Vatsyayana, author of the Kamasutra, tells us that human desire is a matter of culture far more than that of nature, which is a principal theme of this wonderful collection of essays by the Sanskrit scholar, Wendy Doniger. It prodded me to go back and read the Kamasutra, and I discovered to my delight that it is not a sex manual but a charming, surprisingly modern guide to the art of living. Addressed to both men and women, it teaches good manners: “the best alliance plays the game/so that both sides taste one another’s happiness/and treat one another/as unique individuals”. It tells the man, “don’t be hurtful or barbaric...be gentle and cautious with your bride...women are like flowers and need to be enticed very tenderly...learn to satisfy a woman first in bed...treat her in a way that she achieves her climax first”.
“The Kamasutra is about pleasure in a much broader sense—good food and good drink, wearing beautiful silk clothing, going on picnics, listening to good music,” says Doniger, whose English translation of the classic text is the very best available today. The hero of the Kamasutra is called Nagaraka, a cultivated man-about-town, and I wondered who would not be attracted to his charming and sophisticated (albeit decadent) lifestyle. On a typical day, he has his limbs massaged with oil, teaches parrots and mynahs to speak, and engages in a whirlwind social life filled with games, music, and salons on art and literature, ending in a night of pleasure. He also gives picnic parties in gardens at the edge of the city where women come decked out in lavish jewellery and elaborate hairdos that they hold in place with delicate, ornamental hairpins that one can still see in the miraculously preserved murals in the Buddhist caves at Ajanta.
For a man who is self-consciously writing the authoritative text on kama, however, Vatsyayana is surprisingly ambivalent about human desire. Ever so often, he stops to remind us that the pursuit of kama must be tempered by dharma: “The man who is well-taught and expert in this text/pays attention to dharma and artha;/he does not indulge himself too much in passion/and so he succeeds when he plays the part of a lover”. Even as he pretends to persuade women to transgress, Doniger says, “the actual content of the stories is designed to warn them, as they are explicitly said to warn men to look before they leap”. He has wisely understood the innate conflict between one’s duty to oneself (kama) and his duty to another (dharma) that is responsible for the ambivalent, often melancholic, human condition.
A great achievement of the first six centuries of the Common Era of our history—including the period sometimes called the ‘classical age’—was to create a civilised space for love. This period produced the great love poetry of Kalidasa, Bhartrhari and others, as well as the Kamasutra, when the “erotic was associated with all that was bright, shining and beautiful in the ordinary world”. It reached its zenith in the urbane, courtly life of the imperial Guptas and of Harsha, developing a highly aesthetic and sensual culture around the erotic sringara rasa.
However, the Kamasutra must have had to wage a ‘war of freedom’ in order to rescue pleasure from three powerful adversaries in ancient India: the Brahminical establishment, which dictated in the dharma texts that sex was only for reproduction, not for recreation; from the renouncers—yogis, ascetics, Buddhists and Jains, who regarded desire as an enemy to spiritual progress and equated Kama, the god of love, with Mara, ‘death’; and a third, uncultivated view of desire as a straightforward matter of physical gratification, a view that pervades Sanskrit epics like the Mahabharata.
Can the Kamasutra be an ally in a similar war to liberate the contemporary Indian middle class that is as repressed as the Victorians? Doniger is rightly upset by the ban on her books; she is dismayed by vigilante right-wing groups like the Sri Rama Sene. Despite the saffron brigade, however, there are good reasons to be hopeful for a more liberal future. Responsible surveys show that the urban young’s attitudes to sexuality have been changing rapidly since the 1990s. And today, young men and women are perhaps ready to eagerly embrace the charming advice of the Kamasutra: “If you are kissed, kiss back”.