Happy Valentine’s Day, Readers! Or Happy Lupercalia, if you prefer wolves and whips to flowers and chocolate. Whatever floats your boat. Anyway, this week’s review is of the Kāmasūtra. This text has been altered, notated, and translated many a time and, as with any translation, you are not reading a text: you are reading someone’s interpretation of a text. So, I would like to state for the purposes of academic accuracy, that my review is of the Burton translation, as published by Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.
I purchased this edition years ago after watching a documentary on the Kāmasūtra and its complicated history. It was the only one in my local Borders that contained the actual text, rather than just the naughty bits or even just photos of modern, Western models acting out the various manoeuvres described in the text. I have seen others with sections mine seems to lack, including one with a section on how to court one’s child bride, but my edition is still by far the prettiest I have seen. And really, shouldn’t a book about Kāma be pleasing to the eye?
For those of you unfamiliar with Hinduism, Kāma is one of the three (or four) goals of Hindu life. It refers not only to sexual love but familial love and all manner of earthly pleasure. For a brief crash course on Hinduism, I recommend The Hindus by Wendy Doniger or An Introduction to Hinduism by Gavin Flood.
THE DEFENDANT: Kāmasūtra, Vātsyāyana, translated by Sir Richard F. Burton
THE VERDICT: The Kāmasūtra has a long history of getting people hot and bothered. It is perhaps one of the most, if not the most, infamous, misunderstood, and alluring texts in literary history. It has been banned, censored, altered, and glared at disapprovingly throughout the centuries yet is still in print millennia after being compiled.
THE CHARGES: The Kāmasūtra has a complicated history, largely because India’s relationship with sexuality has been a complicated one, simultaneously being a place of nude art and erotic poetry and rigid sexual morality. Whether this hot and cold attitude is due to changes within Hinduism itself over its long and varied history, Islamic influence, or Victorian sensibilities imposed upon the former British colony is debated, but they likely all play a factor.
The text was originally translated by Richard Burton (reputedly with help) from several incomplete copies. Thus, the infamous and often-controversial Burton thrust the ancient text back into the spotlight and brought it to the attention of the Western world. This has caused somewhat of a self-censorship from India, as some are appalled that the Western world thinks of India as a place of rampant sexual abandon and excess when this is largely not the case. Gandhi even expressed the desire to tear down a temple covered in intricate carvings of the positions described in the text, seeing it as a symbol of decadence and the corrupt old world order he was trying to do away with. The resurgence of the text in the West during the Sexual Revolution of the 60s caused much the same reaction. Even today, with our sex-saturated media, Apple has courted controversy by censoring the Kāmasūtra. You can read about it here and here.
THE REVIEW: The Kāmasūtra, often thought to be a sexual manual, is actually a sūtra or compilation of advice on numerous life matters, including proper living; home making; procuring a spouse; and, of course, lovemaking. When I first read the Kāmasūtra, I was surprised by how little of the book was about sex. The first half is largely devoted to home decoration and proper behaviour for a citizen, including such helpful reminders as putting on pants before leaving the house.
The second half gets into relationships but hardly the sort I was expecting. Before getting to the juicy bits, there are numerous sections with advice on finding a wife, finding a husband, finding a lover, convincing a lover to marry you, and all manner of courtship and wooing. This part was rather amusing, as the section on finding a bride warns men against marrying too low (correct marriage across caste lines is somewhat of a complicated endeavour, as a flow chart in my Hinduism notes can attest), whereas the accompanying section for women seeking husbands basically says, “Go for it, girl. Snag yourself a highborn lad.” This contradictory advice for the sexes was both highly entertaining and illuminating on the complicated matters involved. The advice on how to court a woman was alternately still relevant today and reminiscent of middle school. I can hardly pin this on India, though, considering many of the Rules of Courtly Love sound like something written up at an especially catty slumber party.
What intrigued me the most about these sections, and the subsequent ones on actual sexual practices and relations, was how remarkably progressive and pro-woman some of the sentiments are. For example, a list of things a proper woman should master, in addition to the Kāma Sastra (the science of lovemaking), include the usual domestic and stylistic skills but also chemistry; carpentry; numerous types of poetry, riddles, and word games; and even “[p]ractice with a sword, single-stick, quarterstaff, and bow and arrow” (Burton 32). Who knew Merida, Arya, and Katniss were such eligible brides?
Similarly, the advice on sexual encounters not only stipulates that one must obtain consent, but takes a rather sympathetic view towards women who have been wronged, explaining that it is the deeds of cruel and careless men that make women bitter or indifferent towards men or drive them into the arms of other lovers (be they male or female). Not too shabby for the 2nd century CE, Vātsyāyana, not too shabby at all.
There are several sections on sex, foreplay, sexual appetites, home remedies, and various sexual stereotypes of women from different regions. These range from helpful to entertaining to downright alarming (I’m fairly certain most of the male enhancement remedies would result in a trip to the ER). In the end, the Kāmasūtra is less the adult magazine hidden in the closet than an illuminating text with great insights into human sexuality, gender dynamics, and relationships, both in the context of an ancient culture and as an enduring and timeless aspect of life. Whether you read the Kāmasūtra for academic purposes, for the beautiful art found in many versions, or simply for some ancient sexy time, it’s certainly worth the read.
THE DEFENSE: As stated above, many in the West mistakenly think the Kāmasūtra is solely a how-to guide to sex (or a Tantric text, which makes no sense whatsoever and could only be thought by those with no understanding of Tantrism). Whether you’re sex-positive or as disapproving as Mr. Carson, this misconception is unhelpful either way. Not that I’m arguing that this text isn’t about sex. That’s surely a significant part, but it’s not everything. Such dismissive thinking is counterproductive, relegating the Kāmasūtra to the erotica shelf when it has far more to offer. This compartmentalizing attitude towards sex keeps us from having an open discussion about all aspects of life and our relationships therein.
Which brings me to my main defense: sex happens. People have been having it for a long time. In fact, sex has been happening since long before people. For an in-depth exploration into the history of pre-human sex, please direct yourself to The Dawn of the Deed.
It always amazes me in this day and age that people manage to convince themselves that people aren’t having sex. It is equally amazing to me that even today, with sex nigh on everywhere in our lives, we still can’t talk about sex. Even amongst young, progressive, sex-positive people, it is remarkably difficult to have a real, honest, open discussion about sex, whether discussing personal matters or merely as an interesting facet of the human experience.
This is where the Kāmasūtra‘s practical approach could be greatly beneficial. Given how important and nearly universal sex and sexuality are in human relationships, it seems downright harmful not to be able to talk about it freely or seek advice or perspective on such matters. Sexual practices, sexual enjoyment, and the power dynamics involved are hardly one size fits all. The Kāmasūtra addresses this, offering diverse advice, as well as advising readers to find a suitably matched mate, whether in sexual appetite or in the size department. That way numerous issues, whether physical or emotional in nature, can be avoided. Such advice seems eminently practical.
I’m not saying take everything in this book to heart. Some advice holds up through the millennia, some doesn’t. It’s still an interesting perspective even if nothing in the text is applicable or relevant to your life or relationship(s). At the very least, it’s likely more helpful than some of the sex advice in Cosmo. Knowledge is power, dear Readers. *insert joke about great responsibility here*
If an academic glimpse into the history of human sexuality and sexual practices interests you, I highly recommend the mini-series History of Sex. There’s also an excellent documentary I saw years ago about how the relationship, sexual, and family dynamics we think of as normal are not nearly as universal as we think, but I can’t for the life of me remember the name of it. For shame. I think it was on NatGeo, though. If anyone out there does know the name of said documentary, featuring an adorable, Mrs. Weasley-esque woman and her polyandrous Himalayan community, let me know in the comments and you’ll be my hero forever.
“Thus, if men and women act according to each other’s liking, their love for each other will not be lessened even in one hundred years.”
Kāmasūtra, Book II, Chapter IV