Virtue And Pleasure

The ancients balanced it well, but somewhere down the centuries we lost our way
Virtue And Pleasure
WRITTEN sometime during the 3rd or 4th centuries AD, the Kamasutra is the best-known Indian treatise on sexual love. Together with the erotic sculptures of the temples of Khajuraho, the descriptions of the Kamasutra are generally held to be an accurate representation of ancient Indian sexual mores and attitudes. The 1,250 verses or sutras of the book are divided into seven parts: general observations, amorous approaches, getting a girl, rights and duties of a wife, other men’s wives, on courtesans, and secret practices. Vatsyayana, the legendary author of the Kamasutra, does not present his book as an original work but as a compendium of opinions of ancient authorities on the subject, going back to Auddalaki Shvetaketu at the time of the epics (c.10th century BC) who is credited with the introduction of the novel dictum in Indian sexual mores that men shall not generally sleep with other men’s wives.

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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. Vatsyayana’s 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, Vatsyayana’s 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 matters.

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-syayana’s 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".

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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 Vatsyayana’s 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 men’s 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 man’s behaviour.

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To understand the Kamasutra’s 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 India’s flourishing trade with China and Rome. Indian society was emerging from a few centuries of Buddhist domination which had brought with it Buddhism’s 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 society’s 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 book’s 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 girl’s sexuality and the need for gentleness in removing her inhibitions and fears.

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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 man’s 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 man’s 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 his anus.

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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.

Khajuraho’s 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 Khajuraho’s sculpted representations, it is that the human soul is pre-eminently amorous and nothing if not amorous.

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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 soul—the 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 eroticism. 

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