Tips for the Hindu Man-About-Town

Krishna dancing with one of his gopis; detail from a nineteenth-century Indian wall hanging
Werner Forman Archive/Bridgeman Images
Krishna dancing with one of his gopis; detail from a nineteenth-century Indian wall hanging

Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra is universally known as a repertory of erotic positions, some of them sufficiently acrobatic to intimidate more than a few Western lovers, no doubt fearful they might find themselves insufficiently inventive. It is also, and it may be primarily, an excellent catalog of novelistic plots in the guise of an obsessively classificatory treatise. But to explore it you need a suitable guide, and none could be better than Wendy Doniger, who alone among the great living Indologists—to the best of my knowledge—is also an authority on Hollywood B movies, as well as on the dizzying welter of stories that can intertwine in and around a bed, as she proved in her substantial book The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade (2000). So her annotated edition of the Kamasutra, published in collaboration with Sudhir Kakar in 2002, immediately became—and will long remain—the text of choice for this classic that had for many years been simply too notorious to be read with the proper attention.

The reactions from readers were prompt and lively and, during the fourteen years since its publication, Doniger has had numerous occasions to return to the subject, working to place the Kamasutra in the larger setting of Indian treatises, an immense corpus whose scope can be only vaguely inferred from the sheer weight of the book that remains to the present day the most reliable work on the subject: P.V. Kane’s eight-volume The History of Dharmaśāstra (Ancient and Medieval Religious and Civil Law in India), running to a total of 8,681 pages.

But only one of these treatises has deserved Doniger’s close attention, namely the Arthashastra, the treatise on the uses of power. An early version was written in Sanskrit in what is thought to have been the first century CE—although all dates are provisional—and was ascribed to the scholar Kautilya. The Arthashastra is India’s supreme political compendium, considered by many to be far more pitiless and reckless than Machiavelli’s The Prince. And Doniger is certainly well aware of this comparison, writing in her new book, Redeeming the Kamasutra, that “Kautilya makes Machiavelli look like Mother Teresa.” Though one might recall that a Chinese counterpart, The Book of Lord Shang, which we know through the remarkable translation of J.J.L. Duyvendak, can in comparison make both Kautilya and Machiavelli seem mild.

In this perspective, the erotic art set forth in the Kamasutra may be considered a specific branch of the art of stratagems and deceptions that Kautilya treats so masterfully. After all, the tactics of spies, infiltrators, and mediators can prove indispensable in both conquering a city and seducing a woman. And the Kamasutra describes them with a great abundance of examples. The…

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