Reading the Kamasutra

By Wendy Doniger

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The world of the Kamasutra is a fantasized world of sex that is in many ways the prototype for Hugh Hefner’s glossy Playboy empire…The protagonist of the Kamasutra, literally a ‘man-about-town’ (nagaraka, from the Sanskrit nagara, city), lives ‘in a city, a capital city, a market town, or some large gathering where there are good people, or wherever he has to stay to make a living’. He has, as we say of a certain type of man today, no visible means of support. His companions may have quite realistic money problems; his wife is entrusted with all the household management, including the finances; and his mistresses work hard to make and keep their money. But we never see the man-about-town at work. This is how he spends a typical day:

    First is his morning toilet: He gets up in the morning, relieves himself, cleans his teeth, applies fragrant oils in small quantities, as well as incense, garlands, bees’ wax and red lac, looks at his face in a mirror, takes some mouthwash, and attends to the things that need to be done. He bathes every day, has his limbs rubbed with oil every second day, a foam bath every third day, his face shaved every fourth day, and his body hair removed every fifth or tenth day. All of this is done without fail. And he continually cleans the sweat from his armpits. In the morning and afternoon he eats.

Yashodhara’s commentary explains the reasons behind some of these details:

    He uses oil in small quantities, because he is no man-about-town if he uses large amounts. He colours his lips with a ball of moist red lac and fixes it with a small ball of bees’ wax. He puts a ball of sweet-smelling mouthwash in his cheek and takes some betel in his hand to use later. He has the hair shaved from his hidden place with a razor every fifth day, and then, every tenth day, has his body hair pulled out by the roots, because it grows so fast. The sweat that breaks out after any activity must be constantly removed with a rag, to prevent a bad smell and a consequent lack of sophistication.

Now, ready to face the day, he goes to work:

    After eating, he passes the time teaching his parrots and mynah birds to speak; goes to quail-fights, cockfights and ram-fights; engages in various arts and games; and passes the time with his libertine, pander and clown. And he takes a nap. In the late afternoon, he gets dressed up and goes to salons to amuse himself. And in the evening, there is music and singing. After that, on the bed in a bedroom carefully decorated and perfumed by sweet-smelling incense, he and his friends await the women who are slipping out for a rendezvous with them. He sends female messengers for them or goes to get them himself. And when the women arrive, he and his friends greet them with gentle conversation and courtesies that charm the mind and heart. If rain has soaked the clothing of women who have slipped out for a rendezvous in bad weather, he changes their clothes himself, or gets some of his friends to serve them. That is what he does by day and night.

Busy teaching his birds to talk, he never drops in to check things at the shop, let alone visit his mother. Throughout the text, his one concern is the pursuit of pleasure. Well, there were undoubtedly men (and women) in ancient India who had that sort of money and the privilege that came with it; Sanskrit literature tells us, in particular, of wealthy merchants whose sons engaged in the sorts of adventures, erotic and otherwise, that other literatures often reserve for princes. Vatsyayana insists that anyone, not just the man-about-town, can live the life of pleasure—if he or she has money.

That is not to say, however, that the pursuit of pleasure didn’t require its own work. Vatsyayana details the sixty-four arts that need to be learned by anyone (male or female) who is truly serious about pleasure:

    singing; playing musical instruments; dancing; painting; cutting leaves into shapes; making lines on the floor with rice-powder and flowers; arranging flowers; colouring the teeth, clothes and limbs; making jewelled floors; preparing beds; making music on the rims of glasses of water; playing water sports; unusual techniques; making garlands and stringing necklaces; making diadems and headbands; making costumes; making various earrings; mixing perfumes; putting on jewellery; doing conjuring tricks; practising sorcery; sleight of hand; preparing various forms of vegetables, soups and other things to eat; preparing wines, fruit juices and other things to drink; needlework; weaving; playing the lute and the drum; telling jokes and riddles; completing words; reciting difficult words; reading aloud; staging plays and dialogues; completing verses; making things out of cloth, wood and cane; woodworking; carpentry; architecture; the ability to test gold and silver; metallurgy; knowledge of the colour and form of jewels; skill at nurturing trees; knowledge of ram-fights, cockfights and quail-fights; teaching parrots and mynah birds to talk; skill at rubbing, massaging and hairdressing; the ability to speak in sign language; understanding languages made to seem foreign; knowledge of local dialects; skill at making flower carts; knowledge of omens; alphabets for use in making magical diagrams; alphabets for memorizing; group recitation; improvising poetry; knowledge of dictionaries and thesauruses; knowledge of metre; literary work; the art of impersonation; the art of using clothes for disguise; special forms of gambling; the game of dice; children’s games; etiquette; the science of strategy; and the cultivation of athletic skills.

And while we are still reeling from this list, Vatsyayana immediately reminds us that there is, in addition, an entirely different cluster of sixty-four arts of love, which include eight forms of each of the main erotic activities: embracing, kissing, scratching, biting, sexual positions, moaning, the woman playing the man’s part and oral sex. A rapid calculation brings the tab to 128 arts, a curriculum that one could hardly master even after the equivalent of two Ph.Ds and a long apprenticeship; not many could afford it. Clearly the Kamasutra was intended to be useful mainly for the man-about-town—and, indeed, the woman-about-town.

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