tropes in court
As David Haberman (1993) points out, both the defendants, the judges, and the expert testimony of Dr. John Wilson drew on an orientalist view of India having once possessed a “golden past” from which it had progressively degenerated, to the point that corrective intervention from European scholars and the benefits of the “civilising mission” was required. Dr John Wilson’s testimony, included the assertion that “I cannot say that any sect at present strictly follows the ancient Hindu religion”. Wilson also stated that “It is a historical fact, that the more modern religions are less moral and less pure.”

Similarly, Mulji’s assertion that the very idea of religious pluralism was a “deceitful proposition” appears to be rooted in the orientalist vision of a singular, original Hindu tradition – a tradition that was moreover, ascetic, world-denying, transcendental and individualistic – qualities which the British favoured. George Smith, in his Life of John Wilson, D.D. F.R.S. (1878) placed Mulji’s success squarely on the shoulders of two men – Mulji’s senior counsel, Chisholm Anstey, who “supplied the legal learning and forensic skill” and Dr. Wilson, who “contributed the learning and the uprightness required to convict the Maharaj out of his own books” (p551). He comments further: “So little informed were the English counsel for the ignorant Maharaj that they submitted as a description of the sect a work applicable to another altogether, and Dr. Wilson turned the tables on them” (p552). Wilson himself later wrote regarding this incident: “It’s insertion in the instructions of the counsel for the prosecution shows the unprincipled and unscrupulous measures of the prompters in this case, and the difficulties under which unsuspecting English gentlemen laboured in dealing with it” (p553) – an echo of the widespread assertion that Indians were basically untrustworthy.

What is particularly of interest is how the Maharaja Libel Case – during the process of determining what constituted religious orthodoxy – shifted focus from the participant or “believer” to the objective witness or “expert” orientalist such as Dr. John Wilson, who was deemed to be more knowledgeable – and reliable – than the mere devotee. In this way, lived religion was disciplined in ways that made it subject to, and manageable by, colonial bureaucracy.

In the next post in this series I’ll take a look at how the court interpreted the beliefs and practices of the Vallabhacharyas – and examine how central the role of women was in the proceedings – although no women actually appeared in court.

History of the Sect of the Maharajas, or Vallabharyas, in Western India (Trubner & Co., London, 1865)
John Bentley Essays relative to the habits, character and moral improvement of the Hindoos (Kingsbury, Parbury & Allen, 1823)
Nicholas B Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India (Princeton University Press, 2011)
Vinay Gidwani Capital, Interrupted: Agrarian Developments and the Politics of Work in India (University of Minnesota Press, 2008)
David L. Haberman On Trial: the Love of the Sixteen Thousand Gopees (History of Religions Vol.33 No.1, August 1993)
B.N. Motiwala Karsandas Mulji: A Biographical Study (Bombay Vaibhav Press, 1935)
Joshua B. Scott Divine Exposures: Religion and Imposture in Colonial Inda (Ph.D Thesis, Duke University, 2009)
George Smith, Life of John Wilson, D.D. F.R.S.: For Fifty Years Philanthropist and Scholar in the East (Cambridge University Press, 2012)
Sharada Sugirtharajah Imagining Hinduism: A Postcolonial Perspective (Routledge, 2004)
Usha Thakkar Puppets on the Periphery: Women and Social Reform in 19th Century Gujurati Society (Economic and Political Weekly Vol.32, Jan 1997, 46-52)


  1. see Lecture Notes: On William Ward for some related discussion.
  2. In line with Macaulay’s infamous “Minute on Education”.