At the mention of the Kama Sutra, most people imagine the book with strange pictures of complicated sexual positions and everything related to sexual life and sensuality. This assumption is so wrong that one does not know where to begin.
The guide to a healthy and relaxed way of life went through praise in India, where it was born, then through condemnation and total rejection and later became the most translated, alternated, misinterpreted, and misunderstood books of all time, till the present day when the world seems so many variations of the original and is open to them, while in India the book and sexuality itself have become a taboo with time and is a topic no one would dare mention.
The Kama Sutra could most generally be translated from Sanskrit as “teaching on pleasure”. However, here one has to stop and think about what pleasure is and why people are most likely to associate the word “pleasure” with sex. It was written somewhere between 400 BC and 300 AD as a guide to a life of relaxation and happiness. Only one-seventh of the text is predominantly about sex between people of different and same sexes. It is NOT a sex manual.
The book focuses on the art of courting, how a man should approach a woman, what skills are needed to find the perfect woman, etiquette, in what manner the home of the man should be arranged in order for him to be in peace and harmony with himself, on earning the trust of a woman, on the importance of not rushing things and being gentle and so on.
The book dedicates a whole chapter to skills every woman should have. According to the Kama Sutra, there are sixty-four skills and some of them are really strange for us – the art of playing a tune on glasses filled with water, or fighting a war.
The Kama Sutra defines the woman’s role in the family. She is strong, powerful and her voice is heard. At the same time, the book falls into a serious contradiction when it comes to the list of women who were not to be chosen as wives at that time – women who were too white, who could not keep secrets, and quite a few weird to contemporary views requirements.
The Kama Sutra advises on moving towards sexual openness gradually, how to approach a woman, how to proceed to friendship, and from friendship to intimacy. It teaches how to interpret the different responses of a girl, human nature, tendencies in men’s character, tendencies in women’s character; it also teaches why women lose interest and start looking elsewhere, how to avoid or pursue adultery, how to find women interested in extramarital sex and many lovers, how to deploy messengers and how to find good go-betweens.
One also learns the proper manners to get acquainted with someone, how to make a pass, how and what gifts and love tokens are to be given, how to arrange meetings, and how to discretely find out if a woman is available and interested. It also presents warnings and advice on when to stop.
A large chapter is devoted to public women (prostitutes), their life, what to expect and what not to, how to find them, regional practices how to guard and respect them. The Kama Sutra differentiates between prostitutes and courtesans, who are discussed in a separate sub-chapter. One learns what motivates them, how they find clients, how they should decide if someone can be just a friend or a lover, which lovers they should avoid, and how to get a lover and keep him interested.
On relationships, some of the advice still sounds quite reasonable – how to make a lover go crazy about you, how to get rid of him if your love life is not fulfilling. There are answers to questions we are still struggling with today: why our love life gets dull (with relevant examples), familiarity and doubts. I think many people could benefit from the chapters on looking and feeling good, why and how to be attractive, bewitching and virile, on paying attention, on genuineness and artificiality, on body art, on taking care of one’s sexual organs, on stimulants, prescriptions and on unusual practices.
And while this quite enlightening book was being taught in India, a totally different story was being told in the first Christian and Islamic scriptures. In many countries away from India, sex was gradually becoming a taboo, something too dirty to talk about. The two stories co-existed peacefully for a while till the first colonizers came to India. The Dutch, the Portuguese, the British – they all came with their stories, with their morals and understandings.
The belief in what was genuine in the Kama Sutra was lost and substituted with oppressed sexuality and narrow-minded thinking, with the stigma of Victorian times, with the taboos on sex, with the prohibitions on talking about it while doing it secretly. Kama Sutra, unlike the morals that substituted it, considers sex as a way of providing and getting satisfaction, even when one does not want to have children. Later, sex was all about having children, nothing more.
In 1883, the British explorer and linguist Sir Richard Burton managed to publish the first English translation in private because of censorship. By the middle of the 20th century, it was a hit in the USA, but the book was wrongly interpreted, the important things about living and love were lost.
Publishers left the sexual part only with the original illustrations (and seldom not even those) and offered it as a sex manual. It has been a best-seller for decades, but people do not know that in India sex was just a small part of a healthy way of life. The name of the book appeared on chocolate brands, on condoms, on furniture for Kama Sutra sex. It was commercialized to humiliation.
In the meantime, let’s see what happened in its homeland. Once untold, a story cannot be retold with the same credibility. Centuries of sexual oppression turned sex into the biggest taboo in India. No one, literally no one talks about it. Sexual abuse over women and children (yes, pedophilia is common) is solved by forcing the victims to take an oath for silence.
People are deprived of sexual education at home, at school, children are ashamed of their bodies and even though sex is considered a dirty topic, people are doing it a lot. Rape is common. Here is probably the time to mention that the Kama Sutra lists rape among the methods of acquiring a woman – make her drunk and sleep with her –, but it is considered the last and least recommended resort.
How relevant the book is today would largely depend on what one seeks in it. The crippled, wrongly translated, misunderstood and disgustingly commercialized book, deprived of its poetry and beautiful metaphors, still has a lot to offer to the sexual imagination, but it is only one-seventh of the knowledge it used to contain.
Most of the advice in it can be adapted to today’s society and can change the views of conservative people still stuck in the Victorian age on homosexual relationships and equality between genders, but rooting those advanced ideas from the Kama Sutra’s homeland has caused more damage than any other crime in literature.
The story of the Kama Sutra can easily be explained with an example. Let’s say an unwanted guest comes into your house. You are either far too polite to make him leave or you don’t know-how. He eats all your food and tells you it is so bad and unhealthy that if you go on eating that food, you’ll get a severe punishment from the skies and you will suffer for eternity. So, you start having eggs and bacon. The guest leaves you in fear, steals your cookery book, and starts recommending it to the rest of the world.
The world buys the recipes, but since the thief does not know the names of the spices you use, he invents new ones or uses spices he knows, and the food the world eats is a cheap and bad replica of what you offered your guest, only because you believed he was hungry.
– Geri Decheva
It is NOT a sex manual. What the Kama Sutra is and how it was crippled with time on… Diamonds Production January issue