Kama Sutra: Biography

The Kama Sutra is a compendium of aphorisms on the arts of love, probably compiled in its present form in the second or third century C. E. Sir Richard Burton, the Victorian translator, says in his introduction that the author lived between the first and fourth centuries C. E. The text has 1250 verses in seven parts. Very little is known of the author of the Kama Sutra who called himself Vatsyayana, his family name. His real name was Mallinaga or Mrillana. He only identifies himself as a religious student at the time of writing the text, which would make him a young man. The Hindu student life usually lasted until age twenty-five when a man would take a wife and become a householder. Burton in his afterword claims only an older man with experience could have written the book. It is possible that Vatsyayana could have written it near the end of his life as many householders left home on religious retreats in their old age. 


Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821–1890) was a British explorer, soldier, writer, translator, orientalist, linguist, spy, and diplomat. He translated The Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights) into English in 1885 and brought out the Kama Sutra in English in a private publication in 1883. He explored Africa and India and was master of Persian, Arabic, and several Indian languages. He had a lifelong interest in sexual practices of the cultures he studied and kept notes. He tells how he found references in India to a text on love by Vatsyayana and worked with pundits and scholars to recover a version for translation. The Indian archaeologist, Bhagvanlal Indraji, with the assistance of Burtons friend, the Indian civil servant, Foster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot, and a student, Shivaram Parshuram Bhide worked with four different versions and a medieval commentary called Jayamangla. Although Burton knew Hindi, he did not know classical Sanskrit and relied on these scholars to help him with the translation, while he played the part of the English publisher. 


The text was considered pornographic in Victorian society, and so Burton formed what he called the Kama Shastra Society in London and Benares, thus publishing a number of risqué oriental books privately under that label. They sold well, though the public was scandalized. Yet Queen Victoria knighted him in 1886 for his contributions to literature and geographical exploration. Burton’s translation remains a classic one, though others have been made since. He is credited for bringing the Kama Sutra and other oriental texts to the west. The Kama Sutra has since become a classic of world literature.