Kama Sutra: Essay Questions

How does the Kama Sutra fit into the Hindu religion?


Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion after Christianity and Islam, practiced mostly in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bali, although Indian Hindus are now dispersed throughout the world. It is called the world’s oldest living religion, derived from the ancient Vedic tradition, which goes back to Iron Age India. The Vedas, the large body of authoritative scriptures, are the texts called Holy Writ in Burton’s translation of the Kama Sutra. The Kama Sutra is not one of the religious texts but a book compiled from older works on love in classical Sanskrit; however, it acknowledges the authority of the Vedic texts for organizing human life with its laws and prescriptions. Though a very devout Hindu might question the teachings of the Kama Sutra as not pertaining to the goal of Moksha, or the liberation of the soul, the Kama Sutra itself insists that the religious law must be followed and that the knowledge of Kama does not conflict with the religious life of a Hindu. It says there is a time for each of the Hindu goals, Dharma (duty), Artha (wealth), Kama (pleasure), and Moksha (liberation). 


Unlike religions that maintain a dualistic idea of body and soul, pleasure and piety, most Hindu sects integrate human sexuality into a total picture of human life. A young man may be in pursuit of Kama; an older man will be in pursuit of Moksha, but one does not have to choose one or the other as a permanent lifestyle. The idea of sexuality as a sanctified part of life rather than a profane deviation is embodied in the Hindu pantheon with the gods providing the models of sexual union between male and female. The words Burton uses for penis and vagina, for instance, “lingam” and “yoni” are legitimately the words used for the organs of the god, Shiva, and his consort, Parvati. The lingam and yoni are symbolically used in Vedic sacrifices to represent the eternal energies of the godhead.


Vatsyayana says he wrote the text while a religious student contemplating the Deity. In the west, a monkish man would not be expected to produce such a text. He says he does it for the good of society, to make people master of their senses. Moderation, courtesy, and appropriateness are his lessons and part of the Hindu view of life. The Kama Sutra also upholds the caste or class system, which separates people according to their role in life: Brahmin (priests), Kshatriya (administrators and warriors), Vaishya (merchants), and Shudra (servants). The Kama Sutra upholds the Dharma of each caste marrying within its own boundaries for the greatest happiness and success. Always, Vatsyayana stresses equality in the union of man and woman as bringing the greatest pleasure.


How does the Kama Sutra prefigure the 1960s Western sexual revolution?


The Kama Sutra found an appreciative Western audience during the sexual revolution of the 1960s when it became a best-seller. Because of older Puritan attitudes towards sex in the West in which decency and sexuality were opposed, scientific study of the sexual response did not become popular until the second half of the twentieth century. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) by Dr. Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues were controversial for showing that both men and women had similar sexual urges that were often repressed by social expectations. From Victorian times when Burton first brought out the Kama Sutra until recently, Western women were thought to have a weaker sexual nature than men. The Kama Sutra was construed by Victorian readers as showing the more sexually active Eastern woman as an exotic aberration from the normal. Kinsey’s reports changed American perceptions about their sexuality. 


In the 1960s oral contraceptives led to freer sexual expression. Public ideas towards sexual freedom changed rapidly. Fear of Flying, a 1973 novel by Erica Jong, for instance, became controversial for its liberal attitudes towards female sexuality. The findings of William E. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson, whose work on the psychology and physiology of sexual disorders from 1957 to the 1990s (Human Sexual Response; 1966 and Human Sexual Inadequacy, 1970) illuminated more fully the female sexual response, created a scientific justification for female sexual fulfillment. They redefined what healthy sexual behavior was like, closer to the model given in the Kama Sutra, where Vatsyayana argues for the pleasure of both sexes. Dr. David Reurben’s book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) (1969) was one of the first mainstream sexual manuals. After these groundbreaking reports on sexuality, Western readers could understand the Kama Sutra as psychologically relevant to their own experience and not as merely a naughty book from the East. 


As relevant as the Kama Sutra still is psychologically, it does not deal with topics modern sex education has had to deal with, such as contraceptives and sexually transmitted diseases. Vatsyayana does not mention the danger of disease, even in the section on courtesans. AIDS for instance, has changed the sexual landscape as it spread rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s. Protection and abstinence turn out to be as much a part of sexual knowledge today as postures and seduction.


Does the Kama Sutra have anything to do with Tantric sex?


The Kama Sutra has nothing to do with Tantric sex. Tantra represents an esoteric school of Hinduism, identified with the worship of Shakti (divine energy) as a way to enlightenment. In the Tantric schools of thought, the universe is seen as the erotic love play between Shiva and Shakti (Parvati), male and female energies. Tantra philosophy and practice originated in the early centures C. E. and influenced the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, and Jain religions. Sexual energy is one aspect of Tantra, being seen as part of the spiritual path to enlightenment and yogic balance of mind and body. Tantra is not promiscuity, as popular ideas may have it. It is a disciplined approach and is often not recommended for people who are greedy, lustful, or violent. Tantra practice and ritual invoke prana or divine power that flows through the universe, including the body, in order to attain success or enlightenment. Mystical experience of the divine energy is part of the path, but often, it is advised, especially in Tantric sex, that a guru, teacher, or guide is needed. Though pleasure is involved, spiritual enlightenment or yogic balance is the goal. The Tantrika may use yoga, mantras, dance, singing, sexual union, or ritual to identify with the power of the deity. The purpose of Tantra is self-control to achieve union with the cosmos. The path demands purification of the aspirant before he or she can be elevated and achieve identity with the divine. There are both “right-hand” Tantric paths and “left-hand” Tantric paths, the latter of which are most identified with sexual practices. In the course of the sexual act, the energies of both partners are balanced, the kundalini energy is awakened, leading to Samadhi, a unity with cosmic consciousness for both man and woman. Needless to say, this is a long and disciplined path and not what Vatsyayana was describing as Kama or pleasure. 


What issues are raised by modern translations of the Kama Sutra?


Alain Danielou’s 1992 French translation was made into an English version in 1994, The Complete Kama Sutra. It includes two commentaries on the Kama Sutra, Jashodhara’s medieval Jayamangla or Sutrabashya as footnotes, and a modern commentary by Devadatti Shastri as endnotes. 


A recent translation by Wendy Doniger and her colleague Sudhir Kakar for Oxford World Classics, 2002, claims to correct Burton’s Victorian views in his translation. Doniger is a feminist Sanskrit scholar and shows that Burton made mistakes in translation that skew the text away from Vatsyayana’s remarkable liberality and subtlety towards the female sexual experience. Burton made popular the terms “lingam” and “yoni” for the sexual organs, but those are religious terms referring to Shiva and his consort Parvati. Vatsyayana uses the term “jaghana” to mean the loins or pelvis of male and female. Doniger also says that in many places Vatsyayana gives women a voice by quoting a female point of view directly, which Burton makes into indirect discourse, thus losing the woman’s voice. She also believes that the passages on “eunuchs” do not refer to castrated males but to the homosexual behavior of a “third nature,” meaning men who do not have sex with women. She criticizes Danielou’s interpretation of certain sexual passages being way off by making them into lesbian episodes when they are not. 


The Kama Sutra has thus become a controversial text and battleground for modern scholars depending upon their point of view. Vatsyayana’s manual stirs up current questions on the nature of sexuality that the original audience would not have had with their own cultural context laid out by the Dharma Shastra, or texts on duty. Doniger herself is controversial for her feminist and psychological readings of Hindu sacred texts. These scholarly battles have led many to prefer Burton’s original English version, which is fairly accurate, especially, as Doniger concedes, in Section II on the postures.


What are some other famous ancient works on love and sexuality? 


One of the oldest sex manuals is the Chinese Handbooks of Sex written 5000 years ago by Emperor Huang-Ti (2697–2598 BCE), from which Taoist sexual guides originated. The Tao of Sex by Howard S. Levy and Akira Ishihara (1989) is a translation of the sex chapters of Ishimpo, a 10th-century Japanese medical encyclopedia, with advice on sexual positions, as well as information on aphrodisiacs. The Bible offers the Song of Songs or the Song of Solomon as an erotic courtship between a woman (the Shulamite) and a man, who recite verses of love to one another, ending with a chorus by the Daughters of Jerusalem. It is usually interpreted allegorically as the marriage between God and Israel or between Christ and the soul.


Greek sex manuals, preserved in fragments, served as a source for Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), written around 3 BCE, which is partially a sex manual and partly a witty burlesque on the art of love. In three books it tells how to find women in Rome, how to seduce them, and how to prevent others from stealing them. It included sexual positions. This work was taught in medieval universities as part of the Latin curriculum.


Medieval sex manuals include the Elephantis, a lost work by Constantine the African (1020-1087), a Tunisian doctor who also wrote a medical treatise on sex called Liber de Coitu. The Anunga Runga was a 12th century collection of Hindu erotic works mentioned by Burton in his preface to the Kama Sutra. The Perfumed Garden is a 16th century Arabic work by Sheikh Nefzaoui, which Sir Richard Burton translated and published in England in the nineteenth century. The Perfumed Garden spoke of female sexuality and how to please women and cure sterility. A fifteenth-century work called Speculum al foderi, or the Mirror of Coitus discussed sexual positions.


In addition, both Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurveda prescribe herbs for sexual healing and enhancement. Chinese medicine also prescribes certain sexual positions during intercourse for the healing of various internal bodily organs and ailments. In these ancient systems, the sexual energies should be stimulated and balanced for holistic health.