What is the Kamasutra really about? Wendy Doniger reads the classic text

Contrary to belief, Vatsayana wrote more about the art of living for love than about the art of loving to live.

Most people think the Kamasutra is a book about the positions (often improbable) in sexual intercourse, the erotic counterpart to the ascetic asanas of yoga. Reviews of books dealing with the Kamasutra in recent years have had titles like “Assume the Position” and “Position Impossible”

The part of the Kamasutra describing the positions may have been the best-thumbed passage in previous ages of sexual censorship, but nowadays, when sexually explicit novels, films and instruction manuals are widely available, that part is the least useful.

The real Kamasutra is a book about the art of living – about finding a partner, maintaining power in a marriage, committing adultery, living as or with a courtesan, using drugs – and also about the positions in sexual intercourse. The Kamasutra was certainly not the first of its genre, nor was it the last.

But the many textbooks of eroticism that follow it, such as the Kokashastra (or Ratirahasya) and the Anangaranga, eliminate most of the Kamasutra’s encyclopaedic social and psychological narratives and concentrate primarily on the sexual positions, of which they describe many more than are found in the Kamasutra.

Class in the Kamasutra

Whom was it written for? It is difficult to assess how broad a spectrum of ancient Indian society knew the text first-hand. It would be good to have more information about social conditions in India at the time of the composition of the Kamasutra, but the Kamasutra itself is one of the main sources that we have for such data; the text is, in a sense, its own context. The world of the Kamasutra is a world of privilege; the lovers must be rich. Much of the Kamasutra is about culture, which belonged to those who had leisure and means, time and money, none of which was in short supply for the text’s primary intended audience, an urban (and urbane) elite consisting of princes, high state officials and wealthy merchants.

The Kamasutra is almost unique in classical Sanskrit literature in its near total disregard of class (varna) and caste (jati). Of course, power relations of many kinds – gender, wealth, political position, as well as caste – are implicit throughout the text. But wealth is what counts most.

The lovers must be rich, not necessarily upper-class. When the text says that the man may get his money from “gifts, conquest, trade, or wages, or from inheritance, or from both,” the commentator (Yashodhara), a thousand years later, explains, “If he is a Brahmin, he gets his money from gifts; a king or warrior, from conquest; a commoner, from trade; and a servant, from wages earned by working as an artisan, a travelling bard, or something of that sort.”

Varna and jati, class and caste, are mentioned just a few times, once in a single sentence admitting that class is of concern only when you marry a wife who will bear you legal sons, and can be disregarded in all other erotic situations; once when the go-between is advised to tell the target woman stories about “other virgins of equal caste” [jati]; and later in a discussion of possible sexual partners…

Vatsyayana disapproves of sexual relations with rural and tribal women because they could have adverse effects on the erotic refinement and sensibility of the cultivated man-about-town; he would have been baffled by any Lady Chatterji’s sexual transports with a gamekeeper. But for all the rest of the discussion of pleasure, class is irrelevant – or, perhaps, understood without having to be mentioned.

Where classical texts of Hindu social law might have said that you make love differently to women of high and low classes, Vatsyayana just says that you make love differently to women of delicate or rough temperaments; money matters, but status does not.

The life of a man-about-town

The world of the Kamasutra is a fantasised world of sex that is in many ways the prototype for Hugh Hefner’s glossy Playboy empire. The privilege of the Kamasutra lovers is expressed in the opulence of the instructions on the home decorating of the ideal lover.

The protagonist of the Kamasutra, literally a “man-about-town” (nagaraka, from the Sanskrit nagara, city), lives “in a city, a capital city, a market town, or some large gathering where there are good people, or wherever he has to stay to make a living”. He has, as we say of a certain type of man today, no visible means of support.

His companions may have quite realistic money problems; his wife is entrusted with all the household management, including the finances; and his mistresses work hard to make and keep their money. But we never see the man-about-town at work.

This is how he spends a typical day:

First is his morning toilet: He gets up in the morning, relieves himself, cleans his teeth, applies fragrant oils in small quantities, as well as incense, garlands, bees’ wax and red lac, looks at his face in a mirror, takes some mouthwash, and attends to the things that need to be done. He bathes every day, has his limbs rubbed with oil every second day, a foam bath every third day, his face shaved every fourth day, and his body hair removed every fifth or tenth day. All of this is done without fail. And he continually cleans the sweat from his armpits. In the morning and afternoon he eats.

Yashodhara’s commentary explains the reasons behind some of these details:

He uses oil in small quantities, because he is no man- about-town if he uses large amounts. He colours his lips with a ball of moist red lac and fixes it with a small ball of bees’ wax. He puts a ball of sweet-smelling mouthwash in his cheek and takes some betel in his hand to use later. He has the hair shaved from his hidden place with a razor every fifth day, and then, every tenth day, has his body hair pulled out by the roots, because it grows so fast. The sweat that breaks out after any activity must be constantly removed with a rag, to prevent a bad smell and a consequent lack of sophistication.

Now, ready to face the day, he goes to work:

After eating, he passes the time teaching his parrots and mynah birds to speak; goes to quail-fights, cockfights and ram-fights; engages in various arts and games; and passes the time with his libertine, pander and clown. And he takes a nap. In the late afternoon, he gets dressed up and goes to salons to amuse himself. And in the evening, there is music and singing. After that, on the bed in a bedroom carefully decorated and perfumed by sweet-smelling incense, he and his friends await the women who are slipping out for a rendezvous with them. He sends female messengers for them or goes to get them himself. And when the women arrive, he and his friends greet them with gentle conversation and courtesies that charm the mind and heart. If rain has soaked the clothing of women who have slipped out for a rendezvous in bad weather, he changes their clothes himself, or gets some of his friends to serve them. That is what he does by day and night.

Busy teaching his birds to talk, he never drops in to check things at the shop, let alone visit his mother. Throughout the text, his one concern is the pursuit of pleasure.

Well, there were undoubtedly men (and women) in ancient India who had that sort of money and the privilege that came with it; Sanskrit literature tells us, in particular, of wealthy merchants whose sons engaged in the sorts of adventures, erotic and otherwise, that other literatures often reserve for princes. Vatsyayana insists that anyone, not just the man- about-town, can live the life of pleasure – if he or she has money.

Excerpted with permission from The Mare’s Trap: Nature and Culture in the Kamasutra, Wendy Doniger, Speaking Tiger Books.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”


“Like what?”


A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”




“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:


This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.