One wonders how a sex manual that’s 1,600 years old has so many readers today. The Kāma Sūtra emerged from an oral tradition even older. The Hindu Practice of Love — kāma shāstra began 3,500 years ago. The ancient Hindus believed that sexual desire formed the universe and that kāma shāstra was one of the three basic goals of life.
When Vātsyāyana wrote all of the teachings down, the anti-sex Catholic church ruled Europe. Even coitus in marriage, for the sake of having a child, was a venial sin. “Fornication”, any kind of sex outside of marriage, was a mortal sin. If it was sex play that couldn’t cause pregnancy, like solo sex or same sex sex, it was a grave sin, worse than rape or murder. The church’s punishment, penance, included fasting, public shunning, and homelessness for up to 11 years. The practice went on for about half a century. As we know, this sex-negative view survives today in all kinds of guilt and shame about sex.
While Vātsyāyana compiled the Kāma Sūtra, elucidating the wide-ranging varieties of sexual pleasure, the Catholic church compiled penitentials to be used in confession to reveal all sex play as sins, assigning each of them a different penance. For example, the Kāma Sūtra acknowledged oral sex on a penis as a great pleasure, and it offered detailed instructions. Around the same time, Theodore’s Penitential, Poenitentiale Theodori, condemned anyone to seven to 12 years or a lifetime of penance for taking semen in the mouth. And in 1948, because of this ancient Christian stigma, Congress passed the 1948 Miller Act, making it illegal to take anyone’ sex organs into the #mouth or #anus. The punishment was 10 years in prison, or 20 if done w/anyone under 16.
The teachings of kāma shāstra were mostly unheard of in the Western sex-negative world until the age of exploration when Western Christians tried to convert the “pagans” and “heathens” of the Eastern World. But many Christian members of the East India Company in India adopted the Indian life, building harems and enjoying all kinds of sex forbidden in England.
In the 19th century, Sir Richard Burton traveled across India, discovering and translating the Kāma Sūtra. In 1882, he and some friends founded the Kama Shastra Society. They claimed it was in India to avoid English censorship laws. They published 250 copies of Kāma Sūtra secretly and sold them with other exotic sex texts to private subscribers for the equivalent of today’s $200. They made $25,000 in the currency of the 1890s, but the text remained largely unknown.
The Baby Boom generation of hard-rocking flower children rescued the Kāma Sūtra from Victorian obscurity in the middle of the 20th century. Their chant was “Make love, not war!” In the wake of Kinsey, the anti-war, civil rights, reproductive rights, women’s rights, and gay rights movements that shaped the U.S.A.’s second sexual revolution, the Kāma Sūtra and kāma shāstra held honored places. Eastern views of sexuality had began to move West. In 1989, Charles Muir published Tantra — The Art of Conscious Loving. Tantra was a path of Yoga that used sex for extended meditation. It harked back to the Kāma Sūtra. It increased sexual pleasure in three ways. It increased intimacy. It increased focus and allowed partners to be fully present during sex. And it increased passion and pleasure with “esoteric kissing,” “transformative touching.”
Women and men in the West still get a kick out of Kāma Sūtra because many of us, especially in the USA, still live in sex-negative cultures. The U.S.A. is unique amongst them in spending billions to promulgate the idea that people shouldn’t have any kind of sex until they are married. The Kāma Sūtra provides us with a different view of a world in which sex play and sexual pleasure are good in and of themselves. Many, perhaps most, readers revel in the descriptions of the different positions possible for coitus. Here, for example, is Alain Daniélou’s 1994 translation of the position called the cow — dhenuka, in the section on having coitus in his The Complete Kāma Sūtra:
The woman places herself on all fours on the ground, in the posture of the cow ready for the bull’s assault. This is the position of “the cow.”
The boy holds her by the waist in order to take her. He enjoys her from behind, like a bull.
What is generally done between the thighs is in this case done from behind.
In the same fashion, one can imitate other animals, mounting the woman like an ass, playing with her like a cat, attacking like a tiger, stamping like an elephant, pawing the ground like a pig, riding horse-fashion. … So when inspiration is lacking, the boy can find models for his amusement [among the quadrupeds].
The five chapters of Part One of the Kāma Sūtra are about
about the contents
realizing the three aims of life
about common sense
an educated man’s behavior
how a lover can use a go-between
The 10 chapters of Part Two are about How to Make Your Moves:
knowing and feeling the possibility of the moment
the many ways love appears
embraces and caresses
the way people do it in other countries
slaps and sighs
women who are like men
anal intercourse with boys — the third sex
how to behave before and after
variations on intercourse
There are nine chapters of Part Three — Finding a Wife:
deciding to marry
inspiring confidence in the girl
making the first moves on the girl
how to know what she wants by the way she behaves
being a one-man woman
arousing her desire
getting her ready for intercourse
There are two chapters with eight subjects in Part Four — A Wife’s Duty and Opportunities:
loving none but her husband
living in his home
respecting his chief wife
how to behave toward his younger wives
accepting a new wife
dealing with being rejected
how to cope with having many wives
There are six chapters that deal with 10 subjects in Part Five — Having Other Men’s Wives:
building mutual affection between a man and woman
the kind of men women find pleasing
women who can free themselves
knowing when you can get to know each other
understanding your feelings
paying someone who can get you his wife
dealing with the harem’s guards
There are six chapters that deal with 12 subjects in the Part Six — About High Priced Sex Workers:
about possible customers
why have sex
ways to seduce
behaving like a lover
how to get what you’re looking for
signs you’re losing him
how to reel in the guy who gets away
how to get rid of a lover
starting over again
about the advantages and disadvantages of relationships
different kinds of high-end prostitutes
And there are two chapters that deal with six subjects in Part Seven — Using Magic:
making yourself attractive
improving your sex drive and how to keep going after orgasm
improving your sex organ
how to revive a failing impulse
To fulfill the kāma shāstra, women and men ensured the reproduction of their people through erotic practice. But observing the kāma shāstra also led to something else, something equally profound. At the height of ecstasy, lovemaking transformed itself into mystical insight. In their sexual ecstasies, lovers caught glimpses of the divine. This was the supreme pleasure. In this world, unlike the world of Christians, poverty and deprivation of the senses were not virtues.
For the people of India, the good life, the moral life, was sensuous and luxurious. Luxury made morality possible. It was not something that the very poor could afford. And not everyone could afford to pursue the art of love. Lovers needed to observe the kāma shāstra in comfortable beds, baths, and gardens. They needed to surround themselves with flowers and intoxicating odors, shimmering curtains and lavish decor. They needed tasty foods and stimulating drink. They needed everything that the Stoic Christians of Europe damned as the work of the Devil.
All in all, the Kāma Sūtra was romantic and optimistic about love: “Whether they continue having sexual relations or live chastely together, true love never decreases, even after one hundred years.”
Folks in the West increasingly see a lot of sense in that view.
Written for Lovers' Guide