Book Review – Strong Arms and Drinking Strength

Jarrod Whitaker, Strong Arms and Drinking Strength, (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2011)

Just as the war god Indra overthrew the cosmic adversary Vrtra to free the cattle and the rivers from Vrtra’s serpentine coils, so also Jarrod Whitaker’s (Associate Professor of South Asian Religions, Religion Graduate Program Director, Wake Forest University) book represents a watershed in Rgvedic masculinity studies.  In Strong Arms and Drinking Strength, Whitaker points out that the Rgvedic hymns are rife with 9780199755707androcentric language, praise of masculinity and martial acumen, references to Indra as the hypermasculine prototype which human (Aryan) men should imitate, and contentions that ritual participation—especially in the soma ritual—is essential for strengthening the gods Indra, Agni, and Soma, as well as Aryan men.  He simultaneously laments the fact that despite this abundance of material in the Rgveda, no focused study has formerly been conducted on the relationship between the ritual performances and the ways that these practices and discourse interact to construct, reconstruct, legitimize, and perpetuate the ideal of masculinity for Aryan men.

The soma ritual involves the ritual pressing of an ephedra-based plant, mixing the resulting juice with milk and ghee, and making an offering of it to the gods Indra, Agni, and Soma.  The gods are depicted as drinking large quantities of soma, which strengthens them to perform their manly and martial deeds.  The ritual also involves the human participants drinking the soma, which is likewise said to make them strong and manly in participation with the gods.

Whitaker is careful to note that the physiological effects of the drink are irrelevant to the study at hand.  Drawing on the work of ritual and social theorists such as Catherine Bell, Pierre Bourdieu, and Michel Foucault, Whitaker explains the ancient soma ritual as a way for Aryan poet-priests to encode specific male roles into men, embedding ideals such as martial prowess, political influence, and control of resources into the very idea of manhood.  They accomplish this by reproducing masculine, androcentric, and martial ideals over and over with each ritual performance, creating an image of the ideal Aryan man as virile and powerful, by socializing them in the patriarchal ritual tradition, and by maintaining control of the ritual, economic, and political relationships within the community.

Beginning from a basic understanding that biological sex does not determine an individual’s conformance to socially and culturally constructed gender norms, Whitaker explains that Rgvedic masculine ideals are not imposed by the poet-priests upon unwilling Aryan men, nor do they make up a monolithic social system that is accepted uncritically.  On the contrary, based on limited evidence of delineated class structures in the Rgvedic period, Whitaker suggests that the ritual performances included poet-priests, warriors, and chieftains, and that the distinctions between these “classes” were usually blurred.  Instead, Whitaker follows Bell’s definition of ideology, explaining that these ideals are embedded by a process that depicts certain social and cultural practices as “natural” and right.”  Furthermore, the strategic practice of the soma ritual does not only reflect meaning, it is part of a Foucaultian “discursive formation,” which plays a direct role in constructing what it means to be a man in Aryan society.  Finally, Whitaker explains why Aryan men participate in the ritual performances and accept the dominant ideology of masculinity despite the fact that it calls for them to act violently and to put themselves at risk of injury or death by pointing to Bourdieu’s notion of “symbolic capital.”  This symbolic capital is a sort of cultural currency which may be accumulated in the form of prestige, fame, or honor, and which, if deployed strategically, may be converted into monetary capital.  Symbolic capital legitimizes its holder in a way that is not articulated explicitly; rather, it is “misrecognized” in a way that allows the privileged to remain in power and to legitimate the otherwise arbitrary system of power.  In this way, Whitaker argues that Aryan men participate in the soma ritual in order to gain symbolic capital, social legitimacy, political authority, and economic prosperity.

If you are not into all this theory, do not be discouraged; Whitaker’s argument actually proceeds quite philologically.  The first three chapters focus on word studies which examine the way which the poetic discourse of the Rgveda encodes meaning into the bodies of Aryan men.  The first chapter concentrates on the common terms used for “man” (nar) and “manhood, masculinity” (nrmna, paumsya).  It argues that Rgvedic poet-priests use these words to simultaneously reflect and recreate a dominant androcentric ideology by closely aligning the identities of human men to those of the gods Indra and Agni, the exemplars of masculinity.  The second chapter centers on and examination of the terms vira and virya (cognate to English virile, virility, through Latin vir (man) and Proto-Indo-European *uiHro), which communicate a man’s role as warrior and his power and strength.  The use of these terms creates a society in which a man’s primary role is that of a warrior, where his body is a commodity, and where his primary way of gaining resources is through violence.  The third chapter focuses on the specialized term sura (big/strong man, champion), and its use to describe Indra, his cosmic battle with Vrtra, and the relationship between strength and control of natural and symbolic resources.

These chapters admittedly get a little technical, and having no background in Sanskrit, I do not possess the tools to evaluate the quality of Whitaker’s translations.  I can say, though, that the main thrust of the argument is never lost, and his use of the Rgvedic stanzas is for the most part clear when you make use of his translations.  For me, though, the action is in the fourth chapter and the conclusion.  In these chapters, Whitaker brings together the understandings of the words studied in the previous chapter and brings them to bear on the soma ritual.  Whitaker concludes:

It is in the act of drinking soma that ritual practitioners directly influence, if not control, individual bodies and political institutions.  Furthermore, in continually expressing political power by way of physical metaphors and reducing such power to the body, poet-priests make any direct claim for political authority contingent on physical invigoration from ritual substances and rhetoric, and on a ritually constructed understanding of the male body (156).

As a former student of Dr. Whitaker’s, the only disappointment I had with this book was the failure to bring the argument home as he did in class.  I distinctly remember him  commenting in class that this is not only about ancient India; we have many contemporary issues which are highlighted by the study of ancient religion.  There are specific ways that the argument applies to modern constructions of masculinity, which will be evident to the perceptive reader, but which Whitaker did not make explicit in the book.  Symbolic capital is earned by men who “act like men,” by playing football, owning a fast car, making a lot of money, tolerating pain, suppressing emotion, or by holding his liquor well.

Whitaker’s book brings to light an aspect of Rgvedic studies that had previously been neglected.  It also makes a valuable contribution to the field of gender studies.  It will be appreciated by Vedic scholars, general religion students, as well as those casually interested in religious and masculinity studies.

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