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Was Thuggee any worse than other religions?

face of KaliThuggee1 was a secret cult of devotees of the Hindu goddess of destruction Kali.2 Its origins are lost in the mists of time, but it is known to have been widespread in India until the British exposed and suppressed it in the mid-nineteenth century.

As Thuggee was transmitted to initiates by word of mouth, the British records and secondary sources based upon them3 are our main source of information on the subject. I am assuming that the inaccuracies in these records are not serious enough to invalidate the broad picture conveyed by them.4

A gang of Thugs had a recognized leader who assigned specialized tasks to the members. While on an expedition they would pretend to be a party of respectable travelers, usually merchants or soldiers, and inveigle other travelers into their company by means of charming talk and by offering protection against robbers. Having won their victims’ confidence, they would catch them unawares at a carefully chosen time and place, strangle them, strip their bodies and baggage, and bury them in graves dug in advance or drop them into wells.

The Thugs had a strong corporate identity. They even spoke a secret language of their own. There is some argument concerning whether they were primarily an occupational guild or a religious cult. They were both. The desire for material gain was always a guiding motive. The sense of fraternity among Thugs and the sheer excitement of deception and murder greatly added to the appeal of Thuggee.

However, religious beliefs also played a vital role. They gave a higher meaning to the business of murder. They enabled the Thug to feel that his deeds were morally justified and that he himself was a morally good person. These are things that we all need to feel, and it is the function of religion and philosophy to satisfy that need. The need for moral justification would have been especially pressing during the period of initiation, when the novice was not yet free of the influence of ideas from outside the Thug community, including ideas that stigmatized murder, robbery, and/or deception as immoral.

What most astonished the British interlocutors of captured Thugs was their moral self-assurance, their lack of any sign of guilt or remorse. Some did express regret at not having been ‘good Thugs’ in the sense of consistently complying with the rules of Thuggee. In particular, they had not always paid proper attention to the omens by which Kali makes her will known. Thus one confessed to continuing an expedition even after Kali sent a hare across his path (a bad omen). Or they had not always abstained from killing people in forbidden categories, such as the blind, lame, and otherwise disabled. These persons should be spared – not for humanitarian reasons, mind you, but because to offer the goddess an imperfect sacrifice is to insult her.

In the same way, for Orthodox Jews a ‘good Jew’ is one who observes the Sabbath, the dietary laws, and all the other 613 commandments (mitzvot). A ‘good Moslem’ is one who prays five times a day in the prescribed manner, observes the dietary laws, fasts from dawn to dusk during Ramadan, does nor drink alcohol, beats his wife if she disobeys him, and so on. In each and every case what matters is obedience to the deity. There is no need for the devotee to make his own moral appraisal of the deity’s commands; indeed, it is impious for him to do so.

At the level of the individual believer obedience to the deity carries the promise of paradise. At the level of the religious community it propitiates the deity, averting the sudden fits of anger and retribution to which deities are prone. A reading of the Old Testament will bear out that this is so, at least insofar as the Hebrew God is concerned. But the same is true of Kali, who – so one Thug philosopher reasoned – would destroy many more people herself if the Thugs did not offer sacrifices to her. From this it follows, as clearly as night follows day, that the practice of Thuggee actually saved human life – a conclusion confirmed statistically by the series of famines that afflicted various parts of India in the 1860s and 1870s as an unintended result of the suppression of Thuggee.

So Thuggee was not all that different from other religions that still hold sway over multitudes of human minds. You may say that Kali is a nasty goddess for demanding that her devotees do such nasty things for her. You may say that the solution is to worship a nicer deity. But is Kali really any nastier than her main competitors in the deity market? Is she any nastier than the Hebrew God who commanded the ancient Israelites to invade the land across the Jordan and murder its peaceful inhabitants who had done them no harm? Is she any nastier than the Christian and Moslem God who terrorizes his helpless creatures (whom no one asked him to create in the first place) with the prospect of everlasting hellfire?

Or perhaps we should have done with deities of all descriptions and assume our full responsibility as humans for ourselves and for our planet.

Notes

  1. The term for a devotee of the cult, Thug, gave rise to the contemporary word thug, but in the process the pronunciation was distorted. According to the correct original pronunciation the h merely indicates that the t is aspirated.  

 2. Kali has several other names. Apparently the Thugs were in the habit of calling her Bhowani. I refer to her as Kali because that is what she is usually called in Western literature. 

 3. I rely on two secondary sources: Thug: Or A Million Murders by Colonel James L. Sleeman, grandson of Major-General Sir William Sleeman, who played the key role in exposing and suppressing Thuggee (Blackmask Online, 2001; http://www.blackmask.com); and Philip Meadows Taylor’s realistic novel Confessions of a Thug, first published in 1839 and available at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/44881.  

 4. Kim A. Wagner (Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India, Palgrave Macmillan 2007) argues that British accounts of Thuggee are in considerable part a product of the ‘Orientalist’ colonial imagination. While this thesis has some plausibility I am not inclined to put much weight on it, if only because it does not seem to me that nineteenth-century British colonial officials and soldiers were very imaginative people. Moreover, even Wagner acknowledges that the cult must have existed – and, indeed, finds additional sources that point to its existence from the pre-colonial period. 

 

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