The Place of Sex in Indian Civilization

William Dalrymple in the NYRB:

If poets have long been engaging with the erotic in Ancient India, historians of South Asia have until recently tended to avoid confronting this elephant in the classical Indian living room. The first scholarly edition of the Kamasutra appeared only in 2002. This was the work of the great American Sanskritist Wendy Doniger, and it brought into print a serious study of a book that had for a long time been found only on top shelves, in dubious and grubby illustrated editions.

Doniger’s Kamasutra proved to be a revelation, showing that the text was central to understanding classical Indian society. The Kamasutra was not just about acrobatic sexual positions as many had assumed; it was instead a sophisticated guide for the courtly paramour to the maze of ancient Indian social relationships and, as Doniger put it,

the art of living—about finding a partner, maintaining power in a marriage, committing adultery, living as or with a courtesan, using drugs—and also about the positions in sexual intercourse.

Indeed, on the subject of sexual technique the book recognizes the limitations of textbooks: “slapping and moaning are no matter for lists or tables of contents,” we are told. “For when the wheel of sexual ecstasy is in full motion, there is no textbook at all, and no order.”

Compiled from a variety of previous manuals by an old roué named Vatsyayana, around the third century AD, and probably in Pataliputra, the great city on the Ganges near modern Patna, the Kamasutra was aimed at an urbane and cosmopolitan courtly class, and was intended as a guide to the life, sensibility, moods, and experience of pleasure, “not merely sexual,” writes Doniger, “but more broadly sensual—music, good food, perfume, and so forth.”