The Kamasutra: It's Not (Just) What You Think It Is

Sure, a few of its pages describe sexual techniques. But overall, it's 'The Rules' for Vedic-era socialites on the make.

BY: Interview with Dr. Wendy Doniger

Wendy Doniger, a professor of religion at the University of Chicago, has earned a certain scholarly celebrity for her translations of Indian Sanskrit texts. But she wasn't prepared for the attention paid to her latest achievement, a new translation of an ancient Indian text considered to be the world's oldest sex manual.

Doniger's version of the Kamasutra provides a fascinating peek into third-century Vedic society, but modern readers will be equally struck by how little the basic machinations of desire have changed since the Indian sage Vatsyayana Mallanaga set the verses down 18 centuries ago. We may blink at his Machiavellian advice ("how to get money out of a man") and distinctly amoral stance ("how to commit adultery"), but we recognize the issues.

With material omitted by earlier translators, the new version is a welcome update to a classic text. Doniger talked to Beliefnet about the discoveries she and her co-translator, Harvard psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar, made while working on the text.

Your introduction notes that early Western translators interpreted the Kamasutra-wrongly--as "raising the search for sexual pleasure to the status of a religious quest."

There is an aspect of religious sexuality in India. There are several. There's tantra, for instance, which uses sexual rituals to produce a burst of psychic energy that reaches to the gods. That certainly is a use of sexuality for a religious quest. Even in the Upanishads, there's a meditation on the sacrificial fire as a woman. You offer your seed into it as you would offer your seed into a woman. So there are moments in Indian history where sexuality has a real role in religion.

In the worship of the god Krishna, the erotic meditation on union with Krishna, the worshipper imagines himself (it's often a male worshipper) as a lover in the embrace of Krishna. So there's a whole context in Hinduism where sexuality is, in a way, very positively tied up with religion. You also have the erotic carvings in temples at Khajuraho and Konarak where eroticism lures you into the temple, and you find not sex, but God.

So how does the Kamasutra fit into this erotic spirituality?

In the Hindu view of life, there are three essential components: dharma, which I've translated here as religion, social justice, moral law, that whole world. The second is arta: power, politics, worldly success. And then the third is pleasure, which is kama, of which sex is regarded as one of the most important parts, but not the only one.

So in the broadest sense, Hindu culture acknowledges erotic pleasure as an essential part of life. More strands of Hinduism celebrate sexuality than renounce it, and throughout Hinduism, eroticism is incorporated into worship of the gods. In that broad sense, Kama is part of it. But there's really nothing in the Kamasutra itself about spiritual practice, no tantric rituals where you use sex to reach god. There's no spiritual goal in the Kamasutra. It's a human goal, of which spirituality is one part, and the Kamasutra is another part. They go together.

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