The primary connotation of the term shakti is the life force that maintains the universe. Woodroffe (1929) has provided a complete analysis of the concept through a theological interpretation of scriptural references. It is not my purpose here to enter into a discussion of the theological nature of shakti and shakti worship. My concern is with the wrestlers’ conception of shakti as manifest in Hanuman.
Although shakti denotes a purely metaphysical concept of divine power, it is also used to articulate more basic human experiences. Shakti can refer to the abstract aura of cosmic creation and the attendant metaphors of divine procreation reflected in the union of Shiva/Shakti. More often it is used as a generic term to refer to any form of energy or power. In her discussion of shakti in village ritual life, Wadley has made this point clearly. Anything which is regarded as capable of exerting a force over human actions is thought to have shakti. What distinguishes shakti from bal (brute force and raw strength) is that shakti transcends the merely physical nature of power (1975: 55).
Wadley uses an unfortunate analogy to illustrate the distinction between shakti and bal. She says that bal is like a wrestler’s strength, whereas shakti is a divine quality (ibid: 59). While in principle the distinction holds true, in fact many wrestlers associate their strength with the latent and pervasive power of divine shakti. Wrestlers often make a distinction between their strength as shakti and the mundane bal of a manual laborer such as a rickshaw puller or construction worker. As one wrestler explained, shakti is like a latent resource upon which one can draw for strength. Bal, on the other hand, is purely active energy in the sense that it is manifest only in an actual event in which force is exerted. Trying to explain the nature of shakti, J. K. Pathak, a wrestler and one-time professor of physical education at Banaras Hindu University, used the analogy of horsepower. Shakti, he said, is the potential energy of any object. Shakti can be reflected as bal, but bal is only a fraction of the sum of an object’s total potential energy. Shakti itself is made manifest on those occasions when the purely physical is transcended or when bal is so great as to have supernatural proportion.
Wrestlers often use the term shakti very loosely, largely because from their perspective strength is never a purely physical property. For instance, a strong wrestler is said to have great shakti. A person who eats large amounts of ghi is also said to have shakti by virtue of his abnormal capacity. Nevertheless, when the term is used explicitly and self-consciously to describe a phenomenal event, it is clear that shakti is regarded as emanating from a confluence of physical strength, devotion, self-realization, and self-control. Shakti-shali is used to describe the radiance of a wrestler’s body, the gleam in his eye, his passive and devout disposition and also the size of his neck, arms, and thighs. A strong person who does not lead a good and moral life is not regarded as having shakti. Thugs, bullies, and gang leaders—anyone who makes a spectacle of his strength or who uses strength to advance selfish interests—is regarded as physically strong but morally weak, as having bal but not shakti. (Bal is not necessarily pejorative, merely mundane.) Conversely, one does not have to have great bal to have shakti. A relatively thin wrestler may radiate shakti by virtue of his devotion to Hanuman.
Hanuman is regarded as a manifestation of shakti (Wolcott 1978: 58), and in this regard he reflects many of the vital forces associated in other contexts with Nag. Hanuman is the essence of strength and virility. In temples and shrines Hanuman’s image is often found in association with lingams which are clearly symbols of shakti as a creative life force.
The notion of shakti associated with Shiva lingams is somewhat abstract. Lingams represent the cosmic and metaphysical nature of shakti as the agency through which the dynamic force of the universe is maintained. In response to a question on the nature of this shakti, one wrestler simply took me over to a shrine and wafted the air in my direction, asking if I could feel the energy. Beyond the overt sexual symbolism of the phallic lingam—which is itself abstracted to a high degree—there is not much in the way of tangible common sense meaning associated with it. The symbolism of the lingam does not evoke a set of meanings which are easily comprehensible in terms of everyday life.
In contrast to the metaphysical and somewhat opaque nature of the energy symbolized by lingams, Hanuman evokes a notion of concrete, manifest shakti. This is not to say that Hanuman’s shakti is different in kind from that of Shiva’s (for Hanuman is in fact his incarnation); Hanuman’s shakti is simply more tangible on a number of levels. For instance, by virtue of his boon of wisdom, Hanuman makes comprehensible the incomprehensible knowledge of Brahma. He reflects a fraction of the sun’s power, thus making what is beyond compare comparable. By being as fast as the wind he gives form to what is formless. Hanuman’s power falls on a liminal plane between the supernatural and the merely human. His feats are superhuman but still natural. What this means is that Hanuman functions as a mediating symbol through which human actions can be regarded in terms of divine shakti. For the wrestler this is very important. Through Hanuman he can see the divine nature of his own strength.
Hanuman is often depicted as a strong-bodied warrior-bhakta, mace in one hand, mountain in the other. Popular calendar art shows Hanuman in graphic, technicolor detail, with a golden-red, muscled body of larger-than-life proportions striking terror into the hearts of Lanka’s rank and file. Wrestlers identify with these visual representations, but more than anything else it is the popular verses from Tulasi Das’s Ramacaritamanasa which evoke the meaning of shakti.
One morning at Akhara Bara Ganesh I was introduced to a young man who performed the duties of temple priest by offering prayers and prasad and bathing and clothing Lord Hanuman. A few of the members sitting with me under the pipal tree next to the well called the priest over and asked him to sing a few verses for them. One man explained that the young priest had one of the best voices in the area and could sing praises to Lord Hanuman like no one else. The priest obliged with a rendition of some verses from the Ramacaritamanasa. As he sang the wrestlers reclined on the cement dais around the pipal, and, massaging one another and rubbing off the akhara earth from their bodies, receded into the revery of a vision invoked by the priest’s vibrato voice. Every time the priest stopped, pleading voices asked for more, until he was finally able to make his escape. Still singing softly, now to himself, he went over to where a small gada lay and started swinging it steadily, allowing each pendulum swing to punctuate the meter of his verse until the exertion took its toll and the hymn faded into the exercise and strength that it recalled in deeds glorified by visionary poetics:
For the wrestler listening to these and countless other verses, Hanuman’s shakti is both fabulous and yet fundamentally comprehensible in terms of everyday notions of strength, courage and bravery. As Hanuman uproots a mountain, so a wrestler lifts up his opponent. As Hanuman’s body radiates with a sun like glow, so the wrestler imagines his own body to be a lustrous icon of strength. As Hanuman battles with the demon-generals of Ravana’s army, so the wrestler pits himself against his opponents.
Says Tulasi, in the sky with that
great tail extended shone he,
Seeing him the warriors gibbered,
he was as terrible as Death,
As a treasury of Brightness,
as a thousand fiery suns,
His claws were terrifying,
his face all red with anger.
Thereupon, Hanuman became as huge as a mountain, with a body of golden hue and splendid majesty like that of a second mountain king. Roaring like a lion again and again, he cried, “I shall leap across the salt ocean; it is child’s play to me! When I have slain Ravana and all his allies, I shall come back here with Mount Trikuta uprooted” (Kishkindha 4. 29, in Wolcott 1978: 658).
A wrestler can never hope to become as strong or courageous as Hanuman. Nevertheless, through him the terms of strength and courage are made manifest in graphic detail. Hanuman represents the translation of abstract supernatural power—the cosmic notion of shakti—into more accessible but no less dramatic terms. Hanuman’s strength, while it may appear to be purely physical, is, in essence, the direct result of devotion and self-control.