Kama Sutra: Theme Analysis

Sexual Pleasure Is Good


The main premise of the Kama Sutra is that sexual pleasure is good; it is not evil, nor does it take a person away from God and religion. Sexual pleasure is seen as one of the natural human functions, and sexual desire is something that should be cultivated, not repressed. However, Vatsyayana makes it clear that human sexuality is not like the coupling of the beasts that are urged only by nature at specific times. Human sexuality is not merely physical; it includes the mind and soul as well, and therefore, Vatsayana defines Kama in Section I as “the enjoyment of appropriate objects by the five senses . . . assisted by the mind together with the soul” (I, p. 17). 


The mention of “appropriate objects” of enjoyment is a theme of the Kama Sutra. Many times Vatsyayana warns that true enjoyment of the senses will not happen with inappropriate behavior. That is why he is writing the manual—to guide people to enjoyment through a certain discipline, which is traditionally called “the sixty-four arts” (II.p. 43). Everyone needs to know these arts, including women, to reach full enjoyment in life.


Kama is not studied alone. It belongs in a total context of the good life, laid down by “The Lord of Beings” (I, p. 15) and “Holy Writ” (I, p.17). There are four goals in Hindu religion: Dharma or right action, described in the scriptures; Artha, or the gaining of wealth and friends; Kama, the enjoyment of the senses, and Moksha, or the soul’s liberation. He says that these goals are practiced at different times in life, but must “harmonize together and not clash in any way” (I, p. 17). In youth one is celibate while acquiring an education, learning Dharma from scriptures. As a young adult and in middle age, one learns Artha and Kama. In old age, one turns to religion and Dharma to achieve Moksha, the soul’s liberation from rebirth. 


The consciousness of pleasure (Kama) arises from the five senses, and thus sexual enjoyment is a legitimate part of life. At the same time, Vatsyayana insists that “the ordinances of religion must be obeyed” (I, p. 19). The Kama Sutra is a manual to steer one on the right course so all the goals can be harmonized. He refutes the argument that pleasures are obstacles to Dharma, saying pleasures are as “necessary for existence and well being of the body as food” (I, p. 20). Furthermore, in his definition of Kama, pleasures are the “results of Dharma and Artha,” (I, p. 20) not their enemies. If one is living righteously and gaining wealth and success, pleasure will be available naturally as part of a good life. Pleasure only arises from “moderation and caution” (I, p. 20). For instance, the taste of food and wine may be pleasurable in moderation, but overeating and drunkenness do not provide pleasure, only suffering. Similarly, in sexual relations, the arts of love are necessary to guide one towards true enjoyment rather than disaster.


Following a Discipline Like the Kama Sutra Brings Good Fortune


Vatsyayana answers the objection that a sex manual is not needed, since sex and pleasures of the senses are natural human activities that can be practiced by anyone. He makes the point that “the existence of this world is effected by the observance of the rules” (I, p. 19). The sun, moon, and stars work in an orderly manner, and human life is laid down in an orderly way by religious ordinances. In order to enjoy the senses properly, one must know the “arts and sciences” of enjoyment (I, p. 21) in order to gain “mastery over [the] senses” (VII, p. 164). These arts are named as the sixty-four arts of the Kama Sutra as well as singing, dancing, reasoning, storytelling, decorating, etc. The Kama Sutra is part of the social art of good living for refined persons and brings renown to the individual.


A man knowing the Kama Sutra has a better chance of getting a good wife and increasing his fortune. Even maidens should learn the art of pleasing the husband before marriage to attract a good husband. The Kama Sutra teaches one to be attractive to the opposite sex and to please one’s partner to increase love. Contrary to the idea that the Kama Sutra is for libertines, Vatsyayana makes it clear that it teaches an etiquette that will naturally bring happiness to all parties: “Desire, which springs from nature, and which is increased by art, and from which all danger is taken away by wisdom, becomes firm and secure” (V, p. 106).


This theme, that there is an art to love and sex, is universal in every culture. Even popular movies often revolve on plots where a hapless or unattractive man or woman is taken in hand by an experienced friend and advised on how to do a make-over in appearance and manners towards the opposite sex. Knowledge thus increases success and enjoyment. Whereas the scripture teaches the knowledge of Dharma, “Kama is to be learnt from the Kama Sutra (aphorisms on love) and from the practice of citizens” (I, p. 17). One must be taught the art of love, which is collected in these aphorisms from scholars, based on the actual experience of people. The text is full of sayings about the good fortune that will follow if people know this art of love: “A man who is versed in these arts, who is loquacious and acquainted with the arts of gallantry, gains very soon the hearts of women” (I, p. 25).


Women Should Be Made Happy and Sexually Satisfied 


In the first sentence, Vatsyayana says, “In the beginning, the Lord of Beings created men and women” (I. p. 15). They are both human and have similar needs, as he points out. He refutes the idea that women should not study the Kama Sutra: “Even young maids should study this Kama Sutra along with its arts and sciences before marriage, and after it they should continue to do so with the consent of their husbands” (I. p. 21). He asserts that many women, including the daughters of princes and ministers, and courtesans, are well versed in the Kama Shastra, or the whole body of writings on the art of love.  A public woman or courtesan, who has mastered these arts, “receives a seat of honour in an assemblage of men. She is, moreover, always respected by the king, and praised by learned men” (I. p. 25). Women should learn the Kama Sutra in case they fall into distress, so they can support themselves.


Courtesans, being learned intellectually and sexually, are allowed to go into public and be the companions of men. They are honored for their arts of love rather than being seen as sinful women. Vatsyayana goes into a long discussion of whether the female sexual response is the same or different from that of men, concluding, “men experience the same kind of pleasure as women do” (II. p. 41). He says both men and women have orgasms and ejaculations. Women can have intense passion as men do, and Vatsyayana persuades men to learn the arts of pleasure, because “So many men utterly ignore the feelings of the woman” (II. p. 42). 


Marriage to a virgin of the same caste is for the purpose of love and lawful progeny, but the Kama Sutra covers sexual intercourse with other women as well, such as a courtesan or an adulterous lover. With all these there are courtesies and rules of conduct. At no time should a man force sex with a woman or she may become depressed and hate sex.


Vatsyayana comments on a man with many wives that the women rarely feel personally attached to such a man. Women like to be attached to one man and have their love returned. He therefore mentions that a good prospect for a man to find an adulterous woman is to find one who is married to a man with many wives, or whose husband treats her badly. Though wives are subjected to some strict behavioral rules, Vatsyayana warns a man that he must keep his wife happy. He also mentions that best wife for a man is gained by “marrying that girl to whom one becomes attached, and that therefore no other girl but the one who is loved should be married by anyone” (III. p.75).


A woman who is sought after, says Vatsyayana, should “marry the man that she likes, and whom she thinks would be obedient to her, and capable of giving her pleasure” (III. p. 85). He concludes, “Of all the lovers of a girl, he only is her true husband who possesses qualities that are liked by her, and such a husband only enjoys real superiority over her, because he is the husband of true love” (III. p. 85). If a man does marry many wives, Vatsyayana tells him the daunting news that “he should please them all” (III. p. 100). 


Not Everything Is Prescribed; Spontaneity Is Good.


Just when Vatsyayana seems to go overboard in terms of classification and rules (eight kinds of kisses; nine kinds of intercourse, etc.), he will suddenly conclude a list with the exception to the rule: “Even those embraces that are not mentioned in the Kama Shastra should be practised at the time of sexual enjoyment” (II. p. 46). In discussing whether kisses come before, during, or after intercourse, he states, “anything may take place at any time, for love does not care for time or order” (II. p. 46). This liberality seems to contradict his concern that moderation should prevail and etiquette be observed, yet many times in the text, he gives precedence to passion over rules.


In the discussion on striking the lover and the lover’s cries of pain, he warns “excess of it [violence during sex] should always be avoided,” (II. p. 61) giving examples of how certain kings accidentally killed their lovers with such practices. But Vatsyayana ends this discussion with a verse: “Congress having once commenced, passion alone gives birth to all the acts of the parties” (II. p. 61). In the argument on oral sex, which Vatsyayana does not think a refined practice, he nevertheless concedes that “in all these things connected with love” everyone should act according to the custom of his country and “his own inclination” (II. p. 68). He asserts that sexual acts are unpredictable: “how can it be known what any person will do at any particular time and for any particular purpose” (II. p. 69). These sentiments lead once more to Vatsyayana’s reason for labeling these practices as “arts.” An art is a result of past experience and wisdom with improvisation in the moment.