Rethinking the Kama Sutra

VIVEK PRAKASH REUTERS A woman holds a rose given to her by her boyfriend as they watch the sunset from … Continued

VIVEK PRAKASH

REUTERS

A woman holds a rose given to her by her boyfriend as they watch the sunset from a promenade along the Arabian Sea on Valentine’s Day, in Mumbai February 14, 2012.

Valentine’s Day is a fitting occasion for a fresh look at the Kama Sutra. Both the holiday and the sensual practice symbolize love in life, and have attained a classic status in their own way. The day can thus include without disharmony another glimpse of this ancient work. Its concerns are quite distant from religion and politics today, but they do point to a world-view of enduring interest.

The Kama Sutra was written in India nearly two thousand years ago and has been cited regularly in its art and literature from that period. One hundred years ago it first translated and made known to the modern world. Since then, it seems to have acquired two popular reputations. One is as the original compendium of positions for human copulation, and the other is that of the Ur-text of an age-old, oriental, erotic wisdom.

There is growing popular perception, that the Kama Sutra is a work meant mainly for lascivious titillation. This is borne out by its numerous pictorial versions available world-wide in many languages, leaving scholarly editions far behind. Some of these colorful books have limited references to the original text, which had no illustrations at all, and several dispense altogether with the text though they use its title. That unpatented title has even become a brand name for sex-related products and services in many countries.

Against this background, it is worthwhile to see the Kama Sutra holistically, as it was written. Sex no doubt is its leading concern, but there is also much more. Of its seven books only one deals with sexual union in its various aspects. It is the second book, the longest of all, and immediately following the first which lays out the contextual background apart from describing the life of a husband. The third and fourth books discuss courtship, marriage and the role of the wife. The fifth is about extra-marital relations, and the sixth on living as or with a courtesan. The final book, presently most cited after the second, gives archaic and now quaint prescriptions for enhancing attractiveness, virility, passion and power over a partner.

It is worth noting that all seven books contain advice for women as well as men.

Their detailed sexual expositions have tended to overshadow the overall context for today’s readers. But there is deep spiritual meaning beneath, namely in the Kama Sutra’s teachings on Dharma, Artha and Kama.

Each has multiple meanings but, very broadly, Dharma is virtue and righteous conduct, Artha is wealth, power and material well-being, and Kama is desire for and sensual pleasure of all kinds. Each was seen as a basic motivator of human action and a legitimate pursuit in life, worthy of study and comment. The so-called ‘sex bible,’ thus, is more than mechanics: importantly, it emphasizes that Dharma, Artha and Kama have their place in life but need to be pursued in a mutually balanced manner.

To quote a verse from the Kama Sutra’s epilogue,

“One who understands its essence

will look to virtue, wealth and pleasure,

his own faith, the world around him,

and not act just out of passion.”

Seen in this perspective, the Kama Sutra is clearly much more than a handbook of sex, it is a science of the “joyous, bringer of good fortune, success and luck in love” (2.10.34-39). While its picturesque comments on kissing, embracing and other intimacies still have a vivid readability, it is its broader sweep that perhaps has a more lasting meaning:

“Civilized folk will act in ways

that give pleasure, but do no harm

to the end of material gain

nor cause worry about results

of their deeds in the world hereafter.

Their actions should be for achieving

all three ends of human life,

or just two or even one,

but not to obstruct two of them

in pursuit of a single end.” (10.2.40)

A.N.D. Haksar is author of the new translation, “Kama Sutra: A Guide to the Art of Pleasure, available now from Penguin Classics.”

About

  • divine0001

    Profound and revealing!

  • Anonymous

Read More Articles

Valle Header Art
My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

shutterstock_188545496
Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

5783999789_9d06e5d7df_b
The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

shutterstock_188022491
Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

987_00
An Ayatollah’s Gift to Baha’is, Iran’s Largest Religious Minority

An ayatollah offers a beautiful symbolic gesture against a backdrop of violent persecution.

Screenshot 2014-04-23 11.40.54
Atheists Bad, Christians Good: A Review of “God’s Not Dead”

A smug Christian movie about smug atheists leads to an inevitable happy ending.

shutterstock_134310734
Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

Pile_of_trash_2
Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

shutterstock_178468880
Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

sunset-hair
From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

colbert
Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

emptytomb
God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.