In 1883, when the Kamasutra first made its appearance in English, European readers of Vatsyayana’s treatise hadn’t the faintest idea that its publisher—the Hindoo Kama Shastra Society—was, in fact, an entirely non-existent body. Ostensibly headquartered in Varanasi, with links to London and New York, the “Society” was actually a work of fiction, born from the minds of a couple of British officials and their associates in faraway India. That the translation, despite its infirmities, was indeed of Vatsyayana’s 1,600-year-old disquisition was not doubted. But even as the Kamasutra made its way into the great libraries of the West, the true identity of its translator remained shrouded for years behind this fictitious organization. There were several reasons why Sir Richard Francis Burton was paranoid about advertising his name with the book—British laws on obscenity were so draconian that printing anything even vaguely sexual could show writers the doors to prison. For the Kamasutra, then, it took some creative thinking to evade Victorian prudery. The Sanskrit word yoni was used in the English text for the vagina, even when Vatsyayana himself never used that word in the actual Sanskrit original. But the gamble paid off—in time, the bogus Kama Shastra Society’s translation would become, as one scholar notes, “one of the most pirated books in the English language”, registered across the world as the oldest and foremost classical text on all matters pertaining to love and human sexuality. This, even when it wasn’t exactly sincere to Vatsyayana’s moral outlook from centuries before.
The loosely held opinion that the Kamasutra is a catalogue for boudoir gymnastics also owes much to this context: The pronounced disapproval with which topics around sexuality were viewed meant that its most colourful components acquired, ironically, a life of their own, feelings of taboo fuelling a mischievous appetite for the text. In actual fact, though, the Kamasutra is more than a manual for love-making—of the seven books that constitute its body, only the second is strictly concerned with methods of human congress. Burton, bent as he was on “the sexual liberation of Victorian society”, seems to have highlighted these while watering down other elements. But despite such interventions, even in that first 1883 translation, of 175-odd pages, Burton could devote only 40 to this theme. The remainder of the Kamasutra, in fact, offers a much wider series of discussions for the benefit of its wealthy and primarily male audience, covering not only sex but also matters of aesthetics and more.
Book 5, for example, concerns itself with extramarital affairs and how one ought to go about getting in bed with another’s spouse, while another section in the same book investigates, tantalizingly but ultimately disappointingly, “Why Women Get Turned Off”. In Book 1, we learn that if men of culture want to remain men of culture, they must allocate time every five-10 days to the removal of all their body hair. Married women are generally not to be seduced, we are taught, but if it helps to gain influence over a powerful husband or even perhaps to erase him from the world and acquire his wealth, it is acceptable to bed the wife as a weapon for one’s personal ambitions and avarice. In these sections, then, the Kamasutra might well have been inspired by cold, calculating Chanakya and his utterly pragmatic Arthashastra.
The writer Hanif Kureishi once similarly noted that the Kamasutra is less like Lord Byron’s heady romances and closer to P.G. Wodehouse’s wit in much of its tone. “One can wager on kisses,” argues Vatsyayana, for “whichever of the partners first gets to the other’s lower lip wins.” In order to seduce a woman, a man must be prepared to go flower-picking with her, to play in her doll house, and, perhaps most essentially, cultivate her closest friend, who, in an ideal society, is her wet-nurse’s daughter. Where courtesans are concerned, Vatsyayana advises them to avoid by all means patrons with worms in their stool—or whose breath “smells of crows”. They must also, he warns, never surrender reason, feeling free to manipulate men for money and goods. And if a patron were no longer capable, of providing said money and goods, he was to be discarded. One suggested route was to alienate him with markedly unpleasant behaviour: “Curling the lip in a sneer” and “stamping on the ground” promised success, evidently. “Ignoring him” was also an option.
There are, however, parts of the Kamasutra that make for highly uncomfortable reading, especially in this time when #MeToo has sparked such troubled introspection; sections that, as scholar Wendy Doniger notes, seem to justify the seduction-by-sexual-assault school of thinking. So while one can laugh at the Kamasutra’s assertion that the male “instrument” (ideally pierced) smeared with honey, powdered thornapple and black pepper provides divine ecstasies to the female, one cannot quite digest that a man can confidently proceed with intercourse with a woman when “her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes”. Where at one point he is clear that “a girl who is asleep, weeping or absent” cannot be a bride, Vatsyayana still allows a wedding technique that involves getting the lady drunk, and taking her “maidenhead” while she is unconscious. Of course, given its age and context, it is not surprising that the Kamasutra speaks in a male voice with erroneous male preconceptions. Compared to contemporaneous texts like the Manusmriti, however, the Kamasutra is replete with commentaries by women—and it recognizes the right to pleasure for the female too.
Vatsyayana’s approach to the third gender, on homosexuality and bisexuality, also makes for gripping reading (and interpretation), so that in the overall analysis of the work—a very good recent translation being A.N.D. Haksar’s—one feels partly surprised, partly amused, but always certainly interested. For all its sometimes outlandish views on life, marriage and intimacy, the Kamasutra remains a thoroughly fascinating work of art and cultural heritage, one we must read for more than a mere list of bedroom positions. That, in the end, is the secret of its enduring appeal
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore.
The writer tweets at @UnamPillai