Pocket Review: The Kama Sutra by Vatsyayana, Translated by A.N.D. Haksar

Kama Sutra
Vatsyayana, translated by A.N.D. Haksar
Penguin Classics, 2012

New York is an old city with an eternally crumbling infrastructure, but the powers that be do what they can. Lately they’ve been concentrating on making repairs to the subway, a system over a century old that moves more than four million people every day. For that reason, repair work is done in fits and starts, often with no visible logic. Last month the East Side trains were shut down between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. for four nights; this week it’s the West Side’s turn. That’s right: If you happened to make Valentine’s Day plans, West Siders—reservations at a nice restaurant, tickets to something, a night on the town—come 10:00, your options are suddenly going to get a lot less romantic. It’s hard not to feel just a little bit put out.

But fear not, noble lovers! Penguin Classics has just come out with a handsome new edition of Vatsyayana’s Kama Sutra, translated by A.N.D. Haksar, and now there’s no need to leave home. Forget the IRT; the love will come to you.

OK, I’m being glib here. While the Kama Sutra has become pop culture shorthand for an exotic sex manual, as it turns out it’s more of a guide to social mores for would-be lovers of both sexes. A well-rounded Indian looked to the study of three worldly pursuits over the course of his life: Dharma, concerning virtue and righteous conduct; Artha, the pursuit of wealth and material ease; and Kama, sensual pleasure. This last was as dogmatic as either of the others, not only in terms of caste and societal rules, but also in ways people should act if they were going to get anywhere. While it definitely delves into matters of sexual pleasure, the Kama Sutra reads very much like an R-rated Emily Post for third-century Indians looking to get laid.

And, of course, for the rest of us. Kama Sutra wouldn’t have become such a buzzword if it didn’t have something to say to folks for the next plus-or-minus 18 centuries. The caveat being that there’s a lot for modern readers to flinch away from as well. Certainly anyone approaching a text of that vintage, especially one dealing with relations between men and women, will come into it with their own ideas of how much can be tolerated in the name of scholarship or novelty. While some of the advice is accessible and even sweet, other aspects are pretty awful. But for what it is, the Kama Sutra is also an interesting look at the ways all sorts of things haven’t changed very much at all.

Only one book out of the seven deals explicitly with sex, and that seems to swing wide from from garden-variety weeknight stuff to positions you’d need to have a pretty good yoga practice to achieve, without much middle ground in between. What’s exotic here isn’t the assortment of foreign contortions—you can keep your “impalement on a spear,” thank you—but the completely different ways of thinking about sex. You might know what doggie style involves, for instance, but Vatsyayana calls for a little spirit animal invocation in what was termed the “cow union”:

This union is also like those of the dog, the stag and the billy-goat; the donkey’s assault and the tom-cat’s frolic; the tiger’s spring and the elephant’s crush; the pounding of the boar and the mounting of the stallion. In each of these he can consider doing whatever is special and peculiar to these animals.

There were prescriptions for both men and women as to the correct types of moans, cries, and fingernail indentations—Indians lovers of the time were big on biting and scratching—and size mattered enough to have its own set of fairly uncomplimentary designations. But there’s also some rather slinky foreplay advice, and in Book Three, “The Maiden,” the chapters on winning a virgin bride’s trust and warming her up are touching. And the section on post-coital manners should be recommended reading for just about everyone:

Embracing her with his left arm, he reassures her and offers her a drink from a wineglass held in his hand. Or they both drink water and have some snacks according to their choice: fresh juice and meat broth, sour porridge and bite-size bits of roast meat, beverages and mangoes…. He tastes each before he offers them to her, saying “This one is sweet,” or “Very delicate.” Or they go on the roof to enjoy the moonlight, and have a pleasant conversation. She reclines in his arms, gazing at the moon, and he points out the constellations.

Unfortunately, things can only go downhill from there. While this is considered the best kind of marriage, there are other, less desirable variations; hierarchies rule everything in the Kama Sutra. If a love union isn’t in the offing, a man can find a horny widow—not terrible advice in itself—or he can court a young girl as she grows, which sounds unpleasantly like a pedophile grooming his victim. Or he can drug a woman and take her virginity while she’s unconscious, in what’s designated here as “Forcible Marriage.” Third-century India was most definitely not all beverages and mangoes.

You can’t get around that fact. No matter how tender and circumspect much of the advice is, women clearly get the short end of the stick here. Except, as it turns out, courtesans. The woman who exchanges sex for money has her own chapter, and with it, a surprising array of choices. Sections titled “Is He Worthwhile?” and “Getting Rid of Him”—a laundry list of wonderfully passive-aggressive ways to drive a man off—demonstrate a set of options that your average Indian bride didn’t have. And while you could counter that being a courtesan was a job defined by a lot of loveless sex and a lack of security—well, so was marriage, and rather often.

But for all the harsh realities of the day, there are also unexpected treats. A man is instructed on how to sneak into a harem for a little illicit fun the usual ways: dressed as a guard, or hidden in a passageway. Or he can make himself invisible with a magic trick called “fold-unfold,” which involves a paste made from the heart of a mongoose, the eyes of a snake, the fruit of fenugreek and a long gourd plant—now that’s more like it. And here’s a bit of advice on the subtle system of courtship when feeling out a woman’s willingness to have an extramarital affair:

When she sees him, he gazes at her steadily while making signals. He pats his hair down, snaps his fingers, tinkles his ornaments, bites his lower lip, and makes other such signs.

Smooth. I personally have a lot of trouble resisting a man who tinkles his ornaments. Book Seven, “Esoteric Matters,” offers recommendations for penis enhancement, piercing options, sex toy advice, and grooming tips. In fact, the unblinking combination of sex and caste brought to mind, more than anything else, high school writ large. It’s hard to say which era I’m happier not to live in—Vatsyayana’s India or twelfth grade.

Don’t get me wrong—the Kama Sutra is, for the most part, a lot of fun. And this snazzy new edition with its racy cover art by Malika Favre (the really lurid stuff is inside on the French flaps) will win you lots of approving looks on the subway—when it’s running. But lest you worry that the book is a little too rule-bound for a free-spirited Valentine’s Day, the author reminds us that at a certain point in the proceedings, all bets are off:

Once the wheel of bliss erotic
is in motion, there is neither
prescription nor any order.

Enjoy the day no matter what the state of your union! Stay home! And don’t forget to stock up on mangoes.


2 Comments to Pocket Review: The Kama Sutra by Vatsyayana, Translated by A.N.D. Haksar

  1. Kat Warren's Gravatar Kat Warren
    February 14, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    Most amusing.

    February 18, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    Terrific review. Some of the social mores are described pretty accurately in the Sea of Poppies, a favorite of mine. It is amazing that by the 19th century, precious little had changed in the sexual union sphere… And, of course, we were some of those Valentine’s day revelers stranded on the MTA while coming back from the opera at BAM. The plight of the straphanger with the loss of direction, few choices of travel, forced physical contact and the wierd contortions one is required to assume when commuting is as ever-enduring. Gotta Love NYC..

  1. By on February 29, 2012 at 7:28 am

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