9. The Sannyasi and the Wrestler
A recurrent theme in the preceding chapters is that of world renunciation as a moral value subscribed to by wrestlers. We have seen that wrestlers turn their backs on worldly pleasure and sensory satisfaction. There are many formal parallels between the life of a wrestler and the life of a world-renouncing sannyasi. Both are concerned with a disciplinary regimentation of the body, although in different ways; both seek a goal of self-realization, although for slightly different reasons; and both avoid many of the trappings of a social life, although, again, to different degrees and with different implications. In any case, wrestlers make an explicit comparison between their chosen life path and the life path of world renunciation. In this chapter I will explore the nature of this comparison.
The formal aspects of a wrestler’s way of life have been outlined above. Therefore, I will begin with a general theoretical discussion of world renunciation so as to define the framework within which a comparison of the wrestler and the sannyasi becomes significant. In the second part of the chapter the implications of the comparison will be discussed with regard to larger questions of identity.
Wrestlers see sannyas in objective terms as a generic category with certain distinguishing characteristic traits (cf. Farquhar 1918; Ghurye 1953; Oman 1983). This is a crucial point for the argument which follows. The sannyasi of which the wrestler speaks is a figment of his ideological imagination. He is not a particular sannyasi—a Shaiva Aghori or a Vaishnava Tyagi—but an amalgam constructed to fit, analogically, with the wrestler’s conception of his own somatic identity and iconic notion of self.
The thesis of this chapter is that wrestlers co-opt the values inherent in a life of asocial world renunciation and transpose these values onto their unique life path. This transposition has important implications. The sannyasi is, unlike the worldly grihastha (householder), an individual-outside-the-world whose orientation is egalitarian in a devotional and disciplined sense rather than hierarchical, an orientation, as we will see, towards principles of nationalism rather than principles of caste.
In a well-known article Dumont (1960) argues that Hinduism, among other Indian religions, is best understood not in terms of its historical diversity and seemingly infinite permutations, but rather in terms of some basic relational categories. The categories Dumont offers are, on the one hand, the asocial world-renouncing sannyasi whose religion is based on individuality, and, on the other hand, the eminently worldly grihastha whose religion is based on sociomoral duty. Dumont argues that Hinduism emerges, as it were, through the dialogue between these two categories. The opposition is never resolved, but the dialectical tension creates situations in which the values inherent in one category are accommodated in the other. Beneath the partly “substantialized” form of popular religious movements and sects, Dumont argues, one can recognize the dynamic tension between the opposed categories (ibid: 61).
Dumont’s argument has been acclaimed and criticized many times on many different levels, and my purpose is not to revive this old—and some might say tired—debate once again. Nevertheless, one point which Dumont makes must be emphasized if we are to understand the nature of the wrestler/sannyasi comparison. Although the dialogue between the sannyasi and the man-in-the-world persists as a leitmotif in Hindu development, Dumont is adamant that in terms of worldly Hinduism there is no such thing as the individual (ibid: 42). When recognized and understood as a conceptual and practical reality, individuality is strictly the province of otherworldly asceticism. To appreciate Dumont’s point, it must be remembered that for him the bottom line is always relational rather than substantive or empirical. In this regard he writes: “The man-in-the-world’s adoption of notions which are essentially those of the renouncer should not conceal from use the difference between the two conditions and the two kinds of thought” (ibid: 46).
The terms of world renunciation cannot be reconciled to the terms of caste society. The Brahman may affect the values of world renunciation, but his life of dharma is always couched in terms of the structuring principles of hierarchy, rather than in accordance with egalitarian principles. According to Dumont’s scheme, any instance where there appears to be a reconciliation of these two domains in social life is a substantialistic illusion: a superstructure of empirical form beneath which lies the truth of a primary oppositional relationship.
The problem with Dumont’s thesis, in my view, is that it defines caste, on its most basic and inclusive, holistic level, as a closed system, one able to subsume innovations, anomalies, rebellions, religious conversion, and so forth within the terms of its primary relational categories. Dumont’s scheme, like the structural typologies of Lévi-Strauss, is so inclusive as to be reductionist when applied to the narrower scope of everyday life. Dumont’s framework allows one to understand sectarian movements—bhakti, Tantrism, Buddhism, and so forth—in terms of caste holism. He does not, however, provide a corollary scheme for making sense of these various movements in their own terms.
While one may agree with Dumont and recognize the primacy of purity and pollution as the basic terms of caste society, one must also accept the fact that these are not the only terms in which social order is conceptualized (cf. Carman and Marglin 1985; Daniel 1984; Madan 1987; Marriott and Inden 1977; also see Appadurai 1986 and Berreman 1979 for a generalized critique of Dumont in this regard). Other categories which structure significant thought and action cannot, or need not, be conveniently reduced to Dumont’s first principles. However, as Das reminds us, though hierarchy is not an exhaustive conceptual framework for social order (1977: 51), it nevertheless defines the matrix of social power.
This said, we may now return to the issue of the sannyasi. In a recent book, Khare (1984) has taken a line of thinking similar to Das’s but with important modifications. Khare shows how low-caste Chamars in the Lucknow region of Uttar Pradesh have “repossessed” the basic terms of world renunciation in order to reconstruct an image of themselves outside of the framework of caste relations (ibid: 30). They have done this through a radical reinterpretation of the terms of world renunciation, and by forcing the sannyasi into a socially significant role (ibid: 67). The Chamars have essentially constructed an ideology wherein the individuality of the sannyasi—his spiritual, asocial virtue—is conceptually linked to a modern understanding of this-worldly asceticism. Where the Brahman mediates between world renunciation and householder status within a framework of caste hierarchy, the Chamars co-opt the terms of world renunciation in order to step outside of the hierarchical scheme altogether (cf. Juergensmeyer 1982 for a similar, though less explicit account, and Uberoi 1967 for an early theoretical formulation of this point in the context of Sikhism).
Khare clearly shows how certain groups have worked towards a redefinition of their identity in terms other than caste. In reading Khare’s account of a burgeoning Chamar ideology, however, one is struck by the fact that it is, to an extent, an ideology built on sand. However much it may mean to the Chamars, it is not particularly persuasive as a general, nonsectarian appeal to which other groups might subscribe. Similarly, Sikhs as well as Christians and other sectarian groups (including,significantly, even ascetic monastic communities; cf. Ghurye 1953) are conscripted into a hierarchical scheme despite advocacy to the contrary. The basic problem is that any group which claims a new place for itself—as within the framework of “sanskritization” (Srinivas 1968)—or even a group which tries to step outside of the whole scheme must ultimately come to terms with its relation to other groups within a larger hierarchically structured society. When couched in terms of group identity, ideological change is doomed because its appeal is artificially circumscribed. The Chamars can construct visions of themselves as morally guided worldly ascetics, but unless these reformations are recognized by people other than Chamars, their significance is limited—limited, that is, if one is trying to understand the precise interface between Hindu ideology and other nascent ideologies.
It is at this point that wrestling becomes an important issue. Like the Chamar ideology described by Khare, the wrestling ideology reconceptualizes the relationship of the sannyasi to the world. However, the ideology of the wrestler differs from that of the Chamar in two important ways. First, the wrestling ideology is not an explicit criticism of caste status. Wrestling calls for a redefinition of sannyas in its own terms, and this has a significant impact on the understanding of caste as a conceptual framework. Wrestlers do not, however, attack caste directly: for them, caste, as a structure of signification, simply does not work as a framework for self-definition. It is inadequate and inappropriate.
Second, wrestling is an ideology that transcends caste-group affiliation. Its appeal, as I have argued, is general rather than specific; it is public, and many wrestling activities create a sense of emotional, psychological, and physical unity. Because the wrestling ideology is amorphous—to the extent that it is subscribed to by a broad spectrum of people of all castes, of many occupational backgrounds, and from different regions—it does not find expression in any institutionalized, sectarian form. Even in the akhara, where there is a strong sense of communitas based on somatic ideals, there is little sense of social solidarity. The ideology cuts through social boundaries and appeals to the individual on reconstituted somatic terms. What distinguishes the wrestler’s appropriation of the terms of world renunciation from that of the Chamars and other sectarian groups is that the wrestler draws a parallel between his nascent individuality and the sannyasi’s spiritual individuality. Chamars, on the other hand, seek to transpose the category of sannyas, through advocacy, onto the level of an institutionalized social group. As Dumont and others have rightly argued, on this level sectarian movements will be subsumed within the larger and more primary framework of caste.
I do not want to suggest that the wrestling ideology is a particularly powerful critique of the caste ideology. At best it is rather oblique. Unlike the partisan rhetoric of certain sectarian ideologies, however, the wrestling ideology cannot be reduced to caste terms. Because its appeal is broad, if weak through such extensive dilution, it is strong at precisely the point at which the Chamar and other sectarian ideologies are not. One primary reason for this is that the wrestler’s ideology, as I have argued, is the product of a precise mechanics of body discipline. It is not an intellectual critique, at least in the first instance, and thus it does not fall into the trap of juxtaposing a discipline of the individual body/mind on the one hand to society on the other. Wrestling draws the moral value of world renunciation into the world and calls for a reform of the individual in terms of a holistic somatic synthesis. Individuality then finds expression, as we shall see in the next chapter, when it is made the object of nationalistic reform.
The Sannyasi and the Wrestler
The lives of the wrestler and the sannyasi overlap and are comparable at a number of different points. Many of these have been alluded to in previous chapters and need only be highlighted here. On a general level both wrestling and sannyas are chosen ways of life. Although sannyas is technically the final stage of the ideal Hindu life cycle, it is an elective path. Moreover, one can choose to become a sannyasi at any age or station in life (Ghurye 1953: 78). On a formal level wrestlers recognize that by joining an akhara they are making a decision which is similar to the choice a sannyasi makes when affiliating himself with a monastic order. The comparison works on a self-consciousness level rather than in terms of institutional structure. Wrestlers think of themselves as like sannyasis insofar as they share a certain mindset: a similar attitude toward the world, their consciousness, and their bodies.
Wrestlers and sannyasis are both concerned with controlling their bodies. This is not to say that they control their bodies in the same ways. For their part wrestlers regard vyayam as very much like yoga; like sannyasis, they must practice self-control in order to harness their physical energy to a higher spiritual purpose of healthy self-realization, and their diet must be regulated in order to achieve certain physical-cum-spiritual goals. The general principle of nonsensuality and a trenchant disregard for worldly pursuits link the two life paths together.
Some specific, gross features also connect the two life paths. Both wrestlers and sannyasis are known for their loincloths and near-nakedness. While sannyasis cover themselves in ashes, wrestlers cover themselves in earth. The substances are different, but they are both termed vibhuti (power).
Wrestlers wear their hair cropped short and sometimes have it shaved off altogether. Similarly, sannyasis either have their heads shaved or else let their hair grow long and matted. Obeyesekere has noted that hair is a complex, polysemic symbol of sexual power in the context of the ascetic’s religious experience (1981). Given the wrestlers’ concern with sexuality and strength, it would be safe to say that they, like the ascetic, work out some of the implications of their identity through the medium of hair. Shaved or not, the wrestler and the sannyasi are distinguishable from other men in these terms.
Sannyasis are, of course, easily distinguishable from wrestlers in a number of ways. Most significantly they do not, as a rule, wrestle. They devote their lives to wandering, begging, and pilgrimage. They eat only what is offered to them and are not supposed to own anything but a staff, a begging bowl, rudraksha beads, and an ocher robe (Ghurye 1953: 106). They must not fill their stomachs with food even when it is available. Except in the monsoon they must not stay in any place for more than two nights.
The issue of food is an interesting one. On the one hand, sannyasis are known for fasting and generally placing no value on the quality of food they eat. Wrestlers, on the other hand, are extraordinary eaters of very specific types of food. While this would tend to force the wrestler and the sannyasi into opposed categories, such is not the case. Sannyasis, like wrestlers, try to “cool their bodies down,” so to speak, and thereby achieve a state of sattva harmony and peace. Gandhi’s political dietetics was a permutation of this ascetic ideal. Both wrestlers and sannyasis are said to be supervirile; sannyasis on account of their powers of yogic meditation, and wrestlers on account of their vyayam/dietetics regimen. Therefore, they must both take extra care in channeling this energy away from passion. Where wrestlers eat ghi and milk, sannyasis tend to fast and to eat fruit and other things that are sattva.
As important as the nature of the foods eaten, is that both the sannyasi and the wrestler are supported through public donation. In direct and conscious opposition to the principles of caste purity, a sannyasi must eat only leftover food. By eating food that is “polluted” a sannyasi removes himself from the hierarchical scheme of interdependence. By accepting—in theory if not in fact—food from anyone, the sannyasi steps outside the confines of ritual food transactions which structure formal social obligations, rank status, and personal purity.
Unlike a sannyasi, a wrestler does not accept food from just anyone. A wrestler depends either on his family or a wealthy patron for support. In this regard, however, a wrestler’s relationship to his family is very different from that of a typical, non-wrestling family member. Ideally a wrestler should not have to work. He is supported through the industry of his parents and siblings. Although this ideal is rarely, if ever, achieved, I was told by many wrestlers that in the best possible world—the utopia of which we will speak in the next chapter—a wrestler would be able totally to devote himself to a life in the akhara. Stories are told of great wrestlers of the past who at least approximated this ideal. In some instances, I was told, family property was sold to insure that the wrestler’s diet would not be curtailed. I was also told that in the past whole villages would pool their resources to feed “their” wrestler a rich and costly diet. In this capacity the village and the family functioned much as a benevolent patron. The wrestler would be supported in much the same way as an itinerant sannyasi whose quest for self-realization is deemed worthy of generous support, the difference being that the wrestler maintains a high degree of identification with his patron, be that patron a raja, village community, or family group.
On the level of structural relations, the sannyasi and the wrestler share a common point of reference. They are both set off from the world in terms of the nature of the food they eat and by the fact that they are not directly responsible for producing—as distinct from processing—what they consume. The wrestler’s dependence on his family or patron does not remove him from the world to the same degree as the sannyasi. Nevertheless, his liminal condition with regard to food serves to bracket him off from the world where reciprocal food transaction structures social relations on so many different levels (cf. Appadurai 1981).
In contemporary popular literature, folklore, and nineteenth and early twentieth-century orientalist works on the subject, sannyasis are depicted as performers of extreme austerities. The best known of these is, undoubtedly, the infamous bed of nails. Oman (1983), writing in the late nineteenth century, recounts many cases of self-inflicted pain: sitting in cold water all night; sticking skewers through tongue and cheek; extended fasting; self-flagellation; and the self-imposed atrophy of various appendages. Wrestlers do not practice such austerities. Nor, in fact, do many sannyasis. They do not usually make a spectacle of their mortification. Nevertheless, the image of the sannyasi enduring great pain and suffering to the end of self-realization is a popular image which rings true in the mind/body of the wrestler. As seen in chapter 5, the body of the wrestler is disciplined in an analogous manner.
Wrestlers often speak of shakti as a direct derivative of disciplined austerity. For example, I was told how one ascetic protested the building of a bridge across the sacred Varuna River. British engineers had proposed a construction plan but the ascetic said that Hanuman would not permit the plan to be implemented. The British civil engineer scoffed at this and asked the ascetic to demonstrate to him by what means Hanuman had this kind of power over imperial authority. The ascetic said that by himself embodying Hanuman’s power he could jump across the river at the proposed bridge site. The civil engineer said that if indeed such an event occurred, he would not build the bridge. So the ascetic began his preparations and fasted and meditated for a number of months. As the story goes, his austerities were of such absolute proportions that he assimilated Hanuman’s power into his own body and successfully jumped across the river. While this is but one abbreviated version of a popular tale in Banaras folk history, it illustrates the power of the ascetic’s austerity, and implicitly correlates it with physical prowess in general and Hanuman’s character in particular. As pointed out previously, the wrestler is said to “wear a necklace of pain” in order to achieve his goal of somatic self-perfection. Thus, the wrestler and the sannyasi both tap into the power of shakti by slightly different but equally rigorous means.
Sannyasis are generally regarded as gaunt figures whose emaciation is strikingly contrasted to the full-figured wealth of worldly Brahmans and merchants (Dumont 1960: 45). One would think that the sannyasi’s body stands diametrically opposed to that of the wrestlers. As Staal has correctly observed, however, it is wrong to assume that the yogic practices of sannyas are forms of “ascetic mortification” (1983–1984: 35). Yoga is, in fact, a form of physical control aimed towards perfection and harmony rather than towards atonement or penance. Thus, as indicated earlier, wrestling is an extension of yogic philosophy even though the strength of the wrestler’s bulky body appears to indicate a radically different notion of health. This fundamental commonality aside, it is important to note that there are subtle differences between wrestling and sannyas as concerns development and control of the body.
The sannyasi’s orientation toward his body is transcendental. His goal is to achieve a state of mind which effectively takes him outside of his physical form. This is not a mystical trick of recognizing the inherent illusionary nature of the physical body. It is, as alluded to by Staal (ibid), a matter of coming to terms with the symbiosis of the mind/body as a unitary, multilayered principle. The sannyasi who has reached the final goal of self-realization achieves a physical state of samadhi. In this state his body appears lifeless but is not dead, a perfect state of transcendental consciousness.
In many temple complexes, shrines are erected around the samadhi of an ascetic. In some akharas I have seen shrines said to be the samadhis of great wrestlers. These wrestlers practiced austerities to the point of self-realization. It is not clear whether these samadhis are sannyasis who happened to be wrestlers, wrestlers who became sannyasis, or sannyasis who patronized wrestling in some way or another. The word used to define the sannyasi’s austerities, tapas or tap, is also used to describe the means by which the wrestlers achieved samadhi, a situation in which it seems that two related forms of body discipline actually meet. The line between sannyasi and wrestler becomes blurred at this and other points of comparison. In the mind of a wrestler it is perfectly logical for a great wrestler to have also achieved the status of a great ascetic.
While the wrestler identifies with many of the formal attributes of sannyas, his attitude toward his body is manifest rather than transcendental. By manifest I do not mean that the wrestler regards his body as any more “real” than does the sannyasi. The wrestler, however, sees that his body is but part of a larger ethical scheme of social relations and moral responsibility. A sannyasi trains his body so as to leave the world; the wrestler trains his body to be immune to worldly things but to remain in the world. The sannyasi moves away from the world, discarding the trappings of social life; the wrestler moves through the world cloaking himself in a mantle of ascetic values. In this regard the wrestler’s strength stands for many of the same things as the sannyasi’s austerity. However, the wrestler’s disciplinary practices—exercise, diet, self-control—are structured in manifest, social terms rather than in terms of transcendental abnegation. In defining the meaning of the ascetic practices, the referent for sannyas is moksha, a spiritual recognition of social life and material existence as inherently illusionary. The moral referent for the wrestler’s self-discipline is an ideal of collective strength and virtue. As we shall see in the next chapter, the “illusionary” nature of the material world is confronted in terms of its decadence and depravity, but it is not discarded out of hand. In a sense, then, ascetic abnegation defines the parameters of a wrestler’s moral physique. It is by virtue of the fact that the practice of sannyas has such profound spiritual, otherworldly significance that the practice of wrestling is meaningful as an ethical ideology with worldly implications. The agency through which one point of reference is translated into another is body discipline.
Akharas and Akharas
Putting the body momentarily aside, there is also an institutional level on which wrestlers are like sannyasis: the akhara. In its broadest sense akhara means the social and spatial organization of any specialized group. From this general definition derive two primary commonsense denotations of the term: one is, of course, the akhara as a wrestling gymnasium; the other, the akhara as an ascetic monastery.
In its monastic sense the term akhara is used most often to define a subgrouping of the Naga sannyasi ascetic order. The Nagas are themselves a subgroup of the larger Dasnami order which traces its origin to Shankaracharya in the eighth or ninth century A.D.(Ghurye 1953: 6). For a sannyasi, the akhara he belongs to, rather than the larger order of which that akhara is a branch, is his primary point of reference for self-definition.
Unlike the stereotypical image of the passive, mystical sannyasi, the Dasnami Nagas were and to some extent still are known for their military exploits. Their akharas became centers for training in martial arts and weaponry. Ghurye goes so far as to translate akhara to mean “military regiment,” because the Dasnami Nagas were involved in various military campaigns at different times (1953: 116; cf. also Farquhar 1925; J. Ghose 1930; Lorenzen 1978).
During the time of Akbar and through the reign of Aurangzeb, Dasnami Naga membership restrictions were relaxed in order to allow low-caste Shudras to join the order. Many Shudras were actively recruited since the Dasnami Nagas needed to increase their numbers in order to defend Hindu shrines and monastic institutions from Muslim intervention and aggression (cf. Ghurye 1953: 110–127; Orr 1940; Prasad 1982; J. Sarkar 1950). Shudras were thought to be robust and thus well suited to take up arms in defense of Hinduism. By allowing Shudras to join with Brahmans, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas, the sheer numerical strength of the order was significantly increased.
Aside from the intercaste dynamics of the Naga order, what concerns us here is the explicit and effective incorporation of martial practices into an ascetic way of life. Naga combat was not a simple matter of sannyasis taking up arms to defend themselves. For the Nagas, fighting became an integral feature of their identity. Ghurye notes that Nagas practiced physical penance so as to make themselves physically fit and immune to pain (1953: 122). It is clear that these austerities were not purely martial—in the sense of being practiced strictly for offensive warfare—but were, in fact, methods for achieving salvation (cf. van der Veer 1989). Ghurye remarks that since many of the Nagas were Shudras, rigorous physical training, rather than spiritual contemplation, was thought to be a more appropriate form of ascetic discipline. This interpretation is suspect on the grounds that it makes a sharp and untenable distinction between physical and mental austerities. Moreover, as Chattopadhyay has pointed out, the evidence of history is that there has always been a degree of ambiguity with regard to any one caste group’s monopoly on martial training. In the medieval period it was quite common for Brahmans to receive martial training at such centers as the University of Taksasila (Chattopadhyay 1966: 54). In any case, it is not accurate to say that one caste group is exclusively predisposed to physical training while another is more suited to mystical contemplation and scholarly work. Whatever factor Shudra recruitment may have played, it seems clear that Naga sannyasis, like wrestlers, translated yogic spirituality into terms more compatible with worldly action. Ghurye notes that in the post-independence era Naga sannyasis further translated their martial art into less aggressive terms. They now practice wrestling, gymnastics, and other forms of physical exercise (1953: 127).
Many of the Naga akharas have branch institutions in Banaras, and at least one of these sponsors a gymnasium on Hanuman Ghat. In this particular case the affiliation between the Naga monastic akhara and the gymnasium is tenuous and unclear. It seems that the wrestling gymnasium belongs to the monastery but is used by neighborhood residents. Oddly enough, the gymnasium is more a bodybuilding club than an akhara per se, but this is probably a fairly recent development.
There is also a defunct wrestling akhara on Manikarnika Ghat called Naga Akhara. Among the wrestling members were some Naga sannyasis. At Rang Mahal, a wrestling akhara downriver from Banaras, there is a temple complex run by Naga sannyasis. Although the majority of the wrestling members of the akhara are Muslims, Hindu merchants, Thakurs, Brahmans, and Yadavs, Naga sannyasis also practice wrestling. An annual wrestling tournament is sponsored by the Rang Mahal Akhara, but this seems to be a purely “secular” event, and to the best of my knowledge no sannyasis take part.
In his study of Ramanandi ascetics in Ayodhya, van der Veer has shown how Nagas discipline their bodies through the retention of semen (1989: 463). As with other Ramanandis (tyagis and rasiks) this practice is central to the mechanism by which emotion and passion is directed towards devotion to Ram. The Nagas of Ayodhya seem to wrestle in much the same way as “secular” wrestlers in Banaras, with the important qualification that they do so as self-proclaimed ascetics.
There are clear parallels between Naga akharas and wrestling akharas. However, I was repeatedly and without exception told that the two types of akhara have nothing to do with each other. Sannyasis who wrestle do not subscribe wholeheartedly to the lifestyle of wrestling. As a rule, according to “secular” wrestlers, they do not compete, and they do not drink milk or eat ghi and almonds. The two life paths are parallel and at points contiguous, but they are classified as distinct and separate. From the perspective of the wrestler, at least, this serves to maintain the institution of sannyas as a firm reference point, similar but different. The sannyasi who takes up arms or wrestles is never confused with his “secular” counterpart.
This point can of course be debated, and van der Veer has pointed out that in at least some Naga akharas young boys come and receive training much as they do in the “secular” akharas I have described (personal communication). Perhaps some Nagas wrestle competitively, and it is perfectly possible that some consume a diet of milk, ghi, and almonds. However, what is more important here than the objective truth of the matter, is that the secular wrestlers, absorbed in their ideological world, think of themselves as more unlike than like Nagas.
The case of the Dasnami Nagas is significant insofar as it helps define the structural relationship between wrestler and sannyasi. Obvious and formal parallels aside, wrestlers see in the practice of Naga asceticism a tacit justification for their own concern for physical fitness and moral strength. In this regard the sannyasi legitimizes the wrestler’s way of life. The Naga is, in some respects, an image of what the wrestler would become if he were to renounce the world completely.
The Wrestler in the World: Contradiction and Paradox
While wrestlers recognize the moral virtue of world renunciation, they are confronted with a paradox that manifests itself in various ways. Broadly put, the problem for the wrestler is how to live a moral social life while trying to subscribe to values which define social life as basically (if not egregiously) immoral and unhealthy. Can a wrestler live with his wife and be celibate? Can he eat rich and expensive foods and still dissociate himself from sensory pleasure? Can he raise a family and be immune from concerns for prestige and social status? Can he earn a living and find time to develop himself as a devout wrestler? Can he develop his body and not become proud and conceited? One wrestler stated the problem as follows:
Many wrestlers expressed similar views. On the issue of food, one explained that wrestlers must be even greater, more ascetic and self-controlled, than sannyasis. Wrestlers fill their stomachs and yet control their desire while sannyasis take the easier route of quenching their desire through fasting or the consumption of bhang. Another wrestler developed this theme further by saying that wrestlers had to work harder at self-conrol than sannyasis because they ate food which produced semen in greater quantities. Some wrestlers explain that a wrestler can control his semen until he has reached the age of thirty or thirty-five, at which point he would have to marry and have children. I was told a story of the great wrestler Dara Singh, who became so strong at a young age that his family and friends quickly arranged his marriage in order to prevent the somatic equivalent of a nuclear meltdown.
A wrestler’s life is like that of a sadhu. The sadhu lives in his hermitage. He worships and does his prayers. A wrestler lives in his house and is entangled in the world of maya (illusion). He is in the grihastha ashrama. Even in this condition he must control himself. The sadhu lives apart from the world. The wrestler lives in his house but he must dissociate himself from the concerns of a householder. He must close his eyes to it and wrestle. The wrestler is equivalent to the sadhu because they must both remove themselves from the grihastha ashrama and be absorbed in god. And yet the wrestler is tied to his family. He must live close to his wife and yet turn away from temptation. A person will never be a wrestler until he becomes like a sadhu and averts his eyes and closes his mouth to the world.
It is important to note here that worldly asceticism is not intrinsically paradoxical; rationalizations of one sort or another abound. Van der Veer (1989) has noted that many Ramanandi sannyasis are wealthy, and that in an extended sense this can be seen as part of the larger program of ascetic devotion to Ram. Elements of a similar sort of worldly rationalization can be seen in the masti of the Chaube Brahmans of Mathura (Lynch 1990: 91–115). Chaubes also wrestle, but like Nagas who wrestle as ascetics, Chaubes (or at least some Chaubes) wrestle primarily as emotionally invigorated Brahmans. There is a devotional component to the Chaubes’ masti, whereby aspects of ascetic ideals are given ligitimate, worldly form. What the wrestling ideology does is to force the issue of asceticism in relation to grihastha religiosity into a sharp dichotomy of either this worldly moral and physical weakness—where emotion and wealth, among other things, are false consciousness—or otherworldly health and strength, where pure consciousness is asocial. On the level of the body in particular, the wrestler is likely to see things in black-and-white, either-or terms. In this regard the wrestler would certainly agree with Dumont, even if Dumont is wrong.
Speaking on a philosophical level, one wrestler suggested that while sannyasis abide by their karma (moral work), wrestlers abide by their kriya karma (active moral work). He continued this line of thinking by saying that wrestlers and sannyasis are alike in all but the nature of the “work” that they do. From the context of the discussion it was clear that the primary distinction being made was that a wrestler’s “work” is in the nature of a social avocation, or civic duty, whereas the moral work of a sannyasi is independent of any sort of social responsibility. In this regard wrestlers are clearly in step with Gandhi.
One aspect of the type of work which a wrestler is called upon to do is, in the words of K. P. Singh, to turn others into wrestlers and eventually to reform the social order through such “missionary” efforts. A wrestler is, to borrow a phrase used more often in Christendom, an “evangelical.” Here the role of the guru is important, for although all wrestlers are called upon to perform their moral work, it is the guru whose missionary efforts are most important and effective. The guru, who is more often than not also a great wrestler, performs his moral work by founding an akhara. As the members grow up and achieve a level of competence, maturity, and fame, they branch off and open akharas of their own. The generalized work of all wrestlers combined thus becomes national in proportion through the compounding agency of geometric progression.
Of all the worldly concerns that a wrestler must reconcile himself to, the most important is marriage and having children. I have pointed out that intense value is placed on the strict practice of brahmacharya, which serves as a moral paradigm for the wrestler; it symbolizes his subscription to ascetic values. Significantly, it is also a unique reinterpretation of brahmacharya that serves to keep the wrestler in the world. A common phrase among wrestlers is ek nari, brahmachari, which means that one can be married to one woman and still be celibate. As I was told repeatedly, a wrestler may marry so long as his overall attitude towards sex and sensuality does not change. He may have sex with his wife, but only for reproduction and not for sensual gratification. For the wrestler, sex is work; it produces children and is justified only in this regard. There is a general sense that the children produced by the agency of moral sex will be healthier and more civic-minded than other children.
Aside from considerations of sex and sexuality, marriage draws a wrestler inextricably into the worldly status of a householder. He must earn a living, raise a family and educate his children. In an article entitled “What is a Wrestler’s Home Life Like?” (1986), Munna interviews the wives of three well-known wrestlers. Not surprisingly, all three wives say that wrestling has not undermined their family status, which is to say, their husbands are good husbands and good wrestlers. They exercise and train hard and also provide for their families. Significantly, each of the three women says that the family is stronger by virtue of the husband’s avocation. Because of the husband’s prestige as a wrestler, the family has earned social status and public respect. The general thesis of Munna’s article is corroborated by many of the wrestlers I interviewed. Wrestling improves the quality of one’s family life by making the householder fit and healthy. The moral principles of wrestling are extended to include the larger family unit within the domain of worldly asceticism.
K. P. Singh develops this point in some detail. He points out thatgreat Indian leaders like Gandhi and M. M. Malaviya were married but were nevertheless brahmacharis (1972a: 30). He argues for the integration of moral virtue into social life.
Using Gandhi as an example, K. P. Singh argues for the incorporation of ascetic values into the practices of everyday life. When so translated, the practice of brahmacharya clearly becomes an ethical practice with sociomoral implications. For the wrestler, living in the world as a householder, the appeal is to have a family which is guided by moral principles: to raise children who recognize the value of strength, honesty, devotion, self-respect, and humility, and who are able to channel their emotions away from the intoxication of self-indulgent sensual gratification and towards a feeling of obligation to society at large (Atreya 1973a: 24). Although no wrestler with whom I spoke made the association, there is a clear parallel, I think, between what wrestlers advocate and the position held by moral reformers of the late eighteenth and early twentieth century such as Sri Aurobindo and Sri Ramkrishna’s missionary disciple, Vivekananda. Of particular interest in this regard are Sri Aurobindo’s statements on the spirituality of physical education (A. Ghose 1949, 1954; A. Ghose and The Mother 1967).
Gandhi controlled himself, kept himself in check and was a brahmachari. He was a great saint and a reformist. He freed the nation. And Gandhi’s discipline of self-control was not contrived. . . . His was the work of the world and he would shoulder his burden of work taking only the name of god for support. Gandhi was greater than Shankaracharya. Shankaracharya advocated the complete separation of men and women, but Gandhi said that all men and women should be as brother and sister. He also said that the primary relationship between a man and a woman is that of mother and son. . . . What an excellent method for uprooting the evil of sensuality! What a grand vision! What insight to turn sensuality into a feeling of respect and honor! We must all live in society and we all must purge the evils of social life from our thoughts. Morality must, instead, fill our minds. Shankaracharya did not make the common people of India his disciples whereas Gandhi had tens of thousands of followers. We must tire our bodies, focus our minds and cleanse our thoughts. We must adopt commitment and independence as our way of life (ibid: 31).
Unlike the sannyasi who has turned his back on the ethical problems of social life (as in K. P. Singh’s characterization of Shankaracharya’s contrived asceticism), the wrestler has a clearly defined—though certainly visionary—social purpose. Not only is the wrestler embedded in social life, he is responsible for setting an ethical standard. He must be honest, humble, duty-bound, hard-working, principled and fair. He must be physically fit. In the process he takes personal responsibility for precisely those things which the sannyasi regards as illusionary.
The incorporation of ascetic values into the practice of everyday life entails individual subscription to ethical principles. On account of this, it is not surprising that the wrestler is often recognized as an exemplary person. Unlike the sannyasi who is recognized for the extent and nature of his austerities and for the power of his spirituality, the wrestler is recognized for his work in the world. To be sure, wrestlers are remembered for the bouts they fight and win, but they are also recognized for the kind of men they are. A few examples are illustrative.
The following is the story of Mangala Rai as told by Parmanand Shukla of Ghazipur (n.d.). Although not an exact translation of Shukla’s prose, I have sought to capture the flavor of a rhetorical, literary style that serves to embellish the facts of an exemplary wrestling biography:
Another exemplary life history is that of Brahmdev Pahalwan as recounted by Govardan Das Malhotra (1981: 68–70). The literary style of presentation again serves to evoke an image of greatness:
As peaceful and sincere as the full moon, deeper than the ocean itself and more brilliant than the sky above, Mangala Rai, the essence of wrestling and well-known pahalwan, established such a high national standard, and gave Ghazipur and Uttar Pradesh such eminence, that he will not soon be forgotten, much less equalled. This wonder of Ghazipur and Uttar Pradesh was born on the pure and eternal soil of the holy Ganga. Champion wrestlers like Kamar, Amir Phutte, Hori Nariyan Singh, Hanuman Pande and Raj Nariyan Rai as well as others, were all born in Ghazipur, have glorified the earth of that district, and have advanced the nation’s pride through their art.
In Ghazipur Vijaya Dashmi is a grand festival which commemorates Ram’s victory over the southern Kingdom of Lanka. On this occasion Ram heroically defeated the forces of Ravana’s demonic culture and established a new standard of respectability and truth throughout the country. People break from their routine and visit one another or else go to fairs on this day.
I was inspired on this occasion to go and have an audience with Mangala Rai, who, with heroism, abnegation and energy had established another standard; a standard of wrestling throughout India.
Along the green banks of the Ganga, where I had to go, the land is fertile and the people are well off. On this festive occasion I arrived in the village of Musahib as dusk was approaching and found Mangala Rai seated on a cot next to the door of his home reading a Dinman magazine. Upon catching sight of me he graciously asked that I be seated and inquired after my health. Then we began to talk.
I was surprised that he was as strong and fit as ever, despite his age. There was no sign of his getting older at all. This narrow-waisted, broad-shouldered, hard body, radiant with the glory of great achievements, seemed to throw out a challenge: Is there a wrestler in this country who is my equal?
Mangala Rai, the wrestler who showed us the gems of this art, was born in the month of Kunwar, 1916, in the village of Musahib. His father was Ramchandar Rai. Ramchandar and his brother, Radha Rai, were both great wrestlers of their time. Kamala Rai, Mangala Rai’s younger brother, was also a great wrestler. Ramchandar and Radha Rai both lived in Rangoon where they practiced and exercised in an akhara. Radha Rai was the more accomplished of the two and he trained his nephews on the finer points of wrestling.
I asked Mangala Rai when he started wrestling in the akhara and when his first competitive bout was. He said that he started wrestling at age sixteen and didn’t compete until a year later. He was good enough so that from the start he was matched up with good, strong wrestlers so that his skill and experience developed accordingly. The great wrestler Shiv Murat Tiwari from Vabhanpura, Jalhupur, Varanasi district was also in Rangoon at this time and Mangala Rai benefited greatly from his instruction. After some time Mangala Rai and his brother returned to their village in Uttar Pradesh.
From the very beginning these two young men led a simple and unpretentious life. They were so neat and tidy that one could not find so much as a stain on their clothes. Another feature of their character was that they always provided food and facilities for any wrestler who stayed with them.
For many years Mangala Rai did not have the opportunity to live in his village. Someone or the other was always making demands on his time. He had become so famous for his numerous victories in Rangoon that daily people would come to see him. Sri Dharam Dev Pande was one such person, a great fan of wrestling from Gorur village. Now, just as Vishwamitra called on Raja Dashrat and asked that Ram and Lakshman be sent to his ashram to pursue their training, so did Dharam Dev Pande call Mangala Rai and Kamala Rai to his own village so that they could improve their skill. There was always a crowed gathered to watch these two wrestlers working out. After gazing on their wrestling prowess, their moves and countermoves, and on their tall, hard physiques, all who came to watch were left dumbfounded.
Living on the banks of the Ganga, bathing in the Ganga and spending some time in secluded self-reflection are some of Mangala Rai’s most cherished pleasures. There is always a book of one kind or another in his hands.
The people of Narayanpur, in Ghazipur district, were very keen that Mangala Rai come and stay among them. Being of a passive disposition Mangala Rai was not able to refuse the people of Narayanpur. Arrangements were made for an akhara to be constructed in a grove near the Ganga, and Mangala Rai’s daily needs were also provided for. Vishwamitra’s airy ashram, Buxar, is just on the other bank of the Ganga from this grove. Mangala Rai further developed his skill while living in this place by wrestling with twenty or twenty-five wrestlers, three times with each. Dukhram of Darbhanga, Sukhdev of Azamgarh, Mathura’s Mohan Chaube, Kamala Rai, Brahmachari Rai, Mathura Rai, and Baleshwar Pahalwan, among many other great wrestlers, all came to stay and practice with Mangala Rai. Mangala provided for their diet and personally looked out for their welfare.
Mangala Rai’s fabulous success and great national fame may be attributed to the fact that upon returning from Rangoon he fought with the great Mustafa Pahalwan of Allahabad and Varanasi. He applied his favorite moves, tang and baharali, with such perfection and power that those who were watching were awestruck. His fame spread like wildfire and in his thirty-second year he had to fight some one hundred bouts.
Mangala Rai himself explained to me his regimen: four thousand bethaks, two thousand five hundred dandas and three sessions each with twenty or twenty-five wrestlers. Sometimes he would undertake other kinds of exercise as well. Mangala Rai weighs three and a half maunds [288 pounds] and is six feet tall. In addition to bread, dal, and vegetables, he used to eat half a liter of ghi, two liters of milk, a kilogram of almonds and occasionally some fruit and juice.
Mangala Rai is fond of saying that anyone can be a guru, but the true guru is one who trains and cares for his disciples as he would his own sons. He must teach them complex and great ideas. Mangala Rai’s original trainer and guru was his uncle. His true guru is the late Sri Mahadev Pande (Pandeji) of Varanasi who was like a father to him. Remembering Pandeji, Mangala Rai becomes grave and contemplative.
Mangala Rai is of the opinion that at the present time wrestlers are becoming enamored with fashion and frivolity and have lost sight of the essential principles of the art. They are caught up in a materialist, consumer culture and are dragging the art of wrestling down with them. He is an advocate of unlocking each wrestler’s individual potential. He has kept clear of rural politics, and has instead worked tirelessly at developing character. Mangala Rai says that the life of a wrestler is no less than the life of a yogi. Only by engaging in this magnificent regimen can wrestling continue to develop.
Now that Mangala Rai no longer wrestles he has become a hard-working and successful farmer who owns a tractor. His discipline and industriousness can be seen in this area as well. Now Mangala Rai’s good character and sage counsel is taken advantage of by those who need advice and those who need a dispute resolved.
As indicated in chapter 3, Guru Fakir Chand Shukla is characterized by Ramkumar Shukla as “the embodiment of renunciation” (1973: 43). In fact, the ideal persona of a guru is perfectly congruent with the wrestler’s vision of worldly asceticism. Many of the founders of well-known akharas are remembered for their exemplary lifestyle of total devotion to hard work and rigorous self-discipline. In addition to establishing a well-known wrestling akhara, Fakir Chand Shukla gave away medicine to the poor and also built numerous temples. In and of itself this makes his life noteworthy. What is most exemplary about his life is that he worked for development by disregarding the formal manifestations of life and turned instead to a reform of the “inner man” (ibid: 47). Heroism and courage of this sort is achieved not through grand aspirations but rather through personal application on the level of everyday, mundane situations. As Ramkumar Shukla points out, Fakir Chand Shukla’s greatness was a manifestation of his small achievements (ibid). Although not at all diminutive, he was a quotidian hero.
Accomplished wrestlers are regarded as saints. Just as saints and great sages renounce the world of illusion and deceit and become absorbed in god, so do wrestlers have to focus themselves and lose themselves in their art. If his concentration should even slightly waver and his pace falter then it is certain that he will end up as the lowest of low and no better than a person who grovels in the dirt.
Wrestling is unique among India’s ancient arts. From the beginning wrestling practice has been done on the ground, in the soil. Among those who have practiced wrestling there are many who have made a name for themselves and have built up the nation’s standard. Among these, Brahmdev Pahalwan—the Lion of Uttar Pradesh—earned a reputation for his guru, the nationally known Chandan Pahalwan. Such skill as he demonstrated is rarely seen in your average wrestler.
A devotee of Baba Gorkhanath; a nobleman of Gorakhpur; a patron of wrestling, the late Babu Purushotam Das provided Brahmdev with the venue—Pakki Bagh Akhara—in which he performed, exercised and thereby gave his admirers such satisfaction. What fame he achieved may be attributed to his true commitment, deep concentration and self-consciousness. Today this straightforward man, advocate for the poor and under-privileged, and tireless political worker is no longer with us, but those in Gorakhpur—nay, the entire state—cannot live without recalling Brahmdev’s great skill.
Brahmdev was born the youngest son of Mahadev Mishra in Rudrapur, Khajni Gram, near the Bansgaon thesil of Gorakhpur district in 1917. Khajni is a veritable pilgrimage point for wrestlers. Brahmdev’s grandfather, father and brothers were all wrestlers, so how could he have been anything else! He regularly went to the village akhara with his father where he rolled around and covered himself with earth. The aura of so many great wrestlers must have rubbed off on Brahmdev and served to focus his attention on wrestling.
On account of his devotion to the akhara, Brahmdev’s formal education ended in middle school. However, being from a Brahman family and living in an intellectual community he learned the Ramayan very well and was able to quote Sanskrit verses with great proficiency. In addition to being a wrestler, Brahmdev took an interest in politics and was an accomplished public speaker. As a village pradhan [head man] and Block Officer he served the public well.
Brahmdev enjoyed his life in the peaceful environment of the village akhara. He exercised and ate to his heart’s content. In the city akhara of Pakki Bagh he became a disciple of Chandan Singh and thereby followed a more rigorous regimen and improved his skill. In local tournaments he sought out wrestlers bigger and stronger than himself and regularly defeated them. When he defeated the great Surti Pahalwan in a Gorakhpur tournament the fans’ excitement was unbounded. He also defeated a European wrestler in Gorakhpur.
Brahmdev’s daily work-out consisted of two thousand five hundred bethaks and one thousand six hundred dands. After running he would wrestle with twenty-five good wrestlers. He was most accomplished in the nikal, tang, and multani moves. Any opponent who was subjected to these moves would most certainly “see the sky.”
His diet included one seer (a quarter measure) of ghi, six seers of milk, and thandai made from half a seer of almonds. He also enjoyed fruit and was a vegetarian. In Calcutta he exercised in the akhara at Mochi Pari Thana in Bara Bazaar where he instructed many great Bengali wrestlers.
According to Indian tradition he wore a dhoti and kurta with a dopatta around his neck and shoulders. With huge mustachios Brahmdev cut a very impressive figure. When he walked through the bazaar thousands of people would stand and watch while his many disciples would compete for the honor of touching his feet.
Brahmdev was married very young but had no children. However, he regarded his nephews as his own sons and personally looked out for them. He admonished the children of his family to pay particular attention to their studies. As someone who advocated education he was a model citizen until his death in 1975.
Mahadev Pahalwan is also known for his worldly asceticism. Govardan Das Malhotra writes: “Mahadev Pahalwan was born to a gwal [dairy farming] family but he was born for wrestling and wrestling alone, and he died doing the work of a wrestler. This exemplary wrestler who embodied self-respect was regarded as a saint by the people of Kanpur” (1981: 30). There are numerous other wrestlers who are referred to as saints or sadhus; for instance, Bhagwan Singh Narayan Wale, a follower of Swami Dayananda who lived in a community of wrestlers in the forest outside of his village (Atreya 1979; Sinha 1978: 12), and Mangaldas, who renounced the world at age eleven and later became the “spiritual teacher” of other wrestlers (Malhotra 1981: 19). Atreya tells the story of Ramsanehi Pahalwan of Kakare, a village near Moradabad. At the age of thirty-two Ramsanehi left his family and spent eight years practicing the “extreme austerities” of wrestling. No one in his village saw him until he emerged from seclusion to defend his father, who was embroiled in a village dispute. For all his austerities, however, Ramsanehi was a Jat farmer whose life revolved around the mundane tasks of irrigation, plowing, and planting.
One of the many stories told about Gama, the world-champion wrestler, reaffirms the value placed on austerity and simplicity as an exemplary virtue. Gama was asked by a young man what he should do to achieve great strength and skill. Reflecting on the question and considering the great discipline required of a wrestler Gama said, simply, “do eleven dands and bethaks a day, eat a handful of chana, and think on god.” Exemplary wrestlers, whether they be well-known gurus or local champions, have succeeded in fully integrating devotional spirituality with disciplined exercise.
All exemplary wrestlers are remembered for the extent of their self-discipline. However, it is their life in the world that is regarded as noteworthy and meritorious. Like Ramsanehi, many wrestlers are simple farmers who turned their labor into a form of spiritual exercise. They draw strength from plowing fields, pulling water from wells, and turning grindstones and oil presses (Atreya 1979: 41). Mangaldas sang hymns and read the scriptures while tending his feed store in Kanpur. Fakir Chand Shukla was, among other things, a pharmacist whose healing practice was informed by his spiritual temperament. Without wishing to romanticize, it may be noted that many of the most highly regarded senior wrestlers in Banaras—Lallu Pahalwan, Nathu Lal Yadav, Lakshmi Kant Pande, and many others—fall into this category, not because they are saints, by any means, but because they have a vision of the future, to the attainment of which they have dedicated a good part of their lives.
Trying to characterize the wrestler’s personality, Atreya cites a passage from the Bhagavad Gita (7.11) where Krishna says, “In the strong I am strength unhindered by lust” (1971: 27, translation from Prabhavananda and Isherwood 1975: 90). In quoting this passage Atreya’s point is that even when wrestlers seem to have renounced the world, the nature of their austerities are still active rather than passive. The wrestler’s strength is readily translated into commonsense, everyday terms; the sannyasi’s austerities are not.
From his perspective—somewhat outside and yet implicated in social life—a wrestler’s vision of the world is quite different from either that of the worldly householder or the asocial ascetic. By virtue of his somewhat liminal condition as a moral individual in the world, the wrestler is able to look beyond the horizon of the taken-for-granted social order and see, or more properly imagine, a different paradigm for sociosomatic action.
As Dumont (1960) has noted, the man-in-the-world is subsumed within the framework of caste holism. Hinduism, he argued, is structured in terms of the dialectical relationship between the worldly householder and the world renouncer. Das (1977) and Heesterman (1985) have both suggested that the Brahman embodies the tension between these two categories. The Brahman remains, nevertheless, embedded within the world of caste relations. The ascetic practices of the Brahman only serve to underscore his spiritual authority and his caste purity.
As an ideology, wrestling goes beyond the bounds of a caste model by appealing to a visionary—but no less real—social ethic. Being nonsectarian, and outside the bounds of caste relations, wrestlers are not conscripted by the terms of hierarchy. By adopting the somatic practices of world renunciation, the wrestler effectively realigns the relational categories which structure the caste ideology. The regimen of wrestling juxtaposes sannyas ascetics to worldly nationalism. What is most intriguing about this relationship is that the ideology of wrestling accommodates the individuality of sannyas and defines for it a social role which transcends the bounds of caste. This works not because of an active protest against caste values, but because of a tacit and covert realignment of the dominant ideology’s primary coordinates. Within the scheme of wrestling the conceptual framework of caste relations is replaced by a utopian vision of national ideals. Here, as we will see in the next chapter, the individual is accorded a preeminent position as the embodiment of moral, physical, and spiritual strength. The value of individuality is thereby recast in the light of somatic reform.
In his discussion of the Chamar ideology, Khare observes that the vocation of sannyas is like “walking on the sharp edge of a sword” (1984: 68). The sannyasi must step carefully so as not to become mired in the world of sensory illusion. When wrestlers reflect on their avocation they say it is a “bitter cup” or “like chewing iron chana.” Unlike the sannyasi who steps out of the world to achieve his goal of self-realization, the wrestler takes on the world as a domain for moral action. Both walk a similar path but in different directions, in relation to different points, and with quite different consequences.