The Washington Post
The Book of Love: The Story of the Kamasutraby James McConnachie
An engaging, enlightening "biography" of the ancient Hindu manuscript that became the world's most famous sex manual
The Kamasutra is one of the world's best-known yet least-understood texts, its title instantly familiar but its actual contents widely misconstrued. In the popular imagination, it is a work of practical pornography, a how-to guide/i>/p>/b>… See more details below
An engaging, enlightening "biography" of the ancient Hindu manuscript that became the world's most famous sex manual
The Kamasutra is one of the world's best-known yet least-understood texts, its title instantly familiar but its actual contents widely misconstrued. In the popular imagination, it is a work of practical pornography, a how-to guide of absurdly acrobatic sexual techniques. Yet the book began its long life in third-century India as something quite different: a seven-volume vision of an ideal life of urbane sophistication, offering advice on matters from friendship to household decoration. Over the ensuing centuries, the Kamasutra was first celebrated, then neglected, and very nearly lost—until an outrageous adventurer introduced it to the West and earned literary immortality.
In lively and lucid prose, James McConnachie provides a rare, intimate look at the exquisite civilization that produced this cultural cornerstone. He details the quest of famed explorer Richard F. Burton, who—along with his clandestine coterie of libertines and iconoclasts—unleashed the Kamasutra on English society as a deliberate slap at Victorian prudishness and paternalism. And he describes how the Kamasutra was driven underground into the hands of pirate pornographers, until the end of the Lady Chatterley obscenity ban thrust it once more into contentious daylight.
The first work to tell the full story of the Kamasutra, The Book of Love explores how a remarkable way of looking at the world came to be cradled between book covers—and survived.
The Washington Post
Tracing the celebrated sex manual from its palm-leaf manuscript origins in third-century India to contemporary coffee-table book, travel writer McConnachie adeptly explains that in addition to teaching 64 erotic techniques, the seven-volume Kamasutra details every aspect of a rich man's lifestyle, including grooming, home decor and entertainment. The treatise on pleasure also offers a rare ancient depiction of women's social and sexual lives. The author relates the tale of the famed British explorer and Orientalist Richard Burton, who brought the work to the West. An Indian Army officer in the 1840s, Burton devoted himself to the study of Indian languages and sexual culture. Around 1870, as a British consul, Burton became involved in a project to translate obscure erotic classics into English (though contrary to popular belief, he did not translate the Kamasutra himself) and masterminded the work's promotion in a repressive Victorian climate. McConnachie also relates the key role of Foster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot as Burton's collaborator. Though less titillating than the topic would imply, this is a solidly researched, absorbing glimpse into the history of erotica publishing. 8 pages of color illus. (May 27)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
McConnachie's writing experience comes principally, it seems, from his role as author or coauthor of more than a dozen "Rough Guides," and while it might be a slight exaggeration to call this a "rough guide" to a smooth text and its strange progress through Indian and Western culture, it would not be altogether off the mark. It is the story of the Kamasutra, a long poem describing and celebrating the lives of sophisticates in ancient India, including but by no means limited to advice on amorous conquest and sexual positions. McConnachie's brief book hardly allows him to treat the full range of issues here, from ancient sex to modern mores. Interested readers may want to look at Dane Kennedy's biography of Richard Burton, The Highly Civilized Man, or Wendy Doniger's recent translation of the Kamasutra for more of the fascinating story.
—Wendy Doniger, Distinguished Service Professor, University of Chicago, and translator of the first definitive English edition of the Kamasutra
“An altogether first-rate work of intellectual history for ordinary readers... Brings the story up-to-date without stinting on the entertaining pen portraits and anecdotes.”
—Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
“Elegant and stylish... Paints an enticing picture of the society in which the Kamasutra was written.”
—William Dalrymple, The New York Review of Books
“The truth is far more intriguing than the clichés.... A scholarly, stylish, and entertaining study.”
—The Sunday Times (London)
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Read an Excerpt
The Wheel of Sexual Ecstasy
In the beginning, sings the ‘Creation Hymn’ of the Rig Veda, the holiest and most ancient of India’s scriptures, ‘there was neither non-existence nor existence’. Then, out of nothing and from nowhere, arose kama. Kama was sexual desire, the urge to create and procreate, the atom-like essence of creation itself. According to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the greatest and oldest of India’s philosophical texts, the First Being ‘found no pleasure at all; so one finds no pleasure when one is alone. He wanted to have a companion. Now he was as large as a man and a woman in close embrace. So he split his body into two, giving rise to husband and wife… He copulated with her and from their union human beings were born.’ Kama, then, was the first itch that brought the world into being, and humanity with it. Where the Judaeo-Christian tradition begins with ‘light’, you could say that Hinduism starts with kama. In the beginning was sex, and sex was with god, and sex was god.
By the middle of the first millennium BC, long after the Vedas and Upanishads were composed, kama had come to signify not just primal desire, but the particular pleasures of love and lovemaking. In poetic epics of the era like the great Mahabharata, kama was transformed from divine essence into personified god: kama became Kama, an Eros-like figure of youthful beauty praised as the firstborn, the god above all other gods, the son of Brahma, the creator. Kama was said to carry a bow made of deliciously sweet sugarcane, strung with a line of languorously humming bees and capable of firing flower-tipped arrows more deadly than any steel arrowhead. As a god and as an idea, kama was the expression of the divine creativity in humans, an essential principle of existence to be celebrated, praised, enjoyed and expressed through procreation. But as ever, there was a serpent in paradise. Kama was also a threat to the practice of meditation and the pursuit of the divine. It diverted the questing soul from the ultimate spiritual goal of ‘release’, or liberation from the world of birth and death. Hindu myths are full of tales of jealous gods sending heavenly nymphs to distract holy men whose austere meditations had made them too powerful. And the ascetic could not be too careful: one spilled drop of semen, like Samson’s cut hair, was sufficient to burn away all his tapas, or stored-up spiritual energy.
Even the greatest ascetic of them all could be tempted. According to an ancient myth recorded in the Shiva Purana, after many thousands of years of perfect lovemaking the god Shiva abandoned his wife Parvati in order to pursue solitary meditation in the cool heights of the Himalayas. Frustrated and angered by her husband’s neglect of his sexual obligations, Parvati dispatched Kama to disturb Shiva’s concentration by piercing him with one of his potent, flower-tipped arrows. Just as the abstract kama had awoken the primal being from his slumber of non-being, the god Kama easily roused Shiva from his meditation. Enraged, Shiva turned the heat of his third, ‘spiritual eye’ on the god of desire, a heat engendered by aeons of yogic austerities, by centuries of sperm retention. Kama was reduced to ashes, becoming ananga, ‘the bodiless one’, a roving, aerial and ethereal spirit with the power to goad even the greatest ascetics towards the pursuit of pleasure.
The myth vividly dramatizes the bow-taut tension in Hinduism between asceticism and sensuality. The uncertain dating of almost all ancient Indian texts, the Kamasutra included, makes it very hard to make general statements about eras, but at the time of the Kamasutra’s birth, in around the third century of the first millennium, the ascetic principle seems to have had the whip hand. In the Bhagavadgita, the ‘Hindu Sermon on the Mount’ composed perhaps a little before the Kamasutra, the god Krishna virtually froths at the mouth as he fulminates against kama. ‘By this is wisdom overcast,’ he shrieks, ‘therefore restrain the senses first: strike down this evil thing!’ The so-called ‘renouncer faiths’ of Buddhism and Jainism, which were flourishing in the third century, rejected the tainted physical world even more emphatically. Asvaghosa’s ‘Life of the Buddha’, which may be a hundred years or so older than the Kamasutra, warns that ‘the one who they call Kama-deva here-on-earth, he who has variegated weapons, flower-tipped arrows, likewise they call him Mara, the ruler of the way of desire, the enemy of liberation’. For Buddhists, Mara was the ultimate tempter and was even known as the lord of death.
Not all thinkers were so confident in their rejection of kama. The poet Bhartrihari legendarily lived a life that oscillated no less than seven times between the severe existence of a monk and an abandoned pursuit of sensuality. For this writer, who probably lived within a century or two of the Kamasutra’s composition, there was no middle way between the erotic and ascetic principles. ‘There are two paths,’ he wrote, ‘the sages’ religious-devotion which is lovely because it overflows with the nectarous waters of the knowledge of truth’ and ‘the lusty undertaking of touching with one’s palm that hidden part in the firm laps of lovely-limbed women, loving women with great expanses of breasts and thighs’. ‘Tell us decisively which we ought to attend upon,’ he asks in his Shringarashataka, ‘the sloping sides of wilderness mountains? Or the buttocks of women abounding in passion?’
The Kamasutra was firmly on the side of the buttocks. It mounted the greatest defence of sexual pleasure the world had ever seen – or would ever see. Its method, avowed in its very name, was to capture and distil all previous knowledge on the entire subject of sexual desire. It was a sutra, a scholarly treatise designed to compress knowledge into a series of pithy maxims – a row of pearl-like aphorisms strung together in a necklace. Literally, its title means ‘the condensed version of the teaching on desire’, ‘aphorisms on erotic pleasure’ or ‘the grammar of sex’. Yet none of these English translations comes close to conveying the iconic status of the original Sanskrit words. ‘The book of love’ is less precise, but comes closer to capturing the breadth of the Kamasutra’s scope and the incredible force of its title’s cultural impact.
The author of this extraordinary book of love was a man named Vatsyayana, about whom nothing is known beyond what he says about himself in his Kamasutra. Which is – rather surprisingly, given that his book is devoted to sex – that he ‘made this work in chastity and in the highest meditation’, and did not labour ‘for the sake of passion’. In the contemporary religious context, Vatsyayana could be forgiven for sounding a little defensive, but this curious statement may even be true. As Vatsyayana himself explains, the goals of life are different at each stage of manhood. Youth is for pleasure, while old age is better suited to contemplation. It’s tempting, then, to think that Vatsyayana acquired his sexual expertise as a young man, and composed his Kamasutra as a grizzled roué looking back on the adventures of his prime.
When or where those adventures, or the recall of them, took place is a mystery. Vatsyayana does not mention any dates in his book of love, nor where it was written or set. A thirteenth-century commentator, Yasodhara, believed that Vatsyayana lived in the great city of Pataliputra, which is a plausible enough theory, as it later became the home of the highly cultivated and eroticized Gupta court. But Pataliputra lay in the north-eastern part of India (it is now the modern city of Patna, beside the Ganges and bordering eastern Nepal) while most of the geographical references in the Kamasutra are to the north-west. Vatsyayana does not even mention the city in his survey of regional sexual preferences – though as the Kamasutra expert Haran Chandra Chakladar drily pointed out, perhaps ‘he did not like to calumniate his own people by expatiating on their sexual abuses’.
When the book of love was born can only be guessed from a few tantalizing – and rather titillating – clues. The Kamasutra must come after the death of Queen Malayavati, as Vatsyayana tells us that she was killed by her husband’s incautious use of the ‘scissors’ method of love-slap. (Perhaps fortunately, its secret is now lost.) Her wretched husband, Shatakarni Shatavahana, is thought to have ruled in the first century BC. And it must predate the fifth-century poet Subandhu, who pungently described in his poem Vasavadatta how the local Vindhya mountain range ‘was filled with elephants and fragrant from the perfume of its jungles, just as the Kamasutra was written by Mallanaga and contains the delight and enjoyment of mistresses’. The commentator Yasodhara confirms that Mallanaga was Vatsyayana’s given name, and Subandhu is known to have worked in Pataliputra, at the imperial court of Chandragupta II ‘Vikramaditya’.
In fact, the Kamasutra is probably considerably older than Subandhu’s poem, as it conspicuously fails to mention the glorious Guptas, dwelling instead on two earlier dynasties, the Abhiras and Andhras – and in not altogether flattering terms. Vatsyayana tells the farcical story of how a certain King Abhira was killed by a washerman brother while making an adulterous sortie into another man’s home. He also observes that the women of the Abhiras ‘like embracing, kissing, scratching, biting and sucking, and although they do not like to be wounded they can be won over with slaps’. As for the Andhras, their women are apparently ‘delicate by nature but have coarse habits’, such as grasping a man inside them ‘like a mare, so tightly that he cannot move’. The Abhira dynasty came to power in the third or fourth decade of the third century ad, while the Andhras are thought to have declined soon after. Vatsyayana, then, must have lived around the early or middle part of the third century AD.
In India, this was a time between empires. The adulterous Abhiras were just one of many minor regional dynasties capitalizing on the collapse of the extensive Satavahana empire, and it would be a hundred years before the beginning of the Classical ‘golden age’ of the imperial Guptas. Third-century India was divided into endless kingdoms, principalities and even republican states, but the absence of a presiding imperial government did not necessarily lead to war and chaos – any more than the lack of a Roman emperor or a Grand Duke prevented Florence, Siena and Pisa from flourishing during the Italian Renaissance. Across the subcontinent, new cities were being founded at the crossroads of trade and pilgrimage routes by road and river. Caravans were exporting pearls, perfumes, precious stones, gold, finely worked ivory and pottery as far afield as China, Central Asia, the African coast and the eastern Mediterranean. Some luxury goods even reached Rome, while coins and foreign materials – as well as ideas – followed the caravans home again.
The new cities were well ordered and well built, with streetplans meticulously oriented around the cardinal points of the compass, and major thoroughfares neatly cobbled in stone. Segregated quarters were occupied by different castes or trades, while a great central marketplace attracted local peasantry from their outlying cow-herding villages – the appropriate venues, the Kamasutra advises, for the very lowest kind of lovemaking, technically known as ‘sex with a peasant’. The lowest castes were relegated to satellite villages beyond the city’s defensive palisade, while the more prosperous city-dwellers built their homes in sturdy brick, with fine porches overlooking the street. On the balconied roofs of these porches, the Kamasutra tells us, lovers lingered together after sex, gazing up at the moon and naming the constellations. At the very top of the house, dovecotes were installed in the eaves, while more birds were painted on the roof, symbolizing the love between the householder and his wife.
The religious-minded may have disapproved, but urban society was luxurious and sensual, the driving force of a highly aestheticized culture that would scarcely be matched again in India. At perfumed and bejewelled courts, poets, scholars and scientists were patronized by minor kings and princes. Women were lavishly adorned with ornamental jewellery, their hair sculpted and held in place by beautifully decorated hairpins, their faces made up in elaborate palettes of colours. Picnic-parties frequented carefully cultivated gardens on the city fringes, where guests swam in pools specially designed to keep out the crocodiles, and frolicked with each other under the trees. As the ‘Libertine’ tells the prostitute-heroine of the mid-first-millennium Sanskrit play, The Little Clay Cart:
Behold the splendour of the park!
The trees resplendent in their fruit and bloom,
Protected by the king’s keen guard from doom
And by the creeper vines closely embraced
Like husbands with their women interlaced.
At temple festivals in the evenings, the wealthy and urbane rubbed shoulders with prostitutes and professional actors, grazing on roasted grains, lotus stems and mangoes, and indulging in water-fights and puppet shows. At the salons of the ganikas, the most exquisite courtesans, the sophisticated gathered for conversation liberally sprinkled with nuggets of philosophy, jokes and elegant literary and erotic references.
The citizens of these young and sensual cities were known as nagarakas. Literally, the word translates as ‘he of the city’, but it means much more than that. In the era of the Kamasutra, the word ‘city’ had many of the connotations it has today, of sophistication, urbanity and fast living. Nagaraka has accordingly been rendered into English as ‘worldly-wise citizen’, ‘man-about-town’, ‘city-bred man of fashion’, ‘elegant townsman’, ‘gentleman’, ‘cosmopolite’ and ‘urbane playboy’. But these words do not capture the heady odour of danger or corruption that clung to the original nagaraka. The more religious-minded citizens of third-century India associated cities with moral turpitude. A play by a near-contemporary of Vatsyayana’s, The Recognition of Shakuntala, features a group of ascetics making a journey to a major town. As the ascetics enter the palace, one turns to another: ‘Look at these city people,’ he mutters to his friend, ‘these pleasure-lovers. I feel like a man fresh from the bath caught in a filthy beggar’s gaze.’
Vatsyayana positively wallowed in the nagaraka’s ‘filth’. His book was entirely devoted to these young, urban men who, as he put it, ‘incline to the ways of the world and regard playing as their one and only concern’. Whether or not the Kamasutra was written by a pleasure-seeking playboy – or at least by an older man who used to be one – the book’s structure suggests that it was written for one. The first of its seven books, or sections, ‘General Observations’, puts kama in its philosophical context and describes how our hero should set himself up for a life of pleasure. Like all the books, it is divided into a number of chapters, the most fascinating of which is devoted to the nagaraka himself. It is an astonishing portrait of his lifestyle, and so precise in its detail that if Vatsyayana was not a city slicker when he composed his great work, it is hard to believe that he was not at least recalling private memories. (Unless, like an eminent bachelor don at a fashionable Oxbridge college, Vatsyayana was simply surrounded by nagarakas and knew their habits inside out. In which case perhaps the Kamasutra was not so much a sex manual as a coursebook on sexual culture.)
The sheer intimacy of the chapter on the life of the nagaraka makes it extraordinarily, persuasively immediate. It begins at the beginning: when a man has completed his education, Vatsyayana says, he enters the mature, ‘householder’ stage of life. He is wealthy from work, inheritance or conquest, and comes without apparent ties – he chooses a city in which to settle solely on the basis of ‘where there are good people’ or ‘wherever he has to stay to make a living’. It’s easy to imagine the scion of old money lounging about in modern London’s Notting Hill, or a Bombay yuppie jetting off to make fast money in an American bank. On arrival in his chosen city, he now starts to live as a nagaraka should. He sets up the perfect home, ‘in a house near water, with an orchard, separate servant quarters, and two bedrooms’. One bedroom is for sleeping; the other is entirely devoted to sex. Inside, he keeps all the props of his effortlessly cultivated existence: a vina lute for strumming, implements for drawing, a book, garlands of flowers, a board for dice and cages of pet birds such as mynahs and parrots that he delights in teaching how to speak. Vatsyayana notes with typical precision, and sensuousness, that his bed is ‘low in the middle and very soft, with pillows on both sides and a white top sheet’; his orchard-shaded swing is well padded; his bench of baked clay is covered with flowers; and his lute hangs not from an ordinary peg but from an ivory tusk. The nagaraka wallows in truly sybaritic luxury. His home is like an eligible bachelor’s apartment in a designer magazine – and Vatsyayana’s description is probably just as aspirational.
On getting up in the morning, the nagaraka ‘relieves himself, cleans his teeth, applies fragrant oils in small quantities, as well as incense, garlands, beeswax and red lac, looks at his face in a mirror, takes some mouthwash and betel, and attends to the things that need to be done’. He chews lemon-tree bark and betel to sweeten his breath, bathes daily, has his limbs rubbed with oil every second day, wears perfume and ‘continually cleans the sweat from his armpits’. Nothing so vulgar as body odour could be allowed to spoil this city boy’s perfumed perfection. Scent was an important marker of wealth and breeding. The Lalitavistara, a Buddhist text roughly contemporary with the Kamasutra, describes how the young prince Gautama, the future Buddha, was endlessly anointed with perfumed ointments, waters, oils and the beloved sandalwood paste, while his palace home was unceasingly adorned with fragrant flowers.
During the day, the nagaraka passes his time in cock-fights, games, teaching his birds to speak, chatting to his urbane and rather dissolute friends – his ‘libertine, pander and clown’. The ‘libertine’, a kind of itinerant connoisseur of the aesthetic arts, is characterized by the Kamasutra as an effete ne’er-do-well. Although he comes from a good family and is educated to a high standard, he ‘has no possessions other than his shooting-stick, his soap and his astringent’. Together, the friends attend horseback picnics involving games, theatricals and, in summer, swimming. One can imagine the smooth-mannered, meticulously scrubbed ‘libertine’ lounging against his shooting-stick while his nagaraka friends show off their lithe bodies in the water, teasingly inviting their lovers to join them.
After a siesta, the nagaraka and his hangers-on embark on a tour of the ‘salons’ – courtesans’ houses where fashionable people gathered to discuss art, poetry and women, and where they brought their racier lovers to drink, flirt and graze on fine foods. Later in the evening, the nagaraka attends a musical soirée, before retiring to his perfumed bedroom to wait for his women friends. Those girlfriends whose clothes have become wet as a result of coming to join him in bad weather, he courteously helps to change. The nagaraka and his lover then retire to the frescoed bedchamber, which has been festooned with flowers, and made fragrant with incense and other heady perfumes. As the lovers chat, joke and flirt with each other, the room is filled with the sounds of singing and the movement of dancers. Before making love, the nagaraka displays his wealth and generosity by rewarding the entertainers with yet more flowers, along with scented oils and betel nut. Only then are the musicians sent away – and lovemaking begins.
The nagaraka should now turn to the Kamasutra’s second book: ‘Sex’. It teaches him how to actually do it. Tellingly, it is the longest and most detailed of all seven books. For having sex, as the Kamasutra describes it, is a sophisticated affair. Famously, the Kamasutra describes sixty-four kama-kalas, or ways to make love. These ‘arts of love’, or ‘erotic techniques’, are not sixty-four sexual positions, as they are often said – with awe – to be, but simply a kind of grand total of the categories into which Vatsyayana divides the different moods and modes of lovemaking. Theorists, Vatsyayana says, divide sex into eight different topics, namely ‘embracing, kissing, scratching, biting, the positions, moaning, the woman playing the man’s part and oral sex’. As each of these modes of sex is supposed to have eight different particular manifestations, there are thus sixty-four ways in which a man or woman could be said to be having sex in its broadest sense. Mastery of these sixty-four erotic techniques is essential for an accomplished nagaraka. If a man lacks them, Vatsyayana says, ‘he is not very well respected in conversations in the assembly of learned men.’ The kama-kalas are not just tools for successful love making, then; they lie at the heart of what constitutes an educated man.
Of course, the fact that knowledge of the arts of love will impress women is in itself no small matter. ‘Virgins, other men’s wives and courtesans de luxe look with warm feelings and respect on the man who is skilled in the sixty-four arts,’ says Vatsyayana, drily – and success with women is another defining characteristic of the gentleman. The nagaraka’s basic education behind him, he may now turn to the Kamasutra’s next four books, which define all the different types of women that he may want to pursue. ‘Virgins’ describes how a man gets married, and how he woos his bride in bed, while ‘Other Men’s Wives’ focuses on how those wives may be seduced. Where seduction is not, apparently, necessary, the Kama-sutra takes a different tack. The books on ‘Wives’ and ‘Courtesans’ sketch the relationship of these women to the nagaraka, instructing the wife or the prostitute in her obligations, and informing the nagaraka about what behaviour he should expect.
Few ancient books have described the social and sexual lives of women in such intimate, exacting detail, and for this alone the Kamasutra is a rare and precious work. From the nagaraka’s point of view, however, the Kamasutra’s descriptions of women are rather like excerpts from a handy field guide to birds in their various plumages. There are even descriptions of regional variations (in sexual tastes), detailed instructions on how different kinds of women may be spotted and won, and warnings about which types of game must be left alone. Wives can be young and virginal, for example, or senior, or junior, or married to a king and living in a harem, or simply ‘unlucky in love and oppressed by rivalry with her co-wives’. If virgins and wives aren’t enough, the nagaraka may seek out the alluring punarbhu, an independent and sexually expert widow seeking remarriage or a mistress-like arrangement with an important official. He may also encounter two particularly exotic types of birds: the lady-boy, who offers oral sex for a living, and the more masculine masseur, who may throw in a hand-job or, if so desired, go so far as to ‘suck the mango’.
There was no shame in turning to paid sex. Courtesans are lovingly graded according to their desirability, beauty and sophistication, from ‘the servant woman who carries water’ and ‘the promiscuous woman’, to ‘the dancer, the artist, the openly ruined woman, the woman who lives on her beauty and the courtesan de luxe’. This last and highest kind of prostitute is the ganika, a woman of significant independence and high status – the ganikas of the fifth-century Licchavi kingdom of Nepal even had their own political representative body and were considered one of the glories of the city. The ganika acquires her elevated status, Vatsyayana says, by distinguishing herself in the ‘sixty-four arts’. Confusingly, these are not the sixty-four kama-kalas that mark out the properly trained nagaraka, but the sixty-four silpa-kalas, a finishing-school-type programme of feminine accomplishments ranging from cooking and testing gold and silver, to making glasses sing by rubbing their wet rims, and teaching parrots and mynah birds to talk. Massage and hairdressing, meanwhile, more obviously lend themselves to the young student of kama, as do the arts of putting on make-up – including make-up for the teeth – and dressing a bed properly. Mastery of all these skills will apparently allow a prostitute to work in the highest circles, while a nobleman’s daughter, if she learns them, will successfully keep her husband under her thumb, ‘even if he has a thousand women in his harem’.
The Kamasutra’s seductively intimate, naturalistic detail can be dangerous. The nagaraka’s erotic cocoon all too easily becomes the reader’s, and the world outside his shining realm of limitless pleasures can all too easily fade from view. In truth, the Kamasutra is no more isolated from its context than the real nagaraka can have been insulated from the everyday demands of religion, work and family. Vatsyayana was not just composing a manual for the men-about-town of his day, nor was he simply describing their world. His Kamasutra was no ‘player’s handbook’, no proto-Joy of Sex. It was something far more ambitious and profound. It was also far more wedded to Brahmin traditions of the distant past than its colourful descriptions of the nagaraka’s dissipated life suggest.
In its very first chapter, the Kamasutra declares itself to be the last scion of an ancient lineage that stretches right back to a ‘Kamasutra’ composed by Nandi, the servant of the god Shiva. This divine Ur-Kamasutra was supposedly 1,000 chapters long and was itself an offshoot of the original book of Brahma’s creation. Sacred or not, this text was clearly unwieldy, so a sage by the name of Svetaketu Auddalaki cut it down to a more memorable 500 chapters. Perhaps this was still unmanageable, for another erotic expert called Babhravya, from the western Pancala country, further edited the book down to a mere 150 chapters. Concocting a legendary genealogy for a text was commonplace, as claiming that a text was descended from a god’s original composition was as good as to say that it was correct. The Kamasutra’s genealogy, however, was not fabricated for the sake of authenticity – or at least not entirely.
The grandfathers of the Kamasutra appear in other texts as well, albeit as sexual lawmakers rather than experts in technique. Svetaketu appears in the already ancient mythological epic, the Mahabharata, as a legendary seer from the distant past. He is first mentioned when Pandu, the king of the Kurus, explains to his wife Kunti that women used to be free and sexually autonomous. Promiscuity, Pandu says, was ‘not regarded as sinful, for that was the sanctioned usage of the times. That very usage is followed to this day by birds and beasts without any jealousy.’ Addressing her as ‘Kunti of the softly tapering thighs… lotus-eyed Kunti’, Pandu tells her how there was once a hermit called Svetaketu, the son of the great seer Uddalaka, who saw his mother being led away by the hand by a Brahmin, as if by force. Svetaketu became angry and laid down a new rule that ‘a woman’s faithlessness to her husband shall be a sin equal to aborticide, an evil that shall bring on misery’. (Pandu gets his come-uppance when he shoots a deer with an arrow while it is trying to mate. The deer turns out to a disguised sage taking advantage of the relatively relaxed rules on animal sexuality, who curses Pandu, saying that if he attempts to have sex with either of his two wives he will surely die. Heroically, Pandu tries to have sex with his second wife, Madri – and dies.)
Svetaketu again figures as a patriarch of sexual regulation in the philosophical Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which probably dates back to the sixth or seventh centuries BC. Asking his father for an explanation of the meaning and mystery of sex, he is told that sex is a kind of sacrificial offering of man to the gods by means of woman. It even involves the traditional ritual ingredients of kusha grass and the mysterious Soma (an ingredient which has been variously identified as the hallucinogenic fly agaric mushroom and the stimulant desert plant ephedra). A woman’s vulva ‘is the sacrificial ground’, Svetaketu hears, ‘her pubic hair is the sacred grass; her labia majora are the Soma-press; and her labia minora are the fire blazing at the centre.’ Svetaketu is also given magical formulae for ensuring the birth of different kinds of sons. To get ‘a learned and famous son, a captivating orator assisting at councils, who will master all the Vedas and live out his full lifespan’, the man should open the woman’s thighs, saying, ‘Spread apart, earth and sky.’ He then ‘slips his penis into her, presses his mouth against hers and strokes her three times in the direction of her hair’ – all the while invoking the assistance of various gods.
Whatever the results in terms of progeny, Svetaketu’s recipe would hardly seem to guarantee satisfying lovemaking. It is all a long way from Vatsyayana’s resolutely practical Kamasutra. Babhravya, however, the other grandfather of the erotic tradition, feels less distant. A certain ‘Pancala Babhravya’ is supposed to have been the author of part of the Rig Veda – which would place him only 1,000 years or so before Vatsyayana. As well as condensing the teaching on kama into a mere 150 chapters, Babhravya divided it into the seven topics or ‘limbs’, which survived as the seven books of the Kamasutra.
In doing so, he nearly killed off kama. According to Vatsyayana, later scholars fatally dismembered Babhravya’s work by choosing to specialize in the different topics. A certain Suvarnanabha was apparently an authority on ‘Sex’; Ghotakamukha specialized in ‘Virgins’; Gonikaputra in ‘Other Men’s Wives’; while Kucumara focused on aphrodisiacs – this became the Kamasutra’s rather perfunctory seventh and final book. Dattaka – who was cursed to live for a time as a woman, thus giving him a privileged, Tiresias-like insight into male and female pleasure – was apparently commissioned by the courtesans of Pataliputra to compose a new text based on Babhravya’s sixth ‘limb’, the one dedicated to prostitution. Like the ancient works of Babhravya and Svetaketu, the seven works of the seven original sexual specialists are now lost. Only a few mere fragments or quotations survive – but enough to be sure that they existed in the distant past.
Even in Vatsyayana’s time, the works of the seven sex specialists were apparently in danger of extinction. In his opening chapter, Vatsyayana announced that the teaching on kama had become dangerously fragmented and he was mounting an urgent rescue mission. He set out to pick up the threads of an ancient and perhaps moribund tradition in order to bind them together. He wanted the Kamasutra to be quoted and referred to by future generations. In the third century, however, books were a rare novelty. (And it’s almost certain that none – including the Kamasutra – was illustrated.) Manuscripts existed in the form of dried palm leaves inscribed with a stylus whose pinhead-fine scratch marks were afterwards inked in, and there was even paper to be found, made from the skin of birch trees. But most texts were probably learned by rote rather than written down.
There was only one way to ensure that the Kamasutra was remembered and that was to make it literally memorable. Vatsyayana accordingly composed in the tightly woven sutra form. A celebrated Sanskrit sutra, in the classic two-line form, defines the nature of a good sutra: ‘Brief, unambiguous, essential, universal, / shining and faultless is the sutra known to the sutra-sages.’ In an era when most texts were probably transmitted orally, one that was both short and memorable – not to mention shining and faultless
– had obvious advantages. There were drawbacks, however. Vatsyayana was so concerned that his Kamasutra should survive that he made it concise to the point of being cryptic. A sutra like ‘no hand prevention’ might mean ‘he does not hold back his hand’, and ‘a mare, cruelly gripping’ might mean ‘she grasps him, like a mare, so tightly that he cannot move’. This compressed style would cause serious problems for future translators.
By the time he reached concluding verses of the Kamasutra, Vatsyayana was clearly exhausted. The work of ‘combining earlier texts / and following their methods’, he complained, was only done with ‘great effort’. It wasn’t even entirely successful. Three of the seven books do not sit easily with the other four. The notorious book on ‘Sex’ stands out by being focused on matters physical rather than social or ethical, while ‘Wives’ and ‘Courtesans’ are, exceptionally, written from the woman’s point of view. Maybe Vatsyayana’s story about Dattaka being commissioned to write the book by the courtesans of Pataliputra was true. The final book, on aphrodisiacs, meanwhile, is blatantly tacked on at the end. Vatsyayana seems to have had little time for it, even casting doubt on the quality of its recipes by warning his readers not to use techniques that look ‘doubtful’.
It’s impossible to know whether Vatsyayana really was who he said he was: a white-haired scholar, long past sexual temptations, who sat down one day to stitch together the seven limbs of the teaching on kama. Like Homer, he may have been a convenient name for unknown compositors, a figure dreamed up to confer a greater degree of unity on a text that was cobbled together from disparate sources. But whether Vatsyayana was real or notional, ‘his’ task remained the same: it was to restore the body of teaching on kama to the dignity of its original wholeness. The idea was not so much to advance or redefine thinking on the subject of kama, but to capture the best thinking from existing schools of thought.
The Kamasutra was intended to be a contribution to the great scientific project of the era: the composition of authoritative studies of all aspects of human behaviour and understanding. As Vatsyayana describes it, the teaching of Babhravya, Svetaketu and the other venerable authorities formed a shastra, or a learned teaching on a particular topic. And at around the time he composed the Kamasutra, new shastras were constantly being created. Patanjali had composed his Mahabhasya, a definitive commentary on the ancient science of grammar, not long before. Bharata contributed his Natyashastra, which examined every conceivable aspect of the teaching and performance of dance and theatre. Collectively, these shastras could be seen as a vast encyclopedia striving to present the best wisdom available on all subjects – which, in the Brahminical world-view, meant divine wisdom. Creating such an encyclopedia was less a matter of discovering truth than of recovering it, as if Brahmin scholars were attempting to reconstitute the 100,000 chapters of Brahma’s original creation.
It was Vatsyayana’s task to ensure that the chapter on kama was up to scratch. It was to be the last word on the subject. But what that subject actually was – what kama really meant – was deeply controversial. ‘Sex’ doesn’t begin to cover it. The Kamasutra begins by defining kama ‘in general’, which, it says, consists ‘in engaging the ear, skin, eye, tongue and nose each in its own appropriate sensation, all under the control of the mind and heart driven by the conscious self’. In Vatsyayana’s view, it seems, kama is nothing less than the conscious experience of pleasure, a state elevated above mere sensuality by awareness and control. As an idea, it isn’t so far removed from Wordsworth’s aesthetic theories – albeit applied to actual sweating, heaving bodies, rather than clouds and daffodils. (As the next chapter reveals, Vatsyayana’s idea owes much to the theories of poetics and literary appreciation developed at around the time he was writing.)
In its ‘primary form’, however, kama is more immediate, more physical. It is ‘a direct experience of an object of the senses, which bears fruit and is permeated by the sensual pleasure of erotic arousal that results from the particular sensation of touch’. On this phrase, ‘bears fruit’, hangs an entire debate of crucial importance for how the Kamasutra should be understoood. According to the translators Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar, ‘bears fruit’ probably refers to the conception of a child. If so, it would fit neatly with the orthodox Brahminical view that sex is ‘for’ procreation. The Viennese Sanskritist, Chlodwig Werba, has a more radical suggestion, however. Kama, as defined by the Kamasutra, he translates as being something that comes about ‘in consequence of a special contact’ which results in the person who experiences it ‘being permeated by a well-being of awareness’ and successfully reaching her or his goal. Kama, then, is an experience that appears to relate on some level to orgasm, not conception, and this kind of orgasm appears to have been seen as a microcosm of the enlightened liberation of the soul. The difference in translation is the result of no mere academic spat; it echoes the single most debated point in the entire realm of sexuality: is sex ‘for’ procreation or pleasure? If Chlodwig Werba is right, the Kamasutra is unequivocally on the side of pleasure.
In Hinduism, kama was – and still is – ranked as one of the three fundamental goals of human existence, which together formed the trivarga, or triple path. The three goals were dharma, artha and kama. The terms are famously hard to translate. Fortunately, the Kamasutra includes the pithiest definition found in any Hindu text. Dharma, it says, ‘consists in engaging, as the texts decree, in sacrifice and other such actions that are disengaged from material life’. It covers the concepts of ‘law’, ‘justice’, ‘religion’ and ‘duty’, as well as the seemingly conflicting ideas of ‘principle’ and ‘practice’ – one might call dharma ‘rules and religion’. As for artha, it ‘consists in acquiring knowledge, land, gold, cattle, grain, household goods and furniture, friends, and so forth, and increasing what has been acquired’ – ‘wealth and worldly affairs’, one might say. It is the trivarga, rather than kama alone, that Vatsyayana declares to be the subject of his text. He even opens his book by saluting the trio. They are in ‘mutual agreement’, he says. Together, they define and underpin all knowledge, all virtue and, ultimately, all human life.
In stressing the relevance of the ‘three goals’, Vatsyayana was staking a claim for the importance of his composition. It would address one of the three fundamental areas of human experience: sex. And if dharma covered not simply ‘ritual’ but the entire realm of the spiritual and moral, and artha dealt not just with money but with the entire world of public life and politics, kama could mean far more than just ‘sex’ in the narrow sense. It could fill the space beyond dharma and artha, concerning itself with all things physical and social. As such, a book on the subject could discuss not just lovemaking but the entire life of the gentleman nagaraka in all his private capacities: his betrothal and marriage, his relations with friends, courtesans and lovers – even his taste in bedroom decoration.
Vatsyayana had another reason to emphasize sex as a life-goal: he was covering his own back. Many of his fellow Brahmin scholars would have had little time for the distractions of kama – and still less for a text glorifying the philanderings of nagarakas under the banner of philosophy. If Babhravya, Dattaka and the rest of the Kamasutra’s predecessors were hoary, it was more a result of the dust of neglect than of silvered reverence. By contrast, study of dharma and artha, the other life-goals of the trivarga, was flourishing. Authoritative works on dharma and artha had already become standards by the time the Kamasutra was born.
The Manavadharmashastra, or ‘Manu’s shastra on the subject of dharma’, was not just authoritative but positively authoritarian. In the family of texts that makes up the shastras, it was the Kamasutra’s clergyman uncle: somewhat older and more severe, and deeply preoccupied with matters of religion and morality. The Laws of Manu, as the work later became known in the West, defined norms on subjects ranging from ‘guarding the kingdom’ and ‘the character and behaviour of outcasts’ to ‘acts that bring about the supreme good’. It also tried to regulate sexual behaviour. Notwithstanding the praise of Friedrich Nietzsche, who fumed that ‘all the things upon which Christianity vents its abysmal vulgarity, procreation, for example, woman, marriage, are here treated seriously, with reverence, with love and trust’, Manu’s attitude to sexuality and the physical can be terrifyingly monkish. It describes the body as ‘foul-smelling, tormented, impermanent… filled with urine and excrement, pervaded by old age and sorrow, infested by sickness, and polluted by passion’.
Manu bans sex ‘in non-human females, in a man, in a menstruating woman, in something other than a vagina’. Its ideal is that sex should be strictly procreative and monogamous: a man should only approach his wife on specific days within the first half of the menstrual cycle, and then only after a ritual bath and a prayer. Any kind of sex that threatens the social order is forbidden, to the extent that ‘if a man speaks to another man’s wife at a bathing place, in a wilderness or a forest, or at the confluence of rivers, he incurs the guilt of sexual misconduct’. Worse still are ‘acting with special courtesy to her, playing around with her, touching her ornaments or clothes, sitting on a couch with her’ – all of which modest flirtations are the very life-stuff of the nagaraka. The penalties for adultery are severe: a woman will be eaten by dogs in a public place, a man burned on a red-hot iron bed – though, generously, Manu accepts that this ruling on adultery need not apply to the wives of strolling actors. To underline the danger, Manu issues the apocalyptic warning that: ‘If men persist in seeking intimate contact with other men’s wives, the king should brand them with punishments that inspire terror and banish them. For that gives rise among people to the confusion of the castes, by means of which irreligion, that cuts away the roots, works for the destruction of everything.’
Vatsyayana, of course, includes a whole chapter on ‘Other Men’s Wives’. He advises his male audience that among the ‘women who can be had without any effort’ are ‘a woman who stands at the door; a woman who looks out from her rooftop porch onto the main street… a woman who hates her husband; a woman who is hated; a woman who lacks restraint; a woman who has not children’ – and the list goes on and on, ending with ‘the wife of a man who is jealous, putrid, too pure, impotent, a procrastinator, unmanly, a hunchback, a dwarf, deformed, a jeweller, a villager, bad-smelling, sick or old’. One somehow feels for the jewellers.
The point of adultery is, according to Vatsyayana, pleasure alone. And sex for the sake of sex is, conveniently, exactly what the nagaraka is looking for. As is his wife: Vatsyayana approves the notion that a woman who does not ‘experience the pleasures of love’ may leave her husband for another man. But Vatsyayana is careful not to extol the virtues of adultery too highly. The verses that end the chapter on ‘Other Men’s Wives’ pronounce, surprisingly, that a man ‘should never seduce other men’s wives’ as this goes against both dharma and artha, and they claim that the sole object of describing how a man can be a successful seducer – as the preceding book has done in prolific detail – is supposedly to put husbands on their guard.
It’s easy to choke on the cool hypocrisy of this self-justification, but it is the result of Vatsyayana’s defensiveness about describing forbidden sexual practices, a pose of legitimacy he adopts while the encyclopedic ideal drives him to describe all possible forms of sexual experience. Vatsyayana’s approach seems to be that if you know all the rules, you can choose whether or not they apply to you, and where your best advantage lies. These Machiavellian mores were undoubtedly influenced by Kautilya’s Arthashastra, the standard treatise on the life-goal of artha, or ‘wealth and worldly affairs’. As a manual of statecraft addressed to an ideal prince, the Arthashastra is the devious politician brother to Manu’s clergyman uncle. It deals with subjects as diverse as the proper conduct of courtiers, the ‘capture of the enemy by means of secret contrivances or by means of the army’ and ‘detection of what is embezzled by government servants out of state revenue’.
Excerpted from The Book of Love by James McConnachie
Copyright © 2007 by James McConnachie
Published in 2008 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Meet the Author
James McConnachie is a journalist, travel writer, and broadcaster. A graduate of the University of Oxford, he has lived and traveled widely in Nepal and India. His articles and book reviews have appeared in The Daily Telegraph, The Observer, and The Independent, among other publications. He lives in Winchester, UK.
James McConnachie is a journalist, travel writer, and broadcaster. A graduate of the University of Oxford, he has lived and traveled widely in Nepal and India. His articles and book reviews have appeared in The Daily Telegraph, The Observer, and The Independent, among other publications. He lives in Winchester, UK.
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