“A Fresh Look at India’s Erotic Classic,” by Wendy Doniger. The Wall Street Journal, 3/19/2016.
Ms. Doniger published a book back in March titled “Redeeming the Kamasutra,” so she knows what she is talking about. I have never even seen a published version of the Kamasutra, although we were all well aware of it even back in high school. Today, much more graphic depictions of sex acts are readily available on the Internet, and the book no longer seems so strange. Not everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but not strange.
Doniger points out that very little of the book is of sexual descriptions. Only about 20% describes the famous positions that push the boundaries of what is physically possible, and many of those are obviously uncomfortable. The majority of the book is about the philosophy and theory of love, what triggers desire, what sustains it, and how and when it is good or bad. The Kamasutra, Doniger says, “is above all, a profound work of psychology.” The real Kamasutra is about the art of living—finding a partner, maintaining power in a marriage, adultery, using drugs, and more.
The author of the Kamasutra was male, and he lists the types of married women likely to cheat: A woman who has no children, a poor woman fond of enjoying herself, a woman who feels superior to her husband, a woman whose husband travels a lot, or who is jealous, or who is physically repulsive, or who is old (whoops!).
The author also describes the ways a woman shows she wants to end the relationship with her lover: She shows contempt rather than amazement for his skills, she intentionally distorts the meaning of what he says, she does not laugh at his jokes, she talks publicly about his bad habits and vices. (Those would point me to the door.) Surprisingly, the Kamasutra presents a strikingly modern attitude of a woman’s role in sexual relations that are still true today.
The traditional author of centuries ago, Vatsyayana, says in the Kamasutra,
This work is not to be used merely as an instrument for satisfying our desires. A person acquainted with the true principles of this science, who preserves his Dharma (virtue or religious merit), his Artha (worldly wealth) and his Kama (pleasure or sensual gratification), and who has regard to the customs of the people, is sure to obtain the mastery over his senses. In short, an intelligent and knowing person attending to Dharma and Artha and also to Kama, without becoming the slave of his passions, will obtain success in everything that he may do.
Or, as Jerry Seinfeld, the character, would say, the reader has to be master of his domain.
The translation we are most familiar with was written and privately published by Sir Richard Burton in 1883, who routinely replaced direct quotes with generalities. For example, the text says when a man strikes a woman, she uses words like “Stop!” or “Let me go!” or “Enough!” Burton translated this as “she continuously utters words expressive of prohibition, sufficiency, or desire of liberation.”
Kind of loses something in the translation, I kid you not.