The Kama Sutra as a Work of Philosophy


Manu Joseph in The New York Times:

The global view that ancient Indians performed extreme gymnastics while making love was seeded by a late-19th-century English translation of a Sanskrit text called the Kama Sutra, which contained, among other things, details of sexual positions, practical advice on seduction and a note on types of erotic women, who were named after mammals even though, as a book released this month observes, they made noises like birds.

“The Mare’s Trap: Nature and Culture in the Kamasutra” by Wendy Doniger, an American academic, argues, as some discerning couples may have suspected, that the sex in the Kama Sutra is more prank than instructional manual. But the grand ambition of her book is to elevate the Kama Sutra to the status of two great philosophical works that have influenced Indian society: Manu’s Dharmashastra, which invented castes and defined women as subordinate to men, embarrassing some fine people who share the author’s name, and Kautilya’s Arthashastra, a ruthless book on statecraft.

Very little is known about the origins of the Kama Sutra. No portion of the original text has survived. It was probably written in Sanskrit by one Vatsyayana. He seems to have been a compiler of sexual habits, and he blamed another scholar for inventing some of the very difficult sexual positions. Ms. Doniger believes that the Kama Sutra is about 2,000 years old, but she told me that this is based solely on circumstantial evidence.

The reason she takes the Kama Sutra so seriously is that even though she feels that the sexual positions were fantasies, she sees in the rest of the work nothing short of anthropology, a rare portrait of an affluent ancient society.

More here.