Laurent Goldstein's photographs of Indian practitioners of kushti are "so sensual it almost feels wrong to look at them," according to a Huffington Post article published last month.
It's an odd effect since pehlwans [wrestlers in dry mud pits] sign on to an ascetic lifestyle, giving up drinking, smoking and sex in order to focus completely on a life of practice. Indeed, in certain rural parts of India pehlwans hold the same sacrosanct status as the samurai in Japan, or monks in Asia. Only they look like David in Florence.
Malliko Rao, author of "The Accidental Sensuality of Ancient Indian Wrestling," quotes the photographer who emphasizes that the apparent eroticism of the wrestlers' bodies, together or alone, is "absolutely innocent." I might object to the idea that sensuality is not "innocent," but I get Goldstein's point.
Mud wrestling is about the only religious sacrament I could stomach these days, though I would prefer that sensuality be part of it too. The practice of pehlwani precedes both Islam and Hinduism, which have co-opted it pretty much the way Christianity co-opted a variety of pagan celebrations to concoct Christmas--with its Druidic Christmas trees and Three Wise Men (a New Testament nod to Zoroastrianism).
The Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, which predates all the above religions (except possibly Hinduism), is the source of kushti, the Persian word for the sacred girdle Zoroastrians tie and untie around their waists throughout the day. In this case the exertions and sensations of tying and untying of two bodies make wrestling something more than combat training (the Greco-Roman view), a heightening of consciousness.
Zoroastrians perceive sensuality as a barrier to intellectual enlightenment not because of something inherently wrong or shameful about sensuality, but because of evil's noxious effect on sensuality. Evil is of the spirit, not the body, but it can corrupt the body. The act of wrestling, as well as other bodily exercises and disciplines, purportedly lifts a devotee up through sensuality to higher planes of awareness and centeredness. I can see that. The body and the mind are not separate, nor is the question purely spiritual.
Modern science supports a positive connection between bodily activity and the plasticity of the brain. Repeated, prolonged, even ritualized testing of the body is good for the spirit.
(The three photos above belong to Laurent Goldstein. The following photos come from various Internet sources, not always attributable.)