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 connection between the two works is unquestionable, and Doniger illustrates it closely, even though—as is always the case in India—it is hopeless to try to establish a timeline in which to place the various texts. The Kamasutra is plausibly dated to the second half of the third century Ce, but it remains a matter of debate whether Kautilya was or wasn’t the minister who served under that name during the reign of the emperor Chandragupta in the fourth century BCE. In any case, we cannot separate Kautilya’s Arthashastra from the more archaic—in its time of conception—Dharmashastra, the text that goes under the name of Manu.

The conundrum of the genealogy of the three texts is concisely (and brilliantly) laid out by Doniger in this brief passage:

So the first version of the Arthashastra came first (middle of the first century CE); Manu (second half of the second century CE) borrowed from that version of the Arthashastra and then in turn influenced the second recension of the Arthashastra (early third century CE); and that compendium of Arthashastra and Manu influenced the (late third century CE) Kamasutra. The Arthashastra and Manu quote one another, and the Kamasutra quotes the Arthashastra. They are all in conversation [with one another], intertextuality with a vengeance.

These few lines ought to be enough to dissuade most of us from having anything to do with matters of textual chronology in ancient India, a land where philology inevitably lays its foundations in quicksand.

The three texts to which Doniger refers are exemplary in illustrating, respectively, the three “goals of life,” or purusharthas, in the Hindu tradition. These are dharma, artha, kama—law, self-interest, and pleasure. The words could also mean “devotion,” “power,” and “desire.” Each of these three worlds had its own rules and prohibitions, intersecting and coexistent with those of the other two. If you wish to understand India, from the Vedas—written between 1500 and 500 BC—to the present day, this tripartition remains an essential guide. And in order to understand the Kamasutra, it is essential to understand what position Vatsyayana’s text occupies in India.


Once we have ascertained the literary setting in which a treatise like the Kamasutra originated and should be considered, for a reader today the allure—as well as the subtle amusement—to be found in the work lies entirely in the overflowing novelistic material in which it is steeped. The book can be read, from start to finish, as a compendium of the erotic situations in which a certain character may happen to find himself—and of the reactions that he can provoke from his female counterparts.

Just who is this character? He is the nagaraka, the “man-about-town,” as the English language so conveniently allows us to translate the term, with perfect idiomatic correspondence (nagara means “city” in Sanskrit). First of all, this man-about-town is wealthy and has no obligations of any kind. His only goal is to expand and sharpen his pleasures, in many directions, though eros stands out among them. He is devoted only to kama, to desire. He does not intend to enhance his power and self-interest (the sphere of artha). As for dharma, he respects it and ignores it. Like young Ovid in Rome two centuries earlier, he frequents the performance of rituals and attends religious festivals because they offer excellent opportunities to glimpse beautiful women who might well one day be the targets of his seduction. His life is at once varied and quite repetitive. But cannot the same be said of a businessman, a courtier, or a priest?

If the culmination and crowning moment of his every pursuit is the sexual act—as was true of the concubitus for young Ovid in the Ars amatoria—the man-about-town must also train himself, as Doniger puts it, in the “sixty-four arts to be learned by anyone (male or female) who is truly serious about pleasure.” And here we can only take delight in going over the list, which starts this way:

singing; playing musical instruments; dancing; painting; cutting leaves into shapes; making lines on the floor with rice-powder and flowers; colouring the teeth, clothes, and limbs; making jeweled floors; preparing beds;

and subsequently includes making music on the rims of water glasses (like Mozart’s pieces for Glasharmonika), mixing perfumes, teaching parrots and mynah birds to speak, practicing sorcery, having a knowledge of lexicons and thesauruses, and being an expert on omens and the strategic sciences.

Sixty-second on the list we find “etiquette.” Both lovers must compete in all these arts—and their practice, according to the Kamasutra, can only enhance their erotic exaltation. The same bodies of knowledge form part of the education of a deluxe courtesan, who, if she is expert in them, will win “a place in the public assembly.” Nothing is arbitrary or accidental: the sixty-four arts correspond to the sixty-four variants on intercourse. And these do not greatly differ, for purely anatomical reasons, from those suggested by the greatest Western authorities on the subject, who remain Pietro Aretino and the author of the delightful forgery attributed to the Portuguese Aloisia Sigaea Toletana (the real author was the French scholar Nicolas Chorier, camouflaged under the name Joannis Meursius).

And here a footnote is required: Western culture by and large has entrusted the doctrine of erotic positions to feminine voices: Aretino’s Ragionamenti and the dialogues of Aloisia Sigaea are conversations among women who know a great deal about sex or are eager to know more. The only treatise from classical antiquity that is comparable to the Kamasutra (and also now lost) was attributed to a woman named Elephantis, whose name—according to the Pauly–Wissowa encyclopedia of the classical world—“can be situated in the numerous group of names given to hetairai [courtesans] and taken from animals.” Nothing survives of that work, though we do know from Suetonius that its tabellae (illustrations) were copied at the behest of the emperor Tiberius onto the walls of his villa in Capri, as an object lesson both for his guests and himself.

The distinctive aspect of the Kamasutra (and of the entire body of Indian treatises) lies in the systematic nature and the implacable precision of its details, rather than in any list of veneris figurae or modi coeundi—as they were called in Rome. Similarly unique is the fact that this punctilious physiological and psychological chronicle should include a description of the female orgasm unlike anything any Western author would have dared to venture, as well as a list of the contrivances whereby a courtesan can rid herself of a bothersome lover, using tactics no less hilarious and applicable today than they were then:

She curls her lip and stamps on the ground with her foot. She talks about things he does not know about. She shows no amazement, but only contempt, for the things he does know about. She punctures his pride. She has affairs with men who are superior to him. She ignores him. She criticizes men who have the same faults. And she stalls when they are alone together. She is upset by the things he does for her when they are making love. She does not offer him her mouth. She keeps him away from between her legs.

But the point is that, in India, such an enchantingly profane approach would inevitably have to refer back to the Vedic antiquities and, beyond them, to the lives of the gods. In fact, in the Rigveda itself—the most ancient of the Vedas, with more than one thousand hymns—we read that “desire, kama, is the first seed of mind.” So we discover, at the beginning of the Kamasutra, that Vatsyayana is one of the last editors of a treatise of erotic material that over many years had been progressively reduced and simplified. Its first author was the meek bull Nandin, who guarded the door of the bedroom where Shiva and Uma were united in a continuous coitus that lasted a thousand years of the gods. At once watchman, voyeur, and scribe, Nandin had written down the erotic knowledge that one day humans would also need to learn, albeit only in part, since they are incapable of applying it in its entirety. This is a customary procedure in classical India, presupposing a boundless body of knowledge at the outset, one that can only shrink and wither over the course of time, down to the wasteland of the Kali Yuga, the age in which we live. This is a conception that is diametrically opposed to the evolutionary Western worldview, which presupposes at first a succession of inarticulate brutes, who progressively lift themselves to the summits of reason.


The true flavor of the Kamasutra is best appreciated in its minute descriptions of erotic skirmishes and ambushes, in which scratches and bites always remind us that eros is inevitably a duel—in some cases a fatal one. But these descriptions may be best appreciated within the frame of their remote divine origin, because in India, since the very beginning and in the rituals meticulously described in the Brahmanas, eros is ubiquitous and omnipresent. No less illuminating than Nandin is the second legendary author of the Kamasutra, Shvetaketu. It was he who boiled down the thousand chapters written by Nandin into the five hundred that would eventually be further reduced to the hundred and fifty of Babhravya Panchala and, finally, to the thirty-six of Vatsyayana.

Who was Shvetaketu? We see him appear, at age twenty-four, in the Chandogya Upanishad, one of the two earliest and greatest Upanishads. After twelve years of study, he presents himself to his father, “proud, conceited, thinking himself well-schooled.” The father tells him that he still knows nothing, even if he has studied all the Vedas. Now it behooves him to go beyond.

And at this point Shvetaketu’s father delivers a vertiginous sequence of thoughts, culminating with the atman, the Self, summed up in three words: Tat tvam asi, “You are that.” Those three words are the mustard seed from which the Vedic immensity springs. And they have been handed down to us inasmuch as they are words that were spoken to this young Brahman, who—at a later point in his life—would go on to edit an abridged version of Nandin’s erotic doctrine. So Shvetaketu was one of the rings in the chain that gave birth to the Kamasutra, which might be taken as evidence of the fact that, if there was ever a place where tout se tient—everything is connected—that place was Vedic India. In the West, it would be difficult to imagine a legend that attributed to Parmenides the erotic treatise of the courtesan Elephantis.

Wendy Doniger has finally done justice to the Kamasutra, first of all by giving it a proper translation, without Sir Richard Burton’s nineteenth-century misreadings and stilted style, and now in Redeeming the Kamasutra by placing it in an eminent position in the body of Indian treatises. Her work is a useful antidote to that “pervasive and often violent moral policing” that has seized a part of both India and the Indian diaspora in recent years, especially in the aftermath of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s return to governing power. So it happened, for instance, that squads of Hindu fundamentalists of the militant youth group called Bajrang Dal have intervened brutally to thwart the celebration of Valentine’s Day, which they consider an instance of “pornographic capitalism.”

Doniger rightly points out that the god Kama, after being incinerated by Shiva, found himself infused “into a number of other substances that worked Kama’s magic even more effectively—moonlight, the arched brows of beautiful women and so forth.” And Shiva himself is distinguished by the vast oscillation between extremes that we know. We see that idea in the title of a groundbreaking book that Doniger published in 1973: Śiva: The Erotic Ascetic. But at the same time, that oscillation is a peculiarity of India in general. Luckily, none of us will ever be able to rid ourselves of Kama.

—Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar