March 01, 2012


Kama Sutra: A Guide to the Art of Pleasure. By Vatsyayana. Translated by A.N.D. Haksar. Penguin. $15.

     Vatsyayana’s Kama Sutra, long notorious for its forthright depiction of sexuality and its Machiavellian approach to sexual entanglements, is comparatively mild by the standards of the 21st century. Written some 1,800 years ago by a scholar of whom almost nothing is known, the book – thanks in part to a famous translation by Sir Richard Burton, who also translated the equally erotically charged Arabian Nights – has been known for more than a century as a compilation of eroticism and ancient Indian philosophy, with the emphasis generally on the book’s discussion of sexual positions. But this is only a portion of what the Kama Sutra is about, as becomes clear in A.N.D. Haksar’s new, clear and easy-to-read translation.

     Haksar explains at the outset that Kama, which roughly means the desire for sensual pleasure, was deemed the third and least important of the three ends of human life at the time the Kama Sutra was written. The first end, Dharma, is virtue and righteous conduct; the second, Artha, is wealth and material well-being. Each of the three ends “was seen as a basic motivator and goal of normal human action as a whole, and worthy as such of study and regulation.” This overview explains a great deal about elements of the Kama Sutra that will strike modern readers as cold-hearted and basely manipulative. Thus, Vatsyayana sets out many reasons in favor of adultery, of which quite a few involve “the woman’s husband. ‘He is a great lord,’ one may consider, ‘and he is partial to someone who is my enemy. She has influence over him and, on becoming my intimate, she can turn him against that person out of love for me.’ Or, ‘her husband has the ability to harm me and now seems set to do so as he has turned hostile. She can improve his attitude toward me.’” In addition to these political and social rationales for adultery, Vatsyayana includes ones that speak directly to the goal of Artha: “Or, one may reason, ‘there is no sin in sleeping with her as I have no money, few means of livelihood, and in this way stand to gain enormous wealth without any difficulty.’”

     The social-commentary elements of the Kama Sutra are often far more interesting in Haksar’s translation than the variously athletic copulatory positions, many of which scarcely seem as outré today as they did when Burton made his translation in the 19th century: “Young couples do it standing up, leaning against each other’s bodies, against a wall or a pillar. This is the ‘stand-up’ union. …She goes down on the ground on all fours and he mounts her like a bull. This is the ‘cow’ union.” The names given to the forms of intercourse, intended simply as descriptive by Vatsyayana, are likely to be a source of wry amusement for modern readers, and thus a source of real pleasure in reading the book: “Intercourse with two women who have good feelings for each other is known as the ‘combination.’ The same with many women is called the ‘herd of cows.’”

     One of the pervasive themes of the Kama Sutra is that of the acceptability of deception in sexual matters. This makes considerable sense in the context of a rigid class or caste society, and the manipulativeness echoes through the centuries to today. For example, Vatsyayana indicates that in pursuit of a maiden with whom a man hopes to make a good marriage (that is, one profitable in terms of both Dharma and Artha), “a man’s parents and relations try to ask for the girl’s hand. So too do friends connected to both sides who could act as go-betweens. …One goes disguised as a soothsayer and predicts the man’s good fortune and acquisition of wealth by referring to omens, signs and the strength of his planetary positions in the zodiac. Others may make the girl’s mother anxious by suggesting that the man may find another, even better girl.” And in a section on marriage, Vatsyayana suggests matter-of-factly that, in one premarital option, “the girl is plied with some intoxicating drink by her nurse’s daughter and taken on some personal pretext to a place accessible to the man. There he takes her maidenhead… [Or] after sending the nurse’s daughter away, he takes the girl’s maidenhead while she is alone, asleep and out of her senses… Or, after coming to know that the girl is going to a park or another village, he goes with his servants and helpers, frightens away or kills her guards and abducts her.”

     Some elements of the Kama Sutra will be unintentionally amusing to today’s readers, such as the division of male and female genitals into three sizes and the statement that the best intercourse is between partners with organs of comparable size. Yet although this is anatomically inaccurate, it still has resonance in the 21st century – witness all the size-obsessed pornography and the unending flow of spammers’ “male enhancement” scams. Other statements in the book continue to ring true in direct ways: “Women, it should be noted, love the man who can continue [intercourse] for long and dislike one who finishes quickly, as they are then unable to reach their own climax at the end.” And: “According to one opinion, the girl who can catch a man’s eye and capture his heart will also bring him good fortune. One should not consider any other.” The Kama Sutra may no longer titillate as it once did, but its plainspoken approach to sexuality as one important element and motivator of human life, and some of its specific ideas about maximizing the benefits of sex for men and women alike, give it surprising currency even in modern times – and make Haksar’s fresh and forthright translation easy not only to read but also to appreciate.

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