The Cult of the Thug: From Ancient India to Modern America

The word Thug is all over American pop culture these days, rappers name themselves Thug, celebrities get it tattooed on their bodies, even pop stars claim the Thug Life, but where does the word Thug come from? An Arab traveler writing about his visit to India first used the word in the year 1356, but Europeans first heard the word in the 1700’s as the British began to conquer India. By the 1830’s English control of the sub-continent was almost complete, but as they began to actually try and govern India, they realized they had a major problem: thousands of people were disappearing along the roads of the country, never to be seen again. They were victims of the Thugs. The Thuggee were supposedly a cult that supposedly strangled travelers to death as sacrifices to the Goddess Kali, but they were also robbers who robbed their victims before killing them and become an hereditary criminal caste- an attractive way to earn a living in a country on the perpetual edge of starvation.

So in the 1830’s the British government formed what was really the world’s first detective force, which relied on heavily on information from dubious informants- just like detective forces do today- to break the Thug cult. The Thugs were responsible for an estimated 50 thousand murders and, perhaps, had killed a million people over a thousand years of their secret work, according to some scholars. During the British investigation one Thug alone confessed to 931 murders himself.

So what connection does this strange story have to modern America?
While the cult of the Thuggee was definitely real, at least to some degree, the British also used it as propaganda to justify their conquest of India and brutal oppression of its people. Best selling books were written about the Thugs, newspaper articles, etc… it became a mini-industry in England. By the late 1800’s the word had passed into common usage to mean an unsophisticated violent criminal, definitely different than calling someone a gangster. In America, Hollywood movies picked up the word in the 30’s and made it part of American slang… fast forward to the early 90’s when rapper Tupac Shakur coined the phrase “Thug Life” to symbolize the struggle of the “have-nots” in urban America.

Now Tupac himself was killed in Las Vegas after he and a large group of men stomped out a Crip gang member, but “Thug Life” lives on in pop-culture today. Take, for example, Atlanta rapper “Young Thug”. Often being accused of being gay for wearing women’s clothes, watching gay porn and assorted other discretions, Young Thug often takes to the internet to show off his Thug bona fides by flashing guns and making threats. Young Thug’s elaborate clothing is actually somewhat reminiscent of the original Indian Thugs, which actually makes him more Thuggish than Tupac himself in my book.

But where you can really see the connection between the Thugs of ancient India and modern America is in the use of the word as a scare tactic, a tool of social control on specific elements of the population. Take pro football player Richard Sherman, a guy that gets paid millions of dollars to slam his body into other people on the Sunday, which is supposedly the Lord’s day, but when he get a little too excited on national television, when he didn’t play the role of the humble black athlete who thanks God for his ballgame victory, the public and the media exploded, calling him lots of names, but mostly they called him a Thug.

And finally, let us remember Trayvon Martin. Despite the fact that he was the one who got killed, once again the public and the media called him the Thug, and his killer’s defense team based their defense on a handful of photographs where the teenaged murder victim was supposedly posing as a thug.

So the word Thug has an interesting history, it shows us how ideas and words travel and transform through time and space. But whether you call yourself a Thug, or someone else calls you a Thug, its a dangerous word and, just as it did in India so many centuries ago, it still denotes death.