Five or six centuries before Vatsyayana, Philaenis of Samos composed a book on courtship and sex which is said to have covered the techniques of seduction, descriptions of sexual positions, aphrodisiacs, abortifacients, and cosmetics. This became the pattern for later authors, including Ovid in Rome, writing three centuries before Vatsyayana.
In his Ars Amatoria as later in Kama Sutra the majority of the work is devoted to teaching the man about town what sort of bride to take, how to woo her, how to love her, including physical lovemaking and how to keep love alive. Let the girl with a pretty face lie supine, let the lady Who boasts a good back be viewed From behind. Bawdily illustrated manuscripts of the poetess Elephantis travelled with the Roman emperor Tiberius to his retreat on Capri. There is reason to suppose that some of the material in Kama Sutra as in the later Tantra texts, came to India from the West.
Probably ideas and traditions criss-crossed in both directions. Common misconception 3: Kama Sutra is a sacred text. If the Kama Sutra is neither a sex-manual, nor particularly ancient, neither is it, as also commonly believed, a sacred or religious work. Certainly, it is not a tantric text. Thus dharma or virtuous living is the highest aim, artha, the amassing of wealth is next, and kama is the least of the three.
The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana by Vatsyayana
Having paid lip service to the higher aims of life, Vatsyayana begins to show us a brilliant and amoral society with pleasures as refined as those of ancient Rome or Athens. Religion is soon forgotten. True, the citizen is urged to take part in drama festivals staged in the temples of Saraswati but he is expected to throw parties for the actors.
The reader is specifically told to avoid secret sects which practise degrading rituals and this may be a reference to tantric practices. For a discussion of the origins of such practices see my book Tantra. Many wish to believe that Vatsyayana wrote with a high moral purpose, but the evidence of the text is to the contrary.
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The Kama Sutra is amoral from beginning to end, advocating all sorts of opportunistic, selfish and unsocial behaviour, including seducing the wives of friends and strangers, raping peasant girls and, if one is a king, capturing and enslaving any woman one likes. The closest thing in western literature is Machiavelli.
Concerning Arthashastra, see this bizarre story. Gupta cities were as sophisticated and cosmopolitan as anywhere in Greece or the Roman empire.
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The emperors were enthusiastic patrons of the arts. Under their rule, poetry, drama, dance and music were well funded. Large cities had libraries and art galleries. Tempera masterpieces on the walls of the Ajanta caves demonstrate that Indian painters of the period were the equals of their Greek and Rome counterparts. Royal ladies, Ajanta caves, painted c. Courtesy Yorke Project. Victorian art critics were astonished by the Ajanta cave paintings, which were discovered a party of British soldiers.
The famous Dr Fergusson said that in their use of chiaroscuro and perspective, their deep rich colours and their ability to capture the most delicate expressions, the Ajanta painters were not surpassed until the Italian renaissance, and in particular not until the madonnas of Bellini.
Vatsyayana gives us a fascinating description of the daily life of a wealthy man, who sleeps in a bed strewn with fresh flowers, perfumes his body with sandalwood and outlines his eyes with collyrium. He spends his days teaching parrots to talk, attending cock fights and visiting inns or pleasure houses to talk of art, poetry and listen to singers.
Later, he will welcome his lover to his beautifully appointed house, and if she has been caught in a shower of rain, will offer to towel her dry. The advice on beginning and ending lovemaking is one of the tenderest passages. Let her lie in your lap with her face turned up to the moon point out Polaris and the Morning Star the Great Bear and his seven rishis and tell her all the stories of the night sky.
Life in a wealthy Indian household, cCE.
Flowers and herbs for the garden, supervision of kitchen and servants, production of food and drink and ways to practise small economies — all these are the domain of the woman of the house. Let her fulfil her wifely dharma, says Vatsyayana, and she will be spared the curse of having co-wives.
For a certain audience, all Penguin Classics are trance-inducing objects of lust. Haksar reminds us how little of this book is a sex tutorial and how much of it is an intricate and surprisingly modern guide to the art of living.
Under the Covers, Between the Sheets
It is addressed to women as well as men. It is about decorating, about spouse wooing and about intellectual pastimes, among other things. The Kama Sutra was first translated into English in by the explorer and linguist Sir Richard Burton who, given censorship laws, helped get it published privately. The Kama Sutra feels modern in its pleasure-seeking impulses, but much of the pleasure of reading it in comes from its ornate and antiquated sexual taxonomies. Bliss would be an audiobook adaptation read by Salman Rushdie and Tina Fey.
There is an impressively esoteric list, for example, of varieties of moaning during sex. The Kama Sutra provides a recipe to make a man invisible so he can sneak into a harem. There is wince-inducing advice, involving insect bristles and a string hammock, for enlarging the penis. You would be wrong.
Both are to some degree investigations into the kind of life a gentleman or gentlewoman should aspire to lead. There is advice about the types of people with whom you should socialize, and a section that functions as a kind of charm school primer for women. There are some surprisingly metrosexual grooming tips.
View all New York Times newsletters. The Kama Sutra will not be mistaken for a feminist manifesto. There are lessons about when forcible marriage is appropriate, about how a man should be like a god to his wife and about the ease with which a man can pluck ripe servant girls for his delectation. Men are told to satisfy a woman first in bed.
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