Stories of skilled thieves and lessons they offer

Stories of skilled thieves and lessons they offer

Legend goes that there was an ancient text, the Steya-Shastra, authored by Karnisuta or Muladeva, a textbook of thievery!

Anusha Rao

One of the unexpected benefits of the lockdown was the reduction in crime rates. After all, how could chain snatchers snatch chains if no one was out walking? And how could burglars burgle if everyone stayed home? Now that the lockdown is lifted, crime is back with a vengeance, with at least five muggings every day in Bengaluru alone. On that note, why not peek into some stories of skilled thieves? In Sanskrit, of course.

Legend goes that there was an ancient text, the Steya-Shastra, authored by Karnisuta or Muladeva, a textbook of thievery! It contained, among other things, classifications of thieves, methods of digging tunnels into buildings, and recommendations for breaking into houses. The Steya-shastra has not come down to us, quite fortunately perhaps, but Sanskrit dramas hint at what the content of such a text could be. In Mricchakatika, a thief Sharvilaka, who obviously believes in burglary as an art form, describes the seven kinds of breaches that can be made in walls and classifies them by shape — the lotus, the sun, the crescent moon, the tank, the broad, the svastika shaped, and the filled pot. Imagine a burglar who would take the effort to build a tunnel into your home!

Everyone knows the story of the infamous Angulimala, who wore a necklace of fingers after looting every traveller crossing his path, until he met and became a disciple of the Buddha. But less known is the story of Rauhineya, a clever thief from many Jain texts.

Rauhineya’s father was a thief, and so Rauhineya was naturally skilled at thieving. Rauhineya’s father, just before he died, had only one word of advice for Rauhineya: to never listen to the discourses of the Jain Tirthankara Mahavira. Rauhineya took his father’s words very seriously, and lived merrily as he pleased, robbing people recklessly in the city, and making sure that he never passed the street where Mahavira was talking, lest even a word fall on his ears. One day though, the only route to his destination was a street where Mahavira was giving a discourse to his disciples. Nevertheless, Rauhineya shut his ears very tightly so that he would not hear a word. He walked quickly, until a thorn pricked his foot, and he was forced to use one of his hands to extract the thorn. He heard a few stray sentences that Mahavira was saying: “The gods in heaven do not sweat; their feet never touch the ground; their flowers never wilt…”. Rauhineya cursed his bad luck, shut his ears again, and walked away as fast as he could.

A few days later, the king’s men, who were desperately searching for Rauhineya finally managed to capture him. But the king was in a fix, because Rauhineya had not been caught red-handed, and there was no confirming evidence of any theft to sentence him. The minister came up with a plan, and when Rauhineya was asleep, dressed him up in the fanciest finery, and placed him in a palace that looked like heaven itself. When Rauhineya woke up, he was greeted by an entire retinue of ministers and beautiful women who told him that he was in heaven, and that he had been crowned their king. They danced and sang for him, before they suddenly remembered the customary procedure! Every new king must narrate, in detail, his deeds on earth, before he could formally be crowned. Poor Rauhineya was in a fix. Was this truly heaven, and should he tell the truth about his time as a thief on the earth? Or was this a trick, in which case he would pretend as if he had lived virtuously? Then the stray phrases of Mahavira’s discourse came to his mind. He noted that all the men and women there walked on the ground, their garlands had wilted slightly, and they were sweating in the heat. And he confidently told them that he had been a virtuous man on the earth. The king’s men were forced to let him go.

At this point, Rauhineya ran straight to Mahavira, fell at his feet, and gave up his life as a thief. If an overheard line or two could save him from prison and execution, how much more transformative would disciplehood be?

A nice story and everything, but who could possibly believe they are king of heaven? Well, anyone can, until High Command tells you to get off the throne, that is!