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Mandira Nayar
Mandira Nayar


Kamasutra revisited

Wendy Doniger relooks at the world's oldest 'dirty' book to rescue it from its image

The Kamasutra is still in the closet centuries later. Wendy Doniger, the scholar of Sanskrit and an authority on Hinduism despite the recent controversial bans, relooks at the world’s oldest ‘dirty’ book to rescue it from its image.

Khajuraho temple No gender bias: Wendy Doniger (below), in her book, says that contrary to popular perception, the Kamasutra is to be read by not just men, but also women, a woman at a Khajuraho temple, known for its erotic sculptures.

Several reinterpretations of this book of love or manners have come out—the Kamasutra hasn’t escaped Richard Burton’s flawed English translation, too. In The Mare’s Trap, she links Kautilya’s Arthashastra to Kamasutra, showing how “many of the puzzles in the Kamasutra are resolved’’ when you realise that it is based on India’s most famous statecraft book. It is also important to revisit the book at a time when there is a “rise of a wave of puritanical censorship’’ in India.

Doniger's book goes beyond the manual of positions for satisfaction mould that Kamasutra books tend to be. The man-about-town in the Kamasutra, as she describes him, is similar to the current metrosexual man. He is groomed—hair is removed from the roots (Bollywood actors, take note)—and replace the oil with gel and he would fit comfortably in the 21st century. The book is littered with nuggets of information, like Vatsyayana knew what the G-spot was, and portrays the culture that Kamasutra survived in.

Excerpts from the book

The assumption that the intended reader of the Kamasutra is male persists in popular culture today, where Vinod Verma, apparently hoping to rectify this imbalance, published The Kamasutra for Women: The Modern Woman’s Way to Sensual Fulfilment and Health, applying Ayurvedic techniques to female heterosexual relationships; and in 2002 there was The Woman’s Kamasutra, by Nitya Lacroix; and then the Kama Sutra para la Mujer. But there is no need for such books. The Kamasutra is for women—it was intended to be used by women, and has much to offer to women even today.

Vatsyayana argues at some length that some women, at least, should read this text, and that others should learn its contents in other ways:

Wendy Doniger

A woman should study the Kamasutra and its subsidiary arts before she reaches the prime of her youth, and she should continue when she has been given away, if her husband wishes it. Scholars say: ‘Since females cannot grasp texts, it is useless to teach women this text.’ Vatsyayana says: But women understand the practice, and the practice is based on the text. This applies beyond this specific subject of the Kamasutra, for throughout the world, in all subjects, there are only a few people who know the text, but the practice is within the range of everyone. And a text, however far removed, is the ultimate source of the practice.

‘Grammar is a science,’ people say. Yet the sacrificial priests, who are no grammarians, know how to gloss the words in the sacrificial prayers. ‘Astronomy is a science,’ they say. But ordinary people perform the rituals on the days when the skies are auspicious. And people know how to ride horses and elephants without studying the texts about horses and elephants. In the same way, even citizens far away from the king do not step across the moral line that he sets. The case of women learning the Kamasutra is like those examples. And there are also women whose understanding has been sharpened by the text: courtesans and the daughters of kings and state ministers.

This is an important text, for it argues for the method by which the Kamasutra (and indeed, other Sanskrit texts) would have been known not only by women, but by the wider population in general; such knowledge was by no means limited to men, or women, who knew Sanskrit.

The eighth century CE playwright Bhavabhuti, in his Malatimadhava, depicts women actually citing the Kamasutra (2.2.6-7). At the start of act seven, when a woman complains that her friend was raped by her husband on the wedding night, she changes from the dialect in which she is speaking (as most women in Sanskrit plays do) and ‘resorts to Sanskrit’ (as the stage directions indicate) to say, ‘The authors of the Kamasutra warn, “Women are like flowers, and need to be enticed very tenderly. If they are taken by force by men who have not yet won their trust they become women who hate sex.”’ This is important evidence not only of the common knowledge of the Kamasutra in literary circles, but of the use of it by women who knew Sanskrit as well as the dialects in which they conventionally spoke. It is also evidence that the Kamasutra was regarded as a counterforce to the prevalent culture of sexual violence.

Vatsyayana also knew about the G-spot (named after the German gynaecologist Ernst Graefenberg): ‘When her eyes roll when she feels him in certain spots, he presses her in just those spots.’ Vatsyayana quotes a predecessor who said, ‘This is the secret of young women’—and, indeed, it remained a secret in Europe for quite a few centuries, in part because Sir Richard Burton mistranslated it.


The privilege of the Kamasutra lovers is expressed in the opulence of the instructions on the home decorating of the two bedrooms in the home of the ideal lover. The two bedrooms are not, as in European conventions, a hint that the man and woman may not be sleeping together; au contraire, as the commentary makes clear:

The inner bedroom is where the wives sleep. The outer bedroom is for sex. The couch is for the man to sleep on after sex. That is what decent people do; but the lovers of courtesans sleep together with them in the bedroom, and have no need for a couch. And so there is a saying:

‘The lover makes love with his beloved wherever he happens to be, but a wise man, a pure man, does not sleep there on that polluted bed.’

The Mare's Trap

Many other items are also strewn around the bedrooms—lemon bark and books, for instance—and the commentary tells us why they are necessary:

The lemon bark is chewed to dispel the bad taste in the mouth and prevent bad breath; about this there is a saying: ‘The lover who, in the evening, sucks a stick of lemon bark, smeared with honey, is not plagued by foul breath when he is caught in the net of his woman’s arms.’ The book is understood to be a book of recent poetry, to read aloud.

The Mare's Trap: Nature and Culture in the Kamasutra
By Wendy Doniger
Published by Speaking Tiger
Pages 183; price Rs399

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