The Misunderstood ‘Kamasutra’: A Fresh Look at India’s Erotic Classic

The Misunderstood ‘Kamasutra’: A Fresh Look at India’s Erotic Classic

Modern readers may be surprised that the ancient Indian text is, above all, a profound work of psychology.

The “Kamasutra” is one of the world’s oldest textbooks of erotic love and certainly the most famous. It was composed in northern India in Sanskrit, the literary language of ancient India, probably in the second century—a time when Europeans were, sexually speaking, still swinging in trees. Because of its explicitness about the intimacies of sexual passion, it can still make people today blush.

But the “Kamasutra” has long been misunderstood. Very little of it, in fact, concerns the sexual act, and the bits that do may or may not surprise modern readers, depending on what sort of lives they have led. But the rest of it will surprise them, because the “Kamasutra” is, above all, a profound work of psychology.

The descriptions of sexual positions may at one time have been the most thumb-worn passages, but nowadays, when sexually explicit novels, films, videos and instruction manuals are everywhere, no one needs to read it for that. The real “Kamasutra” is about the art of living—finding a partner, maintaining power in a marriage, committing adultery, using drugs and more. It tells us that anyone can live the life of pleasure—if they have money.

A modern reader might expect the book’s descriptions of sex to be familiar and the details of life in ancient India to be strange. In fact, the opposite is often true: Some sexual details are strange and even repugnant, while cultural matters are often surprisingly familiar.

The “Kamasutra” describes some sexual contortions that “require practice,” as the text puts it mildly. These are the gymnastic positions that make people laugh, uneasily, when the book is mentioned. Sexual reality may be universal—there are, after all, just so many things that you can do—but sexual fantasy seems to be highly cultural.

Did people in ancient India really make love like that? True, they did have yoga, and great yoga practitioners can make their bodies do things that most people would not think possible (or even desirable). But the extreme positions may just be the writer’s free-ranging fantasies. Be advised: Don’t try this at home.

We are in more familiar territory with the book’s psychological analysis. The acuity of the male author is still impressive today, as when he lists the sorts of married women who are likely to cheat on their husbands: a woman who has no children or whose children have died; a poor woman fond of enjoying herself; a woman who is proud of her skills and distressed by her husband’s foolishness, lack of distinction or greediness; a woman whose husband travels a lot; the wife of a man who is jealous, bad-smelling, too pure, impotent, a procrastinator, unmanly, sick or old.

Equally insightful is the list of devious devices that a woman uses to make her lover leave her, rather than simply kicking him out. She talks about things he does not know about. She shows no amazement but only contempt for the things he does know about. She intentionally distorts the meaning of what he says. She laughs when he has not made a joke, and when he has made a joke, she laughs about something else. She talks in public about the bad habits and vices that he cannot give up.

As these instances suggest, an aspect of the “Kamasutra” that has been lamentably overlooked is its strikingly modern attitude toward the role of women in sexual relations. One reason for this ignorance is that the text is known almost entirely through the flawed 19th-century English translation of Sir Richard Francis Burton.

Burton can be admired for the courage and determination it took to publish the work at all (it was banned in England and the U.S. until 1962), but he robs women of their voices, replacing direct quotes with reported speech rephrased by a man, thus erasing their vivid presence. For instance, the text says that, when a man strikes a woman, “She uses words like ‘Stop!’ or ‘Let me go!’ or ‘Enough!’ or ‘Mother!’ ” Burton translates it like this: “She continually utters words expressive of prohibition, sufficiency or desire of liberation.”

Stripped of Burton’s veils, this much misunderstood text serves both as a window into the bedrooms of another culture and a mirror for our own most intimate desires.

Prof. Doniger’s many books include “Redeeming the Kamasutra,” published this month by Oxford University Press, and a translation of the “Kamasutra” (with Sudhir Kakar).