The Weaker Sex

The Kamasutra gets a cold shower.

Book cover

Here’s some advice for lovelorn men from the world’s most consulted—and certainly its most venerated—sex manual: “If you cut the knotty roots of the millwort and milk-hedge plants into pieces, coat them with a powder of red arsenic and sulphur, dry and pulverized the mixture seven times, mix it with honey, and spread it on your penis, you put your sexual partner in your power.”

This is one of the things you’ll find if you look for sex tips in the Kamasutra, a treatise on erotic love written by the Northern Indian sage Vatsyayana Mallanaga in the third century. But you wouldn’t have found it before this month. The version of the Kamasutra we’ve been previously reading gives only a fragment of the original texts. Chicago religion professor Wendy Doniger and Harvard psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar have just published an authoritative new translation. The surprise is that descriptions of sexual positions are a relatively minor part of the Kamasutra; what really matters are the folk recipes (which are nuts) and the moral advice (which is vile).

The most popular version of the Kamasutra is the translation that bears the signature of  the 19th-century rake, philologist, and deflowerer of Her Majesty’s colonial subjects Sir Richard Francis Burton. It is not just a poor translation—it isn’t even Burton’s, most of the work having been carried out by his friend, the considerably less dashing F.F. “Bunnie” Arbuthnot. What is worst about it is that it’s incomplete, focusing primarily on Chapters 2 (sexual positions) and 6 (drugs). It will come as a crushing blow to adolescent boys everywhere that the part that was left out bears no resemblance to the part we know. The Kamasutra we’ve been reading up to now is all dinner and no bill.

The real Kamasutra is a much more serious enterprise than Americans were led to believe back in 1962, when it was first published as an actual trade book. Back then, most readerswere emerging from the recreational psychosexual torment that characterized the Freudian 1950s. To such readers, the book seemed to offer readers release through dharma. This assumption was based on the well-established fact that all cultures outside of the United States and Europe do nothing but run barefoot through the grass all day and laugh and have sex.

It turns out that dharma wasn’t quite what free-love advocates (or even Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg) thought it was. Dharma, the editors tell us, “includes duty, religion, religious merit, morality, social obligations, the law, justice and so forth.” The Kamasutra takes the Indic wisdom that there are three aims in life—religion, power, and pleasure—and concentrates on the third. Proceeding mostly through lists and enumerations, the book is to lovers what Clement Wood’s Rhyming Dictionary is to poets. “When a man and woman have not yet made love together,” Vatsyayana writes, “they use four sorts of embraces to reveal the signs of their love: ‘touching,’ ‘stabbing,’ ‘grinding,’ and ‘pressing.’ ” The compendium of enumerations, by the editors’ tally, runs to “12 embraces, 17 kisses, 16 bites and scratches, 17 positions, 5 unusual acts, 16 slaps and screams,” etc. There is also a list of the kinds of men who are good with women, which runs on for half a page and begins with “a man who knows the Kamasutra.”

What will most horrify devotees of the old edition is the book’s morality. Its advice is explicitly greedy, sneaky, paranoid, and amoral. It’s bad enough that it lays out a list of ways to sleep with other men’s wives. The book even presents (in Book I, Chapter 5) a dozen reasons for doing so, to buck up the faint of heart. Here’s one: “There is no danger involved in my having this woman, and there is a chance of wealth. And since I am useless, I have exhausted all means of making a living. Such as I am, I will get a lot of money from her in this way, with very little trouble.” (Doniger and Kakar tend not to paint the adulterer in quite the swashbuckling light that previous translators did.) Here’s a second: “Another woman, whose desire I desire, is in the power of this woman. I will get to that one by using this one as a bridge.” The Kamasutra even tells you (in Book V, Chapter 6) how to break into your rival’s house. This is not a guide to “love,” in any sense that we would understand it. It is Machiavelli for satyriacs.

That’s why the highlight of this edition is its enormous and erudite introductory essay, which places the book in context, explains traditional Sanskrit literary forms, and directs the reader to the 20th-century Indian critic Devadatta Shastri’s magisterial commentaries on the book in Hindi, which paints the Kamasutra as a moral treatise.

Rightly so, the editors think. While Doniger and Kakar deplore the book’s nonchalance about rape, along with its “pretty virulent homophobia,” they also think it was a step in the right direction. For one thing, although it claimed sexuality had a strong element of violence in it, it sought to limit that violence. For another, though it treated women as sexual objects, it also managed to treat them as sexual actors. That this was some kind of breakthrough will come as a surprise to the modern readers. Today, any person with a blip of intelligence assumes it’s a law of nature, and not just a cultural achievement, that our sex lives revolve around subjectivity—what he thinks she thinks he thinks she thinks, etc. That it is a cultural achievement is the key thing one learns from reading a book that antedates it.

One cannot escape, toward the end of their essay, the sense that Doniger and Kakar think the version of love and sex espoused in the Kamasutra is much shallower, much less erotic, and much less interesting than our own. The invention of romantic love—which the authors trace to the beginning of the 12th century—is responsible for this progress. The editors admit that conventions by which a man idealizes a woman as “an infinitely superior being” have their own problems. But such conventions do “reverse the accents of the master-servant metaphor of possessive desire.” This reversal is missing from the world of the Kamasutra. The result is not only that the love life Vatsyayana describes is brutal but also that it is shallow. Indic love of the classical literary period—which the counterculture of 40 years ago thought it was being so subtle in embracing—is Hugh Hefner’s kind of love.

The publication of a full Kamasutra means that future generations will read it differently than past ones did. In coming years, young men will leaf through the pages of this edition, learn about the sexual mores of third-century India, and close it thanking God they live now and not back then.