Kama Sutra

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The Kamasutra tradition in India

India Today, August 6, 2015

Bibek Debroy

Wendy Doniger's analysis of The Kamasutra is ruined by sweeping generalisations and flippant insertions

Kalidasa then des­­cribes the union of Shiva and Parvati in a canto so erotic that many later, more prudish scholars re­­fuse to accept it as a genuine part of the poem. This is a quote towards the end of the book (p.164), where a case is made out that The Kamasutra tradition was deliberately downpla­yed in India. The Kalidasa reference is to Kumarasambhavam. For a scholar who meticulously cites chapter and verse, strangely, Wendy Doniger doesn't tell us which erotic canto she means. But obviously, it is the eighth canto, concerning the union of Shiva and Parvati. A legitimate case has often been advanced, based on literary quality, that cantos 9-17 of Kumarasambhavam weren't written by Kalidasa. But did prudery prevent inclusion of the eighth canto? The Nirnaya Sagar and Sahitya Akademi editions had all 17 cantos. Mallinatha Suri's commentary covered eight cantos. If one excludes versions of Kumarasambhavam published as textbooks, who are these prudish scholars? The Ralph Griffiths translation also had seven cantos. Does this mean Griffiths was a prude? This digression on Kalidasa illustrates the problem with Doniger. Her proposition is true and would have remained true even if she had not massaged and tortured the evidence. "Indrani resembles Juno, the wife of Jupiter, king of the Roman gods (or Hera, wife of the Greek Zeus), in many ways, including her own enormous sexual appetite and her jealousy about her husband's notorious adulteries" (p.78). Indrani means Shachi or Poulami. Jealousy and wrath are fine. But where is the evidence for Indrani's "enormous sexual appetite"? A little care in such instances would have meant that one would have taken the scholarship more seriously. For valid reasons, there is criticism of the 19th century Richard Francis Burton/Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot translation of The Kamasutra, which made it popular. Many popular perceptions about The Kamasutra are still based on Burton/Arbuthnot. But consider this. "Thus, when Krishna, the incarnate god in the Bhagavad Gita, wishes to stir the martial instincts of the conscience-stricken human hero Arjuna, he says to him, 'Stop behaving like a kliba!'" (p.114). This is against the background of a discussion of kliba, eunuch. But does 2.3 of the Bhagavad Gita actually use the word kliba? No, it doesn't. It uses the word klaibyam. You might say this is minute trivia. Indeed, but if the case is based on scholarship, one had best be careful and that difference does imply a change in nuance in the translation. Doniger's slim book is on The Kamasutra, as it is, and not as it is often taken to be, a mishmash of sexual positions and diverse types of male and female genitalia. Indeed, out of the seven chapters in The Kamasutra, only one is devoted to such topics. The Doniger book has seven chapters and the first six are excellent. The odd flippancy apart, these chapters are scholarly and researched well, rightly equating kama with sensual pleasure, rather than the narrower sexual pleasure, and juxtaposing kama with the other two objectives of artha and dharma. If one reads this book, or better still, reads the original Sanskrit or a non-Burton English translation (Wendy Doniger/Sudhir Kakar, Indra Sinha, Alain Danielou), one will get away from that equation with sexual positions perpetuated by coffee-table books with photographs from Khajuraho and other places. More than the discussion of Vatsyayana's The Kamasutra (Vatsyayana followed several other authors whose works are now lost), it is this setting of "kamasutra" against the background of dharmashastra and arthashastra that makes these six chapters interesting. (In fairness, Danielou makes similar points, especially about arthashastra).

Having said this, there is a problem. Here is a long quote (p.100). "Vatsyayana also knew about the G-spot (named after the German gynaecologist Ernst Grafenberg): 'When her eyes roll when she feels him in certain spots, he presses her in just those spots.' Vatsyayana quotes a predecessor who said, 'This is the secret of young women'-and, indeed, it remained a secret in Europe for quite a few centuries, in part because Sir Richard Burton mistranslated it: 'Here Suvarnanabha says that while a man is doing to the woman what he likes best during congress, he should always make a point of pressing those parts of her body on which she turns her eyes.' Here, as elsewhere, Burton wrongly followed the commentary, which suggests the reading of 'she turns her eyes' in the sense of looking at something, instead of the eyes rolling. By following one part of the commentary, Burton has missed one point of the passage, how to locate the G-spot, and by inserting, gratuitously, the phrase 'what he likes best', he has totally missed the larger point, the importance of learning how to give a woman an orgasm." What does sutra mean? Etymology apart, a sutra was deliberately brief and cryptic, to facilitate memorisation in a process of oral transmission. Therefore, a sutra needs commentaries and The Kamasutra is no different. Had Doniger stuck to the importance of female orgasm, I wouldn't have had issues. But so as to enthral a contemporary audience, the G-spot must be brought in. Any reader who doesn't know the sutra nature of the text or isn't familiar with the Sanskrit, will assume the proposition in the Doniger book to be absolutely true, because of the lack of distinction between a strict translation and an interpretation. The girl rolling her eyes around, as opposed to looking at something? Possible and plausible, but it's an interpretation, not a translation that is automatic. "Feels him"? Feels what? The sutra nature of the text prevents us from knowing exactly. It could be a penis, it could be a mechanical contraption. Nor does the Sanskrit allow one to confidently choose "spot" over "place". The intrinsic academic qualities of the book are likely to be discounted because of this tendency to decide a proposition and then try to fit everything into that proposition. Even then, the first six chapters make for interesting reading. What ruins the book is the last chapter, titled "The Rise and Fall of Kama and the Kamasutra". This has sweeping generalisations about contemporary India. Yes, that attracts controversy and yes, that gets quotes. But does one want to reduce an otherwise good book to Chapter 7 alone? That's what Wendy Doniger has ensured.

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