Everyone knows the Kama Sutra is ancient India's racy sex manual. The title conjures titillating visions of erotic frescos in which regal maharajas with outsized genitals cavort with naked bejeweled nymphs in positions exotic enough to slip the discs of a yoga master.
Kama Sutra literally means "treatise on sexual pleasure." Unlike the Christian view that the sole purpose of sex is procreation, in the fourth century Hindu world that gave birth to the Kama Sutra, the cultivation of sexual pleasure, independent of procreation, was considered one of life's highest callings. The ancient Hindus believed that life had three purposes: religious piety (dharma), material success (artha), and sexual pleasure (kama). All three were equal, and the erotic was celebrated as the seat of earthly beauty. In the Hindu world the pursuit of sexual pleasure was revered as a sort of religious quest..
The Kama Sutra was written by one Vatsyayana Mallanaga, about whom nothing else is known. However, from the text, it's clear that he was upper-class. He takes servants for granted, and assumes his readers have the leisure time to seduce virgins and other men's wives, and the money to buy the gifts he recommends giving to do so. Vatsyayana also claims to have written his treatise "in chastity and highest meditation." It's hard to know what to make of this. Some commentators have scoffed that, given the subject matter, this seems highly unlikely. But considering the reverence with which the ancient Hindus approached matters sexual, it's also possible that Vatsyayana wrote his book with the gravity of, say, a modern-art critic discussing a cache of just-discovered erotic paintings by Picasso. We'll never know.
The Kama Sutra may be the ancient world's most famous sex book, but it was by no means the first. The Chinese had sex manuals 500 years earlier, and Ovid's "Ars Amatoria," a handbook for courtesans, preceded the "Kamasutra" by some 200 years. The Kama Sutra is not even the first Indian sex guide. Vatsyayana mentions several sages who trod his erotic path before him.
The sexual culture it describes is also surprisingly like our own. While the Kama Sutra describes girls and women as dependent on their fathers, husbands and adult sons - in the manner of women in today's Arab Middle East - in the India of the text, they enjoyed an independence and freedom of movement Saudi or Pakistani women can only dream of. While their wealthy fathers and husbands were running businesses and the government - not to mention fucking around - young women were often free to date men and select their own husbands, and married women were free to select lovers and entertain them.
The Kama Sutra is organized in seven sections that track men through life. In Book 1, the bachelor sets up his pad. In Book 2, he perfects his sexual techniques. This is the book that has inspired the videos, games and everything else that flies the Kama Sutra flag. In Book 3, our young man seduces a virgin. In Book 4, he marries and sets up a household for his wife and servants. By Book 5, he has grown sexually bored with his wife, and turns to seducing other men's wives. Eventually, as he ages, the effort necessary for such dalliances loses its charm, so in Book 6, he takes up with courtesans, who work to please him - but for a price. Finally, in old age, he fears he is losing his potency and attractiveness, so Book 7 contains recipes for herbal potions to preserve them.
Although Vatsyayana was a man writing for men, some of the Kama Sutra speaks directly to women: Book 3 tells virgins how to attract husbands. Book 4 instructs women how to be good wives. Book 6 deals with the skills required of courtesans - including how they should provide for their own old age by stealing from their patrons. This information does not seem odd until you realize that in fourth century India, few if any women could read. It's not clear how they obtained the Kama Sutra's information. Apparently, some did. Presumably literate men read it to them, as clergy a few centuries ago read the Bible to illiterate congregants.
Book 2, the sex manual, recognizes women as full, lusty participants in sex, and exhorts men to learn ejaculatory control to last long enough to bring them to orgasm: "Women love the man whose sexual energy lasts a long time, but they resent a man whose energy ends quickly because he stops before they reach a climax." (Apparently, Vatsyayana didn't know that many women never reach orgasm solely from intercourse no matter how long it lasts.) Nonetheless, the Kama Sutra is very attentive to women's pleasure, a view that arrived in our culture only a few decades ago, a view still lost on many men.
Book 2 also instructs men to treat women in such a way "that she achieves her sexual climax first." How can a man do this? By following Book 2's extensive discussion of the fine points of what today we called "foreplay" -- embracing, kissing, and other types of touch calculated to heighten sexual arousal. The "Kamasutra" gets a little wild here. It touts slapping and spanking with accompanying shrieks and moans, and is particularly enamored of scratching and biting: "There are no keener means of increasing passion than acts inflicted by tooth and nail." It even sings the praises of scars caused by erotic scratching. It considers them advertisements of erotic prowess: "Passion and respect arise in a man who sees from a distance a young girl with the marks of nails cut into her breasts."
Book 2 advocates use of sex toys, and suggests sex while bathing. It also describes how a man can best satisfy two women at the same time (fondle one while having intercourse with the other), and how two or more men should comport themselves when sexually sharing one woman (take turns having intercourse, and while one is inside her, the others should fondle her).
Earlier I mentioned the Kama Sutra's unexpected aversion to oral sex. Vatsyayana declares, "It should not be done because it is opposed to the moral code." But apparently, he understood that ancient Indian men enjoyed blow jobs as much as men do today, because after condemning oral sex, he provides elaborate instructions to women on how to perform what the Kamasutra calls "sucking the mango." Then Vatsyayana reiterates his condemnation of oral sex, saying it should be enjoyed only with "loose women, servant girls, and masseuses" with whom a man "does not bother with acts of civility." Finally, in an ambivalent aside, he allows that some men enjoy sucking each other's mangoes, and that some even perform cunnilingus: "Sometimes men perform this act on women, transposing the procedure for kissing a mouth."
In Book 3, the Kama Sutra insists that men who seduce virgins do so very tenderly. It advises courting a virgin for many days before bedding her. The suitor should engage her in interesting conversation, shower her with gifts, play board games with her, and work to win her trust, all the while remaining sexually abstinent to set her at ease. As the big moment approaches, he should send her little sculptures of goats and sheep with major erections. If she takes the hint, she should signal her willingness by flashing him -- "revealing the splendid parts of her body." Finally, they make a date to meet and have sex.
But tenderness toward women goes only so far in the Kama Sutra." If a virgin is unwilling to go all the way, men are instructed to have a brother ply her with liquor, and "when the drink has made her unconscious, he takes her maidenhead," i.e. he rapes her. In the Kamasutra's view, rape is acceptable not only for reluctant virgins, but also for other women: "A man may take widows, women who have no man to protect them, wandering women ascetics, and women beggars ... for he knows they are vulnerable ..."
The Kamasutra devotes only nine pages to the care of wives in Book 3, but almost three times the real estate, 26 pages, to Book 4, the seduction of other men's wives. It exhorts wives to be doting, dutiful, careful managers of servants, and always well-mannered, well-dressed and faithful. But it also assumes that wives eventually bore their husbands. As a result, a man is perfectly justified in seducing other men's wives, who are exciting, challenging, worthy of indefatigable pursuit, and great fun in bed. If a wife discovered that her husband had been unfaithful, she was over a barrel. In fourth century India, she couldn't leave him as a modern woman might. She was obligated to remain dutiful. But the Kama Sutra allows her to be "mildly offended" and "scold him with abusive language." However, she was forbidden to resort to "love sorcery," i.e. herbal potions, to win him back, presumably because that might ruin his well-deserved adulterous fun.
When it comes to seducing other men's wives, the Kamasutra is not above a little shameless self-promotion either. It asks: Which men are the most successful at it? Those "who know the Kamasutra."
The Kamasutra's matter-of-fact acceptance of infidelity is tempered by only one caveat: Men were not to go that route if it was likely to "bring disaster," i.e. violence or financial reverses. To prevent disaster, the "Kamasutra" lists women who should be avoided, notably those who are "well guarded or with their mothers-in-law." Once a man has selected an eligible extramarital target, the Kama Ssutra instructs him to woo her with all the focus and creativity he would bring to courting a virgin, except that in the case of another man's wife, he had to be more stealthy and deceptive, which made the chase all the more exciting and intellectually diverting.
Of course, if a man seduced another man's wife, chances were good that some other sexually itchy gent might decide to seduce his. Wives were expected to be faithful, but with so many men getting action on the side, many wives must also have been cheating. The Kama Sutra concludes its discussion of extramarital affairs by saying that it does not advocate philandering, but rather seeks to prevent it by describing all the ways libidinous lotharios might cuckold them in order to warn husbands worried about their wives' wandering eyes. Given the extraordinary detail with which the Kama Sutra describes infidelity, I doubt that any fourth century reader believed this. (The KamaSutra does not discuss how a husband should deal with a wife's infidelities, but I doubt that all she got was a scolding.)
In the end, the Kama Sutra describes a highly sexual world, one that does not condemn unbridled pleasure as our culture does, but prefers amoral pleasure that's somewhat restrained simply because it's easier for all concerned. It's a sexual world committed to erotic tenderness, yet capable of casual cruelty, a lusty world that venerated sex for its own sake, not just for procreation.