The Kama Sutra by Vatsyayana is one of those books that greatly fits Mark Twain’s definition of a literary classic: A book that everybody wants to have read, but nobody wants to actually read. It is referenced in numerous other books, as well as films, television shows, and just about any other medium, always in the context of it being joke fodder, with the joke being its assumed filthiness. The Kama Sutra is portrayed as an outright pornographic book embodying the un-Christian sexual mores of the hoary east.
Needless to say, I had to get a copy. And spending the enormous sum of 0 dollars on my Kindle, I got the Richard Burton translation of this Sanskrit sex guide. And I was stunned…at how little instruction in the sexual arts there actually was. Oh, it was certainly there, but the bulk of the book is an analysis of just about every way men and women in ancient India could interact, and in that respect the disappointment of the book not being full of secret sexual techniques soon gave way to some genuinely interesting snapshots of an ancient culture and morality that is, sadly, offset by overly verbose writing in many cases, as well as some of the sexual instruction being vague and obtuse.
The first chapter explains the context that the book was written in: Namely, there were even at the time several tomes about the various subjects contained within, and these are referred to in the Kama Sutra-Vatsyayana writes: “…considering the works of Babhravya and other authors… I wrote this according to precepts of Holy writ for the benefit of the world. This is not merely for slaking our lusts. A person acquainted with the true principles of this art, who preserves his Dharma [virtue], Artha [material possessions] and Kama [gratification], will obtain mastery over his senses.”
This focus on moderation reoccurs throughout the book, for this book is a religious text divided into 7 sections: : General Info on life, Interactions between men and women, union of men and women, on wives, on other men’s wives, on “courtesans” (me and him agree that that’s a fancy name for hooker), and on seduction and magic potions.
Chapter 2 is on acquiring Dharma, Artha, and Kama, just in case you weren’t sure this was a Hindu religious text. Dharma is virtue, Artha is material possessions, Kama is gratification. Harmony is the key-“Acquire knowledge in childhood, in middle age you should attend to Artha and Kama, and in old age seek Dharma, and thus seek to gain Moksha, or release from further transmigration.” (p. 20)
While the other two are pretty self explanatory, virtue in this context is, of course, a Hindu-centric virtue: “Dharma is obedience to the command of the Holy Writ to ‘do things like sacrifices which are not generally done” and not do other things, like eating meat “…which is often done because it belongs to this world and has visible effects'”. Here, it is noticed that some of the writing is a little clunky, perhaps due to the inevitable issues that must arise when translating from ancient Sanskrit, to modern Hindi, to English.
He urges in this chapter that gratification must be practiced and done properly, and that this is what the rest of the book will teach. Indeed something I never expected to take away from the book, but was pleasantly surprised to, was this incisive quote: “As the acquisition of any object presupposes some exertion, the application of proper exertion may be said to be the cause of gaining, and this application being necessary, it follows that a person who acts can be said to be more likely to be destined to get what he wants then the man who waits for destiny” (p. 22). In other words, as is said explicitly or implicitly on every website in this section of the internet, if you want something, you have to work for it!
The third chapter has arts and sciences to be studied for men and women-namely, different sciences and arts for each (gender roles are clearly defined). While this section is a bit longwinded, the core remains that men and women each have their duty in society, no one is superior or inferior to the other, just different. And while some of them are specific to the time and culture (proper idol placement and turban binding to name two), many of them are identical to things expected of women around the world, and that we neo-masculinists advocate today: Being well read, maintaining the home, having the proper responsibility for the family, etc.
Chapter 4 goes into the life of a proper citizen in a manner that is, frankly, not very interesting. While some of it is still relevant to today (like advocating buying furniture, and proper hygiene, all jokes about poo in the loo aside), being advised to watch a cockfight and find people within your caste that are worth knowing will likely not be useful to the modern reader.
The esotericism really kicks into high gear with Chapter 5, “On women resorted to by citizens, friends and messengers”. This title that describes nothing is the header of a long and obtuse chapter describing a web of caste relationships, differentiations between “nayikas” (women to be enjoyed without sin), and women that you should not interact with. This list bounces between being blindingly obvious (“You mean I shouldn’t have sex with lepers? Thanks for the advice!”) and having the characteristic complexities of a nation with a “color spectrum”-to simplify, it advises avoiding women that are too light or too dark, or one might say “wheatish“.
The second part of the book, Sexual Union (ie: the part everybody wants), begins with Chapter 1. While these sections are written in an amusingly clinical style, they are still relevant today (sex, is of course a universal constant).
Vatsyayana states that there are three subcategories that affect sexual gratification-Dimension, force, and time. Man’s dimensions are (in order of increasing penis size)-hare, bull, and horse, and women are described as deer, mares, or elephants. “Force’ does not refer to the muscles of the pelvic floor, but rather force of desire, and time is exactly what you think it is.
Chapter 2 is the (non-coital) embrace, and goes over various types of kissing and heavy petting, and bodily positions therein. They are: : Jataveshtitaka (the twining of the creeper), Vrikshadhirudhaka (tree climbing), Tila-Tandulaka (Mixture of sesamum and rice), and Kshiraniraka (milk and water). Or in layman’s terms: embracing while standing, embracing while the man stands and the woman’s feet leave the floor, laying down and having arms or thighs entwine, and preparing for penetration.
The next chapter deals with the stuff people actually care about-sexual positions. Obviously, this info is still relevant to you-it goes over foreplay, variations of the missionary position, lubricants, kegel exercises (referred to in text as “the mare technique”, and I’d rather not ask how he named that), and of course my beloved supported congress.
While there are a few headscratchers (most notably the turning position: “When a man turns around and enjoys the woman without pulling out, and she embraces him round the back all the time”), this section is still worth reading, so much so that I will likely go back to this chapter in future articles. All of this information is fine, but a major flaw is that this particular edition had no pictures! Regardless of its subject, a proper how to guide should have visual aids, especially when dealing with something as complex as the “turning position”.
This high point of applicability to the modern day quickly leads to a slight downhill slant as the rest of the book becomes very specific to its time period, with advice on how to choose wives (note the plural), how the wives should interact, and how to attract a wife or wives.
Much like Ovid’s Art of Love, also reviewed on this website, the advice on makeup, fashion, and medicines for increasing potency range from outdated to…really outdated. But if you want to eat a big bowl of boiled milk and ram testicles, be my guest.
And with a final note on increasing the size of your penis with “insect bristles”, the book comes to a conclusion by the translator.
Overall, the Kama Sutra is worth reading, but not for the reasons you would expect-it is arguably more fascinating as an academic work than as an explicit guide for sex. If you are seeking a pure book on sex and eroticism, I would recommend a newer edition that has pictures and annotations. Or perhaps an abridged version that deals strictly with the sexual techniques and positions-I myself have an abridged version as well as the pure translation, and the former has proven quite useful.
Because I did manage to learn a few things I didn’t know (both about sex and Indian culture, with a slight edge to the latter), my feelings are the same as Dr. Burton’s:
“It has been said of the peaceful dead that they rest from their labours, and that their works follows them. The works of a man of genius will follow them and remain as a lasting treasure. Nobody can deny the immortality of genius, which will remain a bright and guiding star to the struggling humanities of the past. Vatsyayana is amongst the immortals, and on him no better eulogy can be written than:”
“So long as lips kiss, and eyes shall see, so long will live this, and this gives life to thee”.