Contrary to its reputation for prurience, the Kamasutra is
a sober little work. Its author, reputedly a celibate, operates very much within the Hindu
scholarly tradition. He quotes the opinions of other scholars on a problem, the
weaknesses in their arguments, looks at other possible solutions to the problem and then
chooses sexuality the best one while giving reasons for this choice. The aim was
comprehensive, the large number of positions telling us not only what is but what can be,
a number that tests the limits of our sexual imagination. Vatsyayanas effort is to
include all their that is even remotely possible in the realm of sexual love, even when
some of the women is items on the list are most improbable. It is a search for infinity in
love, an attempt to reach completion through the inclusion of everything that could be
relevant. On the other hand, Vatsyayanas matter-of-factness with regard to sex can
be troublesome for a modern western sensibility in which sexuality occupies such an
exalted position where it is believed to reveal the ultimate truth about a person. His
scholarly discussion of such subjects as oral sex can also appear faintly comical to the
same sensibility which is not quite free of its Judeo-Christian heritage in sexual
On the surface, the Kamasutra is not
radical at all. Operating within the traditional Hindu framework of the three aims of
life, the Kamasutra too considers virtuous living in dharma as the highest
goal of human existence, followed by prosperity, with erotic love occupying the lowest
rung. The very first verse indicates Vat-syayanas preferred hierarchy where this
text on erotics opens with the word "dharma"i.e. Virtue of The Law. On
four occasions in the text he insists that the main purpose of the Kamasutra is not
the promotion of passion. On the contrary, a person who truly understands the book knows
how to control his senses. The Kamasutra thus
begins with the sutra, "he who wishes to preserve virtue, wealth and love in this
world and the next must have a thorough knowledge of this treatise and, at the same time,
master his senses" and ends with the admonition, "a wise man, proficient in all
things, considering both his ethics and material interest, must not be a sensualist
thirsty for sex but must establish a stable marriage".
Vatsyayana, however, is no mere conformist
to traditional ethical values. Admittedly, his is not an openly rebellious nature but one
which insidiously undermines accepted verities while appearing to accept them. For
instance, erotic love always has negative and pejorative connotations in the treatises on
dharma. An offense committed under the influence of kama is invariably more serious and
invites a more stringent punishment than when kama is not involved. Vatsyayana does not
deny that erotic passion can lead to such undesirable consequences as contact with wicked
people, unworthy enterprises, defilement, forfeiture of future, negligence, rashness and
so on. Kama involves risks and demands vigilance. But one soon notices that
Vatsyayanas attraction toward sex begins to outweigh his awareness of its dangers.
His subversion of virtue begins with the statement, delivered in his characteristic
reasonable tone, that sex is a natural need like food. Both kama and food are necessary to
sustain the body.
The disjunction between virtue and
sexuality is most clearly seen with regard to adultery which is unequivocally condemned as
a great sin in the dharma texts. Vatsyayana does not condone adultery nor does he follow
the example of some fashionable Sanskrit poets who write with nostalgia of scenes of love
unhampered by matrimony or lament the disappearance of love with marriage. He is somewhere
in-between the priest and the poet. Disapproving of adultery, he nevertheless devotes the
whole fourth part of his treatise to the art of sleeping with other mens wives,
listing in 15 sutras the reasons which permit a man to seduce a married woman. His
attitude to adultery seems to be: "This is forbidden. You should not do it. But if
you must because of certain understandable reasons,
then this is the way to go about it. Of course, you should not have done it in the first
place." It is clear that although Vatsyayana does not openly challenge the basic
framework of dharma, he is none the less following a general agenda of his times: the
elevation of the position of eroticism in human life and affairs. Contrary to what had
been so long the accepted teaching, he advocates that not only the prospects of increasing
virtue or wealth should determine human action but also the promise of pleasure. The
Kamasutra brings the pleasure principle on par with the ethical and economic principles as
a shaper of mans behaviour.
To understand the Kamasutras
sometimes uneasy riding of the two horses of virtue and pleasure, we must place the work
in its social-historical context. Addressed primarily to the wealthy man-about-town, the
book was written at a time of great material prosperity on account of Indias
flourishing trade with China and Rome. Indian society
was emerging from a few centuries of Buddhist domination which had brought with it
Buddhisms sombre view of life, in which the god of love was identified with Mara, or
Death. Although still a far cry from the uninhibited sexual freedom of the pre-Buddhist
period where, as depicted in the epic of the Mahabharata, men and women lived under and
looked up at a licentious heaven teeming with lusty gods and heavenly whores, erotic love
was once again making a comeback. In the poetry and drama flourishing at the courts, love
had become a predominant theme, indeed one overshadowing every other sentiment.
The litmus test of a societys
attitude towards sexuality is the way it looks at the participation of women in erotic
life. Literary works of the period reveal women taking an active part in amorous
relationships. The woman is as ardent as the man and initiates the wooing quite as often.
Indeed the surviving poems of the few women poets show them to be even freer in their
expression than their male counterparts. The enjoyment of their sexuality by women is both
reflected in and fostered by the Kamasutra. Vatsyayana expressly recommends the study of
Kamasutra to women, even before they reach puberty. Two of the books seven parts are
addressed to women, the fourth to wives and the sixth to courtesans, while the third part
tries to make men understand a young girls sexuality and the need for gentleness in
removing her inhibitions and fears.
YET another theme in the Kamasutra is
its encouragement of women adopting an active stance in lovemaking. Here, woman is very
much a subject in the erotic realm, not a passive recipient of the mans lust. In the
four kinds of preliminary love play that Vatsyayana describes, the woman takes the active
part in two. In one she encircles her lover like a vine does a tree, offering and
withdrawing her lips for a kiss, driving the man wild with excitement. In the other, she
rests one of her feet on the mans and the other against his thigh. One arm is across
his back and with the other clinging to his shoulder and neck she makes the motion of
climbing him as if he was a tree.
Then he has a whole chapter on virile behaviour in women,
where Vatsyayana recommends that when a man has spent his strength after repeated
intercourse and the woman is not satisfied, she lies on top of him and inserts a dildo in
The uninhibited sexuality of the Kamasutra
where nothing is taboo in imagination and very little in reality, which combines
tenderness with playful aggressiveness in lovemaking, where gender roles in the sexual act
are neither rigid nor fixed, is brought to its visual culmination six centuries later in
the temples of Khajuraho.
This group of originally over 80 temples of
which 29 still stand, was discovered in a village in central India in the middle of the
last century. The sculptures and friezes of the temples, built between the 10th and 11th
centuries are generally regarded as being among the masterpieces of Indian art. Besides
the religious motifs, the temple walls also represent the world of the worshippers and
portray life in all its fullness. Temples of this time were not only places of worship.
They were centres of social, cultural and political life where musical and dance
performances were held, literary and religious discussions took place and people met to
discuss community issues.
Khajurahos contemporary fame, even
notoriety, however, is chiefly due to its profusion of erotic carvings. These comprise
fig-ures of women exposing themselves with erotic suggestiveness, depictions of graphic
sexual intercourse, group orgies and sex with animals. If there is one clear and
unambiguous message in the sensuality of Khajurahos sculpted representations, it is
that the human soul is pre-eminently amorous and
nothing if not amorous.
Here, we must remember that the Indian
combination of religiosity and eroticism is not unique to Khajuraho. From the 9th to the
13th centuries, when there was a remarkable temple building activity all over India,
erotic sculptures were common. In fact the erotic carvings of a single temple, that of
Konarak in Orissa, outnumber such compositions in all the temples of Khajuraho put
together. For many modern Indians, though, their sexual attitudes influenced by a colonial
Victorian morality, itself the consequence of Christianity uneasy relationship with
the body, the sculptures of Khajuraho are an embarrassment. They feel a need to explain
them away in convoluted metaphorical and symbolic terms or to dismiss them as a product of
a historically "degenerate" era.
Among the most beautiful sculptures of
Khajuraho are the apsaras, the heavenly whores, in a variety of moods and in
various states of undress. Similarly, the loving couple or the so-called mithuna motif
occurs in Indian temples from very early times (at least from the 3rd century BC). The
couple may well represent the union of the individual soul with the Supreme soulthe
highest goal of Hindu religiosity. A necessary auspicious element in Indian temples, the
loving couple becomes more and more elaborated through the centuries. By the time of
Khajuraho, the artistic imagination of the temple sculptors had begun to depict the loving
couple as one engaged in sexual intercourse.
The progress from the more abstractly
loving to the sexually loving couple is possible because the sexual act does not lie
outside but within the holiness of life. It is possible because authoritative religious
texts believe that: "The whole universe, from Brahman to the smallest worm, is based
on the union of the male and female. Why then should we feel ashamed of it, when even Lord
Shiva was forced to take four faces on account of his greed to have a look at a
maiden." (Brihatsamhita 74/20).
The sculptures of Khajuraho, then, do not need fanciful
explanations. They are the art of and for an energetic and erotic people. They are
involved in the metaphysical questions that death raises, certainly. Yet they do not let
the search for answers dominate the living of their lives; neither do they withdraw from
the possible joys of life because of the probable sorrows. Khajuraho represents the
attitude of a people who, as Vatsyayana reported many centuries ago, are doubtful about
the rewards of austerities and an ascetic way of life and believe that "better a dove
today than a peacock tomorrow".
What has happened to the same people during
the intervening centuries to turn them into shamed and guilt-ridden admirers of the
ascetic ideal? I do not mean to imply that this ideal was absent in ancient times. It,
too, is quintessentially Indian, always in competition with the erotic one for the
possession of the Indian soul. I doubt whether ancient Indians could be or were ever as
unswerving in their pursuit of hedonism as, for instance, the ancient Egyptians or even
the Romans. What is astonishing is the magnitude of the contemporary rejection of
The signs are everywhere. The depiction of
a kiss in films was till recently forbidden in a country where the temple panels of
Khajuraho show the pleasures of oral sex. One of the best Indian films of recent years, Bandit
Queen, was banned for a while because of one nude scene. Even the little erotic space
allowed to individuals is attacked by increasing conservative, revivalist sentiment which
calls it a result of "modern, western influence." Between the land of Kamasutra
and Khajuraho and contemporary India lie many centuries during which Indian society
successfully managed to enter the sexual dark ages.
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