Kama and the Kama Sutra

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Kama and the Kama Sutra

Kama is a Sanskrit word denoting desire, love, and pleasure, not merely sexual but more broadly sensual—music, good food, perfume, and more. It is most closely approximated by the erotic in the broader sense in which people use that word in the early-twenty-first century.


Ancient Indian texts regarded kama as one of the three goals of human life, the other two being dharma (duty, religion, religious merit, morality, social obligations, religious merit, the law, and justice) and artha (power, politics, success, money). Thus where dharma regulated the socioreligious world and artha the political world, kama legitimated the world of the individual, or what philosopher Michel Foucault would call the cultivation of the self. Dharma, artha, and kama were known collectively as the three aims of human life (purusharthas) or the trinity (trivarga). For assonance, one might call them piety, profit, and pleasure, or society, success, and sex, or duty, domination, and desire. The erotic science to which these texts belong, known as kama-shastra (the science of kama), is one of the three principle human sciences in ancient India, the other two being religious and social law (dharma-shastra, of which the most famous work is attributed to Manu, the Manavadharmashastra or Manusmriti, known as the Laws of Manu) and the science of political and economic power (arthashastra, whose foundational text is attributed to Kautilya, the minister of Chandragupta Maurya). (There were many other sciences, preserved in texts about medicine, astronomy, architecture, the management of horses and elephants, and other disciplines.)

Sometimes the aims of human life are listed not as a triad but as a quartet, in which the fourth goal is release, moksha, the goal of the religious renouncer. Vatsyayana gives very short shrift indeed to release, and even applies the term, surely tongue in cheek, to the courtesan's successful jettisoning of an unwanted lover. But wandering renunciants meander through the Kama Sutra; nuns, on the one hand, and courtesans, on the other, were the only women in ancient India who could move freely throughout the entire social system. And there are literary ties, too, between the Kama Sutra and the literature of asceticism. Shvetaketu Auddalaki, said to be the first human author of the Kama Sutra, was already famous as a great Upanishadic sage.

For much of ancient Indian history—from before the turn of the Common Era right up through the period of the Raj—the art of kama was perfected in circles privileged not in class or caste status but in blatant economic (and geographical) terms: It was available only in the cities (the textbooks on kama are addressed to the man-about-town [the nagaraka]) but it could be lived by anyone who had enough money, which he had inherited, on the one hand, or obtained from gifts (as a Brahmin would), conquest (as a man of the royal or warrior class would), trade (a merchant), or wages (someone of the servant class), on the other, or from both. It could also be lived by a single man, if he could afford it; a courtesan deluxe; or a woman with her girlfriends. Living the good life in this way involved care of the body (oils, massages), learning to play music and to enjoy concerts and dance performances, reading poetry, attending literary salons, and, above all, enjoying a sophisticated, cultivated level of sexual pleasure. More broadly conceived as the appreciation of sexuality, the beauty of the human body, and the pleasures of intoxication and brightly painted surfaces, kama flourished not only at court but in the countryside, where even poor people elaborately painted the horns of their buffaloes and the walls of their houses and sang erotic songs.


The Kama Sutra is the oldest extant Hindu textbook of erotic love. The two words in its title mean desire/love/pleasure/sex (kama) and a treatise (sutra). It is not, as most people think, a book about the positions in sexual intercourse. It is a book about the art of living—about finding a partner, maintaining power in a marriage, committing adultery, living as or with a courtesan, using drugs—and also about the positions in sexual intercourse. It was composed in Sanskrit, the literary language of ancient India (related to Latin, in ancient Rome, and ancient Greek, in Greece). The data relevant to a determination of its date are sparse and the arguments complex, but most scholars believe that it was composed sometime in the third century of the Common Era, most likely in its second half, and probably in North India. Its detailed knowledge of Northwestern India, and its pejorative attitude to other parts of India, particularly the south and the east, suggest that it was written in the northwest. However reference to Pataliputra, alone among cities, suggests that the Kama Sutra may have been written in Pataliputra (near the present city of Patna, in Bihar). Yashodhara (who wrote the definitive commentary on this text, in the thirteenth century) believes the latter to be the case. It would be useful to have more information about social conditions in India at the time of the composition of the Kama Sutra, but the Kama Sutra itself is one of the main sources for such data; the text is, in a sense, its own context. It has a real consciousness of the various regions of India, what one scholar, Laura Desmond, has called a pre-Imperial consciousness, setting the stage for the Gupta Empire that would dominate North India from the fourth century to the sixth.

Virtually nothing is known about the author, Vatsyayana Mallanaga, other than his name and what this text teaches; and he indicates only that he composed the Kama Sutra "in chastity and in the highest meditation" (7.2.57). But Vatsyayana does say something important about his text, namely that it is a distillation of the works of a number of authors who preceded him, authors whose texts have not survived, including: Auddalaki, Babhravya, Charayana, Dattaka, Ghotakamukha, Gonardiya, Gonikaputra, and Suvarnanabha. These other authors, called teachers or scholars, supply what Indian logic called the other side (literally, the former wing, purvapaksha), the arguments that opponents might raise. In this case, they are former in both the logical and chronological sense of the word; Vatsyayana cites them often, sometimes in agreement, sometimes in disagreement. Always his own voice comes through, as he acts as ringmaster over the many acts that he incorporates in his sexual circus. The Kama Sutra was therefore certainly not the first of its genre, nor was it the last. The many textbooks of eroticism that follow it, such as Kokkaka's Ratirahasya (also called the Kokashastra, pre-thirteenth century) and Kalyanamalla's Anangaranga (fifteenth century), cite it as a foundational authority. The Nagarasarvasva of Bhikshu Padamashri and the Panchasayaka of Jyotirishvara (eleventh to thirteenth century) explicitly base themselves on the Kama Sutra, the first on books two, five, and seven, and the second on books two, three, five, and seven. The Kama Sutra also made a deep impact on Indian literature; its vocabulary and taxonomies were diffused into later Sanskrit erotic poetry.


It is difficult to assess how broad a spectrum of ancient Indian society knew the text of the Kama Sutra first-hand. The production of manuscripts, especially illuminated manuscripts, was necessarily an elite matter; men of wealth and power, kings and merchants, would commission texts to be copied out for their private use. It is often said that only upper-class men were allowed to read Sanskrit, particularly the sacred texts, but the very fact that the texts dealing with religious law (dharma) prescribe punishments for women and lower-class men who read the sacred Sanskrit texts suggests that some of them did so. Vatsyayana argues at some length that some women, at least, should read this text (courtesans and the daughters of kings and ministers of state), and that others should learn its contents in other ways. Clearly some parts of the book, at least, were designed to be used by women.

It is startling to realize that the Kama Sutra, the Indian text best known, at least by name, to European and North American readers, was hardly known at all by such readers just a hundred years ago and even now is not really known, since the very first English translation, which remains the one most widely used and reused, long out of copyright and in the public domain, does not say what the Sanskrit says. Moreover it is not even the work of the man who is known as its author, English explorer and orientalist Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821–1890). His translation, published in 1883, was far more likely the work of Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot, whose name appears on the title page with Burton's only in some editions, though Burton later referred to the Kama Sutra translation as Arbuthnot's Vatsyayana. But the translation owed even more to two Indian scholars whose names do not appear on the title page at all: Bhagavanlal Indrajit and Shivaram Para-shuram Bhide. Arbuthnot (whom Burton used to call "Bunnie") was a retired Indian civil servant who had been born near Bombay in 1833 and, after going to Europe for his education, returned to India. Burton and Arbuthnot met either in India in 1853–54 or on Arbuth-not's furlough to London in 1859–60. They remained friends, first in India and then in England (from 1879, when Arbuthnot retired to Guildford and married, until Burton's death in 1890).

Burton did for the Kama Sutra what German-born philologist Max Müller (1823–1900) did for the Rig Veda during this same period. Widespread public knowledge of the Kama Sutra, in both India and Europe, begins with the Burton translation, which had a profound effect upon literature across Europe and North America. Even though it was not formally published in England and the United States until 1962, the Burton Kama Sutra soon became one of the most pirated books in the English language, constantly reprinted, often with a new preface to justify the new edition, sometimes without any attribution to Burton or Arbuthnot. It remains precious, like English poet and translator Edward FitzGerald's (1809–1883) translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, as a monument of English literature, though not much more faithful to Vatsyayana than FitzGerald was to Omar Khayyám.

In the early-twenty-first century, when sexually explicit novels, films, and instruction manuals are available everywhere, the parts of the Kama Sutra that have previously been most useful are now the least useful, namely the positions described in book two. But the Kama Sutra has attained its classic status because it is fundamentally about essential, unchangeable human attributes—lust, love, shyness, rejection, seduction, manipulation—and its insights into the psychology of eroticism, the ways to meet a partner, win someone's love, and get rid of a no longer desired lover remain highly relevant.



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                                            Wendy Doniger