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Somatic Nationalism: Indian Wrestling and Militant Hinduism

Author(s): Joseph S. Alter

Source: Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Jul., 1994), pp. 557-588
Published by: Cambridge University Press
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Modern Asian Studies, 28, 3 (I994), pp. 557-588. Printed in Great Britain.

Somatic Nationalism.

Indian Wrestling and Militant Hinduism


In the West it is commonplace to regard sport as either an extracurricular form of leisure, or else as a business enterprise. Games and
contests of all kinds are a form of distraction; and for some a very
lucrative form at that (Smith 1978). Almost by definition sports direct

our attention away from 'real life' to some form of fantasy world
where there is high drama but little by way of the material or ideolo-

gical substance of productive, pragmatic and 'rational' labor (cf.

Rojek 1985; Simon I985). Hand in hand with such a notion of marginal utility goes a folk attitude that sport is meaningless by virtue
of its being purely and simply fun, as though pleasure and purpose
are somehow antithetical.

However, sports in general and athletic training in particular have

been accorded a prominent place in the ideological rhetoric of various

kinds of nationalism. The athlete is made into a symbol who unambiguously stands for his or her country (Bernett 1966; Riordan i977).
But the connection between physical power and national prowess in
such an equation is often nothing more than a weak metaphor with
considerable emotive power. That is, the connection between politics
and the body is left to the imagination rather than worked out in any

great analytical detail. In part I think this is because Western sports

and physical culture are divorced from the infrastructural base of
economic productivity, ownership, and the attendant relationships
which these utilitarian factors engender. In so far as the athlete is
not burdened with the worker's essential pragmatism he or she can
very easily become a symbol of epic power. When the individual
embodies fantastic ideals such as teutonic might or knightly courage
rather than labor power, then strength, energy and vitality become
political metaphors rather than simple measures of values. Fitness
oo26-749X/94/$5.oo + .00oo ? 994 Cambridge University Press

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can be used to invoke feelings of patriotism precisely because it is not

an issue in an industrial economy where workers are chattels: the

proverbial cogs in a machine. And when workers become herculean
heroes-as in the artistic works of Soviet realism-they do so as ideological icons whose labor power is translated into national physical

As Hoberman (I984) has argued, athletic rhetoric takes many

forms in the ideologies of nationalism, and athletic metaphors are
used to portray an image of the state as fit, virile and heroic. At one
extreme is the narcissistic physicalism of the British fascist Oswald
Mosley (Osborn 1938) and the Italian fascist Marinetti (1972), and
at the other the regimented and technically sophisticated state athlet-

ics of the German Democratic Republic (cf. Cantelon and Gruneau

et al. I982; Hargreaves et al. 1982). The literature on nationalism,
ideology and sport is quite extensive (Rojek 1985; Guttman 1978;
Hargreaves I986; Lipsky 1981; Simon I985). However, most studies
begin with an ideological model and then demonstrate the degree to
which sport either fits or does not fit within the larger framework of
political theory, social psychology or cultural values. Athletics is often

thought to be the passive tool of a dominant state ideology wherein

one could imagine Marxian gymnastics, fascist calisthenics, imperialistic cricket, socialist swimming, and so forth. As many have pointed

out, those who advocate athletic nationalism are often political

leaders or ideologues and not active practitioners of the sportive forms
they glorify. It is as though sports are out there, devoid of meaning,

ready to be appropriated and infused with significance by whoever

wishes. Such a relationship between ideology and athletics is rather
unique to the European context because of the separation made in

western European culture between ideas on the one hand and

somaticity on the other (cf. Alter manuscript). Athletics in general,

and martial arts in particular, should not be seen as simple reflective
mirrors of hegemonic culture, nor as reactionary forms of protest in

the service of various political ideologies. The relationship between

ideology and physical culture is complex and need not be reduced to
some sort of cause and effect scenario where body and mind are
radically opposed to one another.
In this paper I will contrast two forms of somatic nationalism found
in contemporary India: Indian wrestling (pahalwani) and the paramilitary drill exercises and ideology of physicalism manifest in the preeminent militant Hindu organization the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh

(RSS) (National Assembly of Volunteers). I will argue that unlike

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the RSS drill routine which overlays ideology with athletics, Indian
wrestling is a somatic ideology in its own right. As such it offers a
utopian vision of nationalistic reform that takes the body as a primary

object of discipline and reform, rather than as a simple tool for the
organization of a militant ideology. As a consequence of the loose
connection between body discipline and ideology, Hindu members of
the RSS, ironically, discipline their bodies in a rather European sort
of way.

Hindu nationalism is clearly and explicitly linked to a particular

form of physical culture which on the surface looks very much like
the exercise regimen of the Indian wrestler. From an uninformed
perspective it is very easy to confuse the two forms of regimented
training, and to see them as part and parcel of the same ideology.
This confusion is exacerbated by the fact that some Hindu fundamentalists have tried to appropriate wrestling into their own militant

discourse (cf. Alter 1992 appendix). For example, the founder of the

RSS, Keshnav Baliram Hedgewar, looked to akharas (wrestling

gymnasia) to rally some of his first recruits in I925 (Andersen and

Damle 1987; 34, 35). However, to see the pahalwan (wrestler) and the
swayamsevak (RSS volunteer) as 'brothers in arms' is to confuse form,
function, structure and substance. While they both espouse national-

ist ideals they are as different as Mahatma Gandhi and Balraj

Madhok or Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. Indeed, contemporary
wrestlers invoke Gandhi's voice and advocate harmony as against
Hindu chauvinism. Like Hedgewar, Gandhi also advocated physical

fitness, and, at least according to contemporary mythology,

applauded and encouraged wrestling ideals. Regardless of how wrestling may fit into the various histories of Indian nationalism, my argu-

ment is that contemporary wrestling has developed along a rather

Gandhian line and that the wrestler's somatic nationalism is funda-

mentally nonsectarian.
Historically Indian wrestling has two primary antecedents. An

indigenous form of the art is known from the Sanskrit epics

(Majumdar 1950; Raghavan 1979; Rai I984) and elaborated in two

more recent documents, the Manasollasa (Srigondekar 1959) of the

I2th century Deccan king Somesvara, and the Malla Purana

(Sandesara and Mehta 1964) of a I6th century 'caste of wrestlers' in

Gujarat known as the Jeysthimallas (cf. Das 1968). As the terms

pahalwani and kushti evince, the second antecedent of Indian wrestling

was brought into the sub-continent from Persia by the Moguls.

Modern Indian wrestling is a complete synthesis of these two histor-

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ical forms, one Hindu the other Muslim. Although Hindu and
Muslim wrestlers often train in separate, community based gymnasia,
both groups talk about wrestling in terms of a single somatic ideology.
According to the popular journal Bharatiya Kushti published in Indor

by a predominantly Hindu editorial board, the epitome of wrestling

perfection was embodied by Gama, a Muslim wrestler who became
World Champion in I9IO, and who dominated the Indian wrestling
scene from then until partition in 1947 (Patodi 1984). Numerous
other Muslim wrestlers-Imam Baksh, Rahim Sultaniwalla, Addha
Pahalwan, Hajji Hafizuddin, Abdul Shakur Jhilani-figure prominently in the pantheon of Indian champions.
It would, of course, be possible to criticize the RSS ideology from
a Muslim wrestler's point of view. But to do so would risk confusing
religious ideology with somatic practice and thereby play into the
hands of radical religious communalism. What is offered here, altern-

atively, is a Hindu perspective on wrestling as a nonsectarian discipline; a Hindu critique of Hindu demagoguery by means of a somatic


The Political Context of Somatic Nationalism

Hindu nationalism and the political and cultural factors which spawn
nationalistic sentiments must be understood in context and not

abstracted from history (van der Veer 1987). Prior to 1920, Hindu
nationalism was incipiently nonsectarian. Leaders of the Hindu Mah-

asabha such as Madan Mohan Malaviya were concerned with constructing a positive Hindu self-image in opposition to pejorative Orientalism, and were not primarily concerned with Hindu/Muslim
distinctions as such (Fox I989: 217). After 1920, however, the tone
of Hindu nationalism changed and Muslims came to be regarded as
the primary threat to Hindu national integrity.
A full account of the history of Hindu nationalism cannot be given
here (cf. Andersen and Damle i987; Bayly I985; Chandra I984; Dixit
I986). Moreover, it must be pointed out, that to construct such a
history on a national scale is to run the risk of over-synthesizing and
thereby essentializing an inherently complex issue, which, on the local
level, resists simple analysis and easy characterization (cf. van der
Veer 1987; Freitag 1980; Yang I980). Nevertheless, the general trend
is clear. After a long period of marginalization and relative inertia,
the last twenty years or so have seen a dramatic resurgence of Hindu
nationalism. In 1961 only 6I of a total 350 districts experienced com-

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munal violence, whereas in 1987 the number of affected districts rose

to 250 (India Today 1987, I5 June: I7, 19, in Fox 1989: 237). The
number of communal organizations increased from 12 in 1951 to over

500 in 1987, and the number of local branches of the RSS doubled
between 1975 and 1981 (Fox I989: 237).

While the RSS and its various affiliates such as the Shiva Sena and

Bajrang Dal are 'cultural' or religious organizations devoted to a

defense of Hindu ideals, Hindu nationalism has had a growing influence on both state and national politics. Since 1951 theJana Sangh
had a close affiliation with the RSS, but the relationship was always

kept low profile (Baxter 1966). Recently under the leadership of

L. K. Advani and the BharatiyaJanta Party all pretense of secularism

has been cast aside in favor of strong and assertive Hindu ideals
(India Today, May 15, 1991: 1-17). Advani's platform appeals to a
common set of concerns among a growing number of Hindus, particu-

larly, but not exclusively, upper-caste lower middle-class urbanites.

Strongly emotive are the issues of affirmative action and temple
reclamation. Many educated, upper-caste Hindus feel that a government policy of affirmative action is discriminatory and gives unfair

preferential treatment to Scheduled Caste groups, the former

Untouchables and Outcastes, and the so called Backward Classes.

Organizations such as the RSS argue that the reservations system is
a divisive policy which reinforces casteism and thereby undermines

broader Hindu unity (cf. Fox 1989: 243; Seshadri I984: I26-3I ).

The extent to which a reservations policy in India has angered many

caste Hindus is evidenced by widespread violence in many parts of
India after prime minister V. P. Singh reaffirmed his government's
commitment to affirmative action in I990.

By far the most divisive communal issue of the past few years has
been the Ram janamabhumi/Babri masjid controversy. The problem
stems from the fact that a temple in Ayodhya marking the site of

Lord Ram's birth was destroyed and a mosque built in its place.

Although for many years Hindus and Muslims in Ayodhya coexisted

in a rather ambivalent state of compromise on the issue, the status
quo has come under attack by those who claim that the mosque is
illegitimate and must be removed. Although the situation has become

increasingly tense since I984, I990-I99I saw an unprecedented

assault on the city of Ayodhya by thousands of Hindus led by L. K.

Advani and spurred to action by the militant rhetoric of organizations

such as the RSS (India Today, November 15, I990: I0-14, 19-2I; India
Today, December 31, 1990: 34-6). Muslims, who constituted a fair
percentage of Ayodhya's population, were evacuated, thousands of

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police were called in to maintain order, and extended curfews were

imposed by the central government.
Although the RSS remains a cultural and not a political institution,
it is clear that Hindu nationalism has moved directly into the fore of
Indian politics. Among a growing number of disenchanted Hindus
there is a great deal of sympathy with the aggressive, often militant
ideology of the RSS and other organizations. It is important, therefore, on both a political and theoretical level, to point out that there
are other less divisive forms of 'Hindu' nationalism.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh

The RSS came into being under the leadership of Dr Keshnav
Baliram Hedgewar in 1925. although motivated by sentiments shared
by other Nationalist leaders of the time-Tilak, Nehru, Gandhi, and
Vivekananda-Hedgewar felt that the struggle against colonialism
lacked a sense of moral purpose and Hindu nationalism. Moreover
he was well aware of the regional, religious and linguistic factionalism
which threatened to undermine the unity of the Freedom Movement.

Hedgewar's goal was to unite the people of India through a program

of structured consciousness raising. As Ashby writes, Hedgewar felt
that the Indian people
... did not have a sustaining consciousness of self that would equip them
with the determination and resources necessary to defend themselves. They
needed a philosophy of action founded upon the historic society and cultural
community that had produced them but of which they were only dimly

aware (1974: 0oo).

The RSS's 'philosophy of action' is spelled out most clearly by

Hedgewar's successor, Sri Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar who assumed

leadership of the organization in I940. According to Ashby, Golwalkar co-opted the notion of Hindutva, a term coined by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a prominent nationalist leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, and sought directly to translate Hindu nationalism into action.
In order fully to understand the philosophy of action, the concept of
Hindutva must be examined in some detail.
Hindutva is a concept of nationalistic pride that plays off the multi-

plex meaning of dharma, a term which at once means religion, law,

order and moral duty. As an over-arching principle of 'right action'
dharma sets the coordinates of a Hindu ideology of national moral
purpose. Insofar as dharma does not distinguish between 'religion'

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and 'culture', the term facilitates a philosophy of action where one's
way of life is spiritually motivated. Add to this the weight of historical

consciousness, and the individual is able to see in the glorious past

the possibility of an even more glorious future: a revival of Ayodhya's

grandeur on the soil of modern India where all Hindus are citizens
and soldiers and devotees of Lord Ram. The Hindu nature of this

historical consciousness is articulated by Savarkar in the following

way, as he plays off the Orientalist perception that India is a timeless,
ahistorical society.
The Hindu counts his years not by centuries but by cycles the Yug and the
Kalpha-and amazed asks 'O Lord of the line of Raghu [Rama], where has
the kingdom of Ayodhya gone? O lord of the line of Yadu, where has
Mathura gone!!' He does not attempt to rouse the sense of self importance
so much as the sense of proportion, which is Truth ... If a people that had
no past have no future, then a people that had produced an unending galaxy
of heroes and hero worshippers ... have in their history a guarantee of their

future greatness more assuring than any other people on earth yet possess.
(Savarkar I949 in Hay 1988: 293).

In this theory of history as a self-perpetuating cycle of greatness,

Savarkar also alludes to a particular form of Hindu patriotism where

a sense of 'self importance' is sublimated to the greater Truth of
proportion. By a 'sense of proportion' Savarkar undoubtedly means
a perspective on the infinite history of regeneration, but he also
implies that the 'Self only gains this perspective when pride in one's
own personal achievements is recognized as an illusion. A perspective

on one's place in the universe is gained, Golwalkar writes, when

the Hindu people- Virat Purusha- realize that they are the almighty
incarnate (in Ashby I974: 106). In developing this theme, where the
body of the individual is taken as a reflection of the moral varna order

of Purusha's divine somaticity-priestly head, royal hands and arms,

merchant thighs, and artisan feet-Golwalkar is not expounding a
particularly novel interpretation of classical Hindu doctrine. The idea
that the individual has no 'personal rights or privileges' (ibid.: 107)
but a tremendous moral responsibility for 'right action' is also characteristic of many interpretations of Hinduism.
Where the philosophy of Hindutva diverges most significantly from

standard Hindu belief-but even so, only slightly-is in an action-

oriented interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita. The clearest statement

on this perspective may be found in the Gita-rahasya of Bal Gangadhar

Tilak (I935). Writing at about the same time, and certainly from a
similar perspective as Savarkar, Tilak sought to translate the Gita's

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powerful message of spiritual achievement into the accessible, everyday terms. To do this he gave special weight to the concept of 'karma

yoga' which in the Gita is regarded as a preliminary stage en route

to enlightenment via two other forms of yoga: jnana (knowledge) and

bhakti (devotion) (Ashby I974: 96). The principle of karma yoga is to

make one's life work serve a divinely mandated purpose. As Ashby

[T]he individual must act with 'single-minded purposefulness' while at the

same time lacking any personal desire or attachment to the result of the act.

And it is of supreme importance that the act be aimed toward the welfare
of the world. The welfare, or betterment, of all (loksamgraha) is the only
proper reason for action (1974: 96-7).

Such an interpretation of the Gita could very well fit as a manifesto

for the volunteer of swayamsevak of the RSS. The purpose of the swayamsevak is to serve God through society; to see the nation as Hindutva

incarnate. From its inception the RSS has been primarily concerned
with the development and organization of this philosophy of action.
As Ashby points out, organization has been a watchword of the RSS,
since the leadership feels that it is not the innate moral perspective
which is lacking among Hindus, but the institutional structure of
consciousness by which means they can be made to see-or intuitively
sense, as the rhetoric often goes-their connectedness to the larger
whole. Key to effective and efficient organization is the principle of
ekchalakanuvartitva, an unquestioning acceptance of the leader's abso-

lute authority (Purohit 1965: 147).

A particular regimen of self discipline is key to fostering this consciousness. Unfortunately little has been written about the disciplinary aspect of the RSS program. Andersen and Damle, who provide
the most comprehensive account of the organization's ideology and
practice give the regimen of physical training only cursory treatment
(1987: 89-90). Standard glosses such as 'mass drill exercises', 'paramilitary training', etc., do little more than allude to a more complex
and structured reality.
Physical exercise is one of the primary daily activities of the Sangh's
local city and village shakhas (units or chapters). The term shakha is
also taken to mean the grounds on which the unit conducts its activities. Exercise and parade activities always begin with the hoisting of
the bhagwa dhwaj, the ocher-colored flag which 'symbolizes the glori-

ous Hindu past.' (Purohit I965: 15I). Yearly camps are held on a

district and regional level to give special training to officers and to

recruit new volunteers.

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While conducting research on wrestling in Banaras I was able to
visit a training camp, and also observe smaller groups of volunteers
exercising in various city parks. The RSS training camp was held on
the grounds of a large high school. All of the volunteers were young,

between the ages of 15 and 25 I would guess, although there were

group leaders who were older. There were approximately 500 boys
and young men gathered together, all wearing white singlets and
baggy, khaki colored shorts to mid-thigh, khaki socks and white or
khaki colored tennis shoes. The volunteers were organized into three
large groups and arranged in military formation on the school playing

field. Although not engaged in exercise drills at the time-they were

assembled to watch a wrestling exhibition and listen to speeches-I
was told by the wrestlers I was with that they perform 'P.T. exercises'

(Physical Training) and lathi shiksha (stave training). Andersen and

Damle point out that kabbadi (a vigorous game of team tag) is also
popular among the shakha brotherhood. These and other games are
'all meant to build a spirit of cooperation' (1987: 90).
P.T. exercises are common in many Indian schools and are done
as much with an eye toward promoting disciplined behavior as individual health and fitness. In the RSS program, as in schools, the boys
are made to line up, stand at attention and then space themselves
one arm's length apart by extending a rigid arm forward to the boy
in front's right shoulder and then sideways to the boy on the right's
left shoulder, or if more space is needed, to the tips of the fingers on

his extended left hand. In this way the volunteers form a perfectly
linear rectangular grid. P.T. exercises are done in unison, under the
command of a drill leader who barks out orders. The exercises are

primarily aerobic calisthenics: toe touching, jumping jacks, 'squats'

with arms extended, extended arm rotations, etc. The idea is to get
everyone to do each exercise in exactly the same way, at the same
time: to make the whole rectangular grid act as one body. Identical
uniforms contribute to the overall effect of 200 or more straight backs,

closed mouths, and expanded chests moving in unison to a single

command. As the English term 'P.T.' would imply, these exercises
are not of Indian origin. In fact, it is likely that contemporary P.T.
drills in India are a legacy of colonial military and public school
discipline introduced by Sir George Campbell (Salam 1895: 25; cf.
Harsha 1982 and Mangan I984), which, in turn, derive from the
monastic practices of i6th and I7th century Europe (Asad 1987; Foucault I979: 135-69) and perhaps an even earlier I3th century AngloNorman form of muscular Christianity (Carter 1984). MartandraJog,

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an officer in the Maharaja of Gwalior's army was enlisted as the head

of the RSS military section in I926, and was undoubtedly responsible
for the basic structure of the RSS military regimen. Although the
military section of the RSS was disbanded in I943 (Andersen and
Damle: 1987: 44), the militaristic structure of the larger P.T. regimen
remains largely intact.

Although Indian in form, lathi shiksha (stave training) is done in

much the same way as P.T. exercises, with each volunteer manipulating his stave in exactly the same way, to the same rhythm as the
other volunteers. Lathiyudha (stave combat) is a sophisticated martial
art in its own right, and the RSS has appropriated many moves and
maneuvers into its drill regimen. In general the drill entails a series
of steps or jumps forward and back, up and down as the stave is
swung around in either an attack or defensive maneuver. One
common series of moves requires the combatant to move in a counter-

clockwise direction while cross-stepping, alternately swinging the

stave inward toward the center of the circle and then outward, thus
defending both his front and back. Each step is accompanied by a
particular swing such that there are no extraneous movements.

In an aggressively Hindu manual entitled Lathi shiksha (n.d.)

Mohan Lal emphasizes the discipline required of the trainee. First
the trainees or students should be divided into groups of twenty based

on skill and aptitude. 'The instructor's orders must be precise. He

must be serious and speak with a commanding voice' (n.d.: 9). He
should first describe the move carefully, then demonstrate how it is
done. He should then break the move down into its component parts
and then again perform the whole move. While the trainees are practicing the move he should correct any mistakes they may make.
Discipline and obedience are absolutely essential for stave training. Without
them the lessons are not properly learned. In obedience there is great deal
of collective strength. The military has power by virtue of its discipline. If
those in the military were to act in terms of their individual desires, then
they would not be an army, they would be like a circus. There is no strength
in individuality. Strength is only achieved once that individual falls into line

and obeys orders. Because there is strength in obedience, there is no threat

of impropriety when orders are followed ... It is the trainee's duty to follow

orders. (n.d.: 8)

Discipline and obedience are regarded as organizing principles by

which means individual character is subsumed by the national identity. Along these lines it is useful to examine carefully how stave

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training is used to effect a vision of militant Hindu nationalism.

Mohan Lal writes:

Hindus have always been world leaders. Many fields of knowledge [including stave training] have been spawned and developed here in India. Only

later did the rest of the world learn what we invented.

It is not necessary for me to write at any great length about how the stave

is to be used. Among Indians (Bharatwasiyo), who are the world's foremost

believers in non-violence, the stave is a source of support. The citizens of
most other countries have any number of weapons they keep for self-defense,

but we have always depended on the government to protect us. It never

crossed our minds that we should even have to touch a weapon. The reason
for this is that whenever a foreign power threatens our borders a 'people's
army' raises up, shoulder to shoulder, ready to fight. (ibid.: 6)

Lal thus clinches his argument by turning a nonviolent nation's

staff of support into the serendipitous weapon of choice of a defensive

people's army-and it may well be the author's intention to evoke,

through the term 'nonviolence', an ironic and perhaps sarcastic image
of Gandhi leaning on his staff/stave for support. 'Yes, stave training
is also an art. A stave can be found in the home of every householder,

and both he and his family must, of necessity, know how to use it'

Although stave training is something which requires special skill,

the primary vision which Lal's rhetoric evokes is of Hindus who are
instinctively able to turn staffs into staves, whether standing on the
border of Pakistan or on the outskirts of Ayodhya.

Given the clearly Hinducentric ideology of the RSS, where language, culture, and history are regarded as ingrained in the substance
of the individual and rooted in the soil of the land on which he walks,

the regimen of paramilitary physical culture seems incongruous. The

form of most exercises is unambiguously Western, and even stave
training and other kinds of'Indian exercise' are regimented according
to Western standards of cadence, formation, and discipline (cf.
Mathur 1933). For example, Lal places a great deal of emphasis on
the rhythm of regimented practice with drill exercises being done to

a 1-2 count or a 1-2-3 count (n.d.: 12). Commands are to be given,

military style, using two terms. The first gets the trainees' attention
and the second is the specific order, for example lathi lapet (lit. stave

wrap [roughly equivalent to present arms]), orjese the (as you were).
(n.d.: 9-12). Moreover, the uniform of the cadet volunteer is almost
prototypically colonial in its sartorial aesthetic: shirts and shorts

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pressed and creased, sleeves rolled to mid bicep, knee length socks,
and so forth.

While the clearly Western form of the RSS regimen may seem
incongruous, it is understandable. The primary purpose of the RSS
program is to organize; to bring together and build strength through

unity; to build on the inherent ability of the Hindu everyman. Less

a regimen of development and reform, it is a regimen of coordination

where consciousness is being choreographed for its collective effect.

By virtue of his birth, the Hindu volunteer knows the moves, so to
speak. To paraphrase Golwalkar, he shares the ineffable and incipient

sentiments, ideals and aspirations of Hindu culture (Ashby I974:

I06). RSS activities must only remind the volunteer of his place in
the nation and then set about the discipline which will unlock a sense
of common purpose. Consequently it is of little significance that the
organizing principle is of Western origin, since RSS philosophy seems
to make a clear distinction between substance and structure; ideology
and practice. Anglicized means can serve a Hinduized end when body
discipline is regarded as generically ahistorical.
Although I think RSS training is a peculiar and ironic legacy of
colonialism, RSS ideology is, of course, anti-Western. Moreover, the
'cultural stuff out of which the ideology takes shape is distinctly
Hindu. The swayamsevak is enjoined to be a brahmachari; a self-less,
celibate disciple whose devotion to the common good is in direct
proportion to his self-control. Brahmacharya is a very common theme
in various Hindu doctrines, and, as we shall see, wrestlers have
developed the practice of celibacy into a powerful force. Although the
wrestler and the swayamsevak are drawing on the same basic Hindu
concept, the structure of their respective disciplines transforms the
nature of celibacy and self-control in each case. Therefore, I would
argue, the basic Hindu component of the swayamsevak's regimen is
compromised by the 'Westernized' mechanics of RSS training.
While RSS training has obvious health benefits, and is designed to
turn the volunteer into a foot soldier in the service of Hindu ideals,
it is necessary to view the program of physical culture from the RSS
perspective on Hindu racial identity. As pointed out, the concept of
Hindutva is closely linked to a sense of identity which is rooted in
the environment of'Hindustan'- the land between the Himalaya and
the southern seas. Mookerji, writing in i920, shows how classical
sanskrit sources can be read from a nationalist perspective, often
underlining the emotional, almost sensual bond that a 'native born
son' has for the land of his birth (1957). He then points out how one

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may take part in and celebrate this affective nationalism through

pilgrimage to the holy places-rivers, mountains, springs and forests-thereby imbibing and visualizing the unity of the nation (1957:
33-45). This ideal was more recently realized in the 1983 Ekatmata
Yajna. Trucks carrying holy water from the Ganga distributed water
to shrines and temples throughout India. 'The idea was to unify and
purify India symbolically, but the boundaries of this reunited India
were significantly marked off as Hindu only'. (Fox 1989: 242). The
point to be taken from this is that ideologues of militant Hinduism
have developed a notion that Hindus are physically bound to the
country by birth and that this bond is reenacted every time a person
bathes in or drinks the water of a sacred river or goes on pilgrimage

up a mountain. It is but a small step from affective bond to birth

right, and then to the exclusion of all non-Hindus from 'Hindustan'

on the basis of their moral alienation from the soil.

Affective and visceral identification with the Father Land-a term

used by Mookerji-is by no means unique to the ideology of the

militant Hindus. However, from the perspective of one concerned
with Hindu unity, it has particular salience. Reference to nonsomatic
substances such as water, earth, trees etc., as the basis of 'racial'
identification enables one to circumvent the principles of caste hierarchy. The principles of purity and pollution would, in effect, under-

mine any notion of pan-Hindu somatic unity conceived of in terms

of, say, 'pure blood.' On the issue of caste distinctions per se RSS
ideology and practice seem to be radically egalitarian. Unity and
pan-Hindu brotherhood are regarded as transcending the superficial

distinctions based on purity and impurity. Swayamsevaks are

enjoined to eat together as a sign of their basic equality. However, a

closer examination of RSS rhetoric reveals, I think, a more orthodox
perspective on the status quo. Although 'hierarchy' and 'discrimination' are criticized by Golwalkar, for example, the idea that people
are born into a particular occupation seems to be tacitly accepted:
. .. [T]he distinctions in the social order did not imply any discrimination
of big or small, high or low, among its constituents. On the other hand, the
Gita tells us that the individual who does his assigned duties in life in a spirit of

selfless service only worships Gods through such performance (Golwalkar

1966: I07, in Andersen and Damle 1987: 8i, emphasis added).

In other words the distinctions-the assigned duties in life-are not

wrong, what is wrong is the stigma associated with low caste occupations-a characteristically brahmanic interpretation of the status quo.

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Scheduled caste groups have, at various times, been targeted by the

RSS for recruitment, but the leadership of the organization remains
distinctly Brahmin (Andersen and Damle 1987: 45). Reference to the
four-fold varna scheme and the Laws of Manu leaves little doubt that

militant Hindu ideology condones a classical social order of ascribed

social status, purged of stigma, to be sure, but where, as Embree puts

it, there is little doubt as to 'who will be the hewers of wood and
drawers of water' (i990: 47).
I think RSS ideology is inconsistent on the issue of caste and Hindu
unity for one primary reason. On the one hand the ideology celebrates
a Hindu belief in birth-ascribed ability, following the logic that something which is inborn is more natural, more legitimate, and therefore

more powerful, than something which is achieved by individual

means. It is a point of great importance that one cannot 'learn to be
a Hindu'; one cannot convert to Hinduism (except in the sense of
re-converting 'Hindus' who at one time or another became Christian
or Muslim). Conversion is the agency which disjoints religion from
nationalism-soul from soil-and this is the primary argument made

by the RSS against Muslims and Christians in India (Golwalkar

I966: I28 in Andersen and Damle 1987: 73). However, if Hindutva

is something one is born with, then what is to be made of other in vivo

values? Does a Chamar or a Muslim really have the same potential for
(or desire to revive) 'Hindu consciousness' as a Chitpavan Brahmin?
The issue is unresolved, but the implications are, I think, quite clear.
Because Hindutva, along with any number of lesser karmic variables,
is something you are born with it is pointless to develop a disciplinary
program which tries to change the nature of the individual, or the
nature of the 'Self. P.T. exercises and lathi shiksha do not so much

build character as mold it. The utopian future of militant Hindu

ideology is more a revival of Hindu glory than a reformation, and

character in this utopia is not molded to accommodate cultural

diversity. In a manner as inherently ambiguous, inconsistent and

tautological as Calvinist predestination, the RSS philosophy advoc-

ates action without transformation. Achievement is measured less

in terms of change, growth and accommodation than in terms of a

disciplined revival of the established order where staffs are also staves

and swords cannot be beaten into plowshares.

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Pahalwani and the Wrestler's Somatic Ideology

The term 'pahalwani' refers to a complex way of life centered around
the sport of wrestling known as kushti or mallayudha. Wrestling is done
in an earth pit, and while many moves in Indian wrestling are ident-

ical to common international free-style moves (cf. Harphool Singh

I98i, I984a, 1984b), there are also a number of moves which are
uniquely Indian in their execution. Wrestling is popular throughout
northern India from southwestern Maharashtra to Orissa and Bengal
and up the Gangetic plain to Haryana and Punjab with key centers
in Kolhapur, Sangli, Indor, Jabalpur, Calcutta, Banaras, Gorakhpur,
Lucknow, Delhi and Lahore. Although wrestling is now a popular
urban sport, and many akharas (gymnasia) are located in city neighbourhoods, the ideology of wrestling is fundamentally rural.

Since the i6th century, and perhaps earlier, Hindus and Muslims
have wrestled together in public gymnasia and have competed with
and against one another in public tournaments. Over the past eighty
years famous wrestlers have come from the Brahmin community of
Mathura (Mohan Chaube), the gentry community of Banaras and
Gorakhpur (Mangala Rai), the low class urban Muslim community of
Lucknow and Kanpur (Addha Pahalwan), the rural peasant Muslim
community of central Uttar Pradesh (Gama, Imam Baksh) and the
Maratha community of southwestern Maharashtra (Yuvraj Patel).
No Hindu wrestler would deny that a poor Muslim peasant named
Gama embodied the essence of wrestling ideals between 190I and
1947, and no Muslim wrestler would claim that he did not aspire to
achieve the stature of Mangala Rai. As many of my informants told
me, and as numerous articles in the popular literature on wrestling
indicate, pahalwani is an art which cross-cuts communal and caste
lines by turning the likes of Gama and Mangala Rai into icons of a
kind of nationalism were 'biology' supersedes even the most basic
form of religious or cultural ideology.

It may seem odd to those who carry with them a notion of sport

as wholesome recreation and healthy competition to conceive of

wrestling as anything other than a contest of strength and skill. How-

ever, as I have made clear in earlier publications (Alter I992a; I992b;

I992C), wrestling is a complex way of life centered around specific
issues of health, fitness, and identity. Pahalwani is an ideology since
wrestlers clearly articulate a holistic perspective on the world, with
specific reference to the place of the individual in society. This ideo-

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logy centers on the importance of the body as a psychosomatic whole

which needs to be built up and maintained in balance with the larger

socio-political environment.
In addition to specific periods of physical exercise (vyayam) and
practice wrestling (jor) in the early morning and later afternoon, the

wrestler must also abide by a strict regimen which specifies how to

bathe, defecate, rest, sleep, walk, and talk as well as a host of other

seemingly banal injunctions (cf. Alter I992a; forthcoming). The

wrestler must also eat a particular diet of milk, almonds and/or chick-

peas, and ghi (clarified butter) in addition to his regular noon and
evening meals. Key to the wrestler's program of self-discipline is an
idea that all activities in his life must contribute to, or be a reflection
of, his psychosomatic health. Nothing ought to be done casually. Even
a glass of water can promote or inhibit good health. If too cold it will

cause agitation. If drunk too soon after exercise it can cause illness.
The wrestler's mundane mandate for good health and fitness is

based on a particular notion of somaticity. Wrestlers do not think of

their bodies in terms of the common Hindu distinction between 'gross'

and 'subtle' domains, even though it would be possible to impose this

model onto the wrestling ideology. From the wrestler's perspective
his 'gross' corporeality-the thickness of his neck, thighs and chestis intrinsically 'subtle' by virtue of how it is constructed and
developed. Shakti is regarded as the essential power/force which anim-

ates the wrestler's body; and shakti is at once ineffable-the aura of

glowing skin and shining eyes; the ability to embody divine power-

and also concrete-the ability to swing a 60 kilogram gada (mace)

1oo times or do 2000 bethaks (deep-knee bends) every day.
Far from being an abstract measure of energy, divine or otherwise,
shakti is readily manifest in the body as semen. Time and again wrestlers would refer to their bodies as fueled by the power of this primary

fluid. The purpose of the wrestler's regimen is to gain access to,

develop, and maintain the power of shakti in semen. This can be done
in a number of ways. A diet of milk, ghi, and almonds is said to both

build up and stabilize one's supply of semen. Ghi in particular is

regarded as homologous to semen since it is whitish and creamy, and
because it is the distilled essence of milk. Semen is thought to be the
distilled essence of blood in particular, but of all body substances in
general. Ghi fuels devotional lamps and ritual fires, just as semen
fuels the internal flame of the body's life energy (cf. Alter I992a;
Effectively to turn milk, ghi, and almonds, as well as other foods,

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into seminal fluid one must exercise hard. The wrestler's vyayam regi-

men, his program of physical exercise, is often planned in tandem

with the volume of his diet. A wrestler who drinks half a liter of ghi

and two liters of milk a day-which is not particularly exceptional,

but noteworthy-may do as many as 2000 bethaks and 1500 dands
(jackknifing push-ups) every day. During his morning routine ofjor
(wrestling practice) he may wrestle for an hour and a half with up
to i o or 15 different partners. Dands and bethaks in particular facilitate
the transformation of food-blood-semen by exercising various glands

and fluid conduits in the groin, pelvis and lower back region. These
exercises also strengthen the wrestler's legs, arms and back muscles,
but only as a consequence of the more primary transformation of
fluid substance.

Although exercise builds up semen, the process also generates a

tremendous amount of heat; heat which has the potential of throwing

the body into radical imbalance wherein semen is lost or burned up.
In order to keep the body sattva (cool and calm) the wrestler must
do a number of things. He must bathe regularly before and after
exercising. After exercising, however, he should wait until his body
has cooled down before bathing, a process which is facilitated through
the application of akhara earth to his sweat saturated body. The earth

is said to draw out the body's residual heat; heat which is 'used'

during the exertion of exercise but which must be allowed to dissipate

once the rhythm of dands or bethaks had been concluded. Urination,

which must precede the post-practice bath, also helps to flush out
the last vestiges of excessive heat. If one were to bathe or drink water

immediately after practice, the resultant rapid cool down would

enrage the body's humors and cause illness. The basic principle is to
develop the body through rigorous exercise but to keep everything in

balance while doing so.

Exercises are, in fact, regarded by some wrestlers as one aspectall be it the paramount one-of a larger program of brahmacharya
(disciplined celibacy) which includes specific injunctions against
immoral behavior (Alter I992C; forthcoming). Everyone I spoke with
says that it is absolutely imperative that a wrestler be a brahmachari.
This means taking on specific attributes of the brahmachari, or adolescent disciple in the classical four-stage Hindu life cycle scheme: absolute devotion to one's guru, respect for one's elders, a serious attitude

toward learning and knowledge, devotion to God, and keeping company with like-minded youth. The brahmachari wrestler must not go

to cinema halls and watch films, he should not loiter on the streets

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or promenade in public, he should not snack on salty and spicy foods

sold by street-side vendors, and he should not smoke, drink, or chew
tobacco. The idea behind these injunctions is that all young boys,
but the young wrestler in particular, must be protected from the
seduction of modern life where consumption, sensuality and lust
threaten to undermine discipline. A film with sexually suggestive
scenes, taken in conjunction with the 'mental tension' created by
caffeine, nicotine or alcohol intoxication, is thought to have a powerful
deleterious effect.

With the importance of celibacy in mind we may now turn to a

detailed examination of some of the key exercises. Jor (practice
wrestling) is the cornerstone of the wrestler's regimen. Jor consists of

daw pech and pantra (moves, countermoves and stance) stretched out
into a continuous sequence of movement. Although each move is
regarded as a more or less clearly defined unit of action with a begin-

ning, middle and end, jor entails a great deal of inspired improvisation. In other words,jor defies regimented rhythmic movement almost
by definition, since any one move can be parried by a host of counter-

moves. As Atreya points out in an article entitled 'The Principles of

Wrestling as an Art' (I982: 27-37), how, when, and on whom a

particular move is to be applied is something you can learn only
from your guru, and something you can comprehend only when you
understand the principles of wrestling. 'If there are 2 different wrest-

lers, then there will be I2 x 12 or I44 different kinds of techniques'

(1982: 28). There is no standard technique which can be taught indiscriminately to all wrestlers (Atreya 1985: 23-49). As such jor is not
only a form of training, by which means one learns the principles of
the art, it is also a complete work-out which leaves one feeling invigorated and inspired. It builds flexibility, agility, strength and stamina.

'[Wrestling] ... is an exercise for the whole person. The soul and all

the senses are made strong. It is an exercise for enlightenment'

(Atreya I974b: 21). Learning to wrestle is more complex than learning how to play chess (Atreya I982: 28).
Many wrestlers argue that the specific, technical knowledge born
of the discipline of jor is easily translated out of the akhara and into
other arenas of everyday life where the wrestler is thereby well
equipped to grapple with complex issues and problems. Moreover
most wrestlers explain thatjor creates an emotional state called masti
(cf. Lynch I990). In this context masti is a feeling of sublime satisfaction with oneself and the world; a passionate desire to live life to its
fullest. The popular image of a mast wrestler who emerges out of the

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akhara after having completed jor, is of one who has drunk deeply of
life's essence. Masti transforms the wrestler into a person whose emo-

tions and senses are vitalized and whose whole being is animated
with a sense of visionary purpose.
When a person is totally absorbed in pahalwani and begins to feel its benefits-well, his mind becomes so strong and resolute that the burden of desire
[for women] is automatically cast off. His emotions become firm and power-

ful. Under these conditions the experience is ... well, as though bliss and
peace characterized all of creation (H. Singh 1984b: 26).

In addition to jor, wrestlers do two primary exercises: dands and

bethaks. A bethak is almost identical to a vigorous deep-knee bend, or

'squat.' With feet placed at a slight angle, one squats down, lifting
one's heels off the ground and jumping slightly forward. Then while
standing back up, one jumps back to the original position. Arms are
swung in a rhythmic, pendulum motion in order to facilitate balance.
As Atreya notes, however, there are many different kinds of bethaksone legged, half-bethaks, stationary bethaks, etc. (9I74b: 24; cf. H.
Singh I984a) -and it is difficult to comprehend the theory of bethaks
as distinct from their various forms. What Atreya means by 'a theory
of bethaks' is that one can tell from how a wrestler does his bethaks-

the rhythm, pace, balance, and concentration he is able to effectwhat sort of wrestler he is. And although he is referring primarily to
the wrestler's skill and strength, Atreya indicates that a bethak helps
to define the whole psychosomatic character of the wrestler.
Bethaks make the thighs beautiful, strong and capable of lifting heavy
weights. Not only the legs, but the back and feet are made beautiful. The

knees are beautified. The ankles, feet, soles of the feet and toes are all made
tough and powerful. Bethaks promote a good, strong blood flow. While doing

bethaks one must also naturally perform an efficacious type of breathing

exercise which disciplines the lungs and blood. All impurities of the body
are purged by doing bethaks. In other words, they purify the whole body,
and play a crucial role in coordinating all of the various systems (Atreya
1974a: 21).

Dands are done by placing one's hands on the ground about a

forearm's length apart. With feet together, or a few inches apart, one

starts by lifting one's hips into the air and extending one's arms
completely. Then, while bending at the elbows and gliding forward
just above the ground, one's hips are thrust down toward the ground
as the arms are again extended straight and perpendicular to the
ground, and the back is curved in a concave arch. One's hips are
then again lifted up to the starting position as the arms are again

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straightened. Dands are done rapidly, at a rate of about forty or fifty

per minute. Typically a wrestler does his dands and bethaks in the
akhara by himself. Even if there are other wrestlers in the akhara each

wrestler establishes his own pace and rhythm based on the specific
instructions given to him by his guru.
While Atreya is somewhat restrained in his description of and commentary on the virtues of the bethak, his remarks on the dand leave

little doubt as to the powerful psychosomatic transformation which

can be effected through exercise.
Doing pure dands will cure a person of any illness related to semen or semen
loss. All stomach ailments will be cured. Doing dands makes all of the tendons

work properly. They make a person's character and personality shine. The
body takes on a powerful radiance. Not only this but the person who does
dands leads a fuller and more meaningful life. He is liked by everyone. His
whole attitude toward life is changed (Atreya 1974b: I9-20).

Somatic Misconceptions
Because wrestlers engage in a strict regimen of physical exercise, it
is often assumed that they must also sympathize with, or even be
involved in, RSS or other militant Hindu organizations. The assumption is based on a popular misconception that all 'martial arts' engender the same kind of gung-ho aggressive patriotism. In fact, wrestling
exercise is very different from the paramilitary lathi drills performed
on the parade ground. While the volunteer and the wrestler are both

enjoined to concentrate and focus on what they are doing, the point
of focus for the wrestler is singular, whereas for the body of recruits
it is a collective point manifest in the person of the drill leader. Ob-

vious formal differences notwithstanding, the exercises themselves

are very different on the level of the theory. The point of the RSS
drill is to discipline through coordinated movement. Individual physical fitness is ancillary to the power of obedience; only significant as
it pertains to the collective strength of the group. What is important
is to be able to 'stand shoulder to shoulder' with other Hindus and
to fight for what is right: the mandated Truth of dharma.
Without wishing to oversimplify, I think it is possible to trace two
discrete perspectives on the body manifest in wrestling and militant

Hindu ideologies. In RSS rhetoric there seems to be an idea that

every Hindu possesses an incipient consciousness that needs to be
awakened. The key elements of this consciousness--sanskriti and

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dharma in particular-are regarded as immutable and transcendent.

They do not need to be elaborated or expanded upon since their
status is iconic, timeless and beyond question; but they do need to
be defended. Thus the RSS ideology sets up the body of the volunteer,
and the body of volunteers, as a phalanx to ward off penetration and
erosion from the outside.

In addition to the perceived threat of Hindus converting to foreign

religions - Christianity and Islam -militant Hindu ideology is critical
of the long-standing government policy of secularism. To a large
extent the ideology of secularism-the maya of modernism-is precisely the type of 'disorganization' that the RSS is trying to disavow
and overcome through organization and discipline. What the RSS is
trying to do, it seems to me, is to strip away what it perceives to be
false consciousness, illusion, foreign influence, and so forth and to
leave standing some sort of essential Hindu. The irony here is that
this sort of revivalism born of reaction creates a kind of self-inflicted

Orientalism wherein the terms of one's own identity-perceived of as

a closed, intransitive system-are constructed in such a way as to
have epic significance but no referentiality other than that imposed
by the imagined gaze of alien nations.
Wrestlers, as we will see, are critical of modern India in ways which
seem to be at least superficially similar to the RSS ideology. However,
with respect to the person of the Hindu wrestler-his psychosomatic
character-in relation to the nation and national problems, there is
a great deal of difference. Primarily, wrestlers tend to place very little
value on a notion of basic Hindu character; for them the essentialist
nature of such a concept forecloses the dynamic process of selfdevelopment. Which is not at all to say that so-called Hindu character
traits are irrelevant to the wrestler's project. However, when such
traits as 'goodness', as well as various codes for conduct, are taken
as iconic and static, they lose their value as fluid agency in the matrix
of individual development and become simple categories of opposition. Where the discipline of the RSS at once strips away individuality, false consciousness, and modern humanist sentiments to leave the
defensive mechanism of pride and prejudice, the wrestler's disciplinary project turns inward to the very core of individual character. To
be sure, Indian wrestlers do not assume that everyone enters the
akhara as a blank slate; but they do take very seriously the notion
that a person is far more protean than immutable. Thus, instead of
both stripping away and masking, the exercise of the wrestler builds

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up and develops the character by adding to the basic human substance of the individual. A wrestler is substantially different as a result
of the discipline to which he subjects himself.

As Richard Fox (1989: 238, 239) and others (Andersen and Damle
1987) point out, RSS ideology is theoretically non-sectarian insofar
as Hinduism is thought to subsume caste and 'religious' differences
by appealing to a deeper, more essential cultural unity. The obvious
problem with such a perspective is that the 'cultural unity' which
Muslims, Christians and Scheduled caste Hindus are supposedly
incipiently part of is a high caste vision of both the terms of culture

and the criteria of unity. My argument is that wrestling uses Hindu

criteria to 'dig deeper' than cultural essentials, and focuses on a reconstitution of bio-morality.
Irrespective of whether or not wrestlers agree with the concept of

incipient Hindu character and immutable Hindu values, they feel

that average health and generic fitness are not enough. From the
perspective of someone who does a thousand or more dands and bethaks
everyday and is animated with the masti of invigorated celibacy, the

half-hour drill routine of the RSS volunteer seems simplistic and

hopelessly insufficient-it has the form of discipline but not the power
to transform. From the wrestler's vantage point, real self-development

can be achieved only through a rigorous regimen that encompasses

one's whole life. The shakti of semen supersedes the power of Hindutva

and thus a supremely strong Hindu wrestler is ultra humble, ultra

generous, ultra devout and ultra respectful, irrespective of his birth
right. Any number of examples could be given from my field notes
and from the popular literature on wrestling of individuals who were
transformed through the agency of wrestling and the environment of
the akhara. Many senior wrestlers told me how as young boys they
came to the akhara weak, and sometimes sick, with either a heart or
respiratory ailment; how they were poor and ate only 'a handful
of chana [chickpeas] and dry bread'; and how they would prostrate
themselves at their guru's feet. Gradually they became not only
healthy and strong, but men of good character as well. To be sure
the transformation charted in these folk-biographies is one of sickness
to health and childhood to maturity and therefore of a slightly different order than the ignorance to consciousness development of the
RSS volunteer. But although the terms are different, the respective
definitions of psychosomatic identity which emerge from these
charted paths-what it means to be a citizen in modern India-end
up competing for the same ideological space.

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Nationalism and Body Discipline

In an editorial entitled 'It is Not a Government of the People, It is
a Government of Demons' published in the quarterly journal Bharatiya

Kushti (Indian Wrestling) Ratan Patodi writes,

[w]hen the people of India (deshwasiyo) saw that freedom was immanent,
they gladly suffered personal hardship knowing that art and culture would

flourish after independence; that their sense of self worth would awaken;
that the nation would be selfsufficient. They thought that there would be
rivers of milk and ghi; that every citizen (nagrik) would be strong and healthy;
that fine literature and inspired instruction would be the catalysts for building strong bodies and good character; that financial security would be forth-

coming; that a new age would dawn. But now, twenty-seven years after
independence, if you look at your average Indian it seems as though the
designation Hindustani [Hindu citizen] has come to mean a man who is
absolutely the most lifeless and lazy person in the world (I974: I5).

Ratan Patodi continues his caustic harangue by blaming the

'demonic' politicans of post-independence India for having ushered
in a dystopic era of greed, corruption and poverty. Blame aside,
Patodi and many other wrestling advocates see wrestling as the anim-

ated moral alternative to this dark and lifeless age.

The nationalism espoused by wrestlers and wrestling advocates is
of a peculiar sort, for it does not often refer directly to common patri-

otic, nationalistic themes which are so prevalent in the rhetoric of

militant Hinduism. The wrestler is far more concerned with the
somatic basis of citizenship than with defending borders, advocating
the exclusive use of Hindi, chanting slogans, or building temples
under the banner of the bhagwa dhwaj (saffron-colored flag of the

When people see someone who possesses a beautiful and strong body walk
down the street, their hearts begin to beat faster ... How many people look
at a [wrestler] 'master of the langot [g-string]' and wish that they could be
like him. Some pray to god, others hope, and some think, 'if only I could
be like him, or if my children could be like him.' The people of today
have left the gymnasia and ruined their bodies by seeking material, sensual

gratification in cinema halls and at the 'academy of the cross-roads,' or

'loiterers lecture hall'; the younger generation's poverty of body and soul
has brought about such national problems as murder, immorality, oppression, theft, and the lack of character among politicians. I cannot recall all
of the problems which are a result of poor physical health, let alone all of
those things which are the product of an unhealthy mind-and recall that

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a healthy mind can only reside in a healthy body. If this trend is not stopped

then our Indian culture will end (Patel I985: 69).

As Patodi and Patel clearly imply, the wrestler's concept of nationalism is so intensely personal that both discipline and rhetoric begin
and end with the body. In a very real way the important 'border' to
be defended here is the psychosomatic complex which protects semen.
It is from this perspective that the everyday features of the wrestler's

regimen-eating, sleeping, bathing, defecating, and exercising-

become nationalistic. Wrestlers talk about semen as a national

resource; the raw material for productive growth and development.

In doing so they are not only dead serious, but they are being absolutely literal as well. In other words, semen is not employed here for
its purely metaphoric value as a powerful key symbol, as in the terms
of quite a different somatic nationalism one might refer to the patriot-

ism of 'red blooded Americans.' Somatic codes are not simply

reflections of an objective politico-racial reality as in European fascism, socialism and capitalism. Semen is that which animates and
empowers the average citizen, and thus when Patodi refers to the
unrealized dream of a country flowing with milk and ghi he is talking

as much about health as about wealth and pride; more about the
potential of fluid transformation than about an exclusive Hindu birth
right to a sacred riverine geography.
Elsewhere I have discussed in some detail the somatic terms of the

wrestler's concept of nationalism as it relates to daily life (Alter I992a

and b). The idea is to overcome the corrosive effects of immoral

modernism by developing the psychosomatic self through a microphysics of rigorous discipline: eating good, healthy food, wearing

clean cotton clothes, cutting one's hair short, and in general

comporting oneself as a brahmachari while exercising hard. The akhara

provides the social and elemental base around and through which
this micro-physics takes on particular significance.
A wrestling akhara is at once stark, in terms of the rudimentary
nature of its constituent elements, and yet extremely rich in terms of
what those elements mean. An akhara is made up of three primary
substances, earth, air and water, overlaid by trees. Trees in general,
but nim, pipal and banyan in particular (and ideally in tripartite
conjunction) function to bind the other three elements together. The
shade cools the air, earth and water; the three elements contribute
to the trees' growth; the roots bind the earth and impart flavor to the
water; earth dries water; water moistens earth; earth freshens air, and

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so forth in a kind of infinite cycle of fluid mutuality. As a result, the

akhara is regarded as a kind of pristine place where perfect natural

balance is achieved (cf. Alter I992a). Akhara earth, which is the fulcrum of this balance, is regarded as a substance capable of holding
or containing the tremendous latent energy of semen--a kind of geo-

moral opposite of a biochemical crucible. The earth or the akhara

stabilizes energy but does not leach away strength. It contains without reacting.

The significance of this for the present argument is that to some

extent the akhara is regarded as an elemental model of the nation.
What the akhara is in microcosm the nation should be as a whole;
which is not to say that it must revert to a natural state of rivers,
forests and trees-although aesthetically this is probably the image
in mind-but that there should be an overall elemental balance in

the national ecology: clean, cool and pure air, clean cool and pure
water; clean, cool and pure earth, and plenty of trees to make it all
possible. The geomantic essentialism of this rather idealistic model
does not necessarily preclude the utilitarian components of a modern
politico-economic state. Industry, transportation and agriculture can
be construed in terms of an akhara ecology, which means simply, as
one wrestler put it, that people will learn to keep streets, air and
water clean when they need to have such an environment in which
to exercise. Although this image of the nation as an akhara is constructed in terms of Hindu concepts of substance and balance, it is
fundamentally not a Hindu landscape of the sort envisaged by the
RSS or other militant groups. Generic geomorality supersedes the
particular, communal ideology of sacred rivers, holy mountains and
blessed soil.

Bhushan 'Dwivedi', a poet/wrestler who writes for the quarterly

journal Bharatiya Kushti, had composed a long serial poem in which
he develops a theme of geomoral nationalism. The poem, entitled
Goshala (cow shelter), makes an explicit analogy between the akhara
and the goshala. While the English gloss 'cow shelter' or 'cow shed'
may evoke images of utilitarian function-dairy production, draft
labor, etc. (just as the term gymnasium evokes images of sweat, steam

and old sneakers) -the more appropriate image is one of bovine bliss;
a place where cows can live in comfort, at peace, taken care of by
benefactors. Although goshalas often take in old cows whose use value
has declined, the underlying principle of the goshala is the protection
of all cows. Goshalas are often quite elaborate affairs housing hundreds
of head of cattle in neat stables.

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Just as the elements of the akhara are pure and sattvik, so are the
products of the cow. Thus, to some extent, urine, dung, and milk are

similar, on a constituent substantive level, to the akhara's earth, air

and water. Consequently, the goshala may be seen as a nexus of geo-

morality; a place in which there is natural order: a kind of 'Om'

incarnate. My use of hyperbole here is intentionally consistent with
the poem's tone, for in his poetry 'Dwivedi' uses the goshala-often
anthropomorphized and imbued with emotions-as a constant refrain
by which means to coordinate a discordant world. For example:
Religion, work and humanity combined
is this goshala.

Poets, saints and scholars are inspired

by this goshala.
The history of India is not found
in taverns and tea stalls.

India's history is found there

where goshalas are opened. (1972-1973: 33)

You read to me of compassion and charity,

always goshala.

Only you teach me how to live benevolently,

my goshala.

In truth the goshala produces humans not demons.

For the sake of humanity then,
you must open a goshala (1972b: 29).

This appeal is very similar to the popular wrestling sentiment that

every wrestler must build an akhara of his own.
There are tea stalls in every alley way,
taverns at every turn.
But India needs a goshala
on every single lane.
If you drink tea you will be weak,

liquor makes you demonic.

The only store house of strength

is my goshala (i972a: 49).

in a number of different stanzas 'Dwivedi' contrasts tea and liquor

with milk and water. Intoxication, a symbol of general corruption
and decay, is regarded as something which threatens the geomorality
of the goshala and the akhara.
The goshala is, of course, also a key symbol in the ideology of Hindutva. Over the years cow protection has become a rallying point for

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Hindus who regard cow slaughter as sinful. Cow protection is inherently a communal issue since it pits beef eating Muslims against
vegetarian Hindus. Where militant Hindu ideology places the blame
for cow slaughter squarely on the shoulders of Muslims, 'Dwivedi'
is far more ambiguous, ambivalent and cynical when it comes to the
question of fault. By turning the goshala into a metaphor for the
nation, 'Dwivedi' transforms cow protection into a moral principle
for pan-Indian social reform. The killing of cows, to which 'Dwivedi'
is most certainly opposed, is not so much a black and white communal

issue as a complex metaphor for the discordant state of affairs in

modern India. In his view Muslims, Christians and Hindus are all
duped by the agency of a corrupt and immoral government.
Everyday they go to the temple,

garland in hand they go.

In order to be called generous,

they have goshalas built.

But then they pay the executioners fee,

and have cows slaughtered.

Watch out for this kind of duplicity,

says my goshala. (1973: 19)

In this and many other passages 'they' refers to politicians who

have forgotten the lessons of Gandhi-exchanged khadi (rough, handwoven cotton cloth) for suit and tie, milk for tea, and conviction for

platitudes-and who 'live in India but do not love India' on account

of their intoxication (ibid). For 'Dwivedi', Gandhi was a prototypical
figure who embodied the geomorality of the goshala. He was compassionate, strong, devout, and honest (to name but a few often mentioned character traits) because he was not intoxicated by modernity.

Gandhi was able to see through the veneer of sectarian dogma

because he tuned his body to a more primary, elemental base.

Space does not permit me to trace the connections between

Gandhi's somatic politics and the wrestler's concept of somatic reform

except by way of one telling anecdote. While in the Punjab during

the late i92os Gandhi is said to have met with the great wrestler
Gama after a tournament. Joking about the apparent difference in

their respective physiques-Gandhi, thin almost to the point of

emaciation and Gama thick and sturdy-Gandhi asked Gama if he
would care to wrestle with him. Gama replied, 'how can I hope to

win against one who has single handedly flipped an empire onto its
back.' Although small, thin and old, Gandhi is regarded by most
wrestlers as a powerful example of embodied virtue; of how celibacy

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is connected to morals, muscles and politics. Drawing on Gandhian

teaching both explicitly and implicitly, 'Dwivedi's' poem is very
'humanistic' insofar as it calls for an end to communal distinctiveness

and the reconstruction of a new moral order; the destruction of

temples, churches, mosques and gurdwaras and the construction of
akhara/goshalas in their place. To be sure, this is a very Hindu solution

to the problem of communal disharmony; but it is, nevertheless, a

Hindu critique of Hindu chauvinism, which is perhaps as much as
can be expected for the time being. Since the goshala is a metaphor
for both the nation and the akhara it is possible to see how wrestling

is envisaged as an alternative to nationalistic Hindu dogma; as a

return to something more basic than chauvinistic 'Hindu sentiments.'
Less of a rallying point than a remedy for social ills, the akhara/goshala
can, as one wrestler put, 'build up a tower of national strength' that
will not insulate itself against the modern world, but will restructure
that world in somatic terms by giving rise to a generation of Gandhian


It is surprising that although akhara culture is replete with religious

significance and ritual, very little overt reference is made to either

Hindu or Muslim religion-in the 'Great Tradition' sense of institutions and icons-in the popular literature on wrestling. Far greater
weight is placed on the problems of celibacy, diet, and overall health,

than on the importance of Hanuman, Krishna and other deities in

akhara cosmology. Since the journal Bharatiya Kushti provides a Hindu
perspective on wrestling there are very few articles which deal with

Islamic themes. Between I97I and 1986 only three articles in the
journal deal with Hindu themes explicitly: S. P. Atreya's article on
Krishna (1972), C. Gupta's article on the health value of'Om' (I974),
and an interview with S. P. Atreya by Ramchandar Kesriya (1985)
on the subject of why there are so few world class Hindu wrestlers.
Kesriya's interview with Atreya provides an interesting perspective
on the issue of religion, identity and wrestling.

The interview is prefaced with the following scene: Kesriya and a

group of other men-all Hindu-are sitting with Atreya, also known
as Mahatma Pahalwan, talking about wrestling. Reflecting on the
past, one of the men points out that most of India's well known

wrestlers-Gama, Imam Baksh, Mehradin, and Gulam-were

Muslim, and he asks the question: 'Why are men of this stature not
born among Hindus?' Atreya, himself a rather orthodox Brahmin,
trained in Sanskrit and Yoga philosophy at Banaras Hindu University, answers the question by saying, in effect, that Hindus should be

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more like Muslims when it comes to questions of wrestling discipline.

What most Hindu wrestlers lack, he points out, is 'tahajib': civility,

politeness, and proper decorum within the context of a civilized soci-

ety. It is interesting that Atreya should choose an Urdu word of

Persian and Arabic derivation rather than the Sanskritic synonym,
sabhyata, to make his point, particularly since the interview, as with
the rest of the prose in Bharatiya Kushti, is written in sanskritized
Hindi. Tahajib appears in quotations as if to underscore the 'Islamic
quality' of the traits in question. The rest of the interview consists of

a series of four anecdotes chosen to illustrate the quality of tahajib

among Muslim wrestlers. One anecdote in particular serves to distin-

guish clearly between chauvinistic Hindu concerns and the nonsectarian principles of wrestling.

One day Atreya was travelling through Banaras with a number of

his disciples and had to pay a visit to the Muslim akhara of Sahin
Pahalwan. When Atreya arrived Sahin was in the middle of eating,
but immediately left his plate and bade Atreya welcome. In Atreya's
view the most important aspect of Sahin's behavior was that he
insisted that Atreya stay and eat with him. Recognizing that Atreya
would not 'eat the food from his hands,' however, Sahin told him to

make the necessary arrangements for a Hindu cook. As Atreya

recounts, 'he showed me such respect that to this day I have not been

so well treated in a Hindu akhara' (1985: 65). The men sitting with
Atreya reflected on this for a moment and then concluded, as Kesriya

writes, that '[i]t is only natural that great wrestlers should be born

into such well managed, humble and decorous akharas ... and we
can only hope that Hindu wrestlers will take heed' (1985: 66).
Given this Hindu quorum's reflexive conclusion, Atreya's interaction with Sahin cannot be dismissed as a simple case of a high caste
Hindu paternalistically applauding a Muslim for knowing his 'proper
place'-separate and impure-in the Hindu social order. Eating, for
the wrestler, is a very important activity, and cooking is something
which is best done by oneself, a family member, or by a trusted
disciple. Although purity is partly at issue, it is not necessarily the
dominant trope. Food can be 'contaminated' by dangerous, erotic

emotions (Alter I992a and b), and thus a wrestler is well advised
to eat discriminately and discreetly in order to maintain his overall
psychosomatic balance. Sahin's tahajib was to realize that dietetics,
respect, health, moral balance and propriety are all integrally related,
and to act in terms of this realization.

Militant Hindu nationalism and the somatic nationalism of the

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wrestler are in many ways fundamentally different despite the appearance of congruity. It would be anathema for the leaders of such milit-

ant groups as the RSS, Shiva Sena, and Bajrang Dal, to let a Muslim
'voice' speak to the issue of what is lacking among Hindus, much less
turn-even nominally-to an Islamic model of civility to define the
terms of Hindu self development. Many educated wrestlers are well
aware of this, and so there is as much polemic irony to Atreya's
self-criticism as in 'Dwivedi's' choice of a 'communal symbol' to

advocate non-sectarian reform. But there is more here than rhetorical

irony. By unmasking Hindu conceit Atreya lays bare the terms of an

alternative nationalism where the Hindu and the Muslim can

emerge-different but together-covered with the same earth,

drinking the same water, sitting in the shade of the same trees, and,

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