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 wordily nomenclatured Hindoo Kama Shastra Society—was, in fact, an entirely nonexistent body.
Ostensibly headquartered in Varanasi, with links to London and New York, the “Society” was actually a work of fiction, born from the imagination of a couple of British officials and their associates in faraway India. That the translation, despite its numerous 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 organisation.
There were several reasons why Sir Richard Francis Burton was paranoid about advertising his identity as translator on the book that went on to become a global bestseller—British laws on obscenity were so draconian that printing anything even vaguely sexual could show writers the door to prison. For the Kamasutra to be published then, it took some creative thinking to evade Victorian prudery. The Sanskrit word yoni, for instance, was used in the English text for the vagina, even when Vatsyayana himself never used that word in the 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 heady momentum of their own, feelings of taboo fuelling a mischievous appetite for the text. In actual fact, the Kamasutra is more than a manual for lovemaking—of the seven books that constitute its body, only the second is strictly concerned with methods of human congress.
Sir Richard, bent as he was on “the sexual liberation of Victorian society,” seems to have highlighted these while watering down the other elements. But despite such interventions and exaggerations, even in that first 1883 translation, of 175-odd pages, he 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 Five, for example, concerns itself with extramarital affairs and how one ought to go about sliding into bed with another’s spouse, while another section in the same book investigates, tantalisingly but ultimately disappointingly, “Why Women Get Turned Off.” In Book One, we learn that if men of culture want to remain men of culture, they must allocate time every five or ten days to the removal of all their body hair: an idea that has some resonance today. Married women are generally not to be seduced, we are taught, but if it helps 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 noted that the Kamasutra is less like Lord Byron’s heady romances and closer to PG Wodehouse’s wit in 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, would be 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 the aforementioned money and goods, he was to be discarded at once. One suggested route was to alienate him with markedly unpleasant behaviour: “Curling the lip in a sneer” and “stamping on the ground” promised success; “ignoring him” was also an option.
There are, however, parts of the Kamasutra that make for uncomfortable reading, especially in our time of reluctant, troubled introspection; sections that, as scholar Wendy Doniger notes, seem to justify the seduction-by-sexual-assault school of thinking in which alarmingly large numbers of men are even today specialists.
So while one can laugh at the Kamasutra’s assertion that the male “instrument,” pierced, and smeared with honey, powdered thorn apple 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 primarily in a male voice with erroneous male preconceptions. But compared to contemporaneous texts like the Manusmriti, the Kamasutra is replete with commentaries by women—and it recognises the right to pleasure for the female too. Vatsyayana’s approach to the third gender, and to homosexuality and bisexuality, also makes for gripping reading (and interpretation), so that in the overall analysis of the work one feels partly surprised, partly amused, but always 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 list of positions and bedroom acrobatics. That, in the end, is the secret of its enduring appeal, and in that also lies Vatsyayana’s genius.
Excerpted from Manu S Pillai’s book The Courtesan, The Mahatma and The Italian Brahmin, with permission from Context. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.