The difficulty of writing a post about Kamasutra is that there is so much free material already floating in cyberspace. With about 12000 verses Charaka Samhita may have 12 times more content than Kamasutra. But the wikipedia page of Kamasutra is definitely much more elaborate than Charaka Samhita.
So sex being still a taboo, we would not talk about it openly. Or, write about it without using a pseudonym. But when it comes to reading or writing anonymously, it is THE most popular subject after all. The irony is that still people may ask, “Sex being a basic instinct, do we really need to study about it?”
This question is nothing new. In Vatsyayana’s time (400 BC to 300 AD ?) too the purists must have tried to dissuade him from writing such a treatise by asking such a question. But the sage insists that human beings do need to study it to acquire knowledge about methods of proper application since unlike animals their actions are accompanied by thought and sex is not a seasonal activity for human beings. At the same time Vatsyayana also cautions the materialists who believed only in the principles of pleasure and did not care for dharma.
One unique aspect one finds in most of these ancient texts that explore a field of study whether it is on medicine, music, yoga or kama is the attempt to define the concepts precisely. Having posited the role of Kama in the context of other goals of human life i.e. Dharma, Artha and Moksha, Sage Vatsyayana defines them.
Dharma is defined as doing or abstaining from doing those things as per the injections of the scriptures even though they do not have immediate visible effect. Vatsyayana has given the examples of doing yajna and abstaining from eating meat. But I would like to give an example from a modern context. When we pay money at the shop the effect is visible in the form of goods or service we receive. But when we give money for charity the immediate benefit to us is not tangible. Whether there is injunction from Shastra or not every one has to pay for the items bought. But charity is done because of the injunction of Shastras. By the way atheists too have their own code of ethics.
Today artha has become synonymous with money. But Vatsyayana not only includes knowledge & skill, land, gold, domestic animals, grains, vehicles and friends but also their protection and growth under the definition of artha. (विद्याभूमिहिरण्यपशुधान्यभाण्डोपस्करमित्रादीनामर्जनमर्जितस्य विवर्धनमर्थः). So the broader definition of artha includes all resource both internal and external, tangible and intangible.
Vatsyayana talks of two types of kama- the ordinary kama and the special kama.
Kama is a mental phenomenon caused by the favourable tendency arising out of the contact of five sense organs (corresponding to hearing, feeling, seeing, tasting and smelling) with their respective sense objects. (श्रोत्रत्वक्चक्सुर्जिह्वाघ्राणानामात्मसंयुक्तेन मनसाधिष्ठितानां स्वेषु स्वेषु विषयेष्वानुकूल्यतः प्रवृत्तिः कामः) Predominantly it is the feeling of pleasure concerned with the sense of touch and whose result can be clearly experienced. (स्पर्शविशेषविषयात्त्वस्याभिमानिकसुखानुविद्धा फलवत्यर्थप्रतीतिः प्राधान्यात्कामः)
If you are given food which you are not inclined to eat or are made to hear music which you do not like, you will not get any pleasure and that is not kama. All kinds of pleasures are kama. But the special type of kama is concerned with the special kind of sense of touch.
That is is why even though the central theme of kamasutra is about sexual pleasure, it lays emphasis on the sixty four types of knowledge and skills (kalas) which are helpful not only in acquiring the means of pleasure but also in experiencing them. In fact sexual pleasures and other pleasures are seen as complementary. So it encourages young men and women to be adept in as many of the sixty four kalas as possible before marriage. These sixty fours kalas included all kinds of vocational, avocational and artistic activities known to mankind then.
The four fold goals of human life – Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha – which are known as the purusharthas are put in perspective in terms of human life. In Kamasutra as in many other texts normal human life span is taken as one hundred years. Some say this is not to be taken literally as ‘one hundred’ is just a symbol of fullness. As a child one should be devoted to studies and acquiring of various skills. In youth one should be dedicated to Artha and Kama. In the last stage one should pursue Dharma and Moksha. In case of conflict of priorities as to Dharma, Artha and Kama the former should always be given precedence over the later. Vatsyayana puts a disclaimer by saying that this system of stages of life corresponding with particular purusharthas is not rigid and allowed flexibility depending upon individual aspirations.
After addressing the whys in the introductory part, the books delves into the hows. Compatibility of partners is discussed based on various permutations and combinations considering physical looks and stamina of both males and females. Then of course there are guidelines about various types of embraces and intercourses.
Subsequent chapters discuss issues of how to select a bride, the art of seduction, types of aphrodisiacs and dos and don’ts for various persons connected with matchmaking and mediating. The sage considers extramarital affairs appropriate only in exceptional circumstances. From Kamasutra it seems that in matters of choosing one’s mate that period was more liberal compared to the present India where forced arranged marriages are still the norm.
From the book one can get a lot of clues as to the social life of ancient India. When we compare the practices of ancient India with that of today we may find fault with many of the social customs and practices of those days. But the social life of a period of any civilization can be compared only with a civilization of that period. Seen from that point of view the period of Vatsyayana seems far liberal and enlightened compared to the civilization of China or Rome, or Greece. The Chinese inflicted many cruel practices on women like making them wear iron shoes so that their feet remained small. Moreover, women in ancient China were considered lacking a soul so that killing them or trading in them could be legal and without guilt. Greco- Roman civilization engaged slaves and it was upto the master as to how to use or abuse them. Their pastime consisted of engaging gladiators who were mostly slaves for fighting unto death. In ancient Indian the violent games never went beyond cockfights. As Confucianism started to dominate ancient China it became increasingly moral based and rigid. But the Indian liberal attitude towards sex continued well upto the nineteenth century.
When we study any kind of literature like Kamasutra we should be careful to find out elements which are timeless and elements which were proper only in the context of that particular period of time. The former should be our takeaway. I wish this standard could be applied to the religious texts also, be it of any religion. What a better and open society we would be having today.
When the British came across texts like Kamasutra they were shocked. But some were surprised that a country that they thought was pagan and primitive could be so liberal in discussing about sexuality. Those were the days of strict Victorian morals in England. Authors were prosecuted for including erotic content in their works. So Sir Richard Burton, the first translator of the book had to devise ways to publish it without getting into legal tangle. Everywhere in the text love was used in stead of the more appropriate word. Even the title of the translated book was – An Aphorism of Love. So, if yo come across Richard Burton’s 1883 translation of Kamasutra please keep this in mind. It is not a faithful translation for a reason.
Coming to present times, even though no one can be prosecuted for reading or writing a book like Kamasutra, purists insist Kamasutra is not a treatise on sex. Surprisingly, many intellectuals, who are usually at logger heads with the purists when it comes to interpretation of Indic texts agree on this. Out of the seven parts only one part contains how to do it, they say. So how can it be called a treatise on sex?
So to save myself from the wrath of the purists, I have also discussed about all the salient features of the text except the one on ‘how to do it’. Let me close this post by saying something whose context can be found on the opening para. Even though I tried it to keep is short, this has become the lengthiest post among all the posts published so far in the series.
Other ancient texts of this genre are : Ananga Ranga / Panchasayaka / Ratirahasya / Ratimanjari / Rasamanjari / Smara Pradipa
This is the alphabet K post of Blogchatter AtoZ Challenge 2021. My theme this year is ‘The beauty of Sanskrit and Sanskrit texts’, where in I explore selected compositions in Sanskrit and also some unique aspects of Sanskrit language and texts. Join with me in my journey to understand India’s spiritual and intellectual heritage. All the posts of AtoZ Challenge 2021 can be accessed here.