• – By Jerry Thomas
    Most of us would have heard about the humiliating and inhuman trial by fire which the honourable Sita of the Valmiki Ramayana myth had to undergo for the mere suspicion of Sree Rama. However, we are not often told that this was a trial by ordeal of fire prescribed by Hindu scriptures along with others such as trial by balance (for brahmins), trial by poison (for Shudras, no surprises here) and was widely practiced in India until British Empire banned it. In fact, Hindu scriptures silenced any rational voice that objected to such trial by ordeals. In contrast, the Western societies which also had trial by ordeals as a baggage of their pagan ancestry, were transformed by the divine light of the Holy Bible. In this article/video, Jerry Thomas, through scriptural and historical records demonstrates the sharp contrast in the role of Hindu scriptures in sustaining trial by ordeals and the role of the Holy Bible in ending trial by ordeals.

English Video:

Malayalam Video:

Let us begin by looking at Valmiki Ramayana. I quote relevant portions from Valmiki Ramayana Yuddha Kanda, Sarga 115-118 which mentions about this trial by ordeal.

Valmiki Ramayana Yuddha Kanda Sarga 115: “Let it be known to you that this endeavour in the shape of war, which has been successful carried through, due to the strength of my friends was not undertaken for your sake. Let there be prosperity to you! This was done by me in order to keep up my good conduct and to wipe off the evil-speaking from all sides as well as the insinuation on my own illustrious dynasty.

You, with a suspicion arisen on your character, standing in front of me, are extremely disagreeable to me, even as a light to one, who is suffering from a poor eye-sight.

O Seetha! That is why, I am permitting you now. Go wherever you like. All these ten directions are open to you, my dear lady! There is no work to be done to me, by you.“

Which noble man, born in an illustrious race, will take back a woman who lived in another’s abode, with an eager mind?

Valmiki Ramayana Yuddha Kanda Sarga 116: 23 Thereupon, Seetha, after doing circumambulation to Rama, who was standing with his head bent low, proceeded towards the blazing fire.

Valmiki Ramayana Yuddha Kanda Sarga 116: 29 Thus speaking, Seetha walking around the fire-god, with her mind free from hesitation, entered the blazing fire.

Valmiki Ramayana Yuddha Kanda Sarga 117: 11 “I think of myself to be a human being, by name Rama, the son of Dasaratha. You, as a gracious Divinity, tell me that which I as such really am like this.” 12 Hearing the words of Rama, Brahma (the creator), the foremost among the knowers of Brahma the Absolute, spoke as follows: “Listen to my true word, O the truly brave lord!”

Valmiki Ramayana Yuddha Kanda Sarga 118: 1 Hearing the foregoing auspicious words of Brahma (the creator), the fire-god came up, taking Seetha in his arms.

Valmiki Ramayana Yuddha Kanda Sarga 118: 5 Then, the fire-god, the witness of the whole world, spoke to Rama as follows “Here is your Seetha. No sin exists in her.”

Let us glean some characteristics trial by ordeal from the Valmiki Ramayana:

  • Sree Rama suspected honourable Sita for no fault of her own without any evidence

  • Honourable Sita could not have proven the charges false as it was a mere suspicion

  • Left with no option, honourable Sita had to undergo the humiliating and cruel trial by fire

  • Hindus gods approved of such trials and in this case the model Hindu practiced it

  • Finally, there was a verdict based on the outcome of the trial, in this case, honourable Sita was vindicated (though she was considered as guilty until proven otherwise by her own husband and model man for Hindus)

As you would note, trial by ordeal is generally initiated when a charge is raised against someone and there is no evidence to prove or disprove it (not necessarily that lack of evidence is a perquisite as Hindu scriptures also sanctions even when evidence is there!!!). Once the trial by ordeal is executed, there is a final verdict either as the accused person guilty or innocent.

While in Ramayana myth, honourable Sita was pronounced innocent, in real cases many women suffered and faced tragic deaths believing in such types of myths.

In Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies, Part 3, Chapter 8, Pages 668-669, Abbe J.A. Dubois,  who was a French catholic missionary in India (January 1765 – 17 February 1848):

A certain young woman who lived close to my house became the victim of her husband’s jealous suspicions. To prove her innocence, he forced her to plunge her arm up to the elbow into a bath of boiling oil. The unhappy woman, sure of her in- violable virtue, did not hesitate to obey, and the result was that she was most frightfully scalded. The wound became inflamed and blistered, finally mortified, and caused the unhappy woman’s death.

Of course, this poor young woman, a real Indian matta, believed that if Hindu mythical gods delivered honourable Sita in Ramayana, they would deliver her as well. This is an example of how myths delude people. One can imagine the number of men and women who suffered due to such myths and teachings as India practiced trial by ordeal across centuries. We have ample of evidence from travellers who came to India. Many of them wrote about it.

Yuan Chwang, the Chinese Buddhist monk who travelled to Indian subcontinent in AD 629-645 wrote about this. In the book, On Yuan Chwang’s travels in India, 629-645 A.D. (p. 172), Watters, Thomas,  London : Royal Asiatic Society. Kindle Edition, it is stated:

These are by water, by fire, by weighing, and by poison. In the water ordeal the accused is put in one sack and a stone in another, then the two sacks are connected and thrown into a deep stream; if the sack containing the stone floats, and the other sinks, the man’s guilt is proven. The fire ordeal requires the accused to kneel and tread on hot iron, to take it in his hand and lick it; if he is innocent he is not hurt, but he is burnt if he is guilty. In the weighing ordeal the accused is weighed’ against a stone; and if the latter is the lighter the charge is false, if otherwise it is true. The poison ordeal requires that the right hind leg of a ram be cut off, and according to the portion assigned to the accused to eat, poisons are put into the leg, and if the man is innocent he survives, and if not the poison takes effect.”

Duarte Barbosa, a Portuguese writer and officer from Portuguese India (between 1500 and 1516) wrote about it in “The Book of Duarte Barbosa: An Account of the Countries bordering on the Indian Ocean and their Inhabitants: Written by Duarte Barbosa, and Completed about the Year AD 1518), translated by Mansel Longworth Dames, Volume 2, Page 29:

If he is a heathen, they heat a copper pot full of oil until it boils (and that they may know when it is very hot they throw into it some leaves of a certain tree, and the oil makes them spring up) and when they see that it is so, two clerks take the evil-doer’s right hand, and first looking to see if there is any wound on it or anything else, and the whole state of the said hand, they write it down and show it to him alone ; and this examination made, they order him to look upon his idol which is before him and to say three times, ” I did not commit the theft of which this man accuses me, nor know I who committed it.” Then they order him to put two fingers of the said hand into the boiling oil up to the knuckles, and he at once continues to say that he did not do it, and that he will not be burnt. ” And when he puts in his hand and draws it out, the clerks standing by again look at it, and the Governor does the same, and after all these trials they attest the condition in which the hand is, and tie it up well in a cloth to know whether it is burnt or not. Then they take him back to prison, and thence bring him again after three days to the same place. Then clerks unbind the hand in the Governor’s presence, and if they find it burnt he suffers in the manner aforesaid, and they inflict great tortures upon him to force him to confess where he is keeping the stolen goods or what he has done with them, and if he does not confess yet he is still punished. But if they find his hand whole they free him completely and either slay his accuser or make him pay a fine in money, or banish him. In the same manner they punish him who has slain another, or who has slain a cow, or laid violent hands on a Bramene or Nayre; or has had dealings with a Bramene’s wife.”

In A New Account of the East Indies, Strand, 1744, p. 315, Alexander Hamilton, writes:

When criminal cases are brought before the Magistrate, the want of Evidence of Witness to Support them, the trial of truth is by ordeal. The accused person is obliged to put his bare head into a pot of boiling oil, and if any blisters appear, the party is found guilty; and I had been credibly informed both by English and Dutch Gentlemen as well as Natives, that been the trial, that the innocent person has not been in the least affected with scalding oil, and then the punishment due to the crime, is inflicted upon the accuser.

Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies, Abbe J.A. Dubois , Part 3, Chapter 8, Pages 668-669

In civil as well as in criminal cases, when the evidence does not completely establish a fact, the Hindus often have recourse to ordeals to decide the point at issue. There are four ordeals generally recognized among Hindus, namely, by the scales, by fire, by water, and by poison It is not the magistrates only who order these trials by ordeal. Any one has the right to insist on such a trial. Thus, if a theft has been committed, the head of a household compels each member to undergo an ordeal. In the same way, the head of a village may force it upon all the inhabitants on whom criminal suspicion may rest ; and a jealous husband may order the same in the case of his wife whose fidelity he doubts. These ordeals sometimes produce such an effect on the real culprits that they are convinced that discovery is inevitable, and think it more prudent to confess their guilt at once than to aggravate the matter by keeping silence. On the other hand, such ordeals often occasion deplorable miscarriages of justice, and result in the conviction of innocent persons, who, strong in the knowledge of their innocence, fondly believe that the natural course of things will be reversed in their favour.

In the 1780’s, Ali Ibrahim Khan, Chief Magistrate At Banares wrote about it. This was published in detail in Asiatic Researches Volume 1. I quote a portion of it below.

Asiatic Researches, Vol 1, Chapter XXIII. On the trial by ORDEAL, among the HINDUS. By Ali Ibrahim Khan, Chief Magistrate At Banares. Communicated A WARREN HASTINGS, Esq

A Brahman, named Rishi’swara Bhatta, accused one Ramdayal, a linen painter, of having stolen his goods. Ramdayal pleaded not guilty ; and, after much altercation, consented to be c tried, as it had been proposed, by the vessel of oil. This well- wisher to mankind advised the Pandits of the court to prevent, if possible, that mode of trial ; but, since the parties insisted on it, an ordeal by hot oil, according to the Sastra, was awarded for the same reasons which prevailed in regard to the trial by the ball. The Pandits, who assisted at the ceremony, were Bhi’shma Bhatta, Nanapathac, Manirama Pathaca Menirama Bhatta, Siva, Anantarama Bhatta, Cripa’ra’ma, Vishnuheri, Crishnachandra, Ramendra, Govindrama. Herichrisna Bhatta, Calidasa  the three last were Pandits of the court. When Gane’sa had been worshipped, and the homa presented, according to the Sastra, they sent for this well-wisher to mankind ; who, attended by the two Daroghas of the Divani and Faujdari courts, the Cotwal of the town, the other officers of the court, and most of the inhabitants of Bendres, went to the place of trial ; where he laboured to dissuade Ramdayal and his father from submitting to the ordeal ; and apprized them, that, if the hand of the accused should be burned, he would be compelled to pay the value of the goods stolen, and his character would be disgraced in every company.

Ramdayal would not desist : he thrust his hand into the vessel, and was burned. The opinion of the Pandits was then taken ; and they were unanimous, that, by the burning: of his hand, his guilt was established, and he bound to pay Rishi’swara Bhatta the price of what he had stolen ; but if the sum exceeded five hundred ashrafis his hand must be cut off by an express law in the Sastra ; and a mulct also must be imposed on him according to his circumstances. The chief magistrate, therefore, * caused Ramdayal to pay Rishiwara seven hundred rupees, in Return for the goods which had been stolen ; but, as amercements if such cases are not usual in the courts of judicature at Bendres, the mulct was remitted, and the prisoner discharged.

The record of this conviction was transmitted to Calcutta in the year of the Messiah 1783 ; and in the *month of Aprils 1784, the Governor General, ImaduddauIlah Jeladet Jang Beiiader, having seen the preceding account of trials by ordeal, put many questions concerning the meaning of Sanskrit and the cases here reported ; to which he received respectful answers

The governor then asked, why the trials by fire, by the hot ball, and the vessel of oil, if there be no essential difference between them, are not all called fire-ordeals,; and it was humbly answered, chat, according to some Pandits if they were all three different ; whilst others insisted, ‘that the trial by fire was distinct from that by the vessel, though the trial by the hot ball and the head of a lance were the same; but, that, in the apprehension -of his respectful servant, they were all ordeals by fire.


Srisa Chandra Vasu (1861–1918) was an Indian scholar in Sanskrit and mathematics. He translated many of the Hindu scriptures in to English. I quote the text and relevant part of the commentary.

Chandayoga Upanishad 6: 16: 1 (Translation and Commentary by Srisa Chandra Vasu, Page 434):

Text: My child, the king’s officials bring a man hand cuffed, saying “He has robbed, he has committed a theft”. (When he denies, the king says) “Heat the axe for him”. If he is the doer of the crime imputed to him (by the fact of his commission on the offence and its denial) he makes his soul a liar. That false-minded one having covered his would with falsehood, grasps the heated axe, he is burnt, and then (his guilt being proved), he is killed.

Commentary: The ordeals are no tests now, for there are no longer judges and kings who are masters of occult forces and can regulate the aura. If however, there be any such judge or king, test by ordeal would again regain its probative value in his court.

One would wonder why an educated person like Srisa Chandra Vasu would believe in such silly ordeals. Of course, how can he not believe in it when his vedic texts, dharma shastras, puranas, etc unanimously support and propagate it? In fact, some knowledgeable Hindus still believe in it and practice wherever possible.

In February 7, 2013, The Hindu newspaper published a news item from Gujarat titled “When 100 people ‘were forced to’ dip hands in boiling oil”. It is true that many readers would not have realized that this was a Hindu belief. I quote the news item in full.

When 100 people ‘were forced to’ dip hands in boiling oil”, The Hindu, February 7, 2013:

Source: Click Here

To prove that they had voted for a candidate who lost the gram panchayat elections, 100 people were allegedly forced by him and his campaign manager to put their hands in boiling oil in north Gujarat’s Sabarkantha district on Tuesday night.

Though the gram panchayat elections were not fought on party symbols, the candidate, Dinesh Parmar of Deria village in Bayad taluk, 40 km from Ahmedabad, is believed to have leanings towards the BJP.

District Superintendent of Police Chirag Koradiya said: “Over 25 persons dipped their hands in boiling oil to prove to the lost candidate that they had indeed voted for him and were treated by a team of the Health Department on Wednesday.”

Local sources, however, told The Hindu that more than 100 people were forced to do so.

When Hindu extremists are gaining authority day by day, clamour for revival of Hindu Rashtra or Rama Rajaya are growing and nearing reality, we must pose and ask this question – will they revive trial by ordeal which is approved by their scriptures and practiced by their model man Sree Rama himself?

Let us look at the Dharma Shastras, the legal code of Hindus, to see what is in store. Brihaspati Smriti speaks about nine types of ordeals and tells us that they were all ordained by Brahman.

Brihaspati Smriti  Chapter 10: 1

1.A forger of gems, pearl, or coral, one withholding a deposit, a ruffian, and an adulterer, SHALL BE TESTED BY OATHS OR ORDEALS IN EVERY CASE.

  1. In charges relating to a heavy crime or to the appropriation of a deposit, the king should try the cause by ordeals, even though there be witnesses.

  2. When a thing has happened long ago or in secret, or when the witnesses have disappeared long ago, or are perjured all of them, the trial should be conducted by having recourse to an ordeal.



All these ordeals are not equally applied to all varnas/castes. If so, at least we could have given some benefit of doubt to Hindus as ordeals in some form were practiced in several ancient cultures. Hindu scriptures reserved the minor ones for brahmins and most severe and dangerous ones for other castes, specifically shudras.


After describing in details about how various ordeals should be carried out, Narada Smriti says:

Narada Smriti ; First Title, Chapter 24; The Ordeal by Sacred Libation 333 A righteous king, who administers the five ordeals to persons charged with a crime in the way which has been stated, acquires prosperity both in a future state and in this life. * 334. The ordeal by water is destined for the hot season. The ordeal by poison (should be administered) in very cold weather. A BRAHMAN SHOULD BE TESTED BY THE BALANCE, fire is reserved for the Kshatriya. * 335. The ordeal by water should be administered to the Vaisya. POISON SHOULD BE GIVEN TO THE SUDRA. HE MUST NOT GIVE POISON TO THE BRAHMAN, nor should a Kshatriya take the (hot) iron.

Agni Purana also concurs with the Narada smriti’s instruction that balance should be reserved for brahmins and poison for shudras.

Agni Purana Part 3, Chapter 255 – 28-31:

The balance, fire, water, poison and holy water are the divine ordeals (to test) one’s innocence. These ordeals (should be instituted) in cases of great offences when the accuser agrees to undergo punishment. Or one may be made to undergo the ordeal, and the other to undertake the agreement to undergo punishment. They may be made to undergo an ordeal even without the agreement in cases of treason and sin. One should not parry the ploughshare, the balance, or the poison for matters of less than a thousand (coins). In the case of treasons one should always agree to carry (these ordeals to show their) innocence. The balance and other (ordeals) are instituted in the case of (matters) exceeding one thousand and the holy water (is instituted) even for minor (offences). If it is lesser than that and the innocence has been established in the ordeal, one should pay fifty (coins). If the offence has been proved, one has to be punished. 32. (The accused) that has bathed together with the dress and observed fast should be called up and made to carry all the. ordeals in the presence of the king and brahmins. 33. THE BALANCE IS FOR WOMEN, BOYS, THE AGED, THE BLIND, THE LAME, BRAHMINS AND THE SICK. THE (ORDEALS OF) FIRE, WATER AND SEVEN (WEIGHTS) OF POISON ARE FOR THE SUDRA. 34. (THE ACCUSED) THAT IS RESORTING TO THE BALANCE IS WEIGHED BY THOSE CONVERSANT WITH BALANCES. AFTER THE BALANCE COMES TO REST, LINE IS DRAWN AND (THE ACCUSED) IS TAKEN OFF.

Of course, trial by balance is to weigh the brahmin twice or thrice in a balance and trial by poison is to make Shudra drink poison or historically make him or her to take a ring from a pot with a viper in the pot. What would Hindutva caste denialists such as Rajiv Malhotra has to say about this? Let us read in Brihaspati Smriti.

Brihaspati Smriti  Chapter 10: 18-20:

  1. Let an ordeal be administered according to the established rule by persons acquainted with the rule of ordeals. If it is administered against the rule, it is ineffective as a means of proving what ought to be proved.

  2. If one who has been subjected to the ordeal by balance goes down on being weighed (for the second time), he shall be held guilty. If he remains level, he shall be balanced once more. If he rises, he gains his cause.

  3. Should the scale break, or the balance, or beam, or iron hooks split, or the strings burst, or the transverse beam split, he would have to be declared guilty.

Vishnu Smriti says about ordeal by poison.

Vishnu Smriti Chapter 13:

  1. Now follows the (rule regarding the ordeal by) poison.

  2. All (other) sorts of poison must be avoided (in administering this ordeal),

  3. Except poison from the Sringa tree, which grows on the Himâlayas.

  4. (Of that) the judge must give seven grains, mixed with clarified butter, to the defendant (while reciting the prayer hereafter mentioned).

  5. If the poison is digested easily, without violent symptoms, he shall recognise him as innocent, and dismiss him at the end of the day.

  6. On account of thy venomous and dangerous nature thou art destruction to all living creatures; thou, O poison, knowest what mortals, do not comprehend.

  7. This man being arraigned in a cause, desires to be cleared from guilt. Therefore mayest thou deliver him lawfully from this perplexity.’

Historically, even plucking a ring out of a pot containing viper was also practiced.

As mentioned in the book, Hinduism and Law, Chapter 8 Indic conceptions of authority Timothy Lubin, (pp. 140-141). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition

“”Brahmins might be consulted in regard to “particular” laws. Bouchet gave examples, too, of the admissibility in court of written documents (such as muṟi, a debt-bond), witnesses, and ordeals such as plunging an arm into a pot of boiling water or oil, or plucking a ring out of a pot containing a viper (L. Rocher 1984b: 18–37).”


At this point one might wonder why there were no rational objections against the trial by ordeal in India and why did it require British Empire to ban it?

We need to note that whenever there were rational objections raised against trial by ordeals from Indians, it was silenced by citing some myths from Hindu scriptures. People who believed in Hindu myths were utterly silenced by these mythical stories and it required British Empire which paid no attention to Hindus myths to proscribe it. In contrast, you would note how the divine light of the Holy Bible led to its prohibition in the Western World which was under darkness due to their pagan baggage.

We read the objection against trial by ordeal in commentary of Medhatithi on Manu Smriti and how it was overruled by citing mythical stories from vedic literature.

As you would note, objections raised against trial by ordeals were solid in nature. Two of those are – (1) how can fire not burn when it is in the nature of fire to burn and how can fire know truth? Therefore, it could have been only a threat (2) several real miscarriages in justice through these ordeals where innocents were punished.

In response to these objections, it was told that Hindu god fire is the spy of the world and how one Vatsa, who was accused of being from a shudra mother and hence not a proper brahmin (where are the caste deniers???), was vindicated by trial by ordeals. Hindu concept of god and myths were the reasons for sustaining such an erroneous and cruel practice. It was not merely a threat and fire was a god – world spy.

You can read the relevant portion yourself below in Medhatithi’s commentary as well as Pancavimsa-Brahmana, one of texts that carries the myth:

Medhātithi’s commentary (manubhāṣya):

Manusmriti 8: 114 –116 Or, he may make him fetch fire, or make him dive under water, or make him touch the heads of his son and wife severally. He whom the blazing fire burns not, or whom the water does not throw up, or who does not speedily suffer some misfortune, should be regarded as pure on his oath Formerly when Vatsa was accused by his younger brother, fire, the world’s spy, did not burn even a hair of his, because of truth.

Question.— “How can it be that fire shall not burn or that water shall not throw up? Certainly elemental substances never renounce their natural functions, being as they are unconscious entities.”

It is in anticipation of this objection that the author corroborates his statement by means of a commendatory story. Though the matter in question is one that can he ascertained either by positive and negative induction, or by direct perception,—yet there may he people who would regard such phenomena in the same light as a magical performance, and so would be inclined to take all that is said regarding oaths and ordeals merely as intended to frighten the person into telling the truth; just in the same way as verbal threats and angry staring, etc., are used to make men tell the truth;—and it is in view of this contingency that the author has cited an instance from the Veda; as there are men who become convinced of the truth of a statement when it is corroborated by past occurrences.

Vatsa was a sage of the family of Kaṇva; he was ‘accused’—blamed—by his younger step-brother, of being not a Brāhmaṇa, but a Śūdra, whereupon he said—‘By truth, I enter fire, if I be not a Brāhmaṇa’; when having said this, he entered the fire, ‘the fire did not burn even his hair’;—and why?—‘because of truth.’

The question arising as to how fire can know the truth?—the answer is—‘fire is the world’s spy.’ The man who, keeping his real character concealed, comes to know what is done and what is not done by others, is called ‘spy,’ known also by such names as ‘cāra’, ‘praṇidhi’ and so forth. The God Agni moves within all living beings, and as such, is cognisant of all that is done or not done. We read in the Tāṇḍya Brāhmaṇa that “Agni is one who lies within the gods as well as the Asuras;—Gautama, approaching fire, said ‘May you Sir, operate within all beings’; and then he goes on to say—‘May you Sir, move about here as a spy.’” A similar passage from the Pañcaviṃśa-Brāhmaṇa may he quoted;—“Vatsa and Medhātithi were two sons of Kaśyapa; Medhātithi insulted Vatsa by saying—‘thou art not a Brāhmaṇa’; and the only remedy of this was Fire.”

Objection.—“As a matter of fact however, it is found that real thieves are not burnt by fire (when undergoing the ordeal) while innocent persons are actually burnt. How then can any reliance he placed upon oaths and ordeals?”

Our answer is as follows:—The principle here laid down cannot be rejected simply on the strength of a perceptible miscarriage; because such miscarriages are very rare. In fact, even in the case of perception and other forms of valid cognition, such miscarriages are met with; and yet these are not regarded as untrustworthy. Further, it has been declared that ‘what is found to be wrong does not deserve the name of Perception, etc.; what is found to ho wrong is not Perception; and what is Perception is never wrong’; and on the analogy of this statement, it may be asserted that ‘what miscarries is not an ordeal, and what is an ordeal never miscarries.’ For what is an ‘ordeal’? It is that wherein the full procedure is observed, all obstructions in the shape of spells neutralising the force of the fire and so forth duly examined and removed; what is contary (contrary) to this is not an ordeal.

And certainly an ordeal of the said kind never miscarries. Even though there be some such miscarriage, it must be regarded as the result of some past act of the man; in fact even a real criminal comes to be acquitted by virtue of some previous meritorious act; while an innocent man becomes convicted by virtue of an evil deed committed in his past life. The causes leading up to the fruition of past acts are truly strange. But with all this, it is only in one ease among a thousand that an ordeal is found to fail; as a rule it is infallible; and it is exactly the same with the Putreṣṭi, the Kārīrī and such other Vedic sacrifices.

From all this it follows that reliance should be placed upon oaths and ordeals also, just as on witnesses; for these latter also speak falsely sometimes.

Thus then, what has been said regarding ordeals is not meant simply to frighten the man. In fact, in the case of the said ordeals, it is the truth that prevails.—(116) (Source: Click Here)

Pancavimsa-Brahmana 14:6 (Translation by W Caland, Page 367):

  1. Vatsa and Medhatithi were both sons of Kanva. Medhatithi reproached this Vatsa: ‘Thou art a non-brahmin, (thou art) the son of a Sudra (mother)’. He answered: ‘Let us walk according to the rite through fire (to decide) which of us two is the better brahmin 7 . With the vatsa(-saman), Vatsa walked through the fire; with the maidhatitha(-saman), Medhatithi. Not even a hair of him (of Vatsa) was burned by the fire. That was what he at that time had wished. A wish-granting saman is the vatsa(-saman). By means of it he gets (the fulfilment of) his wish.

One can how Hindu scriptures sanctioned and perpetuated the unjust and equally foolish trial by ordeals. It required British Empire, who did not give any credence to Hindu myths to break these shackles and proscribe and criminalize trial by ordeals.

As per Section 336 in The Indian Penal Code 336. Act endangering life or personal safety of others.—Whoever does any act so rashly or negligently as to endanger human life or the personal safety of others, shall be punished with impris­onment of either description for a term which may extend to three months, or with fine which may extend to two hundred and fifty rupees, or with both.


When some of the reformists such as Colonel Munro tried to change the trial by ordeal, it was resisted by Hindu Kingdom of Travancore. You can read the below even in the website of High Court of Kerala.

Till the time of Colonel Munro who was the British Resident and Diwan of Travancore there was no provision for the administration of justice in the form of independent Tribunals. In order to reform the Judicial System he submitted a regulation to reorganise the courts. Her Highness the Rani who insisted upon the preservation of the trial by ordeal passed the Regulation in 1811.”

Source: Click Here

However, it is not that Westerners were any better than Hindus. They had similar barbaric trials but when people mediated and insisted on the Holy Bible, they were liberated.


Trial by ordeals were practiced in many ancient cultures. Western world, despite majority becoming Christians continued to practice this foolishness as a baggage from their pagan background (just as many Indian Christians still continue to practice evil caste system despite coming out of Hindu religion).

However, a consistent and solid attack by the theologian Peter the Chanter on trial by ordeals gave a deathblow to it and finally in the Twelfth Ecumenical Council in AD 1215, an unsung burial was given to trial by ordeals.

In the research paper, The Intellectual Preparation for the Canon of 1215 against Ordeals, Author(s): John W. Baldwin, Source: Speculum, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Oct., 1961), pp. 613-636, Published by:  Medieval Academy of America,URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2856788, John W Baldwin notes:

AMONG the most important of the deliberations of the Fourth Lateran Council convened by Pope Innocent III in 1215 was canon 18, which dealt with the problem of ordeals.’ In the general context of prohibiting clerics from involving themselves in judicial decisions which resulted in the shedding of blood, the pope and his assembled bishops spoke authoritatively against judicial proofs by ordeals. These practices were divided into two classes: the unilateral, represented by the hot and cold water and the hot iron trials, and the bilateral, represented by the judicial duel. The first category of unilateral ordeals was merely removed from ecclesiastical auspices by forbidding priests to bless or consecrate the elements. Their use, however, in secular justice was not specifically disallowed. In the second category of bilateral ordeals the Council renewed the censures of former councils against judicial duels.

Now let us look at some of the theological objections raised by Peter the Chanter. I quote John W Baldwin extensively on this.



When confronted with the miraculous interventions of God in the Old Testament, as per John W Baldwin Peter the Chanter answered thus:

More important, he was obliged to explain how the numerous instances of divine intervention in the Old Testament did not constitute precedents for ordeals. For example, the Mosaic test of bitter waters for adultery, which caused Gratian so much trouble, was interpreted by Peter as a specific divine concession to the malice of the Jews, just as God had conceded the right of divorce.90 The well-known miraculous stories of the Bible represent the privileges of a few and not general law.9′ Although miracles are certainly possible in our day, they are not always necessary, and therefore, ordeals are wrong because they constantly demand miracles in their administration.92 God’s promises of intervention apply only to the righteous and our present sins hinder the effectiveness of miracles today.93 In general the New Testament has abrogated the ordeals of the Old.94”

Source: The Intellectual Preparation for the Canon of 1215 against Ordeals, Author(s): John W. Baldwin, Speculum, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Oct., 1961), pp. 613-636, Published by:  Medieval Academy of America, Page 628

To this we may add that miraculous interventions in the Old Testament were not in the context of judicial trial by ordeal but sometimes on the threat of enemy, persecution etc.

Further, while there are superficial similarities, differences are fundamental between Numbers 5:11-31 and trial by ordeals.

Superficial similarities are both trial by ordeals and suspected adultery case in Number 5:11-31 are no cases of no evidence and involves a ritual (in Numbers 5:11-31 drinking of bitter water).

However, the fundamental difference is if Numbers 5:11-31 was a trial, why would not be there a judicial pronouncement by a court after the trial. Can there be a trial without no verdict? Also, there was no punishment by any human court in Numbers 5:11-31. The curse which can come up on the suspected woman in Numbers 5:11-31 has no relation with the bitter water. There is no causal relation between drinking bitter water and not being pregnant if guilty. However, in cases of trial by ordeals, there is causal connection between fire and being burned. Numbers 5:11-31 thus fits with taking oath before the Lord with a ritual than an ordeal.

Let us now look at some of the arguments of Peter the Chanter against the trial by ordeal.


Please note that the difference between the concept of God in the Holy Bible and concept of gods such as agni who promoted trial by ordeal.

I quote John W Baldwin:

In the domain of moral theology Peter the Chanter considered ordeals clearly unlawful by Scriptural authority contained in both the Old and New Testaments: “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” (Deut. vi. 16 and Matt. iv. 7).88 Ordeals require the miraculous intervention of God into the regular affairs of judicial procedure and constitute a flagrant tempting of God. As an exegete Peter demonstrated how a number of Biblical passages may not be interpreted to justify these customary proofs.

Source: The Intellectual Preparation for the Canon of 1215 against Ordeals, Author(s): John W. Baldwin, Speculum, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Oct., 1961), pp. 613-636, Published by:  Medieval Academy of America,URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2856788 , Page 628


Here, one would observe that objection is very similar to the objection raised by the opponent in Medhathithi commentary. The difference is that Holy Bible sided with Peter the Chanter but Hindu Scriptures sided with those who supported trial by ordeals.

I quote John W Baldwin:

Although in theory Peter the Chanter condemned ordeals as immoral, it was from the realm of experience and practice that he drew the greater part of his arguments. According to the Scripture (Deut. xviii. 20, 21), if a man claims to be a prophet of God and prophesies a certain event and that event does not come to pass, that man is to be killed as a deceiver.95 Applying this empirical, test, the Chanter found ordeals wanting. To him it was a fact that customary trials often produced false judgments. In opposition to the vast mediaeval store of accounts drawn from popular lore and saints’ lives which illustrated the effectiveness of miraculous ordeals, Peter began to collect accounts showing how these devices did not work.96 Throughout his writings he delighted in telling anecdotes of the failures of ordeals. For example, Pope Alexander III once lost one of his precious vessels and forced a certain suspect to undergo the proof of the hot iron. The man was unfortunate, lost the judgment, and was compelled to make restitution but more unfortunate was the pope when the stolen vessel was later found in the hands of the true thief.97 A similar case happened in Orleans, but this time the falsely convicted victim was hanged before the true thief was discovered.98 Perhaps the most striking case was the story of two English pilgrims who were returning from Jerusalem. The one diverted his path to the shrine of Saint James of Compostella; the other, on arriving home first, found himself accused by his former companion’s kinsmen of having murdered him. He was put to the water test, failed, and was promptly hanged. To the amazement of all, the “murdered” companion returned home shortly thereafter.

Source: The Intellectual Preparation for the Canon of 1215 against Ordeals, Author(s): John W. Baldwin, Speculum, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Oct., 1961), pp. 613-636, Published by:  Medieval Academy of America,URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2856788


John W Baldwin writes about Peter the Chanter’s argument:

If miraculous proofs were effective, queried the Chanter, why were they not used by the church in important affairs? Despite certain Biblical precedents, prelates and popes, on whom depend the salvation of their charges, are not chosen through lots but through the more rational procedure of election.’04 Through a single trial of the hot iron would not the church be able to prove the truth of its faith and convert the unbelievers? Peter cited the incident of a severe drought that afflicted the city of Reims. In solemn procession the faithful of both sexes and all ranks carried the sacred relics around the city to gain divine favor and relief from the drought. When not the slightest cloud appeared after three days, the leader of the synagogue proposed that the Jewish torah be paraded in a similar manner. If after three days rain did not fall, the Jewish community would embrace Christianity. A number of the faithful were disposed to accept the challenge, but Master Albericus of Reims put a stop to the whole matter. Even the seductive prospect of converting the Jewish community, he contended, did not justify jeopardizing the true faith through such presumptuous means. For similar reasons Peter concluded that the church cannot entrust its position to the uncertainties of the hot iron.”


To quote John W Baldwin

Another argument from experience was based on the manner in which ordeals were administered. In trial by battle the participants invariably chose their champions according to skill in arms. Why didn’t they choose aged and decrepit men to demonstrate clearly the miracle?’00 It is no marvel that of three men accused of the same crime and therefore compelled to carry the same hot iron, the last man has the best chance to prove his innocence. Innocence is too closely connected with calluses !101 Perhaps the cold water probe was susceptible to greatest manipulation. Controversy prevailed as to the standard of judging innocence.

Must the victim sink to the bottom or merely be totally submerged? Some contended that his hair need not be submerged because this did not constitute the substance of his body. A participant could be taught to blow out the air from his mouth and nose and thus sink. Finally, there was the case of the father compelled to defend his inheritance by such means through one of his sons. He privately confided to the Chanter that he had tested all of his sons before the ordeal and found one that was certain to win.102 In a manner which anticipated the discussions of the Emperor Frederick II, Peter concluded that it was only reasonable to respect the natural properties of heat and water and not to expect through them the demonstration of the miraculous.1

Source: The Intellectual Preparation for the Canon of 1215 against Ordeals, Author(s): John W. Baldwin, Speculum, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Oct., 1961), pp. 613-636, Published by:  Medieval Academy of America,URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2856788


John W Baldwin writes:

Peter the Chanter underscored the essential relationship between the practice of ordeals and the church. Churches lend relics and books for the consecration of the elements, and churchmen contribute the sanction of their presence.107 As a matter of fact, without the priesthood ordeals would not be possible.’08 The obvious line of the Chanter’s attack was to prohibit the clergy from any participation in these affairs. Peter had the support of canonical tradition, which forbade the participation of clerics in any affair immediately involving the shedding of blood. Clearly, then, priests are forbidden to extend their blessing to judicial duels, where the shedding of blood is inevitable.109 He specifically complained about the custom of permitting champions to attend mass, although not to communicate, before the conflict. How can this practice be justified when each participant has the intent to kill his opponent? No exception should be made for the defendant who also harbors this intention and should therefore be excluded from the divine offices.”‘ Particularly vexing was the custom of holding judicial duels in cases involving serfs in the very courtyard of the archdeacon of Paris. The Chanter’s reply to this practice would be unmistakable if it were not for the sanction of Pope Eugenius III, who permitted it on the basis of custom

Source: The Intellectual Preparation for the Canon of 1215 against Ordeals, Author(s): John W. Baldwin, Speculum, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Oct., 1961), pp. 613-636, Published by:  Medieval Academy of America,URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2856788

The Holy Bible gave directed and aided the Church to enact laws against trial by ordeal in Europe almost 600 years before it was banned in India. Hereunder is the relevant portion of canon of the Twelfth Ecumenical Council.

Twelfth Ecumenical Council: Lateran IV 1215, CANON 18

SUMMARY Clerics may neither pronounce nor execute a sentence of death. Nor may they act as judges in extreme criminal cases, or take pa in matters connected with judicial tests and ordeals.

Text. No cleric may pronounce a sentence of death, or execute such a sentence, or be present at its execution. If anyone in consequence of this prohibition (hujusmodi occasions statuti) should presume to inflict damage on churches or injury on ecclesiastical persons, let him be restrained by ecclesiastical censure. Nor may any cleric write or dictate letters destined for the execution of such a sentence. Wherefore, in the chanceries of the princes let this matter be committed to laymen and not to clerics. Neither may a cleric act as judge in the case of the Rotarrii, archers, or other men of this kind devoted to the shedding of blood. No subdeacon, deacon, or priest shall practice that part of surgery involving burning and cutting. Neither shall anyone in judicial tests or ordeals by hot or cold water or hot iron bestow any blessing; the earlier prohibitions in regard to dueling remain in force.



If one were to draw conclusions from the trial by ordeals, those are:

  • Hindu scriptures perpetuated and provided life support to the foolish and cruel trial by ordeals and silenced the rational voices which opposed this utterly discriminatory practice.

  • The Holy Bible, through its divine light, aided the opponents of trial by ordeals and gave enough moral ammunition to give a death blow to trial by ordeals.

John 8:32 – Then you shall know the truth; and the truth shall set you free.