Preferred Citation: Alter, Joseph S. The Wrestler's Body: Identity and Ideology in North India. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.

The Discipline of the Wrestler’s Body


It is a common belief among Hindus that the essence of life is contained in semen (cf. Carstairs 1958; Edwards 1983; Kakar 1982; Obeyesekere 1976; Spratt 1966). Consequently, there is a good deal of anxiety concerning the need to prevent semen from being discharged either voluntarily or involuntarily. For wrestlers the concern is magnified. Not only do they regard semen as the quintessential fluid of life, they also regard it as the very cornerstone of their somatic enterprise. It is the source of all strength, all energy, all knowledge, all skill. Semen fuels the fires of self-realization just as ghi fuels the lamps of devotional worship. Moreover, semen is regarded as a distillate of most other body fluids and substances—blood, marrow, and bone, in particular—and is therefore thought to contain the essence of the whole body within itself (Zimmer 1948). It would not be an exaggeration to say that the single most important aspect of a wrestler’s regimen is his subscription to the absolute tenets of brahmacharya: celibacy and self-control. Atreya makes the following analogy: “Brahmacharya is the essence of life. Just as there is ghi in milk, oil in the til seed and syrup in sugar cane, so is there semen in the body. Like syrup and oil, semen is an essential sap of the human body. A person should guard his semen just as a jeweler guards his most valuable diamonds” (1972b: 25).

In an interview on the subject of brahmacharya, Narayan Singh observed:

We emphasize brahmacharya—never to lose one’s semen. It is the essence of power; the essence of strength; the essence of endurance; the essence of beauty. These days people use powder and all sorts of things to make themselves look good . . . but there is something . . . there must be something to Vivekananda [the missionary of Vedantic Hinduism and devout follower of Ramakrishna]. . . . I think if you stand in front of a statue of Gotham Buddha [perhaps the most perfect exemplar of brahmacharya] you will see some light in his face. After all, what is beauty? If there is beauty, then it must attract god. Brahmacharya gives something special to the lips, a special light to the body, a shine to the eyes, and something special to the cheeks.

The disciplinary mechanics of maintaining brahmacharya are clearly articulated by wrestlers. The basic premise is virya nirodh or kamdaman (“the protection of semen”) and the control of sensual desire (Ravindranath 1975: 19). A common metaphor used to describe a wrestler’s strict adherence to the path of brahmacharya is kase langot ke (tight/firm g-string). The langot symbolizes celibacy, for it binds the genitals up between the legs. However, wrestlers are cautioned against wearing a langot for too long a period of time. Excessive constriction can lead to arousal, it is thought, and so it is best to loosen or remove one’s langot soon after exercising.

In order to protect one’s semen one must neither think, speak, nor hear any evil. One should never think amorous thoughts. Ravindranath expands on this by saying that one should not look at a woman, never speak to a woman, never touch a woman, never think about a woman, never listen to a woman, never be alone with a woman, never joke around with a woman, and, of course, never have intercourse with a woman (ibid). Lest there be any doubt, Ravindranath and many wrestlers with whom I spoke pointed out over and over again that women pose a threat to the young wrestler’s self-control. Sensuality of any kind, and heterosexual lust in particular, is to be avoided at all costs.

Brahmacharya is not an easy path to follow. This is particularly so in the modern world where temptations loom large. Moreover, for the wrestler at least, the discipline involved is doubly hard. It is thought that because he is so strong, he must contain a larger than normal reserve of semen. The problem is how to contain this vast pool of virility. In part the problem itself suggests its own solution. Exercise and a proper diet in conjunction with a regimented program of bathing, sleeping, and resting ensure that semen will be built up and channeled appropriately (Atreya 1973c: 22–23, 25). However, wrestlers also subscribe to other methods of maintaining brahmacharya. Atreya outlines some of these.

  1. Satsang (fellowship with good men)

    The company of like-minded men makes the observance of brahmacharya easier. Moral support is provided and one is motivated by a sense of collective duty. Communion with other brahmacharis fosters peace of mind and helps to cut through the shrouds of delusion which distract and mislead. The company of good men also creates an environment where wisdom can develop. The exchange of ideas based on religious works allows for the growth of knowledge (ibid.: 29). It is clear that akhara fellowship is envisioned as just such a satsang.

  2. Isolation from Sensual Depravity

    In order to be a brahmachari and practice self-control, one must not associate with those things which will foster emotional feelings of love and desire. Austerity is, therefore, the brahmachari’s watchword. Films and magazines must be avoided. Animals must be kept locked up so that one will not see them copulating. One should close one’s ears to lewd remarks and foul language (ibid: 21–23).

  3. Thought

    It is through our thoughts that we can change the environment we live in. But thoughts are also dangerous. It is for this reason that one must not fraternize with people whose minds are corrupted by greed, lust, and so forth. Pure thoughts foster a pure environment where the practice of brahmacharya may flourish (ibid: 23–25).

  4. Austerity

    The brahmachari must subscribe to three basic forms of austerity: of body, speech, and thought. Through the practice of these austerities one is able to destroy desire manifest in either physical, verbal, or psychological form (ibid).

  5. Reading Scriptures and Chanting Hymns

    One way to protect one’s semen is to read the works of learned men. The scriptures will raise one’s consciousness to a higher level, thus making the practice of brahmacharya more meaningful (ibid: 26–27).

  6. Faith in God

    The brahmachari should always remember that whatever he has achieved is through the power of god and the instruction of his guru. The brahmachari who has faith in god has no worries (ibid).

These guidelines for the practice of brahmacharya are further elaborated in a number of popular handbooks on the subject (Saraswati n.d.; J. Shastri n.d.; Shivananda 1984). Shivananda devotes special chapters to a range of central themes: The parent’s duty to set a good example for the young brahmachari; control of desire, mind and emotion; and married life and brahmacharya, for example. The body of Shivananda’s book is concerned with an elaboration of twenty-five rules for the practice of brahmacharya. Many of these rules overlap with those outlined by Atreya. For example, Shivananda expands on the idea of cleanliness by saying that a brahmachari must bathe and evacuate his bowels twice a day (1984: 109). Although bathing and defecating have general implications regarding health and fitness, the brahmachari wrestler bathes and defecates in order to ensure absolute control of his semen.

Although brahmacharya is a hard path to follow—and undoubtedly many fall by the wayside—most wrestlers take seriously the common injunction: brahmacharya is life and sensuality is death. Wrestlers try very hard to control their sexuality. They may not subscribe to the rigorous guidelines outlined by Atreya, Shivananda, and others, but they do respect the general theory which underlies the practice. They have an abject fear of semen loss.

Wrestlers, on the whole, avoid the company of women assiduously. Women, when encountered, are to be treated as mothers and sisters. The very idea of intercourse for the sake of pleasure is a danger of such magnitude that it is almost unthinkable. Similarly, masturbation is regarded as such an abominable waste of semen that it is antithetical to everything that brahmacharya stands for. This is not to say that no young wrestlers masturbate. However, the moral injunction against masturbation is so great that the issue itself, like sexual intercourse, is never seriously considered as posing an ongoing threat to celibacy. The practice and discipline of brahmacharya begins, essentially, where the most basic expression of sensuality ends. That one not have intercourse or masturbate are only the most basic prerequisites for brahmacharya.

A less controllable threat to celibacy than masturbation is the involuntary loss of semen through svapna dosh (lit., dream error, night emission). Night emission is involuntary insofar as it is thought to be caused by dream imagery or some other unconscious force (J. Shastri n.d.: 12). Many advocates of strict brahmacharya claim, nevertheless, that dream imagery is ultimately stimulated by conscious feelings of sensuality and lust. The person who has a night emission is held accountable and must work toward reforming his unconscious by means of “cleaning out” his conscious mind. In a book on the subject of brahmacharya, Shastri analyzes in great detail the problems associated with night emission. He describes the type of person who suffers from night emission as one who is conceited and thinks of himself as the essence of masculinity (ibid: 37). While the basic solution to the problem is therefore a reform of moral character, Shastri also provides a list of helpful remedies: washing one’s feet with warm water before going to sleep, eating extra-cool sattva foods, thinking more deeply on god, and so forth. Most of these prescriptions are by now familiar. However Shastri outlines a host of ancillary techniques (101, to be exact) which may be employed to aid against the scourge. Do not get in the habit of riding as a passenger on someone else’s bicycle. Do not sleep with your head covered. Do not drink excessive amounts of water. Do not hold back when you need to urinate. Do not sleep naked. Chew your food thoroughly. Occasionally place a wet cloth on your stomach. Wash your genitals regularly with cool water, and with salt water at least once a week. Always keep your genitals cool and fresh. Do not warm yourself by an open fire. Always keep your lower back straight. Wear clean clothes.

The basic principle of these rules is to structure the brahmachari’s life to such an extent that every minute facet of daily life comes to play a role in the larger scheme of semen control. Many wrestlers I have spoken with point out that it is important to keep busy and never sit around daydreaming. Every minute of every day must be structured, even if it is structured as leisure.

Many of the popular handbooks on brahmacharya, as well as the various articles on the subject in the wreslting literature, prescribe wrestling exercise as a way to maintain celibacy. My sense is that a number of young wrestlers come to the akhara burdened with a sense of guilt regarding their adolescent emotions. In the akhara they find a release for these emotions and also a powerful means by which to control their sexuality. The akhara is not a cure-all by any means, but it does provide a regimented structure which serves to release anxiety. Wrestlers often tell stories of how some wrestler they knew was almost seduced by a woman but managed to turn his mind either to his exercise or his guru and thereby prevent a catastrophe.

While the power of celibacy is recognized as absolute, most of the wrestlers I spoke with were not able or did not feel it necessary to articulate a theory of how semen is related to psychosomatic strength. Such theories do exist, of course, within the texts of classical medicine and also in the popular literature on the subject. Such theories are themselves part of much larger systems of medical knowledge (Obeyesekere 1976; Zimmermann 1983). For the wrestler, however, what is important is not so much the theory as the practical application of rules. What is also important is an integrative poetics of power and strength. In this regard brahmacharya is talked about and written about in a language of rich metaphor.

A brahmachari is righteous. He is not a slave to his senses, nor is he guided by mere self-indulgent thoughts. He takes no pleasure or satisfaction in worldly things. He has complete control over his thoughts, and stands firm on the limits he has set for himself. He stands as huge as a mountain: firm and grand. His seriousness reflects the depth of the ocean. He is a beacon of light and therefore brilliant and resolute. Like a lighthouse he prevents the ship of life from wrecking itself on the rocks of desire. The brahmachari does not break his vow. His life is pure and untainted. His roots run deep and he does not fall like a stone from a mountain—No: he is an immovable granite ridge!

Sita Ram Yadav explained the complex relationship between dietetics, exercise, and brahmacharya thus: “Because ghi is hidden in milk there is strength in milk. But if the butter is taken out of milk then there is no strength left in it. In the same way, when semen leaves the body the body becomes useless.”

I was told that it is evident from the look on a person’s face, the light in his eyes, and the glow of his skin whether he is celibate. On one occasion I went to a wedding of a sister of one of the wrestlers from Akhara Ram Singh. The guru of the akhara was also invited. After the meal had been served, the guests were invited to an “audience” where the bride and groom were seated on thrones in order to receive the blessing of various family members and guests. After watching for some time, the guru of the akhara turned to me, shaking his head in dismay. The groom, he said, was clearly not a brahmachari, and he proceeded to run through an index of telltale signs: a dark, sallow complexion; a drawn face; sunken eyes; a thin, “dried-out” physique and stooped shoulders.

Some wrestlers are more critical than others, but in talking with senior wrestlers it became clear that many felt, figuratively as well as quite literally, that the potential energy of youth is being sapped, drawn out by the sensuality of the modern, materialist world. Liquor in particular is directly implicated in this demise. It is distilled from grain which could be otherwise used as food. Moreover, liquor neutralizes food and is therefore doubly wasteful. Specifically, liquor is regarded as a poison in terms of what it does to the body. In the wrestler’s conceptual framework we have seen that food is regarded as the building block of semen. Liquor, it is thought, attacks semen and is thus antithetical to food. Wrestlers are uniformly vehement in their advocacy of temperance (Atreya 1974–1975: 17). They literally cringe at the thought of so much energized semen—and all that it represents by way of the nation’s potential energy for growth and development—going to waste. In a long serial poem entitled Goshala (lit., cow/protection/home), “Dwivedi” contrasts the virtues of milk with the evils of liquor.

The night turns slowly to day
    as the taverns are robbed.
Children are robbed of their youth;
    those who drink are robbed.
Seeing the light of dawn,
    the tavern turns in shame.
But my goshala welcomes the dawn
    of a new day (1972: 37).
Ultimately, the power of seduction manifest in the poison of liquor is no match for the power of brahmacharya manifest in milk and ghi—or at least that is the wrestler’s sincere hope.

A common sentiment among akhara members is that the power of brahmacharya is so great that it can turn the weakest and most decrepit boy into a powerful champion. Even if all he eats is dry bread or a hand-ful of chana, a brahmachari wrestler will develop a more magnificent and resilient physique than a wrestler who carelessly consumes buckets of milk. Clearly, then, there is a direct and unambiguous connection which exists between morals, social ethics, psychological well-being, and the strength and health of the somatic body as a whole (see plate 2). Through strict discipline, the akhara regimen provides for a holistic integration of these elements.

The Discipline of the Wrestler’s Body

Preferred Citation: Alter, Joseph S. The Wrestler's Body: Identity and Ideology in North India. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.