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In "The Ascetic of Desire," the elusive sage Vatsyayana recounts his youth to a young pupil, the son of a Brahmin scholar, who is embarking on his first exploration of the sensual life. The young man, planning to write Vatsyayana's biography, listens dutifully as Vatsyayana shares stories of a childhood spent largely in the brother where his favorite aunt worked. There, Vatsyayana gained his first, indelible impressions of sexual artifice and the arousal of desire. As Vatsyayana's story unfolds, the story of a young man's coming of age, the pupil finds, to his consternation, that his own life has begun to reflect and parallel the ascetic's narrative. At the point where their stories intersect, the unexpected happens.
Weaving a powerful narrative together with erotic wisdom from the Kama Sutra, The Ascetic of Desire plumbs the depths of kinds, queens and sages at various stages of discovering their sexual identities. Like Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha or Sheri Holman's The Dress-Lodger's Daughter, Sudhir Kakar's novel is a startling combination of psychological insight and historical detail. With rightssold in eleven countries, this is a story of universal appeal imbued with a distant world's charm and exotic allure.
About the AuthorSudhir Kakar is a distinguished writer and noted psychoanalyst. An expert on the sexuality he has written the books Tales of Love, Sex and Danger and Intimate Relations, among others; and has just finished translating a new edition of the Kama Sutra. His books have been translated into many languages and sold throughout the world. The recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, he has taught at several leading universities in India, Europe and the United States. He divides his time between Berlin, New Delhi and teaching positions around the world.
Of what use is the practice of virtue, when its results are so uncertain?
Whenever I pass a group of prostitutes strolling in the streets or on the bank of the river, I am overwhelmed by a rush of confused feeling dominated by a mounting sense of panic. I fear I will not be able to stop staring at their glossy skins, their high coiffures studded with jasmines, and the wave-like movement of their bodies, nor check the impulse to cup a proud breast or stroke the curve of a hip. I flush with embarrassment as I move away from them. The back of my ears burn, the nape of my neck tingles and I cringe, certain that I will be followed by a peal of knowing laughter which has divined my shameful yearning. I hate the women's invasion of me. I hate what they do to my body without my consent. I resent the unbidden erections they cause. I feel I must hide my arousal from them by surreptitiously tucking the top of my erect penis in the fold of the tunic tied at my waist. I ache with unfulfilled desire. At the same time I am angry that this part of my body, the fount of such exquisite sensations, seems to belong more to them than to me. And I wonder—do most young men of my age feel this way?
My friend Chatursen had tried to help by persuading me to accompany him to a brothel. He assured me that an attractive young prostitute, skilled in the sixty-four arts and in making virginal young men lose their inhibitions, would take away my dread of women. The result of this visit was disappointing. First, I was intimidated by theopulence of the establishment. Chatursen had selected one of the town's best brothels for our evening's entertainment. It was to cost him a full gold dinar even at the lower, summer rate. The artful lotus ponds and fountains in the garden, the silver birdcages in the verandas, the silk hangings and soft carpets in the rooms, were forbidding enough for a poor brahmin scholar, but what left me inwardly quaking were the women themselves. Dazzlingly beautiful through a combination of nature and artifice, their bodies translucent through diaphanous summer cottons, the women overpowered my senses with their soft presence and the riot of their scents—flowery perfumes mixed with the intoxicating smell of female perspiration. I hardly paid attention to Chatursen's negotiations, and whispered instructions to one of the women who detached herself from the group and approached me with downcast eyes. With a shy smile she offered me a garland of jasmines. `Come,' she said, addressing me in the third person, her tone conveying nothing more than studied respect.
On the way to her room she asked me polite questions about my well being and did not seem at all put out by my monosyllabic answers. Before entering her room, she stepped aside to give me precedence. `I will follow you,' she said, and then added with the first hint of sexual banter, `I will always follow your lead.' Even later, after she had brought me a basin of perfumed water to wash my feet, and we had changed into the love-making garments provided by the brothel and were reclining on the bed, the ritual erotic offering of betel nut was done with a timidity that made me feel more and more relaxed. I realize now, and even knew at that time although I kept it a secret from myself, that her modesty was feigned, her languorous gazes and tender words were selected from a collection of erotic stances designed to suit different types of lovers—in my case, the diffident one.
She succeeded. I was feeling at ease, sufficiently relaxed for whatever awaited me this night, when she finally asked me to blow out the lamp. `I can only undress in the dark,' she said, as she took my hands in hers, gently guiding them in the unknotting of the string of her skirt and the unclasping of her necklace and bracelets. By the time she lay back on the bed, completely naked except for a thin ankle chain hung with a row of tiny silver bells, her body awash in the moonlight streaming through the latticed window, my senses were screaming with desire. Abandoning myself to a feast of touch made even more exciting by the accompanying medley of sighs, groans and the tinkling of anklet bells, I stroked her hair, kissed her eyes, caressed the top of her shoulders and kissed her eyes again, my hands and lips moving up and down her face but not venturing further in their explorations than the base of her neck. Yet my surrender remained incomplete. In all my excitement I still remembered to keep the lower part of my body firmly flattened against the mattress. Even as I pretended to ignore the press of her breasts against my chest, a part of me was vigilantly guarding against the possibility of my erect penis inadvertently striking her waist or thigh, thus betraying an embarrassing maleness.
At this point the woman decided she had had enough of my diffidence. She took my hand and placed it on a plump yet firm breast. To the task of keeping my erection a secret was now added the dilemma of what to do with her luscious breast. Suck when in doubt—a solution she greeted with genuine pleasure. She now became urgent in her demands, no longer content to wait till I gathered courage to take the next step. One hand firmly wrapped around my penis, her other hand took one of mine and placed it between her legs. To my credit, although completely surprised at what I found, I did not flinch at the shock of all that warm wetness. Could she have urinated in her excitement? It did not feel like it, the viscosity of the liquid smeared so generously on the inside of her thighs seemed more like oil than water. Had she massaged oil into her thighs when she had gone to the bathroom? Surreptitiously, I even sniffed at my fingers to help solve the puzzle. For a moment I thought it was blood, that I had somehow injured her in my vile male lustfulness.
Impatient with my hesitations, the woman finally took over. She roughly pulled me on top and guided my penis inside her where, to my utter horror, it instantly shrivelled, popping out of her as if forcibly evicted. It drooled weakly on her pubic hair. The woman was silent, though she was breathing hard. The image of a tigress coiled to spring flashed behind my closed eyes. Gradually, her breathing slowed to normal, and my own stomach muscles unknotted. Her training in the sixty-four arts took over.
`You are so strong. There are bruises all over my body,' she said coquettishly.
`I am sorry,' I mumbled, still dazed.
`Don't worry. It is all that goes on before which gives a woman pleasure. Making love is more than shoving a fleshy cucumber into her.'
The woman—I hate to call her a prostitute and I wish I could call her by her name which, alas, I did not register in my initial nervousness—was infinitely more sensitive to the nuances of a man's mood than to niceties of language.
After we had bathed and dressed, she invited me up to the terrace to sit and watch the moon, a recommended sequel to intercourse, especially on full moon nights during the summer. Sitting on a thin cotton mattress and reclining against plump round pillows in one corner of the terrace, we ate the traditional fortifiers—cold meat broth, grilled meats, sugarcane juice with pieces of tamarind fruit, peeled and seeded lemons with lumps of sugar—brought up by a maidservant. A low murmur of conversation came from other parts of the terrace where two prostitutes were similarly entertaining their clients. After we finished eating and were chewing betel, she moved closer, leaning her back against my chest. The smell of her hair was sweet in my nostrils as she pointed out the various constellations in the sky.
`That one is Arundhati who is hard to see; however anyone who is unable to see her will die within six months. And there is Dhruva, the unmoving polestar. If you can see it during the day all your sins will be washed away. And look, there are the Seven Sages!'
I listened with less than full attention. I knew I had failed her. I wondered what she had felt when we lay intertwined in bed. What is the nature of a woman's pleasure which I should have helped provide?
* * *
I was young at the time, no more than twenty-one years of age, although in the year that had passed since I returned home after finishing my theological studies I often felt either younger, almost a child, or immeasurably older, beyond any possibility of rejuvenation. In my last year at the hermitage, I had found myself becoming increasingly impatient with my Veda studies. In fact, I despised them heartily. Nevertheless, I am aware that my theological studies have bored deep within to give me that smug feeling of superiority towards the useful arts, especially the erotic. I dislike this smugness in other scholars; I dislike it in myself. In fact, my friendship with Chatursen was in part a result of this dissatisfaction. We were friends because our sensibilities intersected. He was a merchant's son who had little taste for making money but much interest in the arts and poetry. I was the son of a brahmin scholar travelling in the opposite direction, lightening the load of my intellectual inheritance and of a preordained ascetic lifestyle with as yet hesitant explorations of the sensual life. I did not have a natural gift for what I was trying to become. My inner irreverence could not breach a painfully correct exterior; the spontaneity I often felt, even intimations of a passionate nature inclined towards excess, did not undermine the stilted movements of my body and my terse, much too deliberate speech. I winced when Chatursen proudly introduced me to his other friends as a man of letters, a kavi. I knew I should be flattered at this imputation of literary prowess, although I had never produced a written text. I was aware that nothing brings greater honour to a man than the status of a kavi, so that even kings aspired to this title. But I no longer coveted the rewards of a literary career, having retired from it even before I had started. I told myself that I would rather be a consumer of texts than their producer.
My father, who was the chief assistant to the royal chaplain, naturally expected me to follow in his footsteps. I would learn the finer points of all the rituals and the correct way of performing them, thus putting into practice what I had only studied in theory. And since the royal chaplain had no children, it was speculated that one day I might take his place at court. My father was ambitious for me. In his mind's eye he saw me holding the first place among the kingdom's great men. As the chaplain, I would be the tutor of the princes, serve as the king's counsellor in both temporal and spiritual matters, administer the palace in his absence and have the privilege of being his opponent at games of chess and dice.
Although I tried hard to show interest, my father sensed my indifference to his plans. His obvious disappointment weighed heavily on me. It was not as if I did not try. For a few weeks I accompanied him daily to the palace and worked along with him in the rooms reserved for ritual specialists. I helped in the preparations for the rituals—of which there were a large number—which kept the royal chaplain, my father and six other assistants busy from early morning till late into the evening. There were the various rites of passage for the king, the three queens and their eleven children. There were the court rituals on festive occasions and public ones such as offerings to the seasonal deities in which the king took the lead. Of course, in my short stint at my father's profession, I did not have a chance to participate in the preparations for the most solemn occasions: rituals on the eve of the king going to war, the anointment of the crown prince, the royal consecration, the horse sacrifice. I learnt to judge the quality of darbha grass and to select the right kinds of lotuses, rice, cakes, ghee and roasted grain used for different offerings. These ingredients—the colour of the lotuses, the quality of rice and the kind of grains, the composition of cakes and the unctuousness of ghee—depend upon the nature of the ritual and its presiding deities. What is acceptable to the god of fire and the goddess of speech at the first feeding of the infant is different from the child's initiation into learning when offerings are made to Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, Brihaspati, the teacher of the gods, and Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, music and poetry. In the daily, seasonal and annual rituals, Ganga water is mixed with water of other sacred rivers, ocean, wells and pools. The particular source and correct proportion of the waters is laid down in minute detail, and has to be memorized.
Yet I did not derive any sense of accomplishment from these activities. My brief apprenticeship with my father's younger brother, one of the better-known astrologers of Varanasi, was equally unsatisfactory. As I learnt to colour the diagrams he drew for the casting of horoscopes, I sensed within myself a vast inner distance from the surrounding world. I did not feel I was living my life but that life was happening to me. On some days I was gripped by a sense of urgency, of unknown matters that somehow demanded my attention, unformulated plans I needed to realize, strangers I must meet, while on other days time simply disappeared as a dimension of my existence. For a few weeks I read day and night, almost read myself blind, although I was unable to concentrate and could not remember what I had read. I found it hard to go to bed and to surrender to sleep but equally hard to get up in the morning and confront the prospect of being awake.
This painfully heightened state of isolation finally provoked me to break loose of familial and ancestral expectations, and to spend more and more time with Chatursen and his friends. Full of fun and youthful high spirits, they were nevertheless generous men who accepted me without question and even deferred to what they regarded as my superior learning. Given to an uncomplicated pursuit of pleasure, their lives lived for the most part unfettered by any obsessive self-scrutiny. If they did not relieve me of my agonizing, at least they succeeded in numbing it for a while, although lately I had again found myself getting restless.
Thus when my friend Chatursen gave me the news that Vatsyayana had come to live in the Seven Leaf hermitage on the other side of the river, and suggested an excursion to meet the sage, I readily agreed. Besides the hope of getting answers that would untangle some of my own confusions in relation to women, I was intrigued as to why such a man would choose to give up a life of luxury and influence to come and live with bark-clad and often rank-smelling hermits.
If there was one person in the central countries, indeed in the whole Gupta empire, who knew about the nature of woman's pleasure and the subtleties of her desire, it was Vatsyayana. I was surprised to hear he had chosen to come to Varanasi and live in one of our more undistinguished hermitages. I was aware of his honoured position at the court in Kausambi, his great influence with the queens and the king, Udayana. We had heard rumours that Vatsyayana was an ascetic who had never known a woman. His knowledge of sex, it was widely believed, came from austerities and prolonged periods of meditation over many years. In Kausambi, the credulous believed that he wrote his famous text at the dictation of the goddess Rati herself, who was so smitten by the man that she revealed to him the secret knowledge entrusted to her by her consort Kama, the god of love. This, of course, is nonsense. The authority of any treatise comes not from any divine grace, the fame of the author or the amount of information it contains, but has a subtler source: the author's intimacy with his subject, which is reflected in his writing in a myriad ways. Whatever the merits or faults of the Kamasutra, fiercely debated by all sorts of scholars, Vatsyayana's intimacy with erotic life was unquestionable.
In spite of its great popularity, Vatsyayana's Kamasutra was not yet a text used in the education of all castes. Babhru's ancient work on erotics was still the standard text although a casual student like myself found its hundred and fifty chapters heavy going. But among the younger, more advanced students of erotics Vatsyayana was already a cult figure, perhaps also because our venerable teachers thought so little of him. My own guru Brahmdatta was an exception. In the late afternoon, after the morning instruction was over, when the guru rested and the students began lighting the fires and preparing the evening meal, there were sometimes visitors from other hermitages who came to talk to Brahmdatta. For a few weeks, some years ago, I had sat in on the conversations, fanning my guru and his guests, where the merits of the Kamasutra were vehemently analyzed. I could of the not participate in these discussions, not only because of the impropriety of offering an opinion in an assemblage of venerable teachers but also because of my ignorance of the subject.
I remember that my guru's friends were scandalized by the book. Some of Vatsyayana's opinions went against all established principles of erotics. Vatsyayana was respectful of older authors on the subject, it was grudgingly conceded, and his scholarship was impeccable. What made the sages so disapproving was the tone of the treatise. Vatsyayana's subversive intent was transparent. For instance, contrary to Dattaka's standard work on prostitutes, Vatsyayana claimed that in their liaisons courtesans were also moved by considerations other than money.
`It is a vulgar popularization, fit for dull-witted princes and the sons of merchants,' the excitable Palaka had said in his urgent voice, spraying a mist of saliva over his listeners as well as his bobbing white beard. Palaka's wrath was especially directed at Vatsyayana's notions about the sexuality of women.
`Since ancient times every sage has confirmed that a woman's desire mirrors that of the man. It is the intensity of man's excitement which arouses a corresponding passion in the woman. She is only kindling, the man provides the fire. This fellow says there is no difference between male and female desires. That each follows an independent course. Is this not a recipe for anarchy, I ask you? Will it not undermine dharma which holds the world together and which even this man agrees must always remain superior to kama?'
Most of the others seemed to agree.
`It is destined to be forgotten soon,' someone else said. `It will end up in libraries. The only human hands that will handle the Kamasutra will be those of the keepers of books who must occasionally moisten the cloth in which the palm leaves are wrapped.'
My guru Brahmdatta had disagreed.
`I do not say it is a great treatise which will replace that of the Babhravyas. But it will be read because it is pleasingly written and summarizes a great deal of information. It is only a few scholars who want anything more in a book.'
I remember my venerable teachers' talk of Vatsyayana's subversion making me want to read the book. I promised myself I would soon do so, but the promise remained stored with others as the stack of unread books continued to grow higher in my mind.
For more than a month, our plan to visit the Seven Leaf hermitage remained just that. Chatursen kept reminding me of our intention but my wish, and my curiosity, had begun to contend with a mounting hesitation. Theological studies tend to dampen spontaneity and strip one's language bare of feeling. I have to make a conscious effort to say that the idea of meeting the author of the Kamasutra both attracted and scared me. My sense of purpose alternated with trepidation. I visualized Vatsyayana as an irascible old sage, not unlike Palaka, with a long white beard and tufts of white hair sprouting from his ears. I imagined vertical frown lines in the middle of his forehead, bushy eyebrows and piercing eyes that could delve deep into my mind to ferret out its last shameful longing. I wanted to wait till the prospect of being in his presence did not threaten my composure so immensely. Given Vatsyayana's stature in the field of erotics, I told Chatursen, I needed to thoroughly study the Kamasutra to prepare myself for the encounter.
Posted January 2, 2002
The Kamasutra of Vatsayana is absolutely the silliest and most unscientific book about sex I have ever seen. There is no basis whatsoever for the author's dividing men and women into categories depending on the size of certain body parts. Even more ridiculous is Vatsayana's categorization of males into hares, horses and bulls and women into gazelles, mares and elephants, yet this categorization was the basis of his analysis of man-woman physical relationships. It was also entirely arbitrary. So was Vasayana's silly penchant for enumerating just about every single action that brought men and women closer together. For him, the number 64 had some kind of mystical significance, though what it was, one would be hard-pressed to say. All we really know, is that following Manu, Vatsayana listed transgressions of caste code by the four Varnas that totaled sixty-four. The Kamasutra is not even good pornography, although it is silly and often hilarious. In its favor, however, we must acknowledge the fact that it was compiled sometime around the 4th century A.D. during the Golden Age of the Gupta Empire and so it gives the reader an idea of the free and open society of those times. This was also a time when erotic painting and sculpture flourished in all parts of India. Very little is known about the historic Vatsayana. He lived in Kausambi and Varanasi and had access to the court of the ruling prince. Using extracts from his treatise, Sudhir Kakar, India's leading psychoanalyst, has reconstructed Vatsayana's life and times. He has done so with consummate skill, using psychoanalytic techniques, imagination and felicitous prose, bringing to vibrant life a scholar of ancient erotica who died more than 1500 years ago. Kakar employs the ingenious device of a young neophyte (presumably himself) who spends many days over many years time in Vatsayana's hermitage on the pretext of writing a scholarly commentary on the Kamasutra. This neophyte questions Vatsayana on contentious points such as the art of seduction and other such matters. If Kakar is right (and there is no reason to believe he is not), Vatsayana was the illegitimate child of a wealthy tradesman who was raised in an establishment of courtesans run by two sisters, one of whom was his father's mistress. As a child, Vatsayana became a favorite of his mausi (aunt). He was a witness to the comings and goings of rich patrons who loved to watch the girls sing and dance. After his education in a gurukul, Vatsayana gained access to the prince's court and was granted a stipend to compile a definitive work on erotic acts. He married the prince's beautiful-but-wayward sister-in-law, who was many years younger than he. They eventually retired to a hermitage at the fringe of a forest. While the Acharya was busy writing or meditating, his bored wife strolled around in the jungle watching birds and beasts and contemplated on life by a lily pond. This blissful, sylvan scene was eventually interrupted by a man who wanted to compile a biography of the Acharya and clarify some of the finer points in his magnum opus. Predictably, this young student and the wife of the Acharya became lovers. When the Acharya came upon them, they fled both the hermitage and the town, as their adultery would be regarded as the gravest of sins. Again, quite predictably, an illegitimate child was born. To make a long story short, Vatsayana, the author of the Hindu classic on sex, the Kamasutra, was himself, impotent. I know no one alive (or dead) who takes the Kamasutra seriously. However, Sudhir Kakar's fictionalized biography of Vatsayana, The Ascetic of Desire, is both serious and fascinating reading. Far more so than the Kamasutra, itself.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.