Vulpes Libris

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.

Kama Sutra: sex tip book or philosophical treatise?

kama sutra Review by Audrey Chaix.

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.

Audrey loves reading and writing, both in English and in French – her native tongue.  She is currently doing a Masters Degree in Communications – she’d love to work in theatre management. She also reviews on the theatre/arts website Artistikrezo and writes as ‘Lib’ on Culture’s Pub.

14 comments on “Kama Sutra: sex tip book or philosophical treatise?

  1. annebrooke
    January 7, 2010

    Wonderful article, Audrey – and I absolutely and entirely agree. The Kama Sutra is far, far more than people think it is and should be read far more widely than it is, for the reasons you state.

    To my mind, at its heart, it has much in common with western Medieval literature which focuses on the art of courtesy – ie interactions between peoples at Court, both men and women, in the bedroom and out of it. Chaucer and others of the time (I’m thinking of the author of Gawain and the Green Knight, who says a great deal, but subtly, about sex, adultery and relationships at court) would definitely have been impressed.

    Axxx

  2. SamRuddock
    January 7, 2010

    What a wise review, Audrey. It is the interconnectedness that strikes me about works like The Kama Sutra. They do not treat sex as an exception to the rest of life, but a key component of it. And a component which links into everything else, from eating to sleeping. But all through living a good life, with people you love, and being able to express that love.

    Our view of The Kama Sutra and sex as little more than the act itself is indicative of an unhealthy goal driven and ‘doing’ society fascinated with 1001 things to do before you die. We seem to forget that life isn’t a tick box list of experiences. Similarly sex isn’t something you do, it is something you are. It is a connection to other people, other senses, and other speicies.

    But before this starts to sound like a lazy spiritualists guide to eastern mysticism (another western appropriation and yet something your review managed to avoid) I will leave it there.

  3. Lib
    January 7, 2010

    Thanks! Funny thing is, it started out as an essay for my English class… Teacher said we had to write an essay on something related to India, I decided to talk about the Kama Sutra. Said it was the first time a student thought of doing that 😉
    Audrey

  4. hrileena
    January 7, 2010

    Erm, Shiva is a god. He’s definitely male, and he’s the Destroyer.

    Also, have you ever heard of the Natya Shastra? It discusses the performance arts, and is the fourth book in that triptych. It’s usually left out for reasons that are old, complicated, and unpleasant: suffice it to say, the caste system is the essential culprit.

    This is a thoughtful review. I do think, however, that in some ways, there is always bound to be a difference in the way an outsider experiences a culture and the way it looks to someone born in it. Moreover, I think this is a good thing, and I think Edward Said would have agreed. A man does not spend his entire life studying a culture other than (and Other from) his own, if he does not find in it something that speaks to him.

  5. Christine
    January 7, 2010

    Sam, I think that Western cultures, and perhaps the US version in particular, see sex as something unseemly that should be kept out of the way (like children in Victorian times). I can’t help thinking that over here, it is a hangover from our Puritan and puritanical founders.

    But the idea of seeking fulfillment as a whole person is very enticing. Enough so that I will probably take a look at the Kama Sutra and perhaps the rest of the triptych (quadriptych?).

  6. Jackie
    January 7, 2010

    This is so different from what I was expecting! Now I feel gullible and ignorant in my presumption of the book, but am happy to be enlightened. This was a really good review, Audrey, not only of this specific book, but showing it in the context of life & other literature. Well done!

  7. Moira
    January 7, 2010

    hrileena – Thanks for pointing out the typo, which I’ve now corrected. My knowledge of Hinduism is woeful, I’m afraid. I proof-read Audrey’s piece very carefully yesterday and that by-passed me completely.

    I found this fascinating – knowing, as I do, very little about the Kama Sutra – what it is, what its origins were or even what it’s really about.

    And why am I not remotely surprised that nobody had ever written an essay about the Kama Sutra in their English class before, Audrey? 🙂

  8. Hilary
    January 7, 2010

    I really enjoyed this review of what I think I’d always suspected is a much misunderstood book – thank you, Audrey.

  9. Lib
    January 8, 2010

    Thanks for pointing that mistake out, hrileena – my bad, I know Shiva is male, but his name sounds so feminine to my French ears that if I’m not careful, I always make the mistake!

  10. hrileena
    January 8, 2010

    No worries, it happens. Glad to be of service!:)

  11. SamRuddock
    January 8, 2010

    Christine, you might be right but I’m always a little loathe to characterise entire societies as one or the other. I think there is a real contradiction inherent in UK society (which is all I know) between seeing sex, the physical body, and sensuality as unseemly or dangerous or vulgar, and the opposite which sees them as liberating, fun, and dangerous. Either dangerous and ‘best not thought about,’ or exciting and all that is worth thinking about.

    Between these polar opposites, things like the Kama Sutra, the Summer of Love, asexuality, swingers parties, sex toys and all the myriad other examples get swept up into a furore which has to be either or, but focuses primarily on the sexual aspect, at the expense of all else.

    That is what bugs me most.

  12. Nikki
    January 10, 2010

    I think I’ll actually brave getting this out of the library and read it on the tube/bus!

  13. literarykitty
    January 13, 2010

    What an interesting review. I had no idea that it was such an all-encompassing philosophy!

  14. Subham
    August 7, 2010

    I’m recently marrid man. want 2 know all tipes of kamasutra’s lesson & image.

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This entry was posted on January 7, 2010 by in Non-fiction: philosophy, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , .

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