The rough English translation of Kamasutra is pleasure (kama) treatise (sutra). In the West, since it was first (rather surreptitiously) translated and published back in 1883, the book has generally been associated with a series of beautiful, ancient illustrations of a couple determinedly coupling in a variety of fascinating — and often utterly improbable — positions; as essentially ‘the erotic counterpart to the ascetic asanas of yoga’. But there is so much more to it than that, as Wendy Doniger doggedly contends in this, her fine collection of frank, brief, clear-eyed essays. Doniger believes the Kamasutra to be not only a precious and under-appreciated part of the Sanskrit canon, but also a great Indian literary landmark which has been — for way too long now — criminally undervalued in its place of origin. Hence its need for ‘redemption’ (a paradoxically Christian notion, perhaps).
She traces the history of the Kamasutra, detailing how the three aims of human life (the Triple Set in Indian parlance) are dharma (religion), artha (power) and kama (pleasure). In a satisfying parallel, these three aims are underpinned by a trinity of ancient texts; the Dharmashastra (written by the sober, strict and rather sexist Manu), the Arthashastra (by Kautilya, the Indian Machiavelli-plus) and the Kamasutra (by the slightly slippery but often refreshingly open-minded Vatsyayana).
The Dharmashastra comes first and influences the Arthashastra, which in turn (and this is at the heart of Doniger’s argument) profoundly informs the content of the Kamasutra by influencing its author to apply the ideas of politics to the murky world of sex and seduction. This means that the Kamasutra is less a book about what to do in bed (in the forest, or during a handy house fire), and more a series of devious strategies for seduction (often of married women). It is unashamedly metrosexual, and because the tenor of the book flows against many of the dharmic social norms and requirements, Vatsyayana (perhaps unconsciously) embeds each chapter with contradictions. He will describe one thing and then argue another. In other words, he’s cussedly hard to pin down.
In her close analysis of the text, Doniger dwells with especial keenness on gender politics, investigating the ‘misogynist traditions of Hindu dharma’ and suggesting that, while not devoid of fault, the Kamasutra offers a valuable ‘counterforce to the prevalent culture of sexual violence’. Not only this, but Vatsyayana argues for sex for itself (not simply as a means to procreation), brilliantly describes some of the earliest examples of female passive aggression, and allows that women may actually orgasm — hundreds of years before the West ever considered this outlandish notion.
Some of the most amusing sections of the book involve Sir Richard Burton’s slightly shonky translation of the original text (which Doniger suggests he hardly translated at all). Several clangers are cited, one of which drily details Burton’s inability to describe, translate or even find a woman’s G-spot, and another in which Burton reduces Vatsyayana’s guide to the three relative penis sizes (large, medium and small) by several inches.
Doniger saves her best essay till last. Here she traces the ancient tensions between different Hindu spiritual traditions (the transgressive rituals of the Tantras vs more conventional and conservative ascetic Hindu paths) and tells how — with the advent of colonialism — this dichotomy becomes truly problematic. She argues that the kama side of Hinduism is irrevocably undermined by a highly Anglicised, slightly self-hating Indian elite (perhaps unwittingly influenced by the strait-lacedness of British Protestantism) who develop a kind of Neo-Vedanta: a much more conservative, nationalistic and fundamentalist form of faith which censors liberal thought, women, homosexuals and free sexual expression in general.
Doniger asserts sadly:
The irony is that in aping the British scorn for Indian sexuality, contemporary Hindus who favour censorship are letting foreign ideas about Hinduism triumph over and drive out native Hindu ideas about — and pride in — their own religion and in the diversity and tolerance that have always characterised the world of the mind in Hinduism.
The final kicker is that today the Kamasutra — one of India’s most fascinating Sanskrit works — is generally read in English, and in the flawed Burton translation.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £12.49. Tel: 08430 600033. Nicola Barker’s novels include Behindlings, the Man Booker-shortlisted Darkmans and, most recently, The Cauliflower.