2016-06-30
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.

The Kamasutra is surprisingly practical: "If a man wants to go after another man's wife, here's what to do."

Yes. It talks about the signs that someone's interested in you, how to send signs to someone else that you're interested in him. There's a great deal about flirtation and manipulation, how to meet people. One of my favorite lines is that you can meet people in processions, religious occasions, and also when a house is on fire. It's true! On the highway here, you're rubbernecking--everyone likes to see an accident. People are people, and they were people in ancient India, too, and everyone ran to see a house on fire. You might pick up a girl there. Never mind singles bars--just wait till someone's house burns down. I love the moment where to get a girl's attention, if you're all swimming together, the guy swims underwater to where the girl is, pops up out of the water, touches her, and then quickly submerges and swims away again. I remember guys doing that to me in summer camp. It's obviously an old trick, a way to tease a girl in public that is permissible, but also a flirtation. It's stuff people still do today. It's like teenagers and high school. A lot of it is high school maneuvering. And there's a lot of grown-up stuff. I love the crazy rationalizations for adultery. The guy says "I'm not doing it for the sex. Her husband's an important man, and I'll influence him in this way." I also love the section where the woman gets rid of a man without kicking him out, just sort of turns him off. She doesn't laugh at his jokes, but laughs when he isn't making a joke. It reminds me in many places of a John Updike novel, or Chekhov, these sorts of wise observations about how foolish human beings are, especially when it comes to sex. Most people don't read the Kamasutra. They just think it's a book about the sexual positions, a kind of dirty joke. In fact, there's a very brief section on the sexual positions in book two, and the rest of the book is about a lot of other things. They'd be surprised by the complexity and humor of the sexual psychology in the book. It's an awfully clever book.

It has its serious side too. Ancient commentary on the text compares sexual drive to compassion for the poor, to a mother's love for her child.

Yes, it's very interesting. There are different kinds of love, and all of them can get sort of out of control and can blind you. Part of the argument of the whole book is control. The section talks about all kinds of love as being good, creative, but at the same time any one can get out of control. You can love your country or your child too much. So it's about controlling desire in the very broadest sense. Knowing what it is, understanding it, so it doesn't get out of control, run amok, and ruin you.

How do Hindus think of the Kamasutra today? Since the British Empire ran India for a couple of centuries, they bred into most educated Hindus a real embarrassment and shame about the sexual aspects of their religion. They got the temple dancing girls kicked out and the whole profession basically destroyed. They got women to dress differently. They made Hindus ashamed of the erotic carvings on the temples. Therefore the Kamasutra is regarded as a forbidden book. My Indian friends say that if you have a copy, it's basically something you carry around in a brown paper wrapper. Some contemporary westernized liberal Hindus will give Kamasutra to people as a wedding present to show how liberal and emancipated they are. But most people, no. For instance, in a Vikram Chandra novella there's a teenage girl talking to one of her uncles who says "the sisters in school didn't tell us about that, but our parents had a copy they thought was hidden and we found it." The uncle says "now you put that book back, and don't you read it anymore." So it's regarded the way that in the fifties when I was growing up Playboy, or Lady Chatterly's Lover, would have been. It's like that.

Our translation has been published in India, and it's gotten pretty good reviews. I'm hoping that the fact that it's being received as a real book and not a dirty book might help rehabilitate it. To make it seem like something India should be proud of, and not ashamed of.


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