A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Written in the 5th or 6th century AD by the sage Vatsyayana, the Kama Sutra is probably one of the most famous Indian books in the West. Although very few people have actually read it, there are a many fantasies and myths floating around in the collective psyche. According to these myths, the Kama Sutra is variously a book on the arts of love, a sex tip guide and even a work of pornography.
Rather than taking this interpretation for granted, it is interesting to challenge it to try and see whether it could not, in fact, be another expression of the concept of orientalism, as coined by Edward Said. Indeed, to this writer, orientalism is the Western tendency to interpret Eastern cultures and peoples from a prejudiced outsiders viewpoint.
In a way the Kama Sutra is a symbol of Western misinterpretation of Eastern culture: its erotic, sexual overtones have a strongly attractive appeal to Westerners who are too happy to see in an Eastern work of art the proof of a decadent, depraved people – an image that fits only too well the colonialist view on indigenous populations. However, the Kama Sutra is far more than this. More than a book on how to make love, it is a genuine philosophical treatise on how to live your life.
To understand the Kama Sutra, it is important to understand the context in which it was written. The ancient Indian sages composed the ‘Kama Shastra’ on the basis of the Vedas, the oldest sacred texts in India, written in Sanskrit. This ‘Kama Shastra’ is made up of the rules of love, that were first formulated by Nandi, Shiva’s companion. They have been preserved in the form of the Kama Sutra as we know it today.
Therefore, the Kama Sutra is one of the most ancient Indian texts, and part of a triptych made up of the Artha Sastra, the Dharma Sastra and the Kama Sutra. These texts are meant to give men the aims of life, where three kinds of activities are necessary. The first one is to assure one’s survival through means of existence and nourishment: this is Artha. The second one is to establish rules of behaviour so that each individual can perform their roles within the framework of society in a virtuous way: this is Dharma. The third one is to realise one’s reproduction, through forms of activities generally connected with sexuality. Kama is this third goal of human life. Sexuality is indeed at the core of this third pillar of a good life, but it goes far beyond that aspect. It is above all the enjoyment of the world surrounding us via our five senses – hearing, touch, sight, taste and smell – assisted by the mind as well as the soul. Kama is composed of the combined experience linking the organ of sense, the object that is felt, and the consciousness of pleasure arising from this contact. More than sexuality, Kama is the idea of sensuality.
To understand that the Kama Sutra is a book on the art of life, it is necessary to see how it is composed. The first part is an introduction in which the author reminds his reader of the three aims in life. Next, he moves on to a chapter on sexual union and the best way to practice the game of love. The following three chapters are dedicated to the relationships between man and wife. After that, the author writes about courtesans, and finishes with advice on how to attract the opposite sex. From this layout, it seems quite obvious that sexuality is a very slim part of the whole book – the art of love is tackled in a much more comprehensive way than is commonly thought in Western misconceptions about the Kama Sutra. The book is not just about how to have sex in the best – and sometimes most original – way, it is a philosophical treatise on how men and women should interact with each other in the best possible way to ensure reproduction and perpetuation of the species.
Far from being a kinky book from a depraved people, the Kama Sutra is, therefore, a book that reflects the expression of a most sophisticated civilisation, where the encounter between man and woman is much more than mere reproduction aimed intercourse. It is not, in fact, a pornographic work, but a book depicting the art of living for the civilised and refined citizen, finding its expression in the sphere of love, eroticism and the sensual pleasures of life. One need only look at the engravings illustrating the infamous chapter on sexual advice to be convinced of this: the characters in these drawings are wearing sophisticated jewels, they are living in beautifully decorated rooms. It is not the sexual act itself that is at the heart of the Kama Sutra, but the way it is performed as a means to achieving spirituality and completeness with one’s partner.
To go further, one could even read the Kama Sutra as an evolutionary view on reproduction. Indeed, it promotes the cultivation of skills such as seduction, living together as a couple, how to handle one’s lover – even how to cope with weakened sexual powers! The goal of this is to become a well evolved individual, maintaining healthy intimate relationships with others, and breeding similar individuals. In the end, the Kama Sutra offers the key to improving men through education.
Thus, more than just depicting sexual positions, the Kama Sutra is meant to be read as a guide to a better life that takes into account the fact that mankind needs to have sex in order to survive. Rather than making it a shameful, hidden thing, which is how carnal pleasures are seen in Western Judeo-Christian cultures, the Kama Sutra gives sex a philosophical background, based on spirituality achieved through pleasure and sensual experiences. It would of course be ridiculous to turn this dichotomy between two perceptions of sexuality into a strong opposition between the East and the West – after all the philosophy of the Epicureans of Ancient Greece can, in a way, be compared to that of the Kama Sutra. Rather than calling the Kama Sutra pornography and hiding it on the highest shelf of their bookcases, Western readers should see it as the expression of a refined, sophisticated people on the art of love.
Edition shown: Inner Traditions Bear and Company. (2003). ISBN-13: 978-0892811380. 320pp.