Having already noted the central place of ghi in the wrestler’s dietary regimen, we may now consider ghi within the symbolic context of Nag Panchami ritual. In the conceptual framework of wrestling, ghi is related to semen in a specific way. Atreya makes the following point: “There are many things which are as rich and oily as ghi but they do not have resilience. The semen and strength which is produced from these things is not stable. Ghi is the only thing which can keep your strength up and produce oj [the aura of virility]. The strength that ghi fosters is resilient. It is not like other things which produce semen only to let it flow to destruction” (1984: 23). To a wrestler ghi represents the essence of semen which is held inside the body. This is not the semen of virile passion, it is the semen of physical, moral and spiritual strength.
In the above discussion of milk and snakes, milk was seen to have certain ambiguous qualities: purely female yet symbolic of semen. This ambiguity translates into various powerful motifs when related to the symbolic themes of consumption and control. When ghi is taken into account this motif is developed further. Even though ghi is not fed to snakes, the logic of how ghi relates to milk and semen is relevant here.
Just as ghi is the distillate of milk, its essence, so semen is thought to be the distilled essence of food and blood (O’Flaherty 1980: 49). The guru of Akhara Ram Singh drew a telling analogy. “Semen is like ghi,” he said. “Just like ghi fuels the dias (lamps) of religious worship, so does semen fuel the fire of one’s own body.” Even more so than milk, ghi is consumed to enhance virility by contributing to one’s store of semen (cf. Carstairs 1958: 166; O’Flaherty 1980: 52).
Although ghi is expressly seminal as it relates to the male body, it is androgynous as a gender symbol: it is the essence of masculine potency but, as the distillate of milk, ultimately female (O’Flaherty 1980: 23, 25). The agency associated with the symbolism of milk/semen is the act of milking. In the symbolism of ghi, the agency is also milking (as ghi is drawn out of milk [cf. O’Flaherty 1980: 29]), but, more significantly, also churning, wherein milk is made into butter (O’Flaherty 1976: 334–335; 1980: 28). Churning symbolism is crucial to an understanding of what ghi means as an androgynous symbol. Whereas to a certain extent milking refers to sexual union and the drawing out of essence, churning, more often than not, refers to unilateral creation wherein a male or female brings forth life by churning their own fluids (O’Flaherty 1976: 333–334). Even in instances where churning is taken as a metaphor for coitus, the image employed is of mixing together, not milking out or taking essence away. Significantly, the metaphor of milking implies only a transfer of substance, whereas churning clearly demands a change of substance, but without addition or subtraction. In this respect, then, milk symbolizes either male or female seed, whereas ghi represents a kind of mutated androgynous fluid that is potent but asexual in the sense of already having been churned.
In the Mahabharata it is significant that churning is associated with creation. More to the point, however, the ocean of milk, which is churned to bring forth life, is the substance of unilateral creation which flows endlessly from the udder of the earth-cow (O’Flaherty 1980: 43). To churn the ocean the gods use a parallel symbol of contained sexuality—Ananta, the endless snake.
In a number of the mythic references to unilateral procreation the child is born through the agency of thigh rubbing or thigh churning. For instance, Aurva is born from Urva’s thigh (O’Flaherty 1980: 227). O’Flaherty also points out that the symbolism of thigh churning is related, etymologically, to churning butter from milk (ibid: 28). What is significant about thigh churning is that it alludes to the power of sexual potency without calling into play any form of overt sexual agency. Intercourse is preempted. Thus, with regard to wrestlers and ascetics, for whom asexuality is a physicomoral virtue, the power of sexuality is clearly recognized while chastity itself is never threatened.
Mythic reference to thigh churning suggests an intriguing parallel with wrestling. While wrestlers are concerned with the size of their body as a whole, they place a great deal of importance on the size of their thighs. This is particularly significant since wrestlers place absolutely no positive value on the size of their genitalia. In fact, wrestlers who have larger genitalia than others are considered somewhat deviant and are suspected of promiscuity and unchecked passion.
In expressing a wrestler’s stature a person gestures the girth of the wrestler’s thigh with his outstretched hands. More significantly, wrestlers slap their thighs as an aggressive gesture presaging a bout. They rub their thighs while exercising. (In two akharas I visited thigh slapping is prohibited, ostensibly because it aggressively challenges the founding guru to a wrestling bout, but also, on a symbolic level, because it brings sexuality too close to the akhara precinct.) One might interpret this thigh slapping/rubbing/measuring as penis fixation except for the fact that the manipulation of one’s thigh is an act of androgynous agency while the manipulation of one’s penis is, even in the instance of masturbation, a directed act of sexuality which is, by definition, only half of a whole: either heterosexual or homosexual but never androgynous.
As representing androgynous sexual energy, ghi serves as a neutral source of energy. It contains the vital shakti of sexuality—both male and female—without posing any real threat of erotic destruction. Milk, associated clearly with women, is implicated in contrasted sexuality: either male or female. As a distillate of milk, ghi collapses the contrast of sexual opposition. Metaphorically, a wrestler can rub his thighs all he wants, for churning represents self-contained energy, not energy spent. The case of the two akharas which prohibit thigh slapping serves as an exception which seems to support the rule.
While milk and milk products are generally regarded as “cool” in the hot/cold paradigm of food classification, ghi is regarded by many wrestlers as the essence of “coolness.” I was told that a person suffering from intoxication, sunstroke, or “madness” ought to be fed ghi as this would counteract the heat causing the particular malady. I asked if milk or cream also had the same effect and was told, emphatically, no. Cream in particular aggravates intoxication by enraging one’s passion. It is interesting that snakes are not fed ghi. The reason, I think, is that ghi would, in a symbolic sense, neutralize the dual sexuality of snakes. In contrast to ghi, milk can be either male semen or female seed, but never both at once. Thus a snake drinking milk symbolizes the resolution of opposites. Ghi by itself, having been churned from milk also represents this same opposition but without reference to the poisonous, dangerous aspect of sexuality. Ghi is in essence symbolically equivalent to Ananta, the endless ascetic snake. For a snake to drink ghi, therefore, would be to mix metaphors and render the act redundant at best and at worst meaningless. Ghi would, in effect, cool the snakes passion but with an end result of impotence rather than contained virility. In the instances where ghi is associated with snakes one is more likely to find that it is juxtaposed to venom spent (unleashed passion) rather than to the latent sexuality symbolized by the poison inside the snake. The poison of latent sexuality is, more often than not, juxtaposed against milk. Poison spent must be rendered harmless, while passion held in check must be contained and regenerated.
Wrestlers drink milk, but this does not mean that they are snakelike in their character. The motif of the milk-drinking snake in effect represents the logic of the wrestler’s own body of contained sexuality. The snake is a sign of the wrestler’s latent passion while the milk the snake drinks is the wrestler’s semen. Turned in itself, passion becomes power and virtue rather than lust and greed. As has been argued, ghi duplicates this imagery without reference to the snake agency. Unlike a snake a wrestler can drink ghi without cooling his passion to the point of impotence. This is because he drinks ghi to enrich his semen, an act which symbolically preempts the whole issue of sexuality since ghi is never sucked up or milked out. It is only mixed in with or churned out from milk. As the guru of Akhara Ram Singh explained, ghi fuels the internal fire of the wrestler’s body. Milk can be consumed and retained to build semen, but it can just as easily flow and be sucked out. Ghi is more resilient and therefore a more apt symbol of asexual, non-erotic virility.