The Kama Sutra: Ars Erotica but Not Much Arse Erotica

by Timothy Chilman


<I’m running out of conspiracies. Suggestions to the email address below as to things I could write about would be very welcome. Credit would be given. As you can see, I’m getting kinda desperate.>

If we say that a conspiracy theory is something few people believe – and by Jiminy, we do – then here’s a conspiracy theory: the Kama Sutra is actually not much good.

The Kama Sutra is on the third row, four from the left. Photo: Keith Williamson

Little is known of the Kama Sutra’s origins. The title is best translated as “A Treatise on Sex.” It can be convincingly argued that it was written in the latter half of the third century CE: it doesn’t mention the Guptas, who ruled North India from the beginning of the fourth century and it’s referred to by the Vasavadatta in the fifth century. It was certainly written post-225CE because the Abhiras and Andrhas get a name-check, and they ruled until 225CE.

The Kama Sutra is a handbook of tantric sex, as practiced by Sting. Photo: Sandalford Wines.

While tantra is never mentioned, the Kama Sutra is a handbook of tantric sex as practised by Sting, except unlike him it’s advisable to use deodorant (he sez “I prefer my own smell”). Tantra, a branch of Hinduism, holds that people should follow the triple path: material wealth, religion and sexual fulfillment. i.e. power, piety and pleasure, or in Sanskrit, artha, dharma and kama. This trumps the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity in its view of sex, although I could do without the middle bit.

It was probably written in Northwest India, being dismissive toward other parts of the country. The only city mentioned is Pataliputra, near present-day Patna, Bihar, so it is thought it was written there.

The author was Vatsyayana Mallanaga. Vatsyayana was his family name, and Mallanaga was the name he received at initiation as a monk, meaning “elephant among wrestlers.” You’d be forgiven for thinking Vatsyayana was a bit of a Romeo, however he says the book was written “in chastity and the highest meditation.” Each of its seven component books is a precis of someone else’s text.

The Kama Sutra was ahead of its times in many ways. Kama is the Hindu god of love, and the clitoris is “Kama’s umbrella.” The god of fertility doesn’t get a look-in, thus separating sex from procreation, something yet to be accomplished by the Pope. Its attitude to female orgasm is realistic, which the Western world achieved only comparatively recently.

As we shall see, the Kama Sutra’ position vis-à-vis wimmen was sometimes barbaric, but even then it was ahead of other books of its time, and it often speaks with a convincing female voice. For example, some of the reasons given for a woman to commit adultery are sympathetic, if obvious.

The G spot is #4.

The Kama Sutra mentions the G-Spot, but doesn’t tell you how to find it. The G-Spot is named after the German gynaecologist, Ernst Graefenberg. Betcha didn’t know that. Western science only acknowledged the existence of this “certain spot” in the 1980s. As Francis Darwin, son of Charles Darwin, once said, “In Science the credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to the man to whom the idea first occurs.” Think of Christopher Columbus, whom we say “discovered” America, even though people had already lived there for quite a little while.

The Kama Sutra was written in Sanskrit, a language akin to Latin in that now only scholars speak it. In Vatsyayana’s time, it indicated social status.

Captain Sir Richard Burton, who first published the Kama Sutra

The book came to Western attention when the barnstorming explorer, Captain Sir Richard Burton, arranged its publication in the 19th century. Burton was the subject of a rather good film, Mountains of the Moon. The legwork of translating what we know as the “Burton Edition” was performed by two Indians, Bhagavanlal Indrajit and Shivaram Parashuram Bhide. Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot, known to Burton as “Bunnie,” performed further work on the text and financed the venture. Arbuthnot later blamed the Indians when he got into trouble for producing what was considered unbridled obscenity in a society where it was impolite to mention your underwear. Burton polished the text, but is most noteworthy for having the courage to publish, and courage is all-too-rare. He referred to it himself as “Arbuthnot’s Vatsyayana.”

When the Kama Sutra was first published, it replaced the word "dildo" with "statue." Photo:

This first translation from Sanskrit changed the meaning of individual words and even whole passages, e.g. substituting “statue” for “dildo.” Subsequent translations were even worse.

One contemporary paperback edition has sixty pages of introduction by its translators, whereas the Burton edition had an introduction by Arbuthnot. In the modern-day edition, there are 180 pages of text, of which perhaps a third is elucidation by Yashodhara, who wrote the definitive commentary to the book in the 12th century. Yashodhara’s work is several times longer than Vatsyayana’s, and thankfully only excerpts were included in the copy used by this article. Burton’s edition freely mixed Yashodhara’s text with Vatsyayana’s.

In an ultimately unsuccessful effort to stay out of the dock, instead of using the words “penis” and “vagina,” Burton & co. employed the Sanskrit euphemisms “lingam” and “yoni.” The former means “wand of light” and the latter, “sacred place” or “sacred temple.”

The edition used here has eight pages of modern Hindu commentary by Devadatta Shastri and 31 pages of notes by the translators.

Publishing the Kama Sutra necessitates detective work, consulting various derivatives because the original is lost in the mists of time. Modern translations are quite readable.

The Kama Sutra alone gives insight into the sexual mores of its time, as “Walter’s” My Secret Life did for Victorian England. While Walter periodically exclaimed, “I was clapped!”, the Kama Sutra mentions the STD “Desire’s Donkey”.

Men's Health magazine once included a booklet which had more to say about sex than the Kama Sutra.

Nothing surpassed the Kama Sutra for one-and-a-half millennia, but if you want to know about fucking, you should try something else. Men’s Health magazine once issued a free booklet, Sex Secrets Women Wish Men Knew, which had more to say about sex than did the Kama Sutra. For example, it says that while making the “beast with two backs,” a man should not just thrust his Mighty Rod of Thunder in and out, but he should move it around and around. Nothing in the Kama Sutra is as useful as that.

The Kama Sutra is out of copyright, allowing one to quote it freely. Here’s a potted guide to the book, for as Vatsyayana said, “Wise men of the world like to have things told in both a contracted and an expanded form.”

The Kama Sutra is intended for a man sustained by unearned income. He finishes his day’s business by noon, then has a bath, with female servants rubbing scented thingies into his hair.

The nagaraka, i.e. “man about town,” is instructed to shave all his bodily hair every fifth day, and keep a spittoon in his bedroom. Yashodhara adds that he should colour his lips with red lac, held in place by beeswax. I’m all for shaving my nether regions, but I’d rather keep the hairy chest, if you don’t mind, and I’ll give the lipstick a miss, even though it’s evocative of the female genitalia in arousal. One is instructed to suck a stick of lemon bark smeared with honey to avoid bad breath, which may well be worth trying.

Our hero sleeps in an outer bedroom, with his wife, should he have one, in the inner. After they perform rahas, “the secret act,” the man will sleep on a couch, which the rest of us only resort to when we’ve argued bitterly. But it’s OK to stay abed all night with a courtesan, the Kama Sutra’s very nice term for what the hand-wringing British Guardian newspaper calls a “sex worker.”

The Kama Sutra says that if you want a fuck, you should teach a mynah bird to talk.

The key to scoring is the 64 fine arts. Vatsyayana scraped the bottom of the barrel to get up to 64, a number sacred in Hinduism, and so his arts include such winners as cutting leaves into shapes and making lines on the floor with rice-powder and flowers. Kudos can be gained by teaching a parrot or mynah bird to talk, which may be advantageous when it comes to getting a shag but is not humane when you think of the birdy: parrots only imitate humans when they’re lonely; multiple parrots won’t talk.

The Kama Sutra is big on lists, e.g. “Procedures of Kissing” and “Reasons for a Woman to commit adultery.” The list of wimmen not eligible as lovers includes lepers, lunatics, a woman “who asks for it in public,” bad-smelling wimmen, and fortune-tellers. I’d quite like to try a fortune-teller. However, “any woman who is known to have had five men is eligible,” which presumably encompasses the leprous. Just don’t shag her in the open, or she’ll be “Gone with the Wind.”

People are divided into three categories according to the size of their naughty bits. Men are hares, buffalo, and horses, while wimmen are deer, mares, and elephants. The most comfortable unions are between people of the same size. The next time you hear a woman express a liking for large cocks, tell her this makes her “elephant woman” in the parlance of The Kama Sutra.

Yashodhara helpully informs us that wimmen can make each other pregnant when they do a “chapati” and rub vulvas:

“As Sushruta says:
‘When a woman and a woman
make love together,
and emit semen into one another
a child is born without bones’”.

Er, thanks for that, Yash.

“Women from Malava and Abhira like embracing, kissing, scratching, biting and sucking, and although they do not like to be wounded they can be won over by slaps.” Sean Connery must have read this.

There are actually not many sexual positions described in the Kama Sutra.

Although “all the positions in the Kama Sutra” is a refrain you hear from time to time, not many positions are described, and lacking an illustrated copy, I could never work out what went where. Chapter Six of Book Two is “Varieties of Sexual Positions,” and it’s only three-and-a-half pages, half of which is Yashodhara’s commentary. Ignoring minor variations, I counted 24 positions in The Kama Sutra, and I’ve been through it twice. This isn’t a huge number, far less than on a one-page, wipe-clean, laminated aide memoire I got from a New Age bookshop in Sydney. But once more, the Kama Sutra is ahead of Christianity. St Thomas Aquinas, who was central to the development of Christianity, said any sexual position other than the missionary was worse than doing it with your mother.

Vatsyayana allows the woman to go on top, calling it purushayitva – “playing the man’s part”. He recommends against it if the woman is fat, if she has a close-fitting vadge or if she has “fallen to the communists” (i.e. is menstruating). Yashodhara passes on more of his unparalleled sexual knowledge, informing us that conception on these occasions can lead to a child born with a “reversed nature,” i.e. homosexual.

Hickeys are in!

At least hickeys are in: “This mark beautifies the left cheek, just like an earring”. But it causes such consternation at work the next day.

Sex in the water is recommended. I once heard that if the woman gets water inside her she’ll get air-bubbles in her bloodstream, a possibly terminal condition better known as “the bends,” but this would appear to be incorrect. A guy claiming to be a scuba instructor who had specialized in deep-water compression dives for more than a decade said this was physiologically impossible, and he sounds like the kind of person you should listen to. Worse yet, Google turns up nothing.

This is the portion of the book containing the Kama Sutra’s only mention of “sex below” – anal sex. Fucking up the arse is given less airing in the Kama Sutra than perhaps it deserves, and no hint is given as to the practicalities of introducing a foreign object to somebody’s shit-chute. Stimulation of the prostate, the male G-Spot, is mentioned not at all. Poor show, Vatsyayana!

Vatsyayana sounds a note of caution when he describes death and injury sustained through sex: “The king of the cholas killed Chitrasena, a courtesan de luxe, by using the ‘wedge’ during sex. And the Kuntala king Shatakarni Shatavahana killed his queen, Malayavati, by using the ‘scissor’. Naradeva, whose hand was deformed, blinded a dancing-girl in one eye by using the ‘drill’ clumsily.”

Homosexuality crops up, but not often. Wimmen of the “third nature” are adduced a few times. Men of the “third nature” are only depicted performing oral sex. How do they get by? “The one in the form of a man, however, conceals her desire when she wants a man and makes a living as a masseur.” (Italics mine) This is somewhat anti-diluvian.

Oral sex is favoured by some parts of the book, but not always, a sign that the Kama Sutra originated as separate books. In Chapter Nine of Book Two, the section devoted to oral sex, at the bottom of the page Yashodhara tells us:

“As Vasishtha says:
‘But a man who copulates
in the mouth of his wife
causes his ancestors to starve
for fifteen years’.”

My ancestors will starve for evermore.

The 69 position is referred to as “sex in the manner of crows,” a delightful fragment of language and so called because one is taking something unclean in the mouth, like a crow.

Book Three is about voigins:

“Never court a girl
with a disgusting name
that is a constellation, a river, a tree
or ends in a syllable beginning with ‘l’ or ‘r’”

If you desire a voigin and she is unimpressed by your gifts of betel, the Kama Sutra says you should rape her. Photo: Augapfel.

Advice is given on wooing a voigin and on how to treat one acquired through arranged marriage. All well and good. But there will be times when you fail to convince her parents that you’re a good bet, or maybe she just doesn’t like you. Well, if she isn’t won over by gifts of betel (there’s a lot of betel), leaves cut into shapes, and talking mynah birds, you rape her. Pardon? I think it’s wrong to rape wimmen, even when they turn you down. But Vatsyayana disagrees. If you ply her with drink and deflower her while she’s unconscious, that’s the Wedding of the Ghouls. And if you kill her bodyguards, remove her from the scene, and “take her by force,” that’s the Wedding of the Ogres. To avoid dishonoring the family, her parents will then permit you to marry her. I thought this wicked, however the Bible is in favor. As Vatsyayana says, a voigin “is just like any other piece of merchandise.”

Book Four, about wives, is mostly irrelevant in a country where you’re only allowed to marry one at a time. Nothing remains which is fodder for mockery.

This brings us onto Book Five: Other Men’s Wives. Married wimmen aren’t always attainable, for as Yashodhara says, “There actually are a few women who have regard for religion or the violation of religion.”

A woman who is a good bet can be one who looks out from her rooftop porch onto the main street; who stares constantly; who looks sideways when someone looks at her; who has been supplanted by a co-wife for no good reason; who hates her husband; who lacks restraint; who has no children; who has always lived in the house of relatives; who has been dishonored by her husband when she has done nothing wrong; whose husband travels a lot; whose husband is jealous, impotent, unmanly, or bad-smelling… And that’s a representative taster of the Kama Sutra: lists which are self-evident, irrelevant to this day and age, or plain bullshit.

The Kama Sutra says that you can make yourself invisible using the heart of a mongoose, the fruits of a fenugreek plant and a long gourd, and snake eyes. Photo: Arthur de Vries.

A cunning stunt useful in the wooing of another man’s wife is recounted. It is “pocket-no-pocket.” First, take the heart of a mongoose, the fruits of a fenugreek plant with a long gourd, and snake eyes. Cook them over a fire that does not smoke. Rub into this the same measure of collyrium as a man uses in his eye make-up, and smear the concoction into your eyes. This makes you invisible, having no body or shadow.

The rest of the procedure for wooing the wife of another is as per voigins, except female messengers can be employed. Otherwise, you do the usual, giving gifts of betel and so forth. Betel reddens the lips, gives you a mild buzz, acts as an aphrodisiac and wards off evil spirits. Western science concedes it is good for the body, protecting teeth and aiding digestion, which will more than adequately compensate when long-term usage turns your teeth black. If a married woman rejects your advances but still comes to see you and “dresses carefully,” you have Vatsyayana’s blessing to rape her.

Book Six, on Courtesans, was allegedly commissioned by ladies of that ilk. There’s little of interest to your average crack whore, but you should know that if she tells you that she requires money to build a temple, it’s merely a ruse to separate you from your hard-earned gelt.

Take the shit of a peacock that has eaten red or yellow arsenic...

Book Seven is complete bullshit: magic spells. “If you coat your penis with an ointment made with powdered white thorn-apple, black pepper and long pepper, mixed with honey, you put your sexual partner in your power.” But watch out, says Yashodhara: “Do this in such a way that the woman you want does not realize, ‘A man with something spread on his penis is making love to me’.” Ingredients for other spells include a female “circle-maker” buzzard that died of natural causes, the shit of a monkey with a red face, the shit of a peacock that has eaten red or yellow arsenic, and the sweat of the testicles of a white horse. Prescribed methodologies will see you mixing your potion in a gourd made from a human skull or storing it in the hollowed-out trunk of a rosewood tree for six months.

But the trick of most interest to any guy is the one that enlarges his Spear of Destiny:

“Rub your penis with the bristles of insects born in trees, then massage it with oil for ten nights, then rub it again and massage it again. When it swells up as a result of this treatment, lie down on a cot with your face down and let your penis hang down from a hole in the cot. Then you may assuage the pain with cool astringents and, by stages, finish the treatment. This swelling, which lasts for a lifetime, is the one that voluptuaries call ‘prickled.’”

This trick is guaranteed to work at least as effectively as the ones you delete from your Junk Mail folder every morning, and it has the advantage that no credit card is required.

And that’s the Kama Sutra. When I was looking for a copy in Foyle’s, the largest bookshop in the United Kingdom, I was told it was the most frequently stolen book. The shoplifters are wrong. If you really want to know about sex, I recommend Ecstasy through Tantra by Dr John Mumford or The Multi Orgasmic Man by Mantak Chia.and Douglas Abrams Arava. Ever wondered why they do all that business with blindfolds? When you can’t see it heightens the other senses. It also obviates the need for costumes in role-play and lowers inhibitions for both parties, although it’s been a few years since I last experienced an inhibition. That isn’t in the Kama Sutra. Both books tell you how a man can minimise the refractory period, the time between having an orgasm and getting wood again. That isn’t in the Kama Sutra, either. The Kama Sutra was of historic significance. It’s well-worth reading because you’ll know what people are talking about when they mention it blithely, according it undue significance. But when it comes to fucking, look elsewhere.