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What About the Kama Sutra?
Believe it or not, this is not primarily a sex manual.
The Kama Sutra, believed to have been written in the second or third century AD by the Hindu Vedic philosopher Vatsyayana, is a guide to virtuous living, filled with aphorisms about the nature of love and the importance of family life. It talks about finding a life partner and creating a harmonious relationship, navigating the challenges of extramarital relationships, balancing family and duty and the need to earn a living – as well as various positions for sexual relations.
“Sutra” in Sanskrit means discussion; “Kama” refers to desire, pleasure or sex. So: A treatise on desire/pleasure/sex. For Vatsyayana, however, desire/pleasure/sex has a different meaning than it does for us jaded moderns who are all too familiar with commercialized sex. Desire, pleasure, and sex in the Kama Sutra are contextualized, viewed as part of a worldview in which men and women dance together in the art of love in both families and larger networks of relationships.
The target audience for the text was a wealthy male city dweller in the sophisticated civilization of northern India. Hanif Kureishi, reviewing a recent translation in The Guardian, wrote that the Kama Sutra is “…a sexual self-help manual for the socially naive, a geek’s way of getting the girls.” So, rather than a holy text, it is more like a collection of advice for a young man from a wise and worldly uncle.
British explorer Sir Richard Burton first introduced the Kama Sutra to the West, in a translation he sponsored and privately printed in 1883. This early attempt, though riddled with inaccuracies, delighted generations of readers with its seemingly exotic approach to sexual relations. The frankness with which the book discussed sexual issues was refreshing for those dealing with the institutionalized sexual repression of Christian cultures.
Since Burton’s day, the Kama Sutra has come to be used as a shorthand way of referring to exotic erotica. The parts of the book describing the sexual positions have become part of the whole book, with numerous books (and films) published showing photogenic models bringing those positions to our teaching. As it turns out, even ancient texts can be dissected and used in a simplistic way to feed the modern yearning for sexual wholeness. But we moderns have it backwards: sexual wholeness doesn’t come by abstracting the “good parts” of a wise life guide that happens to have the patina of age. Vatsyayana’s work locates this grounded sexuality in the context of a relationship of love and respect with clear boundaries.
The first unabridged modern translation of the Kama Sutra was done by renowned Indianologist Allen Danielu, published in 1994. This fluent and literal translation of the entire Sanskrit original includes excerpts from two commentaries and helps the reader understand much about the cultural context of the books.
In 2009, Wendy Doniger, a scholar of Hinduism at the University of Chicago, published a new translation using clear, vivid, sexually honest English. In the Introduction, Doniger, one of the world’s foremost Sanskrit scholars, describes the history of the Kama Sutra and places it in the context of early Indian social theory, scientific method, and sexual ethics.
Vatsyayana summarizes his approach in the Kama Sutra in a wise postscript (Doniger trans.):
Vatsyayana did this work in chastity and in the highest meditation,
For worldly life;
He did not compose it
For the sake of passion.
A man who is well instructed and expert in this text
Pays attention to religion and power;
Do not indulge in too much passion,
And so he succeeds when he plays the role of a lover.
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