Compiled between the second and third centuries by Vatsyayana, the Kama Sutra (aphorisms on love) is an ancient Indian text that stipulates and guides how men and women should behave with respect to their courtship, marriage, sexual unions and more. For its time, the book was immensely progressive, what with its open dialogue and approach to sexuality, widow remarriage, sexual unions with multiple partners, its encouragement of women handling finances, and so forth. It’s not shocking then, that as a result of such attitudes, the liberated Indian masses today often cite the irony of coming from the land that wrote the Kama Sutra only to end up in the regressive, sexually repressed state we seem to be in today. The truth is, however (and we’re just as guilty of this as others) very few people have actually read the Kama Sutra to know exactly what its content contains. So we decided to go through it, piece by piece, to know more, after chancing upon this Facebook post. Turns out there is a lot more to the Kama Sutra than the potential of great sex.
If you’re objective, it’s possible to heed certain progressive verses, but impossible for any individual to deny that a vast portion of its excerpts have blatant undertones of sexism and casteism. Some might even suggest it was written “with the explicit purpose of policing sexual morality.” The contrasts in this text are aplenty but only the truly regressive bits can still be witnessed in modern day society. So perhaps the next time somebody argues the double standard of Indian society because…Kama Sutra, you can give them something to think about.
Here are a few excerpts from the Kama Sutra that dispel any notions that it was, and is, just a book on ‘neat ways to have sex’ and to question if it’s really as progressive as we always thought.
On women studying the Kama Sutra
“A public woman, endowed with a good disposition, beauty and other winning qualities, and also versed in the above arts [64 practices prescribed in the Kama Sutra], obtains the name of a Ganika, or public woman of high quality, and receives a seat of honour in an assemblage of men.”
The Kama Sutra tells us about the attributes that make a ‘high quality woman’, and then equates only these women to the league of men—the ultimate goal for anyone, it would appear. Admittedly, the Kama Sutra is far more progressive than other texts of its kind, because at least it believes that women should, in fact, study the Kama Shashtra and its sixty-four practices. But, in the very same chapter, it equates only a ‘public woman of high quality’ to a man, which is telling of the disparity in perception of men and women. This might seem a bit like we’re grasping at straws but when understood in the context of the rest of the book’s content, it’s easy to see that this is, indeed, a running theme.
On classes of women fit and unfit for sexual fulfilment
“When Kama is practised by men of the four castes according to the rules of the Holy Writ (i.e. by lawful marriage) with virgins of their own caste, it then becomes a means of acquiring lawful progeny and good fame, and it is not also opposed to the customs of the world. On the contrary, the practice of Kama with women of the higher castes, and with those previously enjoyed by others, even though they be of the same caste, is prohibited. But the practice of Kama with women of the lower castes, with women excommunicated from their own caste, with public women, and with women twice married, is neither enjoined nor prohibited. The object of practising Kama with such women is pleasure only.”
While the Kama Sutra pays much less regard to caste as compared to the Manusmriti and Arthashastra (other ancient Indian texts), the subtle yet consistent references to caste hierarchy, like this one, occur frequently while classifying different unions and cannot be ignored.
Further, women ‘fit to be enjoyed without sin’ are referred to as Nayikas, “Nayikas, therefore, are of three kinds, viz. maids, women twice married, and public women. Gonikaputra has expressed an opinion that there is a fourth kind of Nayika, viz. a woman who is resorted to on some special occasion even though she be previously married to another.”
The same chapter of the Kama Sutra enlists women that are ‘not to be enjoyed’, stating that lepers, lunatics, women who are extremely white or black, and bad-smelling women all fall into this category. The further classification of women on the bases of different parts in India too, is based on offensive stereotypes to say the least.
Here are just a few examples: “The women of the Balhika country are gained over by striking. The women of Avantika are fond of foul pleasures, and have not good manners.The women of the Maharashtra are fond of practising the sixty-four arts, they utter low and harsh words, and like to be spoken to in the same way, and have an impetuous desire of enjoyment.”
Auparishtaka (Oral sex) - An act of love?
And so, we arrive at the part of the Kama Sutra that everyone knows best - the different types of sexual unions. While some of them are wildly erotic positions and acts of pleasure, others are riddled with undertones of discrimination, as we notice in the references to oral sex.
“The Acharyas (ancient and venerable authors) are of the opinion that this Auparishtaka is the work of a dog and not of a man, because it is a low practice, and opposed to the orders of the Holy Writ, and because the man himself suffers by bringing his lingam into contact with the mouths of eunuchs and women.”
The Kama Sutra’s perception of oral sex is an extremely low and belittling one, stating that such acts are fit only for maids and other such women to perform. Married women are prohibited from oral sex, and Brahmins are should never partake in its pleasures.
“The Auparishtaka, or mouth congress, should never be done by a learned Brahman, by a minister that carries on the business of a state, or by a man of good reputation.”
And then there’s this.
“Congress between a man and a female water carrier, or a female servant of a caste lower than his own, lasting only until the desire is satisfied, is called ‘congress like that of eunuchs’. Here external touches, kisses, and manipulation are not to be employed.”
This excerpt not only refers to ‘eunuchs’ as a derogatory term or an affliction to society rather than a part of it, but it also once again sheds light on the constant casteism preached regarding sexual union between a man and a woman.
So what makes a girl marriageable?
“When a girl of the same caste, and a virgin, is married in accordance with the precepts of Holy Writ, the results of such a union are the acquisition of Dharma and Artha, offspring, affinity, increase of friends, and untarnished love.”
Caste isn’t the only characteristic of a girl considered for marriage - the status of a family and wealth are also important. And, of course, her physical attributes. But to be fair, it’s important to note that the Kama Sutra prescribes similar conditions for men as well.
“She should also be beautiful, of a good disposition, with lucky marks on her body, and with good hair, nails, teeth, ears, eyes and breasts, neither more nor less than they ought to be, and no one of them entirely wanting, and not troubled with a sickly body. The man should, of course, also possess these qualities himself.”
And what makes a girl unmarriageable?
Then follows a long list of women who should be avoided when it comes to marriage, including one who has ‘fully arrived’ at puberty, which is telling of the large age gap in these marriages. An acceptable wife is a young girl who still hasn’t completely hit puberty—basically, a child.
And as the list continues, we find women with ill-sounding names, or with her nostrils turned up, with crooked thighs, a bald head and so on also featuring this list. Being in a mood that isn’t perfectly pleasant is an unmarriageable quality, too.
“A girl who is asleep, crying, or gone out of the house when sought in marriage, or who is betrothed to another, should not be married.”
On showcasing a suitable wife
“When a girl becomes marriageable her parents should dress her smartly, and should place her where she can be easily seen by all. Every afternoon, having dressed her and decorated her in a becoming manner, they should send her with her female companions to sports, sacrifices, and marriage ceremonies, and thus show her to advantage in
society, because she is a kind of merchandise.”
When all these conditions are fulfilled, it is time to display the prize. A suitable, eligible bachelorette is seen as a product to be dressed up and made desirable.
On a man, err…creating confidence in a girl
“By and by he should place her in his lap, and try more and more to gain her consent, and if she will not yield to him he should frighten her by saying ‘I shall impress marks of my teeth and nails on your lips and breasts, and then make similar marks on my own body, and shall tell my friends that you did them. What will you say then?’ In this and other ways, as fear and confidence are created in the minds of children, so should the man gain her over to his wishes.”
In passages such as this one, the Kama Sutra openly suggests a man coercing a woman into consent. This notion of a superior status translates to several different avenues, such as the general duties expected of a woman.
“He should also press a finger of her hand between his toes when she happens to be washing his feet; and whenever he gives anything to her or takes anything from her, he should show her by his manner and look how much he loves her.”
Some expectations seen in the Kama Sutra resonate even today in the 21st century, such as the subtle and demure behaviour a woman should assume.
“But old authors say that although the girl loves the man ever so much, she should not offer herself, or make the first overtures, for a girl who does this loses her dignity, and is liable to be scorned and rejected.”
On acquiring a wife
“When the girl cannot make up her mind, or will not express her readiness to marry, the man should obtain her in any one of the following ways:
On a fitting occasion, and under some excuse, he should, by means of a female friend with whom he is well acquainted, and whom he can trust, and who also is well known to the girl’s family, get the girl brought unexpectedly to his house, and he should then bring fire from the house of a Brahman, and proceed as before described.”
Rest assured, if she cannot be brought unexpectedly, or lured under false pretenses, the Kama Sutra had other ways of coaxing an unwilling girl into marriage. “The man should, with the connivance of the daughter of the nurse, carry off the girl from her house while she is asleep, and then, having enjoyed her before she recovers from her sleep, should bring fire from the house of a Brahman, and proceed as before.”
The manner of living for a virtuous woman
“A virtuous woman, who has affection for her husband, should act in conformity with his wishes as if he were a divine being, and with his consent should take upon herself the whole care of his family.”
Apart from these expectations, the Kama Sutra doles out very specific duties in terms of a woman keeping the house clean, arranging flowers and so forth. And if her husband behaves badly, there’s a stipulated reaction for that too.
“In the event of any misconduct on the part of her husband, she should not blame him excessively, though she be a little displeased.”
Additionally, sulky looks, bad expressions and any other sign of displeasure are deemed as undesirable qualities to a man, and so avoidable by women. Apart from the undertones of sexism and assigned gender roles, further discrimination of women is done at the hands of money, status, caste and more.
“The wife should always avoid the company of female beggars, female Buddhist mendicants, unchaste and roguish women, female fortune tellers and witches.”
However, the Kama Sutra is extremely progressive when it comes to women handling money, and has various verses dedicated to the financial responsibilities of a woman—reaching far ahead of its time.
“At appropriate times of the year, and when they happen to be cheap, she should buy earth, bamboos, firewood, skins, and iron pots, as also salt and oil. “
On different wives of the same man
Although the Kama Sutra is progressive in its approach to widow remarriage, it also permits male polygamy, but has no mention of female polygamy. The reasons for a man acquiring more than one wife are listed carefully, too.
“The causes of re-marrying during the lifetime of the wife are as follows: the ill-temper of the wife, her husband’s dislike to her, the want of offspring, the continual birth of daughters, the incontinence of the husband [...]”
On women who are ‘gained over’ easily
“The following are the women who are easily gained over: [...]”
The long list of such women, according to the Kama Sutra, includes those who stand at their door or look out on the street, women who stare at you, female messengers, women whose family or caste is not well known, a vain woman, a poor woman, a widow and so forth. To add to that list is a woman whose husband is inferior to her in rank or abilities, a barren, jealous or immoral women, a sick woman or a cowardly woman. Not to forget, an ill-smelling woman, and of course, a lazy woman.
“But while some women are born courtesans, and follow the instincts of their nature in every class of society, it has been truly said by some authors that every woman has got an inkling of the profession in her nature, and does her best, as a general rule, to make herself agreeable to the male sex.”
“A courtesan, well dressed and wearing her ornaments, should sit or stand at the door of her house, and, without exposing herself too much, should look on the public road so as to be seen by the passers by, she being like an object on view for sale.”
While these verses seem to demean the profession of a courtesan, the very fact that there is an open mention of the community at all is a progressive sign for the time at which this text was written. Additionally, there are certain parts of the Kama Sutra that protect courtesans.
“She should form friendships with such persons as would enable her to separate men from other women, and attach them to herself, to repair her own misfortunes, to acquire wealth, and to protect her from being bullied, or set upon by persons with whom she may have dealings of some kind or another.”
And, one step forward from her protection, there is also a prescribed list of men whom courtesans should not resort with—yet another sign of progress.
“One who is consumptive; one who is sickly; one whose mouth contains worms; one whose breath smells like human excrement; one whose wife is dear to him; one who speaks harshly; one who is always suspicious; one who is avaricious; one who is pitiless; one who is a thief; [...]”
On a wife or courtesan’s behaviour
“[...]disputing continually with her mother on the subject of going to him, and, when forcibly taken by her mother to some other place, expressing her desire to die by taking poison, by starving herself to death, by stabbing herself with some weapon, or by hanging herself.”
In order to gain a man’s favour, a courtesan or wife is advised to perform different practices, many of which are disturbing to say the least.
Still, in contrast, the Kama Sutra gives women a long list of ways to get rid of a lover, such as putting down his pride, showing him no admiration, speaking on a subject that he isn’t acquainted with, not responding to his embraces, and so on.
As completely contrasting sections of the Kama Sutra come into light through these excerpts, we are left revelling in its progressive nature, as well as condemning its regressive stipulations. The underlying sexism and casteism in several verses highlights how this text is not exactly the iconic symbol of progressive thought and discourse that it is quoted to be. Celebrating this text as the ideal of forward values is misguided on more than a few accounts. But, since this text was compiled in the second and third centuries, it is bound to be less progressive than the 21st century’s ideologies.
The real problem stems when certain parts of this text are reflected in our society even today, almost 19 centuries later.
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