The Vagabonds and Criminals of India

“It would be impossible to understand this exceptional phase of immorality without knowing something of the caste system which has been the cause of it.”

The study of the vagabonds and criminals of India demonstrates with special force the purely arbitrary nature of the moral standards which men have set up for themselves in different parts of the world. When, in the West, Buckle first made the statement that, given a certain proportion of Frenchmen, Englishmen, or Germans, the average number of suicides, murders, and larcenies committed by them could be accurately calculated, it was feared that his statistical treatment would undermine sound morality. Yet the Hindus have so little doubted that there must always be a fixed ratio of crime and vice that they have strengthened the natural certainty by the influence of their religion and ethics. A few years ago British officials were startled on finding that the census returns of a certain Hindu province included the names of thieves, murderers, sorcerers, poisoners, and beggars; but that these returns were given in all seriousness was later confirmed by similar reports from other provinces. The truth is that in India crime and vagrancy, like fighting and farming, are regular professions, and the men who follow them have laws, a religion, and a language all their own, and are united by ties more binding than any which have held together mediæval guilds or modern trades-unions. Were this merely the result of their efforts to consolidate their forces, it would not be so remarkable. Men who have lived by illegitimate means have, the world over, drawn together for mutual aid. But the esprit du corps which gave power to strolling beggars and vagrants in the Middle Ages, to Robin Hood and his tough-belted outlaws, to Spanish and Italian banditti, and which to-day stimulates the criminal classes of Europe and America, has always been maintained in direct disregard to established laws, while that which exists among Hindu vagabonds results from strict adherence to them. In one instance there is a rebellion against, in the other compliance with, social commands. It would be impossible to understand this exceptional phase of immorality without knowing something of the caste system which has been the cause of it.

Whether the four great castes of Brāhmans or priests, Kshatriyas or warriors, Vaisyas or merchants, and Sudras or servants were formed because of the legend relating the manner of their origin from the head, arms, thighs, and feet, respectively, of Brāhma, or whether this was an after-invention, intended to give divine sanction to an existing state of affairs, it is difficult to decide. But however that may be, it is certain that this division was made in an early age, probably even before the end of the Vedic period, and that its consequent religious and social requirements have been of such primal importance that, despite reformers and missionaries, invaders and conquerors, they have been faithfully observed unto the present time. The Brahman, who has outlived Chaldean and Assyrian, Persian and Egyptian civilizations, and survived Mohammedan, Mogul, and Christian rule, is to the European traveler of to-day what the Pope of Rome will be to Macaulay’s famous New Zealander. In almost every country, class distinctions have been continually modified as men with higher culture became more liberal. But in India any change or modification has been prevented by the fact that Hindus of all stations of life have for long centuries been taught that their highest spiritual and temporal duty is to marry within their own castes, and to follow throughout their lives the professions to which they are born. That such artificial barriers were at times overthrown is a matter of course. Cela va sans dire. The very statutes upon this subject, recorded in the Code of Manu and the Institutes of Vishnu, presuppose the crimes against which they guard. Hindus were but mortal, and, notwithstanding the law and its penalties, there were intermarriages. But, like the mulatto, who cannot be ranked with his Caucasian or his African parent, the offspring of these mésalliances could not be included in the social genus of either their father or their mother. The increasing complications of civilized life gave rise to new forms of work; yet the man who deserted for them the trade of his forefathers was isolated from his family and former associates. The problems thus raised were solved by the creation of a multiplicity of lower castes. But just as the ethnologist occasionally finds individuals of abnormal physical formation, beyond the limits of classification, so there were some beings who, because of their vile trade, or still viler birth, seemed to the Hindus moral monstrosities, for whom there was no place in their social scheme. Strong as was the hatred of Greek for barbarian, or of Jew for Gentile, it was exceeded by that of the Hindu for Mlekkas or non-Aryans. He could not ignore the aboriginal inhabitants of the country which he had conquered, and whom he had not been able to wholly exterminate, but he looked upon them as creatures too low to be used as slaves or servants, or even as beasts of burden. They were, in his estimation, no better than unclean animals, from whose contaminating contact and presence it was necessary to shield legitimate members of society. For all social purposes it was the same as if they did not exist. They were not permitted to belong to any caste, and the law and the religion of the land knew them not. There was thus, in the midst of a people whose obligations of every kind were defined with unparalleled exactness, a large population of men and women to whom all rights and duties were denied. To their numbers were added those political and religious offenders among men of caste for whom death of the body was deemed too merciful a punishment, and the sons and daughters born of what was considered the infamous union of a Brāhman with a Sudra. The large proportion of this degraded class were therefore literally out-castes.

Driven forth from human habitations, it was truly the wilderness that yielded food for them and their children. Outcasts—or pariahs, as they are usually called—were not merely banished from towns and villages, but were forbidden to join together to form any of their own. Because their use of fire and water would have sullied the purity of those elements, they were forced to eat uncooked meat and vegetables, and they could drink no water save that to be found in marshes, or in holes made in the ground by the hoofs of animals. Since they communicated their impurity to everything they touched, the work of their hands was as much shunned by their social superiors as they were themselves. And furthermore, as legally they were not recognized to be in existence, there was for them no redress if whatever little property they possessed was confiscated; while the murder of one of them by a man of pure caste was considered by him no greater crime than the stepping on an insect is by a European. The refined cruelty with which they were treated is almost beyond the comprehension of races who, whatever may be their practice, believe that all human beings are equal in the sight of God; and it seems still more monstrous when contrasted with the kindness of the “mild Hindu” to his domestic animals. On the one hand, the Sacred Books of India teach that “scratching the back of a cow destroys all guilt, and giving her to eat procures exaltation in heaven;” but again we are told that “he who associates with an outcast is outcasted himself a year. And so is he who rides in the same carriage with him, or who eats in his company, or who sits on the same bench, or who lies on the same couch with him.”

So much of the world’s work in the past could not have been accomplished, had it not been for the extreme forms of servitude and slavery, that these seem like necessary evils. But there is no vindication for a social system which has encouraged a degradation lower and more bitter than Babylonian captivity, Spartan helotism, or European serfdom; which has reduced men and women to poverty and wretchedness beyond belief; and which, by preventing their working with or for others, has actually forced them into crime and knavery.

At first pariahs must have rebelled against this pitiless injustice. Perhaps, as has been suggested, it was caste tyranny which, in still earlier times, led Aryans to seek a new home in Europe, and which gave the impetus to that other large immigration supposed to have been made from the southern part of India into Africa. It is certain that once an inspired poet sought, like the prophets of Israel, to rouse his fellow-sufferers to action. This was Tirūvalluvā, the “divine pariah,” probably a disgraced Brāhman, who bitterly resented his wrongs. “Thy time is come. Therefore, awake, O thou man of the jungle!” he called to the pariahs, in poetry as impassioned as that of Jeremiah or Isaiah. His was but a voice in the wilderness. What was needed was a Moses, to show the way out of it. Other outcasts, seeking to reinstate themselves by quiet and stealth, crept back gradually to cities and villages. But their movements were observed, and the condition upon which they were allowed to remain was that they should become brick-makers, — earth, by its inherent virtue, purifying itself from their touch; while for wages they were to receive nothing but their food; and they were required to make their home in the outskirts of the town, in worse than Ghetto retirement. Uninterrupted hard work under a burning sun, supported by a diet of raw vegetables, principally onions, had at least one advantage, — it hastened their death; and this was the only way in which their misery could be alleviated. But they clung to life with a tenacity which increased in proportion to its evils, and few consented to better themselves socially by the sacrifice of physical health. Many who had scarcely advanced beyond the savage state relapsed into it; hiding themselves in the jungle, and avoiding all communication with other men. The majority, to whom this was too distasteful, embraced a nomadic existence, and procured their actual necessities sometimes by fair means, sometimes by foul; in all such matters being ruled by circumstances. These latter were the ancestors of the present vagabonds and criminals, and the roaming they then began has proved as ceaseless as that of the Wandering Jew. The hope of escape became less and less with every generation, and they finally resigned themselves to their fate. Custom can reconcile man to what is disagreeable, and, like the aged prisoner who was broken-hearted at leaving the prison which in his youth he had entered with loathing, pariahs finished by prizing the social isolation which at first had been so bitter to them. So soon as they showed themselves as unwilling to lead a settled life and to follow legitimate trades as the Brāhmans were that they should do so, the strictness of the laws against them was very much relaxed. Men of caste were not so particular in keeping them at a fixed distance, and even condescended to be amused, and in minor ways assisted by them.

A system which stifled hopes, ambitions, and aspirations made the repentance and self-improvement of sinners and ne’er-do-weels utterly impossible. Outcasts, instead of being cut down like grass and withering as the green herb, grew both in strength and numbers. To-day they constitute one third of the native population of India. They have exhausted all the resources of life in tents and by the wayside, and have perfected themselves in lawlessness. Every nomadic calling and custom which has ever been known in any part of the world has its counterpart in India. Indeed, that country is so preëminently the headquarters of gypsydom that one wonders how there ever could have arisen any doubt as to the origin of the European Romanys. There is not a family or tribe of Hindu outcasts which has not one or two traits in common with the gypsy, while, as Mr. Leland has pointed out, in the Rōm or Trāblu we have the pure, thoroughbred Romany, in name and in language as well as in character. There are really endless shades of difference in the habits and pursuits of pariahs. Among them, as among the “travelers” of Europe and America, there are musicians and actors, horse-dealers and bear-leaders, tinkers and smiths, fortune-tellers and basket-makers, jugglers and acrobats, beggars and tramps. With them all, even when they are apparently honest, there lingers a subtle if inexplicable hint of villainy and duplicity, or, “as among the Greeks of old with Mercury amid the singing of leafy brooks, there is a tinkling of at least petty larceny.” And as suggestion may become certainty, or as tinkling often grows louder than song, so vagabondage is unfortunately too frequently cast into the background by crime, and pariahs devote themselves wholly to murder and theft. Their choice of occupation has been at times regulated by their innate tastes and tendencies: for there is a natural diversity in the instincts of such men as Dōms and Nāts, who are usually actors and musicians, and of Mângs, who are the most good-for-nothing of all beggarly loafers; or of such as Bhils and Jāts, whose fierceness makes them good warriors, and of Korvarus, whose name has become proverbial for stupidity. But as a rule, just as chance has led birds by the water-side to feed on fish and those in field and forest to subsist on grain and worms, so circumstances have compelled some outcasts to murder and rob in order to secure the necessities of life, but have allowed others to gain the same end by tight-rope dancing and the turning of somersaults. For very much the same reasons, while many are as restless as if cursed with the curse of Cain, there are others who wander only at certain seasons, arid still others who confine their depredations and vagrancy to one particular locality. The English police draw a very distinct line between the non-wandering criminal and non-criminal wandering tribes, but they themselves do not invariably observe this distinction. For, if the former found a good opportunity to commit crime in some far distant province, they would not hesitate to journey thither; and if a chicken strayed into the tents or a purse fell at the feet of the latter, they would have no objections to appropriate it.

The variety of races included in this large class has been further increased by the fact that during comparatively recent years members of high castes have allied themselves with the wanderers, attracted to them by the freedom of their lives. Brāhmans have shared the fortunes of highwaymen. Rajputs and Sudras have abandoned kingdoms and villages for huts and tents. But as men of every nationality, when they accept the laws and customs of the United States, become identified with native-born citizens, these voluntary outcasts have so adapted themselves to vagabondage that, for all intents and purposes, they are not to be distinguished from genuine pariahs. While it would require volumes to enumerate their divisions and subdivisions and to record their experiences in the past, it is possible even in a short article to treat of them as a class, since all, however much they may differ in minor particulars, agree in their conception of life’s chief object and duties. All, from highest to lowest, make the physical maintenance and survival of the individual the mainspring of activity. However different may be the means employed by them, their aim is always the same. If the definition of “conduct” is the adjustment of acts to ends, then their actions may be dignified by that name. For in order to accomplish their object, — that is, in order to fully satisfy their bodily appetites, — they have established for themselves religious commandments which they scrupulously obey, and a social code to which they strictly adhere.

Irreconcilable as crime and religion seem, they have often gone hand in hand. The Virgin Mary has had few more faithful followers than mediæval outlaws and Italian brigands; but the prayers of robbers and highwaymen to the Refuge of the Afflicted are quite as incongruous as are those of a Louis XI. to the Mother of Mercy. The piety of Hindu ruffians and rogues is at least more consistent. One of the principal deities of the Hindu Pantheon is Dēva, or Kāli, or Bhawani, the Sakti, or female part of Siva, who is the goddess of destruction. Human sacrifices are to her what prayer and meditation are to Brahma, and streams of human blood what libations of clarified butter are to her fellow deities. More terrible than Baal or Moloch, she revels in death’s-heads and skeletons, and exults in carnage. Virtuous men and women have no gift wherewith to propitiate her, but assassins cater to her divine appetite, and theft is to her as a sweet-smelling incense. Were her worshipers philosophers, they could plead an altruistic motive for their murders; for the blood of one man will quench her horrible thirst for a thousand years, and the blood of three men for a hundred thousand. As it is, they believe in sincerity that their vilest atrocities are ordained by heaven, and that they are rewarded for the perpetration of them by the immediate protection of deity; a belief which would be simply impossible to criminals in Christian countries. The doctrines and laws based upon such a worship convert crime into a religious duty. It was in vain that towards the beginning of their struggles Tirūvalluvā endeavored to elevate the moral nature of pariahs by assuring them that virtue is the only true wealth, and that pleasure consists in the mastery of the passions. He might as well have recommended flying as the most perfect way of getting from one place to another, or mewing as the most intelligible manner of communicating their thoughts; for they would have found it quite as easy to mew or to fly away into space as to be virtuous or self-controlled. But when orders were given them as to the how and the whence necessities were to be procured, they recognized a practical element therein, and obeyed them to the very letter. The thieves of India to-day have religious precepts which define the privileges and limits of their trade, and are as sacred to them as the commandments of Moses are to Jews and Christians. These they believe to have been revealed, together with their slang, by the god Kartikeyn, who, according to Captain Burton, is a mixture of Mars and Mercury. Murderers too have heaven-sanctioned mandates, which set forth the orthodox manners in which murder can be committed, and which men are and which are not its legitimate victims. Never has there been such a straining at gnats and swallowing of camels! Men who morally are so blind that wrong seems to them right scruple at the slightest deviation from laws which are valueless. The Soonaria, who is an inveterate pickpocket and petty pilferer, vows to his goddess never to become a highwayman or burglar. He may steal ad libitum during the daytime, but should he do so between the hours of sunset and sunrise he would be guilty of mortal sin. It was because of their religious principles that the Thugs, before their extermination by the English, never robbed without first committing murder, never allowed one of a captured party to escape, and always spared pariahs and women. The neglect of his ablutions is no greater crime for a Brāhman than the violation of these decrees is for pious criminals. The downfall of the Thugs is attributed to their relaxation in religious discipline. A certain gang of Phansigars is said never to have prospered because on one occasion they murdered a woman.

Bhawāni worshipers are sincerely earnest in their piety. They never undertake an expedition, no matter how insignificant, without first appealing to her for help; and they have a number of minor rites and ceremonies by which they endeavor at all times to please and honor her. The Lungotee Pardhis, who are desperate burglars, are so devout that the women of the tribe never wear silver anklets, because the statue of the goddess, placed in every tent as its presiding genius, is made of that metal; they cannot wear red apparel, because she is always represented resting on a ground of that color; they cannot sleep in cots, since she reclines on one; and, for fear of offending her, shoes are never, under any circumstances, carried within their tents. The Bowries, who infest the central provinces, make pilgrimages from enormous distances, at great personal inconvenience, to Kerolee, where there is a shrine of Dēva, supposed to possess special merit and sanctity. As in Catholic countries children are dressed in blue and white in honor of the Virgin, so the Thugs used white and yellow nooses because these were colors consecrated to Dēva. The Thugs had good reason to reverence the goddess, for, according to a favorite legend, there was a time when she herself was their immediate accomplice. In her insatiable hunger for human food, she devoured all the men they murdered on their expeditions, thus lessening the circumstantial evidence against them. But she made one condition, as all supernatural beings, from the spirit that denies down to the wicked witch of fairy lore, have a way of doing in their contracts with mankind; she forbade them ever to look at her while she was at her repast. Once, a novice in Thuggee—for there must always be a Peeping Tom of Coventry—disobeyed her injunction, and turned and gazed at her just as the feet of the last victim were disappearing down the divine throat. In her fierce wrath, she declared that thenceforward she would withhold her active aid, but, that she might not altogether lose such valuable servants, she taught them how they could cut up and bury the bodies of the slain without leaving a trace. Then she gave them a rib for a knife, the hem of her garment for a noose, and one of her teeth for a pickaxe. It was because of its heavenly origin that this pickaxe, thrown into a well at night for purposes of concealment, would rise in the morning at the first word of command from the Thug who had it in charge.

Superstitious to a degree known only in India, unprincipled men, who live by deeds of daring, quail before unreal dangers. Let but a hare or a snake cross his path, or an owl screech in the distance; let but one of his party kill a tiger, or a dog run off with the head of a sacrificed sheep, and there is not a robber or highwayman hardy enough to pursue his enterprise, even if petitions and sacrifices have already been offered in due form to Bhawāni. But the chirping of a lizard, the cawing of a crow from a tree to the left side, the appearance of a tiger, or the call of a partridge on the right, will restore his confidence, making his success seem sure. The classical robber of the Hindu drama hastens cheerfully to his work if he passes a rat-hole.

While the first outcasts robbed and murdered and begged from necessity, their descendants to-day do so in order to fulfill what they consider to be a social obligation. With the blindness of the heroes of Greek tragedy, they, in an early period, bound themselves irrevocably to their fate by adopting distinctions of caste similar to and inexorable as those which had wrought their wretchedness. There are castes even among outcasts. Pariahs are, in consequence, as jealous of their impurity as Brāhmans are of their purity. The privileges and restrictions of their own making are more serious impediments in the way of their improvement than the enmity of the twice-born, or Hindu aristocracy. Their vital principle of belief is that the most unpardonable of all offenses is for an outcast to desert the tribe in which lie is born, or abandon the profession of his fathers. In their social starvation, they themselves reject the meat and drink that could save them. Intermarriages are as strictly avoided by professional criminals and vagrants as if the laws of Manu had been made for them. A Hindu Thug, in the palmy days of Thuggee, would have died rather than marry one of his daughters or sisters to a brother murderer who professed the creed of Mohammed. The Mângs, whose poverty and squalor are unrivaled, would indignantly refuse a Brāhman who might offer himself in marriage. Among these people, a Lazarus, while he might eagerly seize the crumbs from a Dives’ table, would scruple sitting at it with him. The Chenchwars carry their contempt for all castes and tribes but their own to such an extent that they declare they live in the jungle for the sake of health, because there the smell of other men cannot reach them.

The criminal’s estimation of the crime peculiar to his family is a serious realization of Falstaff’s ideas as to the moral value of his purloining of purses: “Why, Hal, it is my vocation! ‘T is no sin for a man to labor in his vocation!” When a Thug strangler was asked whether he never felt remorse after killing innocent people, he answered in perfect good faith, “Does any man feel compunction in following his trade, and are not all our trades assigned us by Providence?” Conscientious scruples might as well be expected of a spider feasting on the flies in its nets, or of a tiger devouring its human victims. Nor are the pariah’s feelings on the subject merely negative. The most confirmed criminal and the most good-for-nothing vagabond alike take real pride in their wickedness and vileness. Men of the caste of Calaris, when interrogated as to their trade, with thorough self-satisfaction proclaim themselves robbers. The greatest compliment which a Thug could receive was praise of his skill as single-handed strangler. The very word Thug signifies deceiver. Phansigar, An Tulucar, Tanti Callern, Warlu Wahudlu, as stranglers have been called in different parts of India, refer to their use of a noose. Thieves and beggars, like the Artful Dodger, would scorn all other but their own employments. This distorted conception of duty cannot be wondered at, since even the Bhagavad-Gita, a book which contains the highest moral wisdom of the Hindus, teaches that it is

Better to do the duty of one’s caste,

Though bad and ill performed and fraught with ill,

Than undertake the business of another,

However good it be.

Indeed, so much stress is laid upon this doctrine that no occasion is lost of impressing its necessity upon the people. “Verily,” it is asserted in the drama of Sakuntala, “the occupation in which a man is born, though it be in bad repute, must not be abandoned.” At least in this one respect outcasts are in thorough accord with the men who despise them.

Their laws have been obeyed to the very letter throughout many generations, and hence pariahs have acquired great proficiency in their hereditary callings, but have become absolutely indifferent to their mental and moral welfare. Free from conflicting aims, they have been able to direct their entire energy into one channel. Indian acrobats and jugglers learn to turn and tumble and master the art of legerdemain with an ease that would be the envy of Western Houdins or Ravels. No national theatre or college of musicians is needed in a country where men have greater natural talent for acting than even Italians, or are devoted to music from infancy, as Slavonian bards are to poetry. It is not surprising that the pariah fortune-teller continues to gull the Gorgio in the streets of Bombay and the courts of Cairo, as well as in the green lanes of England and wild prairies of America, since shrewd observance and an intuitive knowledge of the follies of humanity have, with the peaked corners of her eyes, been heirlooms in her family for untold ages. Neither is it strange that beggars are adepts in every device and stratagem practiced by the brotherhood throughout the world, since their ancestors for many centuries have made alms-asking the study of their lives. But it is as thieves and murderers that they shine forth stars of the first magnitude. “To be imperfect being their essence,” in the words of De Quincey, “the very greatness of their imperfection becomes their perfection.” Grimm’s master thief might take a lesson, and profit thereby, from Bowries and Soonarias. Well might De Quincey’s Toad-in-the-hole and amateur murderers give a dinner in honor of the Thugs, for the latter were the most skilled professionals in the art of murder who have ever existed. The work of Hindu assassins and robbers is never marred by the shortcomings and oversights of bungling apprentices. As the painter looks to his brushes and canvas before he begins his picture, so these artists give due attention to all minor accessories before proceeding to their main work. If it be to their advantage to assume a disguise, or affect qualities foreign to their nature, they do so with a heroism worthy of a better cause. Thugs, when on their murdering expeditions, were so courteous and friendly in manner that travelers falling in with them begged to be allowed the privilege of joining their parties, and threw themselves on their protection as they journeyed through lonely places. Highwaymen, who have found it to their advantage to maintain a respectable exterior, live, when not on active duty, in large, fine houses, and cultivate their fields. Budhuck Bowries, true wolves in sheep’s clothing, pass themselves off as religious mendicants, and are so familiar with the necessary prayers and customs that none but a real Gossei or Byragee can detect the imposture. Other tribes of Bowries, for ostensible occupation, repair millstones; and in this manner they make their way by day into houses that they intend to rob by night, and acquaint themselves with the habits of the household. Peddling, fortune-telling, and all kindred small trades, which are to the lower classes what the eye of the Ancient Mariner was to the wedding-guest, serve as convenient passports into premises which otherwise they would never be allowed to enter.

From philosophers who believe that a man must

contend to the uttermost

For his life’s set prize, be it what it will,

these evil-doers deserve praise for their perseverance and energy. But beyond this nothing can be said in their favor. Hindu highwaymen and robbers are utterly without the love of adventure and keen pleasure in physical strength which led the fearless northern Berserkers over wide seas, laughing at the tempest; as they went, into far distant lands, in quest of plunder. Much can be forgiven men who, like Regner Lodbrok, in the very arms of death, chant with exultation of the days when they smote with swords. But sympathy is never awakened for Thug-like caitiffs, who, instead of facing foes in fair fight, fall upon them as a tiger springs upon its prey. One admires the chivalric bravery of outlaws typified by Adam Bell, Clym of the Clough, and William of Cloudeslé who, unaided, defied all the men of merry Carlisle; or by Robin Hood, who gave Guy of Gisborne proof of his unerring skill as marksman before he would contend with him in single combat. Men of this stamp are fit heroes of romance. But one feels nothing but contempt towards professional murderers, for whom the chances in their own favor must be three to one before they venture upon an attack, and who will smile, Judas-fashion, in a man’s face even as they give his death-signal.

Like the student who devotes himself to one study, but neglects general culture, these men have won their success in iniquity and in petty professions at the expense of all the finer feelings and nobler qualities of which human nature is capable. If, on the one hand, they manifest a marked proficiency, on the other there is a total deficiency. Entirely concerned with the gaining of their daily bread, for all other purposes they have no guide but impulse and expediency. Eat thou, and be filled! has hitherto been their one law. Hence they have never realized that they owe a duty to their fellow-men as well as to themselves. They know nothing of that higher moral dictate which exacts that the aims of the individual must not interfere with those of the community; that one man’s good must not be another man’s ill. For them there is no struggle in deciding between physical pleasure and moral duty. Their standard of right and wrong being their own bodily well-being, whatever contributes to it seems to them good; whatever interferes with it, bad. According to their lights, self-sacrifice is vicious; brutish selfishness is virtuous. They test the merit of their pursuits by their profitable results, and consequently attach the same value to assassination and fortune-telling, theft and bear-leading, provided by these means they obtain the wherewithal to satisfy their hunger and quench their thirst. “Since vices with them are profitable, it is the virtuous man who is the sinner.” Because they have no sense of morality, their actions cannot be fairly judged by our standards. They neither intend to bid defiance to the law, as is the case with ordinary criminals in the West, nor do they hope, with Nihilists and Socialists, to sanctify means by the end they have in view. They are not immoral, but unmoral. And because their deficiencies are the result of degeneracy, and not of primitive imperfection, there is less chance for their development than for that of savages. They are moral as well as social outcasts.

Their curious moral insensibility is strikingly shown in the fables current among them. Strange as it may seem, pariahs have a literature of their own. The popular tales of India originated with them, and are the expression of that laughter at their betters which lightens the burden of servitude, and their satire is gayly reëchoed in the farces and burlesques of Dōm composition. They have at least one poet, Tirūvalluvā, whose inspiration, however, was derived from Brāhman rather than from pariah ideals. Interesting as their stories, plays, and poetry are, forming really a study by themselves, it is only in their fables that they deal directly with ethical questions, and hence these alone are appropriate to the present subject. The fables of all nations are intended to convey a moral lesson, usually of a homely, practical nature, calculated to suit the lower and ignorant classes, who would be much less impressed by the lofty doctrines of a Zeno, a Marcus Aurelius, or a Thomas à Kempis. They recommend virtue and depreciate vice, not for themselves, but because man will and must gain by practicing the one and avoiding the other. If a dog, in crossing a stream, loses the bone from its mouth by snapping at its reflection in the water; or if a crow, succumbing to the insinuating compliments of a fox, drops its piece of cheese by opening its mouth to display its vocal powers, the lesson to be learned is that greediness, covetousness, and vanity are passions the gratification of which will, in the long run, produce pain much greater in proportion than the immediate pleasure derived from them. Be good, not for goodness’ sake, but because it is to your advantage to be so! The fables of the pariahs are like these inasmuch as their basis is pure utilitarianism, but differ from them in upholding the expediency of evil. Be selfish, cruel, and ungrateful, for generosity, kindness, and gratitude may contribute to the pleasure of your fellows, but will leave you decidedly in the lurch! This is the teaching of outcasts. As the pariah himself is an anomaly in civilization, so is his fable a curiosity in the literature of ethics. The following is a fair illustration of the naïveté with which he avows self-interest to be with him the first of all considerations: —


A pariah had spread nets in the jungle, in hopes to catch therein a bird for his midday meal. A crow, who was hovering in the air in wait for prey spied a piece of cocoanut in the grass.

“Here,” he cried, “is an appetizing fruit, which has fallen upon the ground expressly for my benefit!” He flew down to secure it, but scarcely had he touched it when he was caught fast in the pariah’s net. In vain did he seek to escape. The snare held him fast, and the black wanderer discovered that he was a prisoner. Then he broke out into loud cries and wails of supplication to his brother crows. But they only mocked him, as they flew above his head, and told him that the first time he would prove of use in the world would be when his body furnished them with a hearty meal.

“Deliver me,” cried the captive to some rats, who sat looking on, “and I will make with you an eternal alliance!” “We know better,” they answered in chorus. “Before long the pariah will give you a taste of his heavy stick, and then we will have one enemy the less!” and with a squeal of triumph they disappeared in their holes.

“Appa! Appa!” wailed the crow. “Will no one help me?” “Cut the net with your beak,” suggested a lizard, who was passing by. “I could not possibly do anything for you. Only yesterday you devoured another of my kinsmen.”

“Why,” remarked a mangous, who had been looking on with great interest, “do you appeal only to animals who know well enough that you would devour them, were you free? He who lets you out will be a great fool.” “You help me to escape,” pleaded the crow in plaintive tones. “We have the same enemies, and together we can wage war upon all rats and snakes. There is force in numbers. I will,” said the mangous, convinced by his reasoning; “but on one condition: I have always wanted to make a pilgrimage to the banks of the Ganges; you must carry me thither on your wings.” The crow, enchanted with this plan, accepted his new friend’s condition at once, and the mangous began to gnaw at the threads that bound him. So soon as the bird was free, he took his companion on his back, and flew up into the air. But when he had reached a great height, he shook his feathers so hard that the wretched mangous was thrown upon the rocks beneath, where he broke his back. The crow then pounced upon him, and began to tear him to pieces. “Is this your promise?” said the poor victim as he writhed in his death agony. “Why do you complain?” laughed the bird. “Did you not yourself declare that he who would set me free would be a fool?”

Never count upon the gratitude of a famished stomach.

Moral: If you hear a man call you from the bottom of a pit, throw a stone on his head; for if you aid him to get out, it will be he who will kill you.

* * *

As the crow laughed at the mangous, so would the pariah make merry over the idea of a good Samaritan, for he judges all men by himself. The same spirit of self-preservation and advancement at any cost is the inspiration of all the fables, and cunning is preferred to strength. The fox, and not the lion, is the favorite type. In one story, a jackal, who cannot make way with a goat by main force, entices it from its flock by promises of superior pasturage, and then, when out of reach of the goatherd, kills and eats it; and this is a reminder to thieves that “that which cannot be obtained by force must be won by stratagem. He who profits by the work and snares of others will never be in need of food.” In another, two travelers dispute as to their respective rapidity of movement, and, determining to test their powers then and there, call upon a pariah, whom they see in the distance, to be umpire. He, as soon as they are well started, seizes the luggage, which they had left under a tree, and departs with a speed of which neither disputant can boast. And from this tale the man who lives by his wits learns that “one must always profit by the quarrels of others, and derive benefit from them.” Virtue is declared to be nothing but the covering of vice, — the most virtuous man being in reality the cleverest hypocrite, — and friendship is measured by its usefulness. And so they go on, forming one uninterrupted eulogy of duplicity, hypocrisy, stratagem, and double dealing of every kind; totally ignoring the existence of such qualities as honesty and charity, equity and courage.

The fact is that pariahs have been obliged to look so closely at physical death that they no longer start at moral shadows. They are more like the ideal man of the Helvetius and D’Holbach school of philosophers than any genuine child of the forest. Once they have eaten and been filled, they are wholly without cares and anxieties, hopes and regrets. When not engaged in the active pursuit of their profession they are absolutely free, having rid themselves of all such hindrances as ambitions, conventionalities, and responsibilities. They are as comfortable in their tents and huts as Rajahs are in their palaces, and because they own no land all places are alike their homes; with them, Voir c’est avoir. They can feed on carrion with as much relish as on the daintiest dishes; and, careless of the morrow, will squander in one night’s spree the proceeds of a season’s work. Their social and family relations are regulated not by any instinctive affection or sense of duty, but solely by caprice. As a rule, they are kind, friendly, and faithful to each other; but are quite as ready to be cruel, indifferent, and treacherous, if it suits them to be so. An Othello would be an impossibility among men who gladly purchase a life of laziness for themselves at the price of their wives’ infidelity. A hen has greater maternal instinct than pariah women, who at times will leave their young children alone in places where they are almost sure to supply a meal for stray wolves; and at others, when the police attempt to search their tents for stolen goods, take their infants by the heels and swing them round their heads, threatening to continue doing so unless the intruders depart. Filial feeling, when it becomes burdensome, disappears from their midst as quickly as the mirage in the desert fades away before the weary traveler. Some of the most forlorn outcasts in the jungle carry the old and infirm members of their tribe far into the wilderness, and there, while life is still in them, deliver them to the tender mercies of beasts and birds of prey. “Ho! ho!” the eldest son of the poor victim sings, in the words of a hymn composed for the occasion; “let us rid ourselves of this old carcass. Ho! ho! the jackals will have a fine feast, but the worms will fast.”

The strongest emotion, perhaps, of which pariahs are capable, outside of their interest in their bread studies, is the wanderer’s love for the free life of the roads.

Vie errante

Est chose enivrante,

Béranger’s Bohémiens sing, and there are no men who have so keenly felt this intoxication as Hindu outcasts. It is with them a passion more akin to the attachment of the tiger to the jungle, or of the gull to the sea, than to the patriotism of Scot or Swiss. Probably in the days when the influence of philosophy and learning brought to the pariah class by disgraced Brahmans was still alive, there were philosophers of the Hayraddin Maugrabia type to explain this emotion as an intense realization of liberty. An exulting joy in freedom breathes through some of the old Romany ballads.

Free is the bird in the air,

And the fish where the river flows;

Free is the deer in the forest,

And the gypsy wherever he goes:


And the gypsy wherever he goes,

is the refrain of an Austrian gypsy song. But the modern Hindu wanderers no more question their liking for a life of roaming than the tiger or the gull analyzes the instinct which leads one to the jungle, the other to the foam of the sea. They are happy in their tents, in stormy weather as in sunshine, without knowing or caring why. But their happiness is dearly bought. It is only by their ignorance that they escape that increase of sorrow which comes with an increase of knowledge.

Man might be content, Mephistopheles affirms, were it not for the heavenly light of reason lent him from on high. Pariahs long since extinguished within them its faintest gleam, and therefore find it easy to be satisfied with their lot. Their satisfaction has in one way been a blessing, since it has enabled them to bear burdens which would have crushed the spirit of stronger men. But it is also their curse. One of the most powerful factors in the world’s progress has been and is man’s discontent with existing circumstances. Were it not for the liberal party in politics, there would be no reform. It is the rebellious restlessness of the people breaking out in civil wars which secures for them greater liberty. Because of their deadening system of caste, Hindus accept their fate as inevitable, and do not question the possibility of its amelioration or change. Once the vagabond and criminal classes ask themselves if they are happy, and if they might not become happier, then, but not till then, there will be communists in India. Hell must be harrowed before the heights of heaven can be scaled. Until these outcasts have tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and have felt in its full bitterness the degradation of their social position, they will remain the human animals they now are.