Ascetic Wrestlers: Agents of Utopian Reform
In wrestling rhetoric the sannyasi provides a model for the duty-bound missionary wrestler. As K. P. Singh writes,
As the sannyasi stands apart from the world yet is integrated into life as a spiritual teacher, so the wrestler is integrated into social life as an ethical reformer.
Practice self-denial. Go to the villages. Be an ascetic for your work. Spread the word and do it with missionary zeal. If a wrestler only gives a fraction of himself and goes to the villages, thousands of young people will crowd around him and dig an akhara. The roots will then run deep and it will not take long to build up a tower of moral and physical strength (1972c: 47).
Perhaps the single most important aspect of the sannyasi’s character is his detachment from worldly concerns. As such, he is the mirror opposite of the debauched everyman whose obsession with commodities, fashion, and sensual gratification is so expressly worldly in a gross, modern way. In this regard the sannyasi-like wrestler heralds in a new era of somatic ethics. Just as the hedonistic everyman embodies the affliction of modernity as personal narcissism, the sannyasi-like wrestler embodies reform in terms of manifestly individualistic ideals. As an eminently individualistic persona, the sannyasi-like wrestler is a perfect citizen of the utopian future.
It is not sufficient for a wrestler to be just a wrestler. If he does not give a portion of his strength back to society will he benefit from his selfishness? What fruit will his effort bear? Even the sannyasi who has retreated from society to the forest has given us learning in the form of scriptures (K. P. Singh 1972–1973: 12).
Given the preponderance of “evils” in modern India and the very conservative interpretation of what poses a moral threat to society, the only effective response is to put the burden of responsibility on the shoulders of each individual. A community of wrestlers cannot hope to censure every film and magazine or shut down every liquor store, tea shop or chat stall. Nor could they realistically hope to organize a campaign against prostitution or shut down the mills which produce synthetic cloth. The nature of the conservatism is too diffuse and the objectionable sources of debauchery too powerful and entrenched. Following the model of the sannyasi, the wrestlers advocate a retreat from the world. Each person must turn into himself as he turns his back on what Rajkumar “Hans” has called the “rotten environment” of an afflicted nation. The idea is not to combat depravity through direct political action but to replant the seeds of reform, as it were, in the body of each person. R. K. Sharma captures this ascetic ideal when he calls on the citizens of India to return to the akharas:
In the utopian vision, wrestling remains a world turned in on itself where character and strength are a feature of personal identity. But as all of the people turn in upon themselves—exercising, praying, eating, drinking milk, and following the mandate of their respective guru—the nation itself becomes an akhara.
Brothers! If we are to revive our true and natural condition. If we are to shatter our naivete; if we are to champion the people’s concern for ethical reform and establish programs for morality in everyday life; if we are to reestablish the primacy of the race through the revival of religious and moral values; if, more than anything else, we are to protect our national freedom, then the most important and crucial task which is before us is to banish once and for all every vestige of carnal sensuality which we secret within us. To do this we must begin immediately to champion the cause of our own fidelity; and to do this we must not rely on the agency of our thoughts alone but on the reconstitution of our bodies as not only healthy, but strong, quick, beautiful and radiant enough to take on the difficult task of ethical reform (n.d.: 4–5).
However abstract and romantic this ideal may seem, it is, in fact, put into practice by some wrestlers. Many wrestlers with whom I spoke emphasized the role they must play in drawing young boys into akharas. The future of the nation is dependent on the degree to which they are able to pass the heritage of wrestling ideals from one generation to the next. They must do this both through active recruitment as well as by straightforward example. It was always with great pride and a sense of deep satisfaction that senior wrestlers—themselves cut in a somewhat ascetic/teacher mold—would show me a group of eight- to ten-year-olds wrestling their way to a better India.