Milk is the central ingredient of a wrestler’s diet. A wrestler is stereotyped as a thickset man who can consume buckets and buckets of milk. K. P. Singh writes of the properties of milk:
Wrestlers clearly associate milk with both physical strength and sexual virility. Milk, however, develops virility without igniting the fires of sexual passion. As Singh points out, surplus energy is channeled away from “other forms of satisfaction.” Sensual feelings are redirected into physical exercise, and milk contributes to this transformation. Milk is the essence of condensed energy: “Wanting to develop his strength, Lord Krishna went about the following procedure. He fed the milk of ten thousand cows to one thousand cows. He then milked these one thousand cows and fed their milk to one hundred other cows. He milked these one hundred and fed their milk to ten cows and finally fed the milk of these ten to one cow. Krishna then drank this cow’s milk whereby he in fact ingested the combined energy of 11,111 cows” (Atreya 1972a: 33). On this plane there is an obvious parallel between wrestlers and snakes: both are characterized as extraordinary drinkers of milk. In order to understand what it means to feed milk to both snakes and to wrestlers it is necessary to first analyze the symbolic properties of milk.
In order to reinvigorate oneself after exercise one should drink milk. . . . The strong substance of milk products imparts strength and valor. The mind becomes healthy and refurbished. Discipline is established and one becomes attentive. After a few days of exercise all other forms of satisfaction are channeled into strength. Surplus energy is sublimated and given a productive and beautiful outlet. Milk is like the anchor of a ship which allows the vessel to bob on the waves but prevents it from sinking (1973: 31).
In Hindu myth and ritual, milk—particularly cow’s milk—is one of the purest fluids. In its symbolic character it is purely female (O’Flaherty 1980: 36). Significantly, milk is linked to more general themes of female fertility and creative energy. In the Vedas milk is referred to as vrsnyam payas, or virile “seed-like” milk (ibid: 21). The implication here is that women’s milk is female seed (the idea of a female seed being quite common in Indian mythology) and that therefore it is clearly the symbolic opposite of male semen. In Vedic literature, semen is sometimes referred to as sukram payas, bright milk (ibid: 23). In general, O’Flaherty argues that milk and semen are linked on the level of “secondary metaphorical applications” wherein they refer to “rain, water, Soma (ritual elixir), oblation and child” (ibid: 24). Zimmermann has also pointed out that “the thick fluidity and whiteness of milk resembles phlegm, semen and ojas, the vital fluid. It shares their properties, heavy, sweet, cold, unctuous” (1988: 204). Milk, however, is not just semen; it is a special kind of semen. According to the Satapatha Brahmana, milk is the semen of Agni, the god of fire (ibid: 205). Thus, again, there is a sharp distinction made between the fire of passion and the nature of semen as a sexual, though non-erotic, fluid; a dissociation of agency from substance. It is on this level in particular that the symbolic link is made between semen and milk in the everyday world of the wrestler’s life. Milk is consumed by men to enhance virility (O’Flaherty 1980: 51–52). To wrestlers, for whom virility is linked to the development of physical prowess and personal character, milk contributes to one’s growing reserve of semen.
While milk has important symbolic properties, the act of milking is no less significant. As O’Flaherty has pointed out, milking is likened to intercourse where semen is milked out of the male and mixed with the female seed to create life (ibid: 21, 24). This idea fits with the notion that men can be “milked” of their strength through contact with the wrong sort of passionate women. In this regard the dual properties of milk as symbolizing both male and female essence becomes important. If a man is milked of his semen/milk it is symmetrical for him to milk and consume the female milk/seed to restore the balance of his own supply. In this symbolic chemistry it is important to note that blood is the common denominator of both milk and semen. Although blood is regarded as a generative fluid associated with many aspects of the body, it is most directly linked to semen and milk. Many young wrestlers who live in fear of involuntary semen loss express the common belief that one drop of semen is equal to sixty drops of blood (cf. Carstairs 1958; Obeyesekere 1976: 213; O’Flaherty 1980: 36).
As pointed out above, the snake represents two aspects of sexuality: the phallic male and dangerous female. In this capacity, given what has been said about milk and milking, the image of feeding milk to snakes on Nag Panchami can be interpreted in two significant ways. On one level the act of milking is reversed. The phallic snake reingests, as it were, the symbolic semen that it has been milked of. As the phallus gives up semen/milk it takes it back in the form of milk/semen, just as the breast which gives up milk/semen takes in semen/milk (see Klein 1948 for a discussion of the “breast that feeds itself” [O’Flaherty 1980: 44]). Here the image of Shesha Nag or Ananta, the ouroboros serpent who holds up the world, provides a clear motif of this sexuality turned in upon itself. Ananta—the “endless one”—is depicted as a snake eating or sucking on its own tail: as the male and female dimensions of the snake collapse, milk becomes semen and energy moves in a perpetual circle. It is perfectly symmetrical in this respect that in the Mahabharata version of this myth (Adi-parvan, chap. 36), Ananta is depicted as a sannyasi who wants nothing more than to “delight in righteousness, tranquillity and asceticism” (Vogel 1926: 57). The self-contained, enlightening energy of yogic kundalini power, likened by some to internal ejaculation, is equivalent, on a symbolic plane, to the alchemical recycling of milk/semen/milk. As O’Flaherty has pointed out, the ouroboros snake is a symbol of the paradoxical Mobius universe which is infinite but self-contained (1984: 242–243).
On another level, it must not be forgotten that snakes often represent dangerous female sexuality, and in this capacity poison is one manifestation of female passion. One may argue, I think, that poison is the symbolic opposite of milk: it takes life where milk gives forth life in a number of different ways. As pointed out above, milk is the symbolic opposite of erotic passion and in this formulation it is possible to argue that feeding milk to snakes functions as a neutralizing agency. Dangerous female passion is cooled and rendered less threatening by the symbolic juxtaposition of milk and poison. The poison/milk opposition is here a restatement of the suckling snake motif mentioned above. Sexuality is invoked so as to be controlled.
In this regard it is interesting that sannyasis or yogis, by virtue of their complete control over the flow of their seed, are said to have power over snakes (O’Flaherty 1973: 279; 1980: 54). They are immune to poison by virtue of the overwhelming store of semen they have accumulated through their devout celibacy. Moreover, yogis are said to be able to turn poison into seed: to make that which is destructive into a creative force (1980: 54).
Wrestlers identify with yogis on many counts, but particularly as regards their ability to control and channel the flow of semen. In this capacity the image of the milk-drinking snake serves as a motif, albeit reversed, of the alchemy which yogis and wrestlers are meant to effect. Although wrestlers do not necessarily feed milk to snakes, the celebration of wrestling as a way of life on Nag Panchami is the symbolic transformation of destructive poisonous power into creative physical energy.
As has been noted, wrestlers drink enormous quantities of milk as part of their diet. Milk is not consumed in a ritualized way as it is by snakes on Nag Panchami, but nevertheless the parallels are clear. Milk builds up a wrestler’s semen reserve, but it also cools his passion, just as milk neutralizes poison. Having built up his supply of semen, however, a wrestler is not only able to neutralize the poison of passion; like the sannyasi, he can turn poison back into semen. He is supervirile but sexually passive and controlled. Milk contributes directly to this powerful conundrum.