By Suleman Din
“Raise your hands in the air!” a DJ yells from across the room. Everybody in the sweaty crowd obeys, mindlessly erecting their arms like sprouting stalks. “Alright, I KNOW you guys are gonna party tonight, so fo it safely!” With this pronouncement, a rain of plastic packages fall from the stage and onto the crowd.
I picked one up off the floor. It was a condom, packaged in black, glossy plastic. “Kama Sutra Brand” it said. Reading the cover, my South Asian friend, Kapil, immediately started cracking up.
The joke was that a company was marketing the name of Kama Sutra, the book of love considered sacred by some Hindus, on a condom wrapper. But it got me thinking — what is the Kama Sutra really about?
“Originally it was a lot more pure and a lot more innocent. Now it’s been cheapened as just something to improve your sex life,” says Sonia, a Hindu student who didn’t want her real name used.
“It’s not just about having sex for the hell of it, it’s about improving yourself spiritually and making your relationship closer with your partner.”
The book’s full name is the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana. Written around 300 AD, during the Gupta period (“The Classical Age of India”), the book is known to Westerners mostly as an instruction manual for acrobatic sex. This is partly because, in all the 35 chapters, the famous index of sexual positions is the most translated excerpt of the Kama Sutra.
The author of the Kama Sutra, Hindu priest Vatsyayana, in fact concerns himself with much more than just the physical aspect of sex. The book concerns itself with subjects as diverse as how to furnish and decorate a house, how to woo a bride, how husbands and wives are to be celebrated, how the kitchen is to be provisioned and the garden planted.
“The Kama Sutra,” says Indian scholar Indra Sinha, “is an attempt to define the whole relationship between a man and a woman.”
There are chapters such as “How to milk a wealthy lover”, “Living as a wife,” and “Breaking into the harem.” These chapters discuss the politics of love and marriage strategically, in a step-by-step fashion not unlike the “For Dummies” self-education books.
The Kama Sutra is a book aimed at women. When it was written, it was meant for brides-to-be, so that they would know how to please their husbands — and idea that’s surely anachronistic. Yet, at its core is the timelessly romantic idea of having a sole partner and devoting yourself to him or her.
“Sex in this society is something you do just for fun, it’s a cool thing to do,” says Sonia. “Whereas in our [Eastern] culture it’s saved for marriage, done with the person you’re supposed to spend the rest of your life with.
“It’s a beautiful experience if you do it with the right person. It helps you get to know the other person a lot better and explore them.”
The chapter dealing with the actual act, “Lovemaking,” is indeed extensive in examining the dynamics of sex, from beginning to end.
In this order it discusses: compatibility, embraces, kisses, nailmarks and lovebites, love positions, role reversal, loveblows and lovecries, oral pleasures, how to begin and end lovemaking and lovers’ quarrels.
The way in which these topics are described makes it, in fact, poetic, artful erotica rather than grotesque pornography.
“To be honest, I haven’t read it, I only heard about it,” says Sonia, who can’t help herself from giggling and blushing throughout the whole interview. Unlike other young South Asians, she agreed to be interviewed, but was shocked at the questions.
“I did see the movie recently but haven’t discussed it with my parent, and I feel uncomfortable watching that kind of stuff with them.
“It’s taboo to talk about those things in Indian culture. India is rooted in religion so it’s just not acceptable to discuss sex in public. The way we were brought up, you don’t see your parent kissing,” says Sonia who speaks for many Indians whose attitudes towards sex have over time become strongly influenced by Islamic and British puritanism.
“But things in India culture are changing, kids are more aware of sex now. I guess I’m kind of old fashioned,” she explains.
The Orientalist tradition which has taught Westerners to look at Asian society in a demeaning way, has also influenced our perception of the Kama Sutra. The images in the Kama Sutra are twisted to fit Asian stereotypes created by Europeans such as “the domicile, exotic woman.” A famous Orientalist and English explorer, Sir Richard F. Burton, was the first to translate Kama Sutra in the late 19th century. (He also translated The 1001 Arabian Nights, an Arabian erotic fantasy). Burton’s fascination with the chapters on sexual positions in the Kama Sutra appears to be the product of the sexually repressive Victorian era. Focusing on the erotic content and ignoring the culturally relevant passages gave credence to the general perception that Europeans were morally pure and charged with the “white man’s burden” of controlling sex-crazy savages.
Indra Sinha explains that “Kama, which is the name of the Hindu god of love, means “pleasure.” Not just sexual pleasure, but any pleasure which can be experience through the senses, for instance sniffing a rose or listening to music.”
Mira Nair, director of the film Kama Sutra, is quoted as defending the ancient text. “The Kama Sutra deals very matter-of-factly with the different kinds of sex and love that exist,” she said. “It says that sex without love is completely natural, but not to get disappointed when the act itself is not exalted.
“However, if practiced with the skills of the Kama Sutra, sex with love with someone with whom you want a more complete union, can be holy, transcendent, divine.”