Sex & Relationships

A Brief History of the Kama Sutra

The Kama Sutra is far more complex than a mere listing of contortionist sexual positions; it provides a manual for living the good life.
The Kama Sutra is the world's oldest book on the pleasures of sensual living. There is no one single author for the text. It was originally compiled in the 3rd century by the Indian sage Vatsyayana, who lived in northern India. Vatsyayana claimed to be a celibate monk, and that his work in compiling all of the sexual knowledge of ages past was for him a form of meditation and contemplation of the deity. Written in a rather complex form of Sanskrit, the Kama Sutra is the only surviving textual account of that period of ancient Indian history. In scholarly circles it has been widely consulted by scholars trying to understand the society and social mores of that period. The title of the text, Kama Sutra, literally means "a treatise on pleasure." Far more complex than a mere listing of contortionist sexual positions, the Kama Sutra provides a comprehensive manual of living for the good life. Although the central character of the Kama Sutra is the citizenly man-about-town, the text was written to be read by and provide detailed advice for both men and women.

The basic tenet of the Kama Sutra is that in order for marriages to be happy, both man and woman should be well-versed in the arts of pleasure, both carnal and cerebral. The topics explored include Society and Social Concepts, On Sexual Union, About the Acquisition of a Wife, About a Wife, About the Wives of Other Men, About Courtesans, and On the Means of Attracting Others to Yourself. The book contains detailed advice on what a man must do to win over a woman, what a woman must do to win over a man, the states of a woman's mind, the role of a go-between, and the reasons why women might reject the advances of men. In terms of choosing a mate, the Kama Sutra advises on whether to consider fellow students or childhood friends. It provides charts that categorize male and female physical types and their compatibility with their lover's body. Varieties of embracing, kissing, scratching, biting, oral sex, and sexual intercourse are elaborated. The text also incorporates instruction on extramarital relationships, including with "the wives of other men," and devotes many pages to the methods of seduction and methods of extortion practiced by the courtesan. Finally, in case all of that knowledge should fail in winning the love that one seeks, the final chapter of the Kama Sutra contains recipes for tonics, powders, and foods that have the power to help attract others to oneself.

Some people refer to the Kama Sutra as a marriage manual, but it is a far cry from the monogamous and dutiful tomes that Westerners produced as part of the proliferation of advice manuals in the Victorian era. One of the central figures of the Kama Sutra is the courtesan, who must also master and practice a variety of arts in learning how to please and coerce her man. What is especially unique about the Kama Sutra is that it maintains a special focus on creating pleasure for the woman. A man who fails to provide and bring about those pleasures is subject to a woman's recourse, that is, to seek pleasure elsewhere where she may find it.

As the 'original' study of sexuality, the Kama Sutra became the fountainhead of all subsequent compilations, including the 15th century Ananga-Ranga which is a revised version and builds upon Vatsyayana's basic tenets. Yet because of the complex and rather inaccessible style of Sanskrit in which it was written, the Kama Sutra for many centuries fell into obscurity. Scholars of Sanskrit and ancient India did not much consult it. It was not until the late 19th century that the Kama Sutra again began to resume its former prominence in the textual traditions of India. That resurgence came about after the 1870s when Sir Richard Burton, the noted linguist and Arabic translator, was working with his collaborators, both Indian and British, on producing a translation of the Ananga-Ranga. In pursuing the many references to Vatsyayana with the text, Burton led the Pundits back to the Kama Sutra and an English translation was produced. Burton's persistence in publishing the Kama Sutra in the West, and the interest the text generated in both India and abroad, has led to a proliferation of translations and versions of the original masterpiece.

The Ananga-Ranga

The 15th century Ananga-Ranga is an updated version of the Kama Sutra, written in far more accessible Sanskrit than its earlier predecessor. As a result, for many centuries the Ananga-Ranga actually superceded the Kama Sutra in being the text of choice to consult for knowledge about sexual pleasure. The writing of the Ananga-Ranga was commissioned by the nobleman Ladakhana for one of the Lodi Dynasty's monarch. The Lodis were part of the powerful Delhi Sultanate who ruled northern India before the Mughal Dynasty took its place. Kalyanamalla, the author of the Ananga-Ranga, was a Hindu poet, who drew heavily upon the Kama Sutra in preparing his text. Kalyanamally wrote in an accessible Sanskrit style, and its royal Muslim patronage assured that the text enjoyed a wide circulation among the medieval Muslim empires. Versions of the Ananga-Ranga also appeared in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu.

Opening with a dedication to Ladakhana, the text's patron, the book contains prescriptive advice for married couples, and for their conduct both social and sexual. It begins with a detailed description of female bodies, and includes "centers of passion," erogenous zones, classifications of body types and the timeliness of their potential sexual pleasures. Classification and compatibility of males and females by their genital size is explored in various combinations and to their degree of passion. Many scholars speculate that Kalyanamalla lived in a more sexist society than earlier writers, noting that Kalyanamalla deviates from other writers by neglecting to provide normative advice for producing women's pleasure, such as the use of fingers, a method that other texts heartily endorse. The title of the book, Ananga-Ranga, has been variously translated as "Stage of the Bodiless One," "The Hindu Art of Love," and "Theatre of the Love God," among others.

As part of the romanticism of colonial rule, Europeans sought out Eastern texts to bring ancient wisdom to the modern world. However, the Orientalist engagement in the Ananga-Ranga ironically led to the text's decreased relevance, and the prominence of the earlier Kama Sutra. Burton's experiences living in India as a part of the British military and his fascination with the sexual practices of Oriental societies, coupled with his desire to bring this knowledge to the attention of his co-citizens of the British metropole, led to his interests in the canon of sexual knowledge preserved in Sanskrit texts. Because of the relative popularity of the Ananga-Ranga among the Sanskrit specialists, it was natural that it should be the text of choice for Burton's purposes. When reviewing their translations, however, Burton made note of the many references made to an earlier compilation by Vatsyayana. Burton believed that his earlier text, the Kama Sutra, was a far more foundational work, and requested that the Pundits locate a copy. Because of its centuries of relative neglect, the Kama Sutra at this stage only existed in parts. The text had to be re-compiled from Sanskrit manuscript library collections across India and in the Princely States. Once the text was translated into English, its popularity grew, and Indian scholars set aside the Ananga-Ranga with a renewed interest in its predecessor.
Dr. Anne Hardgrove is Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at San Antonio.