The Kamasutra is not (just) about sex

This is the Kamasutra. It’s widely known as the Indian book of
acrobatic sex positions. “When both the legs of the woman are contracted,
and placed on her stomach, it is called the “crab’s position.” And since its original composition around
2,000 years ago… it’s been translated, pirated, and illustrated. It’s inspired chocolates, branded condoms,
films, and yes — even furniture — designed for Kamasutra moves. But the part about sex positions
is only a fraction of the book. It doesn’t even have any pictures. And the rest? “A girl who is called by the name…of a
tree, or of a river, is considered worthless, as also a girl whose name ends in “R”
or “L”. Turns out the Kamasutra is very misunderstood. It is telling that of all the Sanskrit texts that this country has produced, and we have produced God knows how many thousands, the Kamasutra is the one text that has been heard of across the world. The Kamasutra — which roughly translates
to “treatise on desire” — was originally compiled in ancient Indian language, Sanskrit,
by philosopher Vatsyayana sometime around the third century. It found popularity in the West centuries
later. British explorer Richard Francis Burton, an
“Orientalist” famous for his travels East in the 1800s and for translating The Arabian
Nights into English, commissioned the first English edition of Kamasutra. Burton’s goal was to introduce it to a sexually
repressed Victorian society at the time, and in order to avoid Britain’s obscenity laws,
he created a club to privately publish erotica from the East that would be otherwise illegal
to print — including the Kamasutra. It wasn’t until nearly a hundred years later,
during the era of the “sexual revolution”, that the US legally allowed the publication
of the book. And once it hit the internet in the 1990s,
often, only the “sexy” chapters were copied and circulated — which helped create the
image of the Kamasutra most people know today. People were actually looking
to this text, for a kind of perhaps an oriental version, an exotic version of sex that India
could provide, without understanding the larger cultural context to this text. So — if the book isn’t a sex manual, what
is it? It’s more of a manual for living a life of
leisure and luxury in India during this time period. The parts about sexual activity make up one
section – out of seven. Outside of the chapters like…“kissing”,
“biting”, and “different ways of lying down”… The book details how a man should set up his
home: “Not far from the couch, and on the ground,
there should be a round seat, a toy cart, and a board for playing with dice; outside
the outer room there should be cages of birds” It also covers the “64 arts” every “public
woman of high quality” should master, including: “Tattooing”, “Playing on musical glasses
filled with water”, “cooking”, the “Art of teaching parrots and starlings to speak”,
and “Knowledge of the art of war” And explains how a man can “acquire a wife”,
how best to commit adultery, and also some magic recipes: If a man throws this mixture on a woman, she will not love anybody else afterwards. At times – the book shifts to speak directly to women. There’s a section on how one wife can maintain
control in a household with multiple wives. And another section on how to be a profitable
courtesan – or sex worker. It also gives a woman ideas
about ways to manage men. And in that sense it’s about power as much
as it is about pleasure. How to get what you want, how to make a man
do what you want. Historian Wendy Doniger argues that for its
time — the book makes some pretty progressive statements about the role of women and their
access to pleasure. It explicitly mentions that
one of the reasons for the Kamasutra is because the purpose of sex is not to have children
but to have fun. That’s a revolutionary thing to say. But at the same time, the book is loaded with
contradictions. It’s less about the practice of sexuality,
and more about the control of sexuality. For example, it features a list of classes
of women who are “not to be enjoyed”… And rape is listed as an acceptable – last
resort – form of acquiring a wife. “Give the girl some intoxicating
substance”…and “enjoy her before she recovers.” 2,000 years later, it’s not surprising that the text doesn’t hold up. It’s a book of its time. A historical account of what elite life and
pleasure may have looked like in ancient India. I don’t think early Indian
texts can be fit into these categories of feminist or patriarchal as easily as we perhaps
make them sound today. The task which is undertakes is a very fundamental
one for all of human society, which is how do you reconcile basic instincts and the desire
for pleasure with a social order and social obligations too? Over the years, the Kamasutra has made its
way from Indian philosophers to Victorian explorers to today’s magazine columnists. And it’s taken on a life of its own. The sexy bits have endured, while the more
complex parts – about gender and power and class – have been lost in translation.

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