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The Long History of Priestly Debauchery

Anu Kumar ( is a writer and journalist who lives in the United States.

In 1862, Bombay High Court ruled in favour of a journalist accused of libel for writing articles about the sexual exploitation of women by the head of a Vaishnava sect.

More than 150 years ago, a case that came to be called the Maharaj Libel Case was filed in Bombay High Court against a series of articles that had appeared in the reformist Gujarati newspaper Satya Prakash, written by its founder–editor, Karsandas Mulji. The case reveals the long history of sexual exploitation of women by leaders of religious sects and cults, the Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh being the most recent. Singh was convicted in August of raping women followers. But, gratifyingly, the case also reveals that many influential voices spoke out and took action against such crimes.

Mulji’s articles, some titled, “Debauched Maharajs,” were critical of the maharajs, or hereditary high priests, of the Vallabhacharya sect, a Vaishnava order also called the Pushtimarg. The Gujarati trading community of Bhatias, to which Mulji himself belonged, were a part of this sect. Mulji caused a flurry with his articles because he accused the high priest, Jadunathji Brijratanji Maharaj, of sexual impropriety. Not only did the maharaj have sexual relations with his women disciples, Mulji wrote, but he also expected his male devotees to offer their wives for his sexual gratification.

Karsandas Mulji had already earned the ire of his Bhatia community for his reformist leanings. He and other like-minded people had set up several educational and literary societies. Mulji’s associates included eminent citizens such as Dhirajram Dalpatram, Bhau Daji Lad, Dadabhai Naoroji and Nanabhai Rustamji Ranina. At their debates and in their newspapers, they discussed the best of contemporary European literature and scientific subjects, such as vaccination and methods of improving agriculture. They also argued about what they perceived to be archaic social customs and regressive attitudes towards women. Mulji was criticised by his fellow Bhatias for his fiery advocacy of widow remarriage.

When Mulji wrote a series of articles against the Vallabhacharya maharaj in May 1861, the religious leader immediately filed a case of libel against him as well as his colleague, Nanabhai Rustamji, the printer of the Union Press, demanding damages of₹50,000—a humongous sum in those days—from Mulji and Satya Prakash.

The maharaj’s lawyers defended priestly immoralities by pointing to accepted traditions. It was not just that the priest represented an incarnation of god, they argued, citing a principle that they insisted had been very common in medieval Europe as well: jus primae noctis or droit du seigneur, meaning “lord’s right” and “right of the first night” respectively, which gave feudal lords rights over a subordinate’s virgin bride. Present-day historians, however, continue to debate the very nature and complexities of what constitutes jus primae noctis.

The hearing of the Maharaj libel case, and the subsequent judgment delivered in March 1862 by Justice Joseph Arnould, became a landmark in deciding what constituted libel and in clarifying the role of the press and public journalism. Equally sensational, of course, were verified reports that attempts and conspiracies were made to stop witnesses from testifying against the maharaj, known as the Bhatia Conspiracy Case.

An important witness, as mentioned in the case report, was the reformer, physician and Bombay renaissance figure, Bhau Daji Lad, who in his role as physician had on several occasions examined the maharaj. As Bhau Daji Lad’s statements show, the maharaj’s assistants tried to pass off as a routine ulcer something that the physician instantly recognised and diagnosed as a symptom of some kind of venereal disease. The maharaj, for his part, blamed the heat for his health problems.

Theology vs Morality

The hearing took around 25 days. Although many among the Bhatia community came up to defend the maharaj, considering him supreme in every way and claiming that it was not possible for him to commit a sin, there were other prominent community members who braved ostracism to speak for the defence. One of them was Mangaldas Nathubhai, who had set up several schools in Bombay for Hindu girls. Crowds thronged the area outside the courts through out this time, and the courtroom was packed when the final judgment was delivered. As the ruling read, “It wasn’t a judgment for theology, but one for morality; what is morally wrong cannot be theologically right.”

In his very nuanced and thoughtful ruling in favour of the defendant Mulji, Justice Arnould also stressed the very definition of what constituted libel—whether what was written was defamatory and if malice were intended, was this enough to overlook the necessary and public duty of the journal and of its editor? Moreover, the newspaper or magazine, according to the judge, needed to publish its material with honest intentions, with a motive to address its readers and the wider community truthfully. A journalist, the justice ruled, was a public teacher, adding that the true press had the function of teaching, elevating and enlightening its readers.

Bhau Daji Lad’s evidence came up for praise for its “disinterestedness.” Indeed, he had been strongly critical of the blind devotion the maharaj accepted from his followers. In his deposition, Bhau Daji Lad said that the maharaj indeed considered himself an incarnation of Krishna. Others singled out for praise included Lakshmidas Khimji, a highly regarded member of the Bhatia community, who, despite being a devoted member of the Vallabhacharya sect, spoke up against evil social customs. “Religion can never be a plea for immorality,” Khimji said. Efforts had been made by the plaintiff’s lawyers to discredit Khimji but these came to no avail.

The judgement was welcomed, especially by the local Bombay press, which in its reports covering the judgment cited old plays and novels that mocked the licentiousness of these maharajs. It was little wonder that Sahajanand Swami, who founded the Swami Narayan sect in the 1800s, had already drawn away many erstwhile followers of the maharaj.

Resentment against the Vallabhacharya sect’s priests had already been gathering momentum over many decades, not just because of works written mainly in Gujarati but also through the efforts of colonial officials, with natives as their informants in most cases. Captain McMurdo, for instance, in an article published by the Royal Asiatic Society of Bombay in 1820, pointed to the arbitrary, greedy ways of the maharajs, who could at will take over their devotees’ property.

For his part, Karsandas Mulji came to be described by the English press as the “Indian Luther,” after the Christian reformer Martin Luther, a leading figure of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Mulji did move on to other things. He assumed the role of a business leader for the cotton trade, a role in which he, alas, failed. Towards the end of his life, he also served as administrator of the princely state of Kathiawar. He died in 1875 when he was just 42.


Updated On : 12th Sep, 2017


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