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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