A Letter to Cornwallis by a Goswamini from Surat: A Study in Colonized Psyche

An obscure letter dated March 1791, addressed to Cornwallis written by a Goswamini belonging to the Vallabhacharya sect reveals several historical insights. Among others, it is a first hand evidence of Aurangzeb's appalling persecution of Vallabhacharya's followers, who had to migrate from Gokul to Surat.
A Letter to Cornwallis by a Goswamini from Surat: A Study in Colonized Psyche

Editor’s Note

EVEN AS WE STAND on the anvil of celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of gaining political independence, the canyon-sized failing stares us in the face: we still haven’t documented the comprehensive history of British colonial rule. This failing borders on criminal neglect, which if left festering, will perhaps completely denationalize Hindus in the land of their own birth. From Bengal to Kerala to Tamil Nadu to Andhra, fissiparous politicians have already declared what can only be called a civil war against Hindus. As we have repeatedly noted in The Dharma Dispatch, such politicians are the direct, generational creations of British colonialism.

Unlike the prolonged Muslim rule, the greatest blow British colonialism delivered to Hindus was to alienate them from their own people and society. If we want to understand how our ancestors of recent vintage lived and how their society was ordered and organized, the aforementioned comprehensive documentation has to begin now. It is the master key that will unlock and help us preserve the cultural continuity that continues to erode at a furious pace, a pace that technological madness has only accelerated.

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The roots of this psychological and social alienation began in the second half of the eighteenth century itself. In this piece, we have unearthed a fraction of a fraction of evidence that demonstrates this. It is a letter dated March 2, 1791, written by a lady from Surat to Cornwallis, and it makes for truly painful reading. The letter was first discovered by Prof S.N. Sen who published it in a journal dedicated to Indology.

The full text follows.

A Letter to Lord Cornwallis

Every age has its peculiar standard of propriety. Who expects the Governor-General in the midst of his pre-occupations to correspond with a complete stranger without any business public or private? But things were different in the eighteenth century and a good lady from Surat who solicited such a courtesy from Lord Cornwallis did nothing unusual.

In the past, the Emperor of Delhi would not condescend to take notice of everybody, and the lucky recipient of an imperial shuqqa, would rightly feel proud of so special a favour. Such an epistle would be treasured more or less as a hallmark of high social standing. When the Mughal empire declined and the Governor-General became the arbiter of India’s fate, aspirants to social distinctions naturally turned to him as the source of all honour. To be permitted to correspond with the Governor-General was a privilege for which the old nobility would vie with the new.

The correspondent of Lord Cornwallis was obviously a person of high status and noble origin. She styles herself as Maharani as well as goswamini. Our goswamini was evidently a Maharani by courtesy and owed the title to her connection with some religious order. She refers the Governor-General to a letter from Lala Mayaram who may be reasonably identified with the Dewan of Tegh Bukht Khan, Nawab of Surat. The letter in question is in Persian and was dated the 2nd March, 1791.

Lala Mayaram’s Letter to Lord Cornwallis

“It is well known that the ancestors of Maharani Bahuji Maharaj always placed their reliance on God and they did not look up to anyone (for support) except Him and they were content with whatever they got from their disciples and followers and did not hanker after more.

Their Thakurdwara was at Gokula, Mathura, where they received all sorts of favours and concessions from the reigning kings. But on account of their extreme piety and being engaged in the search for God they did not care for these things. When the affairs of the state fell into confusion and religious persecution gained ground, they left that place and, at the request of their disciples and followers, who lived in these districts, they brought their Thakurdwara to the port of Surat. Here they passed their days in contentment on whatever they received from their disciples.

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As they are always offering prayers for the good of the people and the chiefs of the time, peace and order were established among men, through the power and rule of the English gentlemen. For this blessing they are always praying for the increase of the power and prestige of the English. May God enhance their splendour and dignity and may He give them grace to administer justice to the people!

As there was a regular correspondence between the Chief of Surat and the aforesaid Bahuji, the affairs of the Thakurdwara received full attention, and through the good offices of that gentleman, all the officers of the government gave help and showed kindness. That gentleman having left for England, correspondence with him ceased.

But fortunately his lordship is the Governor-General who looks after the interests of everybody and the fame of his greatness has spread all over and the said Bahuji has heard from all visitors to these parts about the excellent qualities of his lordship. She is therefore, more than ever engaged in offering prayers for the increase of his honour and glory. She is now desirous of opening a correspondence with him and she is sending a letter to him through a pair of qasids along with this letter.

I request that you will kindly send a reply to it and inform us of your health and welfare from time to time. May the Sun of your fortune always shine bright!”

S.N. Sen’s Annotations on the Letter

Bahuji Maharaj was the head of the Maharaja sect at Surat, for it was by this title that the Consort of the pontiff of that order was generally known. It is no wonder that she should call herself Goswamini Maharajni because Vitthalanatha, son of Vallabhacharya, the founder of the sect, was popularly known as Sri Gosaiji. The Sanskrit equivalent of which in the feminine gender is Sri Goswamini. Vitthalanatha’s sons and pontifical successors later added the honorific title of Maharaja to their names in accordance with the traditions of the country. Our Bahuji conformed to the usual practice when she styled herself as Sri Maharajni.

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Sri Balakrsnaji, third son of Vitthalanatha, was the head of one branch of his grandfather’s sect and a temple known by his name, called Gosavi Maharaja’s temple, was built at Surat about 1695. Thus, Bahuji Maharaja derived her pontifical status from Balakrsna and belonged to his branch of the sect. Probably she was associated with the Balakrsnaji temple of Surat.

The Vallabhacarya sect had originally its seat at Gokula near Mathura and as Mayaram hints in his letter, transferred its headquarters to Surat when “religious persecution gained ground” during the reign of Aurangzeb. One branch of the sect migrated with the Murti they worshipped to Nathadwara in Udaipur and the priests of Balakrsnaji’s order removed their establishment earlier to safer regions on the banks of the Tapti.

In 1872, roughly one-ninth of the Vaisnavas, one twenty-seventh of the entire Hindu population of Surat were of Balakrsna’s sect. Bahuji Maharaja, as the head of such a large flock, was a personage of sufficient importance. She was entitled to divine honour from her disciples and could reasonably expect some recognition of her position. Why a personage claiming this quasi-divine status should go out of her way to cultivate the goodwill of Cornwallis, a mere mortal, is a different question.

Postscript

Evidently, the beleaguered Goswamini’s letter opens up several revelations at the same time. First, it shows a stark and piteous portrait of the Hindu psyche that had just emerged in the aftermath of the much-needed liberation from the oppressive tyranny of the Mughal rule. The same psyche in all its naiveté, simultaneously believed that British rule was actually benevolent.

And finally, the letter also provides first hand evidence of the historical truth of Aurangzeb’s heartless persecution of the Vallabhacharya sampradaya, driven out from Gokula itself.

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