It is an irony that the ancient Indian treatise on love, life, household affairs, and sex – the Kama Sutra – was written by a celibate student of religion, named Vātsyāyana.
The exact date of its writing is unknown; historians believe it to be in the range of 400 B.C. to 300 A.D. But it is known that he wrote from the ancient city of Benares (Varanasi), where the Buddha delivered his first sermon. In these surroundings, Vatsyayana was a religious student or Brahmachari – one who renounces sexual activity in the pursuit of academics.
In the popular notion, divorcing the Kama Sutra from sex seems unthinkable. But the Kama Sutra is much more than a manual of sexual positions (which occupy only one-fifth of the book’s contents). Kama, is one of the four goals of Hindu life, encompassing all pleasure and desire. Kama Sutra is a guide to Kama – which includes the duties of man, woman, householder as well as the appreciation of art, music and plays.
It is a fascinating document to peruse in any age. Surprisingly, the Kama Sutra was not the first work on sex from the Indian subcontinent – it is but part of a tradition of writing about Kama called Kamashastra. It begins with a tale of a bull, Nanda, overhearing the Hindu deity, Shiva, having sex with his consort Parvati – and writing down all of the details.
Vātsyāyana, like a good academic, names his sources – dating back to Shvetaketu who wrote a voluminous body of work based on Nanda’s legacy writings in 800 B.C. Another scholar named Babhravya compiled and disseminated this body – and this too was translated and taken apart until it reached Vatsyayana.
However, of all the Kamashastras, the Kama Sutra is the oldest that survives today. The story of those who wrote it, commented on it and translated it for the world is one of contrasts, tragedy and sexual repression.
Little is known of Vatsyanana, save that he was a practising scholar in or around Benares. Of the 1257 slokas that made up the treatise, only one paragraph describes its author (as translated by Richard Burton, 1883):
After reading and considering the works of Babhravya and other ancient authors, and thinking over the meaning of the rules given by them, this treatise was composed, according to the precepts of the Holy Writ, for the benefit of the world, by Vatsyayana, while leading the life of a religious student at Benares, and wholly engaged in the contemplation of the Deity. This work is not to be used merely as an instrument for satisfying our desires. A person acquainted with the true principles of this science, who preserves his Dharma (virtue or religious merit), his Artha (worldly wealth) and his Kama (pleasure or sensual gratification), and who has regard to the customs of the people, is sure to obtain the mastery over his senses. In short, an intelligent and knowing person attending to Dharma and Artha and also to Kama, without becoming the slave of his passions, will obtain success in everything that he may do.
His intention in writing the Kamasutra is one of upliftment. Believers in Purushartha (the objective of living) see life as the attainment of four goals. Kama is one of them, the others being Dharma (virtue), Artha (success) and the final one being Moksha (release).
In Wendy Doniger’s analysis, the book was written for an elite audience of princes, officials and merchants. Indeed, though Vatsyayana wrote sections on how householders of each varna should conduct their affairs, in regard to the Kama Sutra he addresses the “nāgaraka” – a word translating to “citizen”, “A refined and educated gentleman”, “well-to-do and urbane… a separate class of people”, “a person having the vices or virtues of a town.”
Written in advanced Sanskrit, the Kama Sutra did not reach many audiences beyond the elite. In the 15th century, a ruler of the Lodi dynasty commissioned the Ananga-Raga in a more accessible form of Sanskrit, helping spread the work across the medieval Muslim empires.
Of note is the Jayamangala, a 13th century commentary written by a writer called “Yashodhara.” Yashodhara claims Vatsyayana collected these Sutras “after he had retired from the world in grief at the loss of a beloved wife, and had, under the name of Indrapāla, entered the ascetic life.”
It was only in 1883 that the Kama Sutra was first translated into English. It was thanks to the explorer, Richard Burton, that the Kama Sutra was first brought the ancient treatise to the West. At the time, the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 would have made circulation of the treatise difficult. To circumvent this, Burton started a false society called the “Kama Shastra Society of London and Benares,” from where they released the translated Kama Sutra in private circulation.
Ars Erotica: The Art of Sex
Vatsyayana’s writing is often categorical, suggesting a structure to everything. There are 15 sutras on how a man can seduce a married woman. There are four reasons why one should prefer a Gandharva marriage (a love marriage, as opposed to an arranged one), the number one being because it “fulfils the object sought for” and “leads to happiness”.
And famously, it divides man and woman by the nature of their genitalia:
MAN is divided into three classes, viz. the hare man, the bull man, and the horse man, according to the size of his lingam. Woman also, according to the depth of her yoni, is either a female deer, a mare, or a female elephant
Most notably, it gives space for female sexuality, ascribing women eight times the sexual drive of men – and explaining in detail how to trigger the female orgasm.
A reader should not forget that it was written in ancient India, and thus, is not an ideal treatise. Its women are largely the subjects of its men, but it includes perhaps the earliest passage detailing the art of sex for the purpose of satisfying a woman – written almost as commandments for how one could satisfy a woman.
Vātsyāyana lived or experienced a world with few inhibitions about sex. Despite not practising it himself, he was witness to a range of sexual activities, involving courtesans, third genders and a seeming normality to having adulterous affairs.
Today, one doesn’t need a scholar to guide you through the positions mentioned in the Kama Sutra. Numerous articles with illustrations (the Kama Sutra originally had none) help adventurous couples take their relationships to new places. But in making an attempt to read the treatise, one could learn the subtle art of Kama.
In the larger pantheon of ideas, Kama too must be renounced in the long run, so as to attain Moksha. But what the Kama Sutra teaches is that if you’re going to practise the pursuit of pleasure, you may as well be good at it. Be it improving at sex, managing one’s household affairs or choosing an aphrodisiac, the Kama Sutra is a guide that’s been honed over millennia to reach you.
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