Like shakti, bhakti has a general meaning from which the wrestlers derive specific significance for their everyday lives. Broadly defined, bhakti is a form of spiritual devotion which entails a mystical or ecstatic experience of divine love. It is a dominant theme in Tulasi Das’sRamacaritamanasa (Babineau 1979: 133–192; R. K. Tripathi 1977: 125–140). Since bhakti is a highly individualized form of adoration which involves a mystical and ineffable union with god, it is difficult to say what the experience of bhakti means to the enraptured devotee. In general, however, ultimate bhakti, like the experience of mystical bliss, is total absorption into the godhead; an experience of total release and total dependence on divine grace. A bhakta takes great pleasure in singing the praises of god. Tulasi Das enumerates nine frames of reference for the bhakta: 1) fraternity with sannyasis; 2) concentration on the lila (play) of the god; 3) service to the guru; 4) singing god’s praises; 5) reciting the name of god; 6) self-control and abnegation; 7) seeing the world as part of god, god in the world, and honoring the saint as greater even than god; 8) contentment with one’s lot; and 9) complete, blissful but emotionless surrender to god (R. K. Tripathi 1977: 133).
What is most significant about bhakti is that it articulates a spiritual attitude which goes beyond mere supplication and ritual to define a whole religious personality. One is never just occasionally a bhakta: bhakti is a way of life. In the Ramacaritamanasa, Lakshman, Bharat, Vibhishan, and Sita are all said to have devotional love for Ram. However, it is Hanuman who most deeply personifies a pervasive attitude of pure bhakti (Raghaveshananda 1980; Sridattasarma 1966).
As Wolcott has pointed out, Hanuman’s shakti derives directly fromhis adoration of Lord Ram (1978: 660). In the Tulasi Ramayana, Hanuman attributes everything—his jump to Lanka, his skill as a wrestler-warrior, and his wisdom—to Ram. On their first meeting in the Kishkindha forest, Hanuman falls at the feet of Ram and vows his undying devotion. Throughout the Ramacaritamanasa Hanuman is described as “thinking on Ram” or “keeping the image of Ram in his mind’s eye” before embarking on any task. Perhaps the most telling depiction of Hanuman’s bhakti is the following well-known story from the Ramayana: Sita gives Hanuman a garland which she had been given previously by Ram. Examining the gift, Hanuman finds that Ram’s name is not inscribed on the garland. He proceeds to tear the garland apart and eat it. When asked why he did this he explains that nothing is of use to him unless inscribed with the name of Ram. Asked why he does not then abandon his body, Hanuman tears open his chest to reveal Ram and Sita seated in his heart.
In another scene from the Ramayana, as interpreted by Rajesh Dixit (1978: 81), Hanuman falls at Ram’s feet after returning from his sojourn to Lanka. Wanting to embrace Hanuman, Ram tells him to get off his feet. But Hanuman refuses saying that he would not risk the pride that such an act would foster in his heart. He would rather remain a humble suppliant at the feet of his Lord.
For the wrestler, the lesson of Hanuman’s bhakti towards Ram is very clear. Just as Hanuman is helpless without the shakti he derives from his love for Ram, so the wrestler is powerless without a similar commitment of devotion to Hanuman. Hanuman’s relationship to Ram provides a model for the wrestler’s general attitude of adoration towards Hanuman.
For many people Hanuman provides a conduit through which they may experience Ram’s love. For the wrestler, however, Hanuman is himself the primary object of devotion and prayer. Although there are wrestlers for whom Hanuman worship is the express focus of single aspects of their lives—singing hymns, performing puja every morning, fasting on Saturdays—for the vast majority of wrestlers, bhakti is adopted as an integral but unselfconscious aspect of everyday life. It is neither restricted by time or place, nor limited to event or institution. What this means may be explained as taking on a devotional attitude towards the routine of life: a mundane, bhakti personality. The wrestler seeks to live his life as though every thought is of Hanuman and every breath a devotional prayer. However, he must do this as he goes about his daily routine: walking to work, working, exercising, resting, and eating. As previously indicated, wrestlers must keep the image of Hanuman fixed in their mind’s eye when they exercise. As one wrestler explained, this gives one “peace of mind.” Thinking of Hanuman, there is almost nothing that a wrestler cannot do. But should he not hold the image of Hanuman in his heart, exercise and training will be of no use. The same principle holds true for other aspects of life.
A wrestler who owns a business must conduct his affairs in a way which is in keeping with a general attitude of bhakti. For example one wrestler who owns a pan stall has transformed his shop into a quasi-shrine by painting it a holy ochre tint and filling it with pictures of Hanuman, Shiva, and other gods. More importantly, he sings hymns as he conducts his business. Other wrestlers do not affect a formal religious attitude to this extent but they do point out that as they go about delivering milk, selling coal, or trading buffalos they try to keep their heart and mind focused on Hanuman.
Bhakti entails contemplation of Hanuman’s character, and Hanuman’s character is revealed through his deeds as described in the Ramacaritamanasa. Just as Hanuman’s superhuman strength provides a model for the wrestler’s physical aspirations, Hanuman’s bhakti provides a model for contemplation. To “think on Hanuman”—as wrestlers are want to say—is to think of the power of his love for Ram. While ecstatic bhakti entails the fervent singing of hymns, the bhakti of the wrestler’s everyday life revolves around the recitation of memorized verses from the Ramacaritamanasa or the popular Hanuman Chalisa. It is common to hear wrestlers and other bhaktas reciting poetic stanzas under their breath as they sit in their shops or go about their business. The recitation of poetic stanzas not only articulates the bhakta’s devotion, the verses themselves often underscore the nature of Hanuman’s bhakti:
Enraptured in Lord’s deeds fore e’er thou art, Dwelling in Ram, Lakshman and Sita’s heart.
All that on earth one finds hard to do, Simple becomes when one is blessed with you.
All suffering and all anguish of deep pain, End when one dwells on mighty Hanuman’s name.
Distress shall end, all anguish cease as well, When on mighty Hanuman your mind will dwell.
Hanuman’s bhakti not only provides a model for the wrestler’s general attitude towards his everyday life, it also provides a model for his relationship to his guru. As pointed out previously, the guru-chela relationship is paramount in the akhara. A wrestler must surrender himself to the service of his guru. Service of this sort—rubbing his feet, washing his clothes, running his errands—is not intended as an obligation but as an act of devotion. There are many stories of Hanuman’s exploits which illustrate his bhakti-service to Lord Ram. One in particular will serve as an example.
Hanuman’s service to Ram was so complete that Lakshman, Sita, Shatrugan, and Bharat found themselves unable to do anything for their Lord. They were unable to show their devotion. They decided that to be fair everyone would be assigned a particular duty through which they could serve Ram. As the duties were divided up, Hanuman was left off the roster. Sita asked him how he felt about this and Hanuman said, “It is service enough that I should sing the praises of Ram whenever my Lord yawns.” Everyone agreed to this. Because no one could tell when Ram would yawn, Hanuman had to stay with him at all times, a situation which pleased Hanuman to no end. The others were disgruntled since Hanuman was in the enviable position of not only being with Ram at all times but right in front of him, looking into his face to be sure that no yawn went unnoticed. Lakshman, Bharat, and the others told Hanuman that this would not do. Rather than protest, however, Hanuman went and sat in a corner of the palace and started endlessly singing Ram’s praises. When asked what he was doing, he explained that since he no longer knew when Ram would yawn he simply had to sing Ram’s praises all the time in order to perform his duty. Seeing Hanuman singing with such devotion, Ram was moved to tears and could not ask his bhakta to stop. When Lakshman and the others asked Hanuman to desist, he replied saying that he would comply only if no restrictions were put on his service to the Lord. The others had no option but to agree to this bhakti blackmail.
Like Hanuman and his compatriots, wrestlers compete for the honor of being of greatest service to their guru. A wonderful story is told about how, as a young disciple, Guru Ram Singh served his own guru. One day Ram Singh’s guru needed some special dal and asked his ward to go and fetch half a kilogram from the market. Ram Singh dashed off and searched every store in the market but was not able to find the required item. He was told that such dal was only found in Calcutta. Off went Ram Singh to the train station and bought a ticket to the city. He returned three days later, half a kilogram of dal in hand, and went immediately to his guru’s house. His guru, not a little perturbed, asked what had taken so long, and Ram Singh explained. Rather than being rebuked for his impertinence at having wasted time and money for such an insignificant amount of dal, Ram Singh was praised by his guru for having provided such selfless service.
Although service manifests itself in practical ways, it is also reflected in less tangible form through living a moral and righteous life, coming early to the akhara, and hanging on one’s guru’s every word.
Since the persona of the guru is divine, service to one’s guru is indeed an act of supplication, a religious duty. Just as the wrestler is enjoined to keep the image of Hanuman in mind, so must he think upon his guru. One wrestler went so far as to say, “As we worship Hanuman, so we worship the guru. It is the same thing.” This is, in fact, understandable, since Hanuman is not only the wrestler’s ishta devta (primary deity) but also his sat guru (true or great guru). From the suppliant’s perspective, the distinction between guru and deity is simply a matter of degree. In every instance that puja was done in front of the Hanuman shrine at Akhara Ram Singh, a framed portrait of the founding guru was brought out and placed next Hanuman’s image. The two figures comprise an indivisible pair.
In general, Hanuman’s devotion to Ram provides a clear and pragmatic model for the incorporation of bhakti into everyday life. Hanuman embodies many of the devotional virtues to which wrestlers subscribe.