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.Some of the most intriguing advice in the Kamasutra is for women. What does say about the role of women in Vedic society?

It's for women as well as men. I don't think that's been understood. Women were expected to read the text and also to teach it to other women.It's not just about men controlling women. In Indian scholarship, it's been written about as a book about controlling women by satisfying them. The argument is that women are insatiable, and that a man has got to work hard to keep his wife satisfied or she's going to cheat on him. This is the implicit subtext of the book, and it's given away in the very beginning, where they compare the sizes of men and women. The animals that women are compared to overpower the men--the elephant woman corresponds to a male horse, and the woman who's a deer corresponds to the man who's a hare. So women are bigger, and knowing a lot about sexual technique helps men control them.You mention that nuns and courtesans were the only women who could travel about freely.That's right. They are at the top and the bottom of society. The women in the middle got pinned down and locked up tight. Nuns and courtesans don't have families. Husbands, fathers, sons: those are the three chains that women had in India.It's hard to tell whether the nuns in the Kamasutra are Buddhist nuns or Hindu renunciates. But the Kamasutra acknowledges they are part of the world of erotic freedom. They're useful as messengers and go-betweens.

So a nun would set up your tryst?

Just like the nurse in "Romeo and Juliet." Or Friar Tuck in "Robin Hood." And for the same reason: Nuns would be begging or instructing people, so they moved around and had easy access.

They really do function as a parallel to the courtesans. Their sexuality is quite different, of course, but their social freedom is the same.