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Review: Moral Materialism

Joseph S Alter penguin india Rs. 499 pp 246 We must be a pretty inobservant lot. For a country in which hundreds of millions of people pray to a phallus in a vagina, how many of us really think about the link between the ubiquitous signifier and the supposed signified? I hadn’t. That is, till I

books Updated: Dec 23, 2011 16:41 IST

Joseph S Alter

penguin india

Rs. 499 pp 246

We must be a pretty inobservant lot. For a country in which hundreds of millions of people pray to a phallus in a vagina, how many of us really think about the link between the ubiquitous signifier and the supposed signified? I hadn’t.

That is, till I walked into the headquarters of Juna, the oldest and biggest college of Naga sadhus, a few years ago with a naïve question: what is brahmacharya? Who better to ask than the sadhus at Juna, whose presiding deity is Hanuman, the most ardent brahmachari of them all? Senior sadhu Rajendra Giri first explained the term literally: “Behaving like Brahma.” Which Brahma — the one who stalked his own creation Shatarupa, the one who lied to Vishnu in order to be counted as top god, or the one whose ‘egg’ is our known world?

Giri shook his beard and directed me to a room full of Shiva lingams in front of a Hanuman temple. “Tell me what you make of it,” he said. I came back, scratched my head, and asked, “Since we can see the phallus inside the vagina, are we in the womb?” He seemed exasperated and said, “Nooo, how can we call Shiva a brahmachari if that is his form? He is hardly a celibate!” Giri hunched forward and brought his voice down a few notches: “It’s because he didn’t waste his semen, because he could do it without birja-pat (ejaculation).”

It opened a new chapter of curiosities for me, one in which American anthropologist Joseph S Alter played a helpful role. Alter, son of an American missionary who was raised in and around Woodstock school in Mussoorie, wrote a riveting book titled The Wrestler’s Body. It closely observed brahmacharya as it is practised by the legion of wrestlers in the akharas (gymnasia) of north India, especially in Varanasi.

Enthused, I opened a line of conversation with Alter and came to read some of his other papers — on ‘muscular’ nationalism, on the iconography of gupt-rog chikitsa (sex clinics), and on the relation between ye olde yogic sex and newly shrink-wrapped ‘sexy yoga’.

Alter’s latest book, Moral Materialism: Sex and Modernity in Modern India, collates all those works and some more into seven chapters, with brahmacharya and the wrestlers’ preoccupation with it forming the core. He variously connects erotic asceticism with the post-colonial political economies of desire: “Nehru, Shiva and the ‘Hindu’ everyman as a kind of post-modern trinity of secular tradition, holy destruction and mundane, embodied self-preservation.”

It’s also an approach in which the anxious male gaze is trained inwards. As Alter admits, semen control is a reductive trope to talk about masculinity; it ignores the vast feminist literature on related subjects. But it’s a seductive trope too, especially given Alter’s erudition.

The hydraulics of semen control is allowed great length. Sivananda, founder of the Rishikesh-based Divine Life Society and an articulate champion of yogic brahmacharya, is quoted recalling an equation while explaining the preciousness of semen: food is first transformed into blood, which then becomes flesh, which turns into fat, bone, marrow and finally semen.

Given that one maund (40 kg) of food translates into two tolas (20gm) of semen in 30 days, the arithmetic of passion says one needs to hog for a month to tank up for just one ejaculation. On the other hand, retaining it for long gives you immense strength and “cheeks like Kashmiri apples”, one yoga instructor tells Alter. Such prescriptions and proscriptions are so extensively repeated that, by the middle of the third chapter, you have a confused sense of the bio-morality around semen.

Alter serves up a disproportionate amount of details on things he seems to relish. For example, while talking of a sex clinic close to the clock tower at Landour in Mussoorie, he takes a diversion into its childish local name, ‘Lund’our. While quoting the bombastic Bikram Choudhury, proponent of the postural discipline of ‘Hot Yoga’, he devotes space to Choudhury’s boast of having cured Richard Nixon’s sciatica even though a Sunday Times investigation has clearly punctured the claim.

That day in Varanasi, Rajendra Giri made me an offer: “You too can learn to be like Shiva if you join us as an initiate. But you’ll have to give up your family.

What if you go back to your woman and yours doesn’t stand? You see, there’s no insurance against this kind of thing.” I politely excused myself and made my way out.