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.”