The Ancient Kamasutra Is Surprisingly Contemporary

Some cultural matters are strangely familiar or, if unfamiliar, still charming and comprehensible.

The following is an excerpt adapted from the new book Redeeming the Kamasutra by Wendy Doniger (Oxford University Press, 2016): 

The Kamasutra is firmly situated within the value system of what might be called the ancient ‘Indian way’; it shares many of its unstated assumptions with those of traditional Indian texts. And yet, it is also a unique text, unusual for its time—closer, in some ways, to ours.

Two worlds in the Kamasutra intersect for contemporary readers, both Indian and non-Indian: sex and ancient India. We assume that the understanding of sex will be familiar to us, since sex is universal, and that the representations of ancient India will be strange to us, since that world existed long ago and (for non-Indians) in a galaxy far away. This is largely the case, but there are interesting reversals of expectations: some sexual matters are strange (for Vatsyayana argues that sex for human beings is a matter of culture, not nature), or even sometimes repugnant, to us today; while some cultural matters are strangely familiar or, if unfamiliar, still charming and comprehensible, reassuring us that the people of ancient India were in many ways just like contemporary readers. Consider the description of the man’s day: his morning toilet is much like ours, but we do not, alas, schedule in things like teaching mynah birds to speak.

It is the constant intersection of these perceptions—‘How very odd!’, ‘Oh, I know just how she feels!’—that constitutes the strange appeal of the Kamasutra.

Many readers will recognize the man who tells the woman on whom he’s set his sights ‘about an erotic dream, pretending that it was about another woman’, and the woman who does the same thing. Others will feel a guilty pang of familiarity when reading the passage suggesting that a woman interested in getting a man’s attention in a crowded room might find some pretext to take something from him, making sure to brush him with her breast as she reaches across him. This is an amazingly intimate thing to know about a culture, far more intimate than knowing that you can stand on one leg or another when you make love. Sometimes the unfamiliar and the familiar are cheek-by jowl: the culture-specific list of women the wife must not associate with, which includes a Buddhist nun and a magician who uses love-sorcery worked with roots, is followed in the very next passage by the woman who is cooking for her man and finds out ‘this is what he likes, this is what he hates, this is good for him, this is bad for him’, a consideration that must resonate with many contemporary readers, cooking for someone they love, balancing the desire to please (perhaps with a Béarnaise sauce? Or a curry made with lots of ghee?) with the concern for the rising cholesterol level.

In the realm of culture, too, there are moments that travel well across the centuries from Vatsyayana’s time to ours. There is the charming item, in the Borgesian list of arts, of making music on the rims of glasses of water, something that people do nowadays, too. There is the passage in which the boy teases the girl when they are swimming together, diving down and coming up near her, touching her, and then diving down again; this is familiar territory for me, at least; it was already an old trick when I was a young girl at summer camp in the Adirondacks, and boys would do this sort of thing. On the other hand, the magic formulas used to enhance penis size remain truly foreign to people of the twenty-first century; a comparison with Viagra is superficially useful here, but it does not get you far enough to take this part of the text seriously on its own terms. Magic and drugs, the life in the harem, the world of courtesans—these parts of the Kamasutra make you think, ‘How very different these people are from us.’ Or, as a Victorian gentleman cited by Hilaire Belloc remarked after seeing Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, ‘How different, how very different, from the home life of our own dear Queen.’

For South Asians, there are bits of the text that are startlingly familiar from the everyday world of India today. For people who grew up elsewhere, these become accessible only through rather distant analogies. Betel, for instance, tambula, nowadays called paan, is still popular across India (though not used quite in the manner, or for the purpose, prescribed by Vatsyayana). It is a delicacy made of a betel leaf rolled up around a paste made of areca nuts (sometimes called betel nuts), cardamom, lime paste and other flavours, sometimes with tobacco or other stimulants (including, sometimes, cocaine). The finished product, shaped rather like a stuffed grape-leaf, is eaten as a stimulant, to redden the mouth and to freshen the breath. Throughout the Kamasutra, lovers give one another betel, take betel out of their own mouths and put it in their lover’s mouth. This basic part of the erotic scene in ancient India can best be understood by non-Indians through an analogy with the overtones that champagne has, or the post-coital cigarette. (A closer analogy, perhaps, is supplied by the recurrent scene in Now, Voyager [1942], in which Paul Henreid lights two cigarettes in his mouth and hands one to Bette Davis.)

The woman’s thoughts on such subjects as how to keep a lover and how to tell when his affections are cooling ring remarkably true for the twenty-first century reader, regardless of his or her culture. Another part of the text that surely speaks to the modern reader is the description of a man who wants to seduce a married woman. In the would-be adulterer’s meditations on reasons to do this, there are self-deceptive arguments that still make sense in our world:

He thinks: ‘There is no danger involved in my having this
woman, and there is a chance of wealth. And since I am
useless, I have exhausted all means of making a living.
Such as I am, I will get a lot of money from her in this way,
with very little trouble.’ Or, ‘This woman is madly in love
with me and knows all my weaknesses. If I reject her, she
will ruin me by publicly exposing my faults; or she will
accuse me of some fault which I do not in fact have, but
which will be easy to believe of me and hard to clear myself
of, and this will be the ruin of me.’

This is a brilliant and timeless portrait of a self-serving rascal who has no illusions about himself.

Adapted from Redeeming the Kamasutra by Wendy Doniger with permission from Oxford University Press  © Oxford University Press 2016

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