For around 2,000 years, the Sanskrit text of the Kama Sutra has served as an informative and liberating resource on human sexuality. Unfortunately, modern society has failed to look beyond its depiction in popular culture: a mere manual of sex positions.
Soon after its flawed English translation was published in 1883, the Kama Sutra became one of the most pirated books in the language. While its popularity has stood the test of time, it remains a subject of embarrassment due to its explicit language on sexual intercourse, a relatively small part that nonetheless fuels an “enormous misunderstanding” of the entire text, U.S. Indologist Wendy Doniger suggests.
Much more than a manual: The Kama Sutra is best known for describing dozens of sex positions in detail, some of which have been linked to injuries and deaths. But the Hindu text is fundamentally a work of ancient philosophical literature that explores desire, eroticism and emotional fulfillment in life. It has chapters that discuss courtship, training in the arts and — brace for it — how to commit adultery. The concept of love is prevalent throughout the text.
“They think it is a silly book about sexual positions, or a dirty book about sexual positions, and they are embarrassed to read it,” Doniger, who has also translated the Kama Sutra, told the BBC. “I want the reading public to know that it is a fascinating book about the subtle interactions between men and women in a highly civilised world, that it is full of profound psychological observations and very good advice about how to get married, how to stay married, and, yes, how to commit adultery.”
The eighth topic in the text’s fourth book teaches how a man should manage many women (translation via Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar):
A man must treat all of his acquired wives equally. He must not tell the wives about the others. A man should keep his wives happy by honouring her, giving her gifts, and confiding in her. He should spend time with each wife individually. A woman who behaves properly puts her husband in power.
The Sanskrit word “kama” has various meanings, including “desire,” “love” and “pleasure.” It also refers to the god of erotic desire, love and pleasure (Kama). On the other hand, “sutra” literally translates to “thread,” but it has also come to mean “text,” “teaching” or “treatise.” Combined, the Kama Sutra refers to “Teachings on Desire, Love and/or Pleasure.”
About the author: Ancient Indian philosopher Vātsyāyana is generally recognized as the author of the Kama Sutra. Reports say he lived sometime between 2 and 3 CE. Despite teaching about sex in his writings, Vātsyāyana reportedly claimed to be celibate himself. Little is known about his life beyond what he had written in the text.
Somehow, Vātsyāyana managed to warn against exactly what modern scholars are trying to communicate about the Kama Sutra today: that it is not only a reference for sexual gratification. After all, of its seven main parts, only one actually deals with the methods of intercourse.
“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.”
Interestingly, the Kama Sutra contains themes that are both relevant and advocated for in the present day. Despite being written with overwhelmingly patriarchal preconceptions, the text recognizes the right of women to pleasure, acknowledges a “third sex” and approaches homosexuality and bisexuality (yes, sex positions included).
Time will tell whether the world manages to see the Kama Sutra in a new light. Regardless, it will always be a part of Hindu literature and India’s rich cultural heritage.
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