The Nature of Wrestling Nationalism
Wrestling ideology is but one of many forms of nationalism in India today. On account of this it is necessary to situate wrestling within this larger arena of political rhetoric.
The right-wing militant Hindu organization known as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) advocates ideals that at first glance appear to be analogous to those held by wrestlers (Anderson 1987). The RSS advocates physical training and self-discipline. Youth camps are held in urban neighborhoods where young men and boys are taught lathi shiksha (a form of martial art using staves). The emphasis at these camps is on group regimentation and synchronized martial choreography. The ideology of the RSS is structured around a dogmatic interpretation of Hindu philosophy. Poetic verses and slogans commemorate the heroic glory of epic characters such as Bhim, the Pandava brother who possessed phenomenal strength, and Hanuman, whose martial exploits in the service of Ram are regarded as the essence of courageous duty and just aggression. In its pure form, RSS ideology is expressly sectarian and communal. Although the RSS has recently tried to placate non-Hindu minority groups in an effort to gain a greater degree of political legitimacy, it is still regarded by most people as militantly pro-Hindu.
There is much in the RSS ideology which seems to fit with wrestling ideals. In both arenas young men are taught self-control and physical fitness. Personal strength is regarded in both systems as an individualistic form of national strength. The focus on Hanuman as an icon of strength and self-sacrifice is found in both wrestling and RSS circles. Indeed, there are undoubtedly some wrestlers who find much to commend in the militant ideology of Hindu chauvinism. There are also probably a number of RSS sympathizers who are akhara members. Nevertheless, and despite formal parallels, I found that those wrestlers who followed a strict regimen of daily training felt a great deal of ambivalence and some outright hostility toward RSS ideals. This may be explained with reference to the following points.
First, at least in principle, wrestling is non-sectarian. In other words its use of Hindu symbols to express national ideals—sannyas and Hanuman, for example—are thought to be general enough not to alienate non-Hindu wrestlers. However naive this may be, many wrestlers claim that the Hanuman of the wrestling akhara is symbolically and morally equivalent to Ali, his heroic Islamic counterpart found in many Muslim akharas. In any case, Hindu and Muslim wrestlers strive toward an ideological compromise by which they seek to transcend formal substantive differences in order to arrive at a common utopian future where the akhara mediates between temple and mosque. While there are some akharas where Muslims and Hindus practice together, there are more where segregation along communal lines is the norm. This is often lamented by both Hindu and Muslim senior wrestlers who point out that Gama, a Muslim wrestler who became “world champion” in the early part of this century, was trained by a Hindu guru. In spite of the incipiently sectarian tone of much wrestling rhetoric—where images of Shiva, shakti, and Pandava war heroes abound—there is usually also a more pervasive tone of secular, non-communal fraternity. For example, H. B. Singh recalls the glory of Arjun and Krishna’s martial exploits. He then writes that in the akhara—which is modeled on the guru/chela relationship most perfectly manifest in Ram and Lakshman’s relationship with Vishwamitra and Arjun’s discipleship under Dronachariya—“there should be no hint of the vile, invidious distinctions fostered by caste, religion or community” (1972: 3).
The second point of difference between the two ideologies is that RSS leaders advocate militant reform while wrestlers advocate peaceful self-sacrifice. RSS leaders argue that Hinduism has been eroded by foreign religious teachings as well as by the post-independence state policy of secular democracy. RSS leaders point to instances of affirmative action in education and legal discrimination to argue that the Hindu majority is being discriminated against. Public parades on religious holidays have become powerful arenas for militant protest. Similarly, violent confrontations occur around issues of temple and mosque construction and renovation. While the RSS leadership has toned down its militant rhetoric in recent years, one of the primary rationales for training young men in lathi drill is to prepare them for defensive and offensive confrontation. The young RSS recruit is, in this regard, a Hindu soldier. Through physical training he develops his body. But unlike the wrestler, who develops his body to a primarily moral and ethical end, the RSS recruit develops his body as a utilitarian means for a more expressly political purpose. Thus, for example, the RSS and the wrestler have quite different interpretations of Hanuman’s divinity. In Hanuman’s powerful physique the wrestler sees strength derived from devotion and self-control. The RSS recruit is trained to see a Hanuman who does righteous battle against the forces of evil.
A third point of difference between the two forms of nationalist ideology has to do with structural organization. The RSS is a religious organization with a clearly defined leadership and an extensive bureaucratic and administrative apparatus. It is an expressly reform-oriented movement with clear goals and explicit motives. Regional and local chapters are directly, if not always closely, linked to a centralized command structure. While the RSS is not overtly involved in state-level party politics, it does lend considerable informal support to those party factions and candidates who are sympathetic to its views. By virtue of the fact that authority is vested in a few key individuals and ideologues, RSS nationalism is clearly articulated as a kind of militant manifesto.
No wrestling institution corresponds to the RSS’s structure of leadership and network of national affiliation. Each akhara is a unit unto itself. Indeed, the institutional structure of the akhara is itself fairly weak, for the primary relationship which might be said to structure the world of wrestling is the bond that exists between a disciple and his guru. The akhara is a collectivety of individuals who subscribe to a particular regimen. Wrestling ideology is, in this regard, the antithesis of the RSS ideology. Where the RSS ideology starts with a vision of Hindu reform and imposes discipline on the body of the young recruit, the wrestling ideology starts with the discipline of the individual body and works toward a somatic utopia. It is important to remember that wrestling is a sport, and many wrestlers enjoy competition for the sake of competition. The ideological dimension of wrestling grows out of a fairly innocuous base, and, as we have seen, nationalistic implications emerge through poetic interpretation. From the wrestler’s perspective the moral enemy is everyman’s inner susceptibility to sensual seduction. From the RSS perspective the enemy lies without in the form of “false” religious teachings and a secular state ideology. The latter requires a bureaucratic structure of organized defense, the former a regimen of self-control.
As a cautionary note it must be said that I may be accused of reifying both forms of nationalism in order to contrive a sharp dichotomy. If, in fact, some wrestlers are active members of the RSS, how can one say that they subscribe to either one or the other ideology? While I was in Banaras, regional leaders of the RSS asked members of one akhara to put on a demonstration of wrestling techniques to inspire young recruits congregated for a training camp. A local branch of the RSS sponsored a wrestling tournament in Banaras at which pro-Hindu speeches were made. Some wrestlers I knew marched in parades organized by RSS workers. In other words, it should be noted that on some points there is a high degree of overlap between wrestling values and the ideals of Hindu nationalism. Further historical analysis would undoubtedly show that at various times, and in specific parts of the country, the two have converged and diverged to different degrees. My point here is to highlight the distinctive features of the wrestler’s nationalistic vision given the nature of the modern world he lives in. In this sense there are enough wrestlers who consciously and exclusively subscribe to a unique way of life that centers on akhara activities to justify speaking of wrestling as a distinct form of nationalism.