Sex and the Shruti

by Kenneth Champeon, Aug 23, 2002 | Destinations: India

The late comedian Bill Hicks once told of reading a book in some backwater greasy spoon when a waitress approaches him to ask, or rather twang: "Hey, mister....Whatcha reading for?"

Hicks pauses for effect; his rheumy eyes narrow. "Not 'what are you reading,'" he sneers, "but 'what are you reading... for.'" He then explains to the waitress that he is reading so that he doesn't end up working as a waitress in a backwater greasy spoon, and our cry of "touche!" harmonizes well with Hicks' nicotinic hack.

That Hicks ended up dead at 32 from pancreatic cancer makes his victory and ours rather a sour one. And admittedly there are a few books that one should avoid reading in plain view: Mein Kampf ("What're you, a Nazi?") or de Sade's Justine ("What're you, a pervert?"). Even the Bible will rattle saucers in some circles ("What're you, a Crusader?") That these books are among the most influential books ever written is beside the point. It is better to pretend that they do not exist; that all is for the best in the best of all possible wholesome family entertainments; and that nothing good is to be gained by investigating its contraries.

The ancient Indian treatise on love, the Kama Sutra, is also a viable candidate for an index of publicly prohibited books. If by reading it you are not a pervert, then you are worse: an innocent, but eager. This perception arises because the book has been warped by its countless illustrated variations, which invariably feature various graphic and acrobatic sexual positions performed by rippling Barbies and Kens wearing flesh-toned bikinis for decency's sake.

In fact, surprisingly few of the Kama Sutra's thirty or so chapters deal with sex per se. This because kama, though often justifiably translated as "love", is of much wider scope. "Sensual pleasure" may be more accurate, as the author Vatsyayana here explains:

"Kama is the enjoyment of appropriate objects by the five senses of hearing, feeling, seeing, tasting, and smelling, assisted by the mind together with the soul. The ingredient in this is a peculiar contact between the organ of sense and its object, and the consciousness of pleasure that arises from that contact is called Kama."

Two inferences can immediately be made. First, the word "appropriate" suggests that kama is not simply hedonism unbound. Human beings are not brutes, whose coupling is "unrestrained"; and Vatsyayana disparages certain practices as "painful, barbarous, and base, and quite unworthy of imitation." He does however admit that "congress once having commenced, passion alone gives birth to all the acts of the parties." Second, kama accords with Indian philosophy's preoccupation with sense impressions as often deceptive mediators between ourselves and our world. As always in things Indian, detachment is key. Partake of pleasure, but do not become pleasure's slave. And be wary especially of the "six enemies of mankind": lust, anger, avarice, spiritual ignorance, pride, and envy. But Vatsyayana eschews a sterile puritanism. Pleasures, he says, are "as necessary for the existence and well-being of the body as food." So says Shruti, or Holy Writ.

Of the sutra's six parts, only one concerns "Sexual Union". The others concern "the Acquisition of a Wife", "a Wife", "the Wives of Other Men", "Courtesans", and the all-important "Means of Attracting Others to Yourself." Thus the sutra might better be known as Aphorisms on Marriage rather than Aphorisms on Love or Sex, although sex and marriage went hand-in-hand in those days. Men had many wives, all ideally acquired before they reached puberty; and it was even expected that men and women engage in adultery and other "illicit" sexual acts. To be clear: the ethics of the sutra on this point buck the standard line. So long as promiscuity goes unnoticed and brings no one harm, it is "neither enjoined nor prohibited." But woe to him who tries to enjoy "women of the higher castes, and with those previously enjoyed by others." Caste, in this sutra as in so many others, is iron cast.

Indian Cassanovas had a lot of studying to do. The sutra enumerates sixty-four "arts" to be learned, some more ridiculous than others. So, Art #1 is singing. Art #10 is "fixing stained glass into a floor"; #12 is "playing on musical glasses filled with water"; and #24 includes "making lemonades". This may seem like quite a dull party. On the other hand, the sixty-four arts evoke a lost and simple world in which people entertained each other, rather than being entertained by certain blaring electronic devices. In this world, work took up a small portion of one's day; the rest was dedicated to conversation and "agreeable diversions".

Women versed in such arts were called the Vesya, or courtesans, similar to the Japanese geisha and the Greek heterae. A highly accomplished Vesya "obtains the name of a Ganika...and receives a seat of honor in an assemblage of men." Because courtesans depend for their livelihood on male largesse, they are first-class manipulators, and Vatsyayana commits two unbroken pages of text to what courtesans should do to ensnare their prey. This includes "pronouncing the words 'live long' when he sneezes" and "expressing wonder at his knowledge of sexual intercourse"!

Much of the sutra consists of such manipulative tricks -- tricks for men and women alike. Want to a win a woman or women? "Embrace and kiss a child in her presence." "Send presents to them." "Do things that they like." And bear in mind that a woman "never disregards a man's kneeling at her feet." Less palatably, when a wife hears her husband coming home, "she should at once get up, and be ready to do whatever he may command her." Above all, she should not be a scold, for "there is no cause of dislike on the part of a husband so great" as this. Forget Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and like tripe: the war between the sexes is old, old stuff.

Now, as to the matter of Ahem. Did I skip to the good parts? I skipped to the good parts. And whoa, Nelly. Playing "Twister" in the buff is tame indeed when compared to what Indians did 1,700 years ago. Many of the positions described in the sutra leave much for an overactive imagination to embellish. Part II, "Sexual Union", contains chapters "On Kissing", "On Pressing or Marking or Scratching With the Nails", "On Biting", and "On the Various Modes of Striking", and "On the Auparishtaka," i.e. fellatio. Students of hatha yoga will recognize how much experimentation must have gone into its formulation; and kama is often much like yoga in its contortions. Witness:

"When a man supports himself against a wall, and the woman, sitting on his hands joined together and held underneath her, throws her arms around his neck, and putting her thighs alongside his waist, moves herself by her feet, which are touching the wall against which the man is leaning, it is called the 'suspended congress.'"

Also mentioned are a number of dubious aphrodisiacs, many of them including unguents and enhancements of the male member, piercing included. Shampooing as a means of foreplay seems to have been popular. And there is an indirect reference to dildos, i.e. "bulbs, roots, and fruits having the form of the lingam" -- the Sanskrit term for you-know-what. Even the so-called silent sin of sodomy is acknowledged. The "lower congress", says Vatsyayana, is a southern custom (predictable, given the fair Aryans' dim view of their dark, southern subjects the Dravidians.) But Burton, writing in 1883, attributes sodomy to the "Muslim period."

Admittedly, the Kama Sutra is just plain silly in parts. Ancient authors from Aristotle to Sun-Tzu contented themselves with naming things and stating definitions to little effect, and Vatsyayana is no different. "A mark [made using the fingernails] in the form of a line," he says portentously, "is called a 'line'." Oh. Nice of you to clear that up. Or: "When the man...strikes the woman on the head with the fingers of his hand a little contracted, it is called Prasritaka, which means striking with the fingers of the hand a little contracted."

Bollywood fans will find much to cherish here. Must one have a heart of stone not to be moved by Vatsyayana's advice for a suitor, that he should show his beloved "a pair of human beings cut out of the leaf of a tree"? Or show her "the different planets, the morning star, the polar star, and the seven Rishis, or Great Bear"? What could be more coy than "when a person kisses the reflection of the person he loves in a mirror, in water, or on a wall"? Can you spare a sigh for two lovers "pelting each other with the flowers of the Kadamba tree"? It sure beats dinner and a movie.

Alas, we have lost this innocence in love, in the same proportion as we have lost audacity in sex; and Sex and the City -- or so I am told -- is our feeble answer to the Kama Sutra. But we had fair warning. Vatsyayana advises us to avoid "a woman who publicly expresses her desire for sexual intercourse" -- placing her on the same plane of undesirability as lepers and lunatics. And women should avoid not only men "whose breath smells like human excrement", but men who are abusive or conceited. Far be it from me to endorse these assessments. But, honestly, are they any less sage than those of John Gray, Ph.D.? You'll just have to read and decide for yourself. Probably in a closet, and certainly not at your local Waffle House.

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Review of Vatsyayana's The Kama Sutra, Penguin Popular Classics, 1994.

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