The Wrestler in the World: Contradiction and Paradox
While wrestlers recognize the moral virtue of world renunciation, they are confronted with a paradox that manifests itself in various ways. Broadly put, the problem for the wrestler is how to live a moral social life while trying to subscribe to values which define social life as basically (if not egregiously) immoral and unhealthy. Can a wrestler live with his wife and be celibate? Can he eat rich and expensive foods and still dissociate himself from sensory pleasure? Can he raise a family and be immune from concerns for prestige and social status? Can he earn a living and find time to develop himself as a devout wrestler? Can he develop his body and not become proud and conceited? One wrestler stated the problem as follows:
Many wrestlers expressed similar views. On the issue of food, one explained that wrestlers must be even greater, more ascetic and self-controlled, than sannyasis. Wrestlers fill their stomachs and yet control their desire while sannyasis take the easier route of quenching their desire through fasting or the consumption of bhang. Another wrestler developed this theme further by saying that wrestlers had to work harder at self-conrol than sannyasis because they ate food which produced semen in greater quantities. Some wrestlers explain that a wrestler can control his semen until he has reached the age of thirty or thirty-five, at which point he would have to marry and have children. I was told a story of the great wrestler Dara Singh, who became so strong at a young age that his family and friends quickly arranged his marriage in order to prevent the somatic equivalent of a nuclear meltdown.
A wrestler’s life is like that of a sadhu. The sadhu lives in his hermitage. He worships and does his prayers. A wrestler lives in his house and is entangled in the world of maya (illusion). He is in the grihastha ashrama. Even in this condition he must control himself. The sadhu lives apart from the world. The wrestler lives in his house but he must dissociate himself from the concerns of a householder. He must close his eyes to it and wrestle. The wrestler is equivalent to the sadhu because they must both remove themselves from the grihastha ashrama and be absorbed in god. And yet the wrestler is tied to his family. He must live close to his wife and yet turn away from temptation. A person will never be a wrestler until he becomes like a sadhu and averts his eyes and closes his mouth to the world.
It is important to note here that worldly asceticism is not intrinsically paradoxical; rationalizations of one sort or another abound. Van der Veer (1989) has noted that many Ramanandi sannyasis are wealthy, and that in an extended sense this can be seen as part of the larger program of ascetic devotion to Ram. Elements of a similar sort of worldly rationalization can be seen in the masti of the Chaube Brahmans of Mathura (Lynch 1990: 91–115). Chaubes also wrestle, but like Nagas who wrestle as ascetics, Chaubes (or at least some Chaubes) wrestle primarily as emotionally invigorated Brahmans. There is a devotional component to the Chaubes’ masti, whereby aspects of ascetic ideals are given ligitimate, worldly form. What the wrestling ideology does is to force the issue of asceticism in relation to grihastha religiosity into a sharp dichotomy of either this worldly moral and physical weakness—where emotion and wealth, among other things, are false consciousness—or otherworldly health and strength, where pure consciousness is asocial. On the level of the body in particular, the wrestler is likely to see things in black-and-white, either-or terms. In this regard the wrestler would certainly agree with Dumont, even if Dumont is wrong.
Speaking on a philosophical level, one wrestler suggested that while sannyasis abide by their karma (moral work), wrestlers abide by their kriya karma (active moral work). He continued this line of thinking by saying that wrestlers and sannyasis are alike in all but the nature of the “work” that they do. From the context of the discussion it was clear that the primary distinction being made was that a wrestler’s “work” is in the nature of a social avocation, or civic duty, whereas the moral work of a sannyasi is independent of any sort of social responsibility. In this regard wrestlers are clearly in step with Gandhi.
One aspect of the type of work which a wrestler is called upon to do is, in the words of K. P. Singh, to turn others into wrestlers and eventually to reform the social order through such “missionary” efforts. A wrestler is, to borrow a phrase used more often in Christendom, an “evangelical.” Here the role of the guru is important, for although all wrestlers are called upon to perform their moral work, it is the guru whose missionary efforts are most important and effective. The guru, who is more often than not also a great wrestler, performs his moral work by founding an akhara. As the members grow up and achieve a level of competence, maturity, and fame, they branch off and open akharas of their own. The generalized work of all wrestlers combined thus becomes national in proportion through the compounding agency of geometric progression.
Of all the worldly concerns that a wrestler must reconcile himself to, the most important is marriage and having children. I have pointed out that intense value is placed on the strict practice of brahmacharya, which serves as a moral paradigm for the wrestler; it symbolizes his subscription to ascetic values. Significantly, it is also a unique reinterpretation of brahmacharya that serves to keep the wrestler in the world. A common phrase among wrestlers is ek nari, brahmachari, which means that one can be married to one woman and still be celibate. As I was told repeatedly, a wrestler may marry so long as his overall attitude towards sex and sensuality does not change. He may have sex with his wife, but only for reproduction and not for sensual gratification. For the wrestler, sex is work; it produces children and is justified only in this regard. There is a general sense that the children produced by the agency of moral sex will be healthier and more civic-minded than other children.
Aside from considerations of sex and sexuality, marriage draws a wrestler inextricably into the worldly status of a householder. He must earn a living, raise a family and educate his children. In an article entitled “What is a Wrestler’s Home Life Like?” (1986), Munna interviews the wives of three well-known wrestlers. Not surprisingly, all three wives say that wrestling has not undermined their family status, which is to say, their husbands are good husbands and good wrestlers. They exercise and train hard and also provide for their families. Significantly, each of the three women says that the family is stronger by virtue of the husband’s avocation. Because of the husband’s prestige as a wrestler, the family has earned social status and public respect. The general thesis of Munna’s article is corroborated by many of the wrestlers I interviewed. Wrestling improves the quality of one’s family life by making the householder fit and healthy. The moral principles of wrestling are extended to include the larger family unit within the domain of worldly asceticism.
K. P. Singh develops this point in some detail. He points out thatgreat Indian leaders like Gandhi and M. M. Malaviya were married but were nevertheless brahmacharis (1972a: 30). He argues for the integration of moral virtue into social life.
Using Gandhi as an example, K. P. Singh argues for the incorporation of ascetic values into the practices of everyday life. When so translated, the practice of brahmacharya clearly becomes an ethical practice with sociomoral implications. For the wrestler, living in the world as a householder, the appeal is to have a family which is guided by moral principles: to raise children who recognize the value of strength, honesty, devotion, self-respect, and humility, and who are able to channel their emotions away from the intoxication of self-indulgent sensual gratification and towards a feeling of obligation to society at large (Atreya 1973a: 24). Although no wrestler with whom I spoke made the association, there is a clear parallel, I think, between what wrestlers advocate and the position held by moral reformers of the late eighteenth and early twentieth century such as Sri Aurobindo and Sri Ramkrishna’s missionary disciple, Vivekananda. Of particular interest in this regard are Sri Aurobindo’s statements on the spirituality of physical education (A. Ghose 1949, 1954; A. Ghose and The Mother 1967).
Gandhi controlled himself, kept himself in check and was a brahmachari. He was a great saint and a reformist. He freed the nation. And Gandhi’s discipline of self-control was not contrived. . . . His was the work of the world and he would shoulder his burden of work taking only the name of god for support. Gandhi was greater than Shankaracharya. Shankaracharya advocated the complete separation of men and women, but Gandhi said that all men and women should be as brother and sister. He also said that the primary relationship between a man and a woman is that of mother and son. . . . What an excellent method for uprooting the evil of sensuality! What a grand vision! What insight to turn sensuality into a feeling of respect and honor! We must all live in society and we all must purge the evils of social life from our thoughts. Morality must, instead, fill our minds. Shankaracharya did not make the common people of India his disciples whereas Gandhi had tens of thousands of followers. We must tire our bodies, focus our minds and cleanse our thoughts. We must adopt commitment and independence as our way of life (ibid: 31).
Unlike the sannyasi who has turned his back on the ethical problems of social life (as in K. P. Singh’s characterization of Shankaracharya’s contrived asceticism), the wrestler has a clearly defined—though certainly visionary—social purpose. Not only is the wrestler embedded in social life, he is responsible for setting an ethical standard. He must be honest, humble, duty-bound, hard-working, principled and fair. He must be physically fit. In the process he takes personal responsibility for precisely those things which the sannyasi regards as illusionary.