I had wanted to read for a long time and Bill bought it for me as a surprise for my birthday. The most annoying thing about this book was not the fault of the author however, but the publishers. Instead of putting in endnotes, they simply put the notes in the back, with the italicised word next to it that it had preceded. I'm sure this is designed to be not as distracting for the reader, but I found it incredibly frustrating. It seemed like bad historical methodology to have no clue as to which bits were taken from sources and which bits were the author's opinions. Obviously this book was not intended for a scholarly audience, however in the introduction he mentioned some of the current scholarly works on the subject and the debate on certain issues. Dash argued that his efforts were based on extensive study of the primary sources, however the style presented in this book made this all but impossible to verify. The suspicious part of me thinks perhaps as he published in this format his arguments were less compelling, or perhaps he was simply trying to reach a wider audience as some of his other works had been best sellers, according to the back.
The book gave an overview of the Tugs activities in the early part of the 19th century and the Company's reaction to them. It told the story from both sides, and gave a lot of background information for those not familiar with India at this time. The "cult" came across not as a cult at all, despite the use of the word in the title, but rather as a well-organised, and defined criminal gang. The activities towards the end resembled the American Mafia more than anything else I could think of. This struck me as rather strange having read much about religious criminal gangs in China during the same time period I was expecting to see more of a cross over between the groups and the way they were treated. I think part of the problem with this was the lack of discussion about how the interviews with arrested cult members went and how their information was to be judged.
Dash's focus was entirely on the secular side. The importance of religion to the cult now seems to be regarded as a European invention. Kali was only discussed on a handful of pages. He mentioned how the Thugs would dedicate their grave digging weapons to Kali, but said how she usually the goddess worshiped by criminals and so that this was not unique. One thing he mentioned but failed to analyse was the fact that the criminals said they only followed the Goddess when they were actually on the Thug missions, and when they went home and when they were captured they ceased their worship of her. This was fascinating, as it leads to so many questions about the nature of religion in India at this time. How deities were worshiped, what purpose did they serve, what was the relation between them? It was also interesting as it shows that the worship of the goddess was closely linked with the activities they were performing and was outside their everyday sphere of religious experience. It also contradicts what became the largest reason for persecution that Seeman (the head Englishman in charge of the elimination of the cult) gave which was that those who Thugged would stay Thugs forever and so could not be released back into society. Dash also denied the worship of the deity as a proper religion. He wrote how their faith "hardly constituted a religion. The gangs possessed no religious texts, had no agreed forms of worship, and while they certainly shared belief that the goddess protected them, they held this belief in common with thousands of ordinary Indians" (228). To me, like those who magnified the importance of the religion, seems also to show a distorted Western approach to what religion means. Rather than simply dismissing it because it doesn't fit with preconceived ideas it would be fascinating to look at what it did mean to them, and how they practised it and what it showed. I am really hoping that I am able to find another scholar who has addressed some of these questions in their work. I think it would be very helpful and increase my own understanding of similar practices in China and well as greatly increasing my understanding of Indian religion which at the moment is virtually non-existent.
Dash gave a detailed description of main people involved, and what the events surrounding them. I did learn a lot however; it left me with a great deal of unanswered questions, particularly about the use of religion and popular religion in India during this time. But as it made me want to go on and read more, it definitely a book I'm glad that I read....Continua