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3. Gurus and Chelas: The Alchemy of Discipleship

When I asked him, “Guruji, why is it that you have never married?” he answered, “Who says that I’m not married? I have married wrestling and the children of this marriage are my disciples.”


The concept of “guru” has been popularized to the point of parody, and it is difficult to approach the topic without stumbling over stereotypes and misconceptions. Spiritual teachers of all persuasions abound, and even those who espouse truth with conviction suffer the stigma of fraud. Paraphrasing a verse of scripture, and putting the institution of guruship in a wrestling perspective, Atreya put it this way: “In this dark age there are many gurus who plunder their disciple’s wealth, but the guru is not to be found who is able to wipe sorrow from his disciple’s brow.”

Wrestling is not immune to this modern malady, and there are as many charlatans in the akhara as there are in the temple, spiritual retreat, music hall, dance gharana (intellectual lineage or “school” of artistic style), or any other arena where the institution of guruship prevails. Nevertheless, whether realized or imagined, the persona of the guru is an important concept in the wrestling rubric. In this rubric ideals are more real than actual human experience, and the guru lives more as a figure of speech than as a flesh and blood teacher. Fraud gives way to faith which is often blind. The wrestling guru is larger than life. What he is supposed to be can transcend what he is. For instance, one of the gurus I knew in Banaras was very fond of chewing tobacco and would carefully prepare himself a tack while decrying the evils of intoxication. Another publicly advocated a vegetarian diet but ate chicken in private. Even the few gurus who subscribe to rigid moral values are often very wealthy and find themselves unable to affect an ideal of world renunciation and nonmateriality.

Hypocrisy is not necessarily reprehensible. A distinction must be made between rationalization on the one hand and fraud on the other. As any nonpartisan will explain, every guru has blemishes; stories of avarice, greed, pride, and impropriety are as common as they are subjective. Within reason, however, vice can be tempered with virtue. A guru may not practice, to the letter, what he preaches, but as long as he upholds the ideal of the institution that he represents, then the persona of the guru remains unjaded. Purists would argue that a tainted person colors the persona he affects and that any guru worth the name must suffer no human failings. This, too, is part of the charade of affected rationalization and serves, in the final instance, to bolster an image of ideal perfection. Who, after all, will cast the first stone? Arguably, all gurus are charlatans, some more than others, but this in no way under-cuts the significance of what guruship stands for in the akhara.

As I was told repeatedly, the single thing that a disciple must do in order to become a good wrestler is surrender himself completely to the service of his guru. Blind faith and absolute obedience are basic prerequisites. Banarsi Pande, a senior member of Akhara Ram Singh, graduate of the National Institute of Sports in Patiala, and licensed international referee, tells of when he would go early in the morning to massage his guru’s feet, wash his clothes, and prepare his morning meal. Similar accounts were given by many other wrestlers.

On my second day at Akhara Ram Singh I was preparing to enter the pit while other wrestlers undressed, bathed and oiled themselves according to established precedent. Suddenly one of the younger wrestlers shouted out, “Guru ji, Guru ji” and the whole crowd of wrestlers—half-clothed, langots flying loose, oil bottles tipping over—moved as one body in the direction of a thinnish young man who had entered the compound from a door behind the Hanuman shrine. Airi, the one who had seen the guru first, dropped the broom with which he was sweeping the sides of the pit and threw himself prostrate at the guru’s feet. Others came and touched the guru’s feet with equal respect but much less drama. In the akhara the guru is regarded with absolute respect and subservience. Even the most mundane tasks—giving a massage, running errands, drawing bath water, and washing clothes—are regarded as meritorious when performed for one’s guru. Touching his feet is a sign of total devotion.

The gurus I knew in Banaras did not make a pretense of perfection. This penultimate status and its attendant respect is usually deferred and attributed to the founding guru of each akhara: Babu Pande, Ram Singh, Jaddu Seth, Ragunath Maharaj, Sant Ram, Ram Sevak, Gaya Seth, Kon Bhatt’ Swaminath, and so forth. In this way the perfect persona is comfortably situated in an idealized past when gurus were truly saints. Although each akhara has a guru in residence, some of whom are accorded more respect than others, a wrestler looks to the founding guru for moral, spiritual, and personal guidance. In some instances the resident guru of an akhara is a lineal descendant of the founding guru, but this is more often the exception than the rule. For instance, at Akhara Ram Singh, Jaddu Singh is the youngest brother of the founding guru. He acts out the role of guru whenever required, but he always does so in his elder brother Ram Singh’s name. A large framed portrait of Ram Singh is garlanded and brought out whenever Jaddu is called upon to act as the akhara’s guru. Ram Singh and Jaddu aside, many of the members of Akhara Ram Singh recognize Lakshmi Kant Pande as their guru. He is the one whose feet are touched and to whom sweets are proffered out of respect. For his part, L. K. Pande is a senior member of the akhara and recognizes Ram Singh as his guru. Kaniya Yadav and Sohan, both young men in their early thirties, also recognize Ram Singh as their guru but have taken it upon themselves to train the junior members of the akhara. Although they are not themselves referred to as gurus, they perform the role and are accorded a great deal of respect by very junior wrestlers. Akhara Ram Singh has a profusion of men who act as gurus, but all of them defer to the persona of Ram Singh.

In some respects the situation is more straightforward in other akharas. At Bara Ganesh, for instance, Lallu Pahalwan is the fifth-generation lineal guru of his akhara. However, Kaniya Lal Yadav is also recognized as a guru. Lallu and he seem to share the status while most of the actual training and instruction is given by Babul Pahalwan, a senior member. At Gaya Seth, Manohar Pahalwan fills the role of guru insofar as the other members touch his feet and show respect in various other ways. Manohar also takes a very active role in instruction. However, whenever his elder brother comes to the akhara Manohar and the other members defer to him.

Theoretically a guru’s authority is unambiguous and absolute. As these examples show, in Banaras akharas at least, authority is neither rigidly established nor codified. Moreover, authority is not necessarily the primary issue (or when it is, it is a one-on-one issue between disciple and guru). As Nathu Lal Yadav pointed out, a person can learn from ten different people and may go from one teacher to another, as he sees fit, to benefit from a spectrum of knowledge. However, he must keep his “true guru’s” image in his heart. To devote oneself solely to eclectic instruction is to end up with piecemeal, unsubstantial knowledge. Thus, as L. K. Pande pointed out, when he was a young boy wrestling at Ram Singh’s Akhara he would regularly visit the three other akharas in the Beniya Bagh area. These three akharas, now defunct, were run by Muslim gurus (known as ustads) of renown, and Pande said that he would have been foolish not to avail himself of their skill. Regardless, the guru of his heart, so to speak, was without a doubt Ram Singh.

In music and dance the gharana is a formal institution structured by lineal descent wherein a disciple can trace his or her affiliation back through a long line of gurus. Each gharana has a unique style and is often associated with a particular part of the country (Neuman 1990: 145–167). One can easily classify and locate a person in the world of music and dance by discovering their gharana affiliation. Given that there are many formal parallels between wrestling gurus and gurus in other disciplines, one would expect to find that wrestling would mirror the pedagogical structure of music, dance, and other such arts. This is not the case. A wrestling disciple will know his own guru and his guru’s guru, but it is rare for him to know the lineage any further than this. Wrestling gurus develop their own techniques of training and invent new moves and countermoves, but the process is both too haphazard and too public to refer to such innovations as the unique patented style of one guru or another.

No guru will divulge his particular method of training. In part this is because it is secret knowledge, but more importantly it is because a guru manipulates each wrestler’s regime to accommodate idiosyncrasies and predispositions. If the wrestler is strong, the guru will develop his speed; if the wrestler is fast he will work on his strength, and so forth. A guru does not have a generic strategy which he imposes indiscriminately on his wards. He cannot, therefore, articulate his particular style as such.

In Banaras in 1987, almost all of the pedagogical situations of guru-disciple interaction were of a fairly standard type. The wrestler would apply a move or a countermove and the guru would then either do and say nothing, which was most often the case, or he would offer a critique of the move and show the wrestler how to correct his balance and grip or more effectively apply force. The same principle held true for exercise. Gurus would watch their wards and demonstrate the correct technique or else physically adjust the wrestler’s body to conform to an imagined ideal. At the two akharas where gurus were regularly present, Akhara Gaya Seth and Akhara Bara Ganesh, their primary role was in telling their wards what to do, with whom, and when. That is, they set activities in motion and determined who would wrestle whom for how long and who would do how many of what kind of exercise in which order. It is interesting to note that, for whatever reasons, wrestling gurus tend to be soft-spoken and in fact say very little at all during the course of a session. They may demonstrate a move but it is incumbent on the disciple to learn through practice.

Purists may argue that this is evidence of a general decay in the guru/chela relationship, and that “true” gurus used to patrol their akharas, switch in hand, ready to punish any wrestler who failed to apply a move well or who tired too quickly. Perhaps gurus are not as strict as they once were or as skilled as before; the point is moot. My impression is that the pedagogical relationship between a guru and his disciple has always been structurally informal while spiritually and psychologically strict. As such, the institution of guruship remains intact as a guiding principle in the world of wrestling.

Irrespective of this idiosyncratic mode of pedagogy, who a guru is is far more important than how or even what he teaches. As Nathu Lal Yadav told me in an interview on the subject, “Guruship is a throne and anyone may sit on it provided he has character. Whether a person is young or old he must have character. He must have a strong will and be of a peaceful disposition so that he can listen to what ten people say and act in such a way that all ten will be happy.”

A wrestler’s success depends more on his attitude and comportment than on pedagogy. By keeping the image of one’s guru in mind one can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. The attitude of a disciple towards his guru is as important as the guru’s own personal virtue and skill (Kesriya 1972).

The role of the disciple—blind faith and unquestioning service—is manifested in the ritual of Guru Puja, a minor calendrical festival which falls on the full moon of the Hindu month of Ashadha (June–July). Disciples are enjoined to pray and show respect for their guru on this day.

On the morning of Guru Puja I went to Akhara Ram Singh, expecting, as I had been told, to witness a formal ritual of worship. Everyone with whom I spoke said emphatically that all members of the akhara would attend the ceremony. Instead it seemed as though attendance was, if anything, less than usual. Jaddu, the nominal guru, brought out the framed portrait of his brother Ram Singh, and, lighting a stick of incense, placed the photograph at one corner of the Hanuman shrine. He then stood around the akhara waiting for members to make some sort of offering. A few, but not many, did. There was no special puja and everyone went about their activities as though nothing was going on. The reason for this lackluster attitude was undoubtedly the fact that the wrestlers of Akhara Ram Singh recognize a number of different men as their guru.

In the evening I went to another Guru Puja ceremony at Kashi Vyayamshala, a large gymnasium overlooking the Ganga. I was again disappointed that the guru, Parasnath Sharma, was not present. I was introduced instead to his younger brother, who was sitting in to receive the disciples. As we sat on the parapet wall overlooking the river and talked into the dusk, members came by and made cash and flower offerings. In turn, they were blessed with a vermilion tika placed on their foreheads.

The pujas at Kashi Vyayamshala and Akhara Ram Singh were anticlimactic and confirmed my impression that the idea of guruship is far more powerful than the enactment of any formal role. As many of my pragmatic and somewhat cynical wrestling friends remarked, it may just be a sign of the times.

Returning through the galis from Kashi Vyayamshala, I was accosted at a corner milk shop by an acquaintance from Ragunath Maharaj Akhara. He asked if I was going to his akhara to see the jori-swinging demonstration being put on as a Guru Puja celebration. I said yes, and after a glass of warm milk we set off back through the galis.

Guru Puja at Ragunath Maharaj Akhara was obviously a more formal affair than at Kashi Vyayamshala or at Akhara Ram Singh. The small courtyard was crowded with well-dressed, middle-aged men sitting and standing casually. As I came into the akhara, space was made for me to sit on a bench adjacent to the pit. The guru of the akhara sat up on a raised dais above the pit in front of a small Hanuman shrine. His pose was benevolent and paternal with an aura of divinity enhanced by countless flower garlands draped around his neck, arranged on the dais, and strewn at his feet. Quarter-kilogram paper boxes of sweets proffered in offering were arranged haphazardly in front of the guru’s dais. A brass tray containing incense, holy water, vermilion paste, parched rice, and chana was situated near the guru’s right knee. As disciples filed in and paid their respects the guru blessed them each with a tika.

Some disciples came only to pay their respects and make an offering, but most came to stay awhile and talk with friends. As disciples came in and the courtyard filled up, Baccha Pahalwan, one of the champions of Banaras, prepared himself to swing a pair of Ragunath Maharaj’s prize joris. These joris are brought out only on special occasions and are decorated with detailed floral designs.

Jori swinging is an art akin to wrestling. Some akharas are devoted exclusively to jori swinging but are nevertheless organized along the same lines as wrestling akharas. The worldview is identical. In wrestling akharas, joris are swung for exercise as part of the larger regime. In jori akharas, swinging is an art in itself. From start to finish a swing is carefully choreographed.

An entourage of four members carefully scraped old resin from the handles of the prize joris that Baccha was to swing. Fresh rock-resin was powdered on the surface of a smooth stone. The earth of the hard-packed pit was pounded to ensure a stable, firm footing. Under the watchful eye of the guru and the appreciative gaze of the crowd, one member of the entourage oiled Baccha Pahalwan’s shoulders. The oil was to ensure that Baccha’s arms would be both flexible and strong.

On the smooth earth directly in front of the guru’s dais three square stones were arranged: two in front, one atop the other, and a single one in back set squarely into the earth. Each member of the entourage checked and rechecked the stones to ensure their stability. The guru looked on, saying nothing. Everyone watched carefully and commented on the size of the joris, the detail of the design, and on Baccha’s youthful strength.

Night had fallen and the orange light of the single bulb traced the shadows of the slowly turning fan blades over the crowd. Its light glinted off Baccha’s oiled shoulders and reflected off the red earth and the yellow lime-washed walls. The guru sat in repose, cauled in the glow of green neon that emanated from the shrine behind him.

After warming up with a pair of light joris, Baccha and his entourage prepared to swing the floral jori. With his right foot on the front stones and his left on the lower rear stone, Baccha positioned the two joris to his liking. He shifted his weight forward and back until the balance seemed just right. Two members from the entourage then came forward. As one dried Baccha’s underarms, forearms, thighs, and face—it was very hot despite the slowly turning fan—the other applied a thin, even layer of resin to each handle. The hum of conversation from the crowded courtyard quieted and mirrored the silence of the guru.

Baccha then looked directly at the guru and asked permission to begin. With wrists forward and his weight on his raised right foot Baccha swung the eighty-kilogram jori first forward slightly and then, with increasing pendulum motion, back and forth three times. On the fourth forward swing he lunged with the weight of the joris and jumped off the raised stone platform. Twisting wrist, elbow, and shoulder so as to stand the joris up, one on each shoulder, he landed on his knees in front of the guru who looked on benevolently as the crowded courtyard erupted in cheers and applause.

Two members of the entourage quickly took hold of the joris, and after setting them down went to work repowdering them with resin and wiping them clean of sweat. After a brief rest Baccha set his feet squarely on a neatly smoothed area of particularly hard earth. His face, arms, and legs were again wiped off and careful attention was given to ensure that the palm of each hand was dry. The joris were placed on either side and slightly in front of his legs. Two members placed the flats of their hands on top of each knobbed handle and hooked an arm under the thick end of each jori. Baccha again asked the guru for permission to begin and immediately the joris were lifted high on extended arms and lowered, each in turn, gently onto Baccha’s shoulders. Taking a moment to get his balance he ensured that his grip was firmly set.

The entourage coordinator, a senior member of the akhara, stood directly in front and roughly half a meter away from Baccha. Baccha began to swing the joris behind his back in alternating pendulum arches. The senior member counted out each swing as the crowd kept empathic time. As each jori lifted up, twisted, and landed on Baccha’s shoulder the crowed sighed in sympathetic encouragement. Baccha’s firm stance shifted under the weight and momentum of the swinging joris. The senior member moved with him so as to keep looking directly at his face. As Baccha’s strength began to wane the encouragement of the crowd swelled with each swing until the slowing momentum of each upward arch was no longer enough. First one and then the other jori crashed into the earth in front of the guru’s dais.

The whole performance was explicitly staged for the benefit of the guru. It was a dramatic demonstration of strength and skill, an enactment of the relationship between guru and disciple. Throughout the performance the passive benevolence of the guru was effected with a practiced hand. He sat as an emblem, an icon of divinity, learning, wisdom and experience. The jori demonstration was, in effect, not only a staged show of physical accomplishment. Like the garlands and the sweets, it was a religious offering to the guru as god.

Gurus are human, but their persona is divine. As Nathu Lal Yadav explained, one prays to one’s guru in the same way that one prays to and honors Lord Hanuman. As Atreya pointed out, teaching does not distinguish a guru. A guru is one who can show his disciples the right path to follow: the way to realize a dream. As a divine persona the guru is often an oblique rather than a direct teacher. A wrestler must practice and train but, equally important, he must “think upon his guru” and draw strength from mystical contemplation. The path of right conduct is indicated and alluded to by a guru but never revealed as such. As an attitude, devotion prepares the disciple for spiritual realization, but the final step must always be his own. In the akhara wrestlers are enjoined to keep the image of their guru set in their mind’s eye. As Atreya explained, they must make themselves into empty vessels which can be filled with the guru’s wisdom. A disciple cannot take knowledge; it must be given, and the exercise of learning is to prepare oneself to receive.

The Character of a Guru

The concepts of spiritual shakti, devotion, and world-renunciation are of central importance to a wrestling way of life. For a young wrestler these values are difficult to understand and harder still to reconcile with a worldly life. The guru represents these values and makes them tangible. He serves as interpreter and exemplar, as commentary and commentator, a self-reflective mediator between divine ideals and lived experience.

Uddhava asked Krishna: “Oh Lord of hallowing glory! What kind of person is regarded as a saint by you?” Krishna replied saying:

Such a sage is compassionate; he never envies or harms any creature; is full of fortitude; firm and strong in truthfulness; of pure mind; . . . equipoised in pleasure and pain; . . . obliging unto all.

His mind is never perturbed by desires; his senses are fully under control; he is gentle hearted; of pure (perfectly moral) conduct; devoid of all possessions; free from desires; . . . moderate in eating and drinking; serene in mind, firm in his own dharma, seeking asylum in me, and contemplative of nature.

He is ever alert and vigilant; of deep mind; . . . full of grit (in the face of danger); free from the six worries of bodily defect (viz. hunger and thirst, grief and infatuation, old age and death); though himself indifferent to worldly honor [he] pays respect (to the worthy); possesses aptitude and willingness to impart knowledge; [is a] a sincere friend; merciful in behavior, and endowed with spiritual knowledge (Bhagavata Purana 11.11.26, 29–31; Shastri’s translation, 1978).

In essence this is the character of a wrestling guru. Atreya quotes sections of this passage in his article “The Place of the Guru in Indian Wrestling” (1972–1973: 21). He also references other passages which litany the virtues of saintly character (Bhagavad Gita, chap. 12; Bhagavata Purana 2.3.18–32 as referenced in Sources of Indian Tradition, Embree 1988: 325–326).

The best-known guru of Indian wrestling is Guru Hanuman, whose wards practice in the Birla Mill Vyayamshala near the Sabji Mandi in Old Delhi. Guru Hanuman is famous because he has trained many of India’s champion wrestlers—Ved Prakash, Satpal, and Suresh, among others. For whatever reasons—his skill as a coach, the resources he has at his disposal through the aegis of his wealthy patron, or his ability to inspire greatness—Guru Hanuman is regarded as the personification of what a wrestling guru ought to be. Whenever wrestling is mentioned in the media (which is not very often) he is almost always the archetype (Bose 1967; Datta 1970; Flory 1970; Link 1970). A whole issue of the journal Bharatiya Kushti is dedicated to Guru Hanuman, and in essay after essay he is praised for having produced, as more than one author has put it, “so many shining stars which have made India bright” (Patodi 1983). Some verses from a poem about Guru Hanuman, written by Pahalwan Danesh Kumar Vishnowi, capture the essence of his iconic persona:

The artistic skill of the Great Guru reverberates through a thousand worlds.
His one and only concern is how to make children stronger.
With strength, with wisdom, with his reputation has he made India rejoice.
He has made India mature and wise and has given his experience to the young (1986: 43).
As a popular adage among wrestlers has it, a guru is like an alchemical paras stone: able to turn iron to gold but unable to change itself into anything else, or to change anything else into itself. A guru is a pure agent of transformation. He must by definition expect and accept the fact that ultimately his disciples will be stronger, more virtuous, more saintly, and more skilled than himself. He can set an example and only hope that it will be improved upon.

Gurus fall far short of the high standards set for them. Nevertheless, they still stand for what they do not personally achieve and can thus indicate to others the path which leads to a utopian way of life. It is not, therefore, a critical paradox—a crisis of faith, if you will—that gurus do not always practice what they preach. For what a disciple sees in a guru’s action is an ideal. He can read between the lines of paradox—material wealth, social status, and rank; he can see virtues of humility and abnegation rather than the common human failings of avarice and greed. Gurus represent an ideal way of life, and in his guru a wrestler never sees hypocrisy. He sees the possibility of what he must try to become.

Along these lines, consider an extract from the biography of Swami Ustad Fakir Chand Shukla, a wrestling guru of renown:

It must be an isolated person among the lovers of exercise who is unfamiliar with the name of the great and undefeated, Ustad Fakir Chand Shukla.

As well as a wrestler, he was known as a great doctor and as a man of learning. He was the very image of renunciation. He gave hundreds of thousands of rupees for the advancement of strength, learning and wisdom. His life itself was a donation to public service. He gave everything that he had to religion and wrestling.

Self-realization does not come with the success of one’s family, nor with wealth or the performance of sacrifices. The nectar of self realization comes only with renunciation.

The soul is not revealed through physical strength, wisdom or learning. Benevolence is above all of these, just as the season of spring brings blossoms to trees and flowers. The soul is not concerned with redemption. It is dedicated to the service of goodness and truth.

This incomparably great and sinless soul has dedicated himself to the service and benefit of society.

The poet Narian has written some verses to honor the sage and I quote a few lines here:

He was a priest and a devotee of Lord Shiva.
He was fearless.
He was as peaceful as a forest glade.
He was firm in his beliefs.
He was a great wrestler,
and the shining light of the akhara.
He was a generous benefactor,
and gave alms to beggers.
He was calm of mind,
but his body was hard (1973: 43, 45).

The character of a guru is linked to the identity of a sannyasi who renounces the world in pursuit of enlightenment. As a sannyasi, a guru draws on his spiritual strength to bring disciples closer to ideals of religious and physical perfection. It is through the persona of the guru that the link between world renunciation and physical strength is made most strongly. The ideal of sannyas belongs, of course, to a large and extensive religious system that spans well beyond the bounds of Indian wrestling. The wrestling guru channels powerful and pervasive ideals of spiritual self-realization into very specific forms of physical energy and moral strength. As will be seen in a later chapter, the character of the guru points wrestlers in the direction of sannyas. Wrestlers translate progress along that clearly defined path into success in the world of wrestling.

A guru is a conduit to a higher state of knowledge. One must dissolve oneself into the image of the guru in order to achieve this state. There is no structured pattern that defines which path to follow. Poetic spirituality rather than rule-bound precedent is taken as the template of practical experience. As will be discussed later, Hanuman, the archetype of devotion and righteous conduct, provides a model for effecting this kind of alchemical self-dissolution.

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