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Review: Controversial Author Wendy Doniger Revisits the Kamasutra

Doniger’s account of the Kamasutra attempts to reinstate the book in the canon of Sanskrit literature.

4 min read
Review: Controversial Author Wendy Doniger Revisits the Kamasutra
Hindi Female

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“India is the land of the Kamasutra”, a statement that is thrown around anytime India’s conservative current standards come up. It is used so often, it now rings hollow. How many of us really know anything about the Kamasutra except that it is a book about novel sexual positions? The boast then is of a text that most urban Indians are not familiar with at all.

The author of the controversial book The Hindus: An Alternative History, which had right wingers frothing at the mouth leading ultimately to its ban, is out with a new book, this time on the Kamasutra. The irony or humour, however you choose to look at it aside, Wendy Doniger’s new book The Mare’s Trap is an account of the Kamasutra beyond its popular perception.

Erotic Hindu sculptures on the outer walls of a temple in Khajuraho. (Photo: Reuters)

Doniger states her purpose at the outset to reinstate the Kamasutra in the Sanskrit canon and amongst the “literary landmarks of the great Indian heritage.”

Even though I haven’t read the Kamasutra this account is beguiling enough to want to get a good translation pronto. The older Sir Richard Burton translation is decried by Doniger several times over, as being tinged with orientalism and even lacking in the accuracy of translation. A better translation suggested by Doniger is the 2002 version called The Kamasutra of Vatsyayana, published by Oxford.

Doniger brings to life aspects of the Kamasutra beyond the “positions” and stresses that it was never one about just that to begin with (It does however mock the missionary position as being “no challenge at all”). The Kamasutra is a book written for the privileged class, the nagaraka, or the ‘man-about-town’, with time and leisure enough to indulge in sex as a product of culture, and not nature.

The director of the Diamond Information Center, Sally Morrison, shows the inside of a tortoise ring decorated with kamasutra artwork (Photo: Reuters)

Doniger’s contention is also that Vatsyayana modelled the Kamasutra along the lines of the Arthashastra, the machiavellian guide for Kings and rulers. She compares the structure and parameters within which both books operate, and elaborates on the Kamasutra as being full of enough guile and machinations as the Arthashastra, politicizing sex as it were.

Doniger further consolidates this relation between the Arthshastra and the Kamasutra with the way the latter describes the relation between the sexes,

They say that sex is a form of quarreling, because the very essence of desire is a contest, and its character is competitive. (The commentator, Yashodhara, explains the competition: ‘Because the man and woman each try to achieve their own desires by overcoming the other’).

Erotic Hindu sculptures on the outer walls of a temple in Khajuraho. (Photo: Reuters)

Doniger’s account throws interesting trivia from the Kamasutra. The use of magic for instance, or the different sizes of men, and even women, how to get a virgin, or a married woman, how a courtesan gets rid of men and other such.

Magic figures in the Kamasutra only in an off handed way, Doniger says, but despite that the parts quoted are quite shocking. An ointment for invisibility for instance requires that the ingredients be burned in a woman’s vagina.

Or sample this:

“If you make a powder by pulverizing leaves scattered by the wind, garlands left over from corpses, and peacocks’ bones, or pulverize a female ‘circle-maker’ buzzard that died a natural death, and mix the powder with honey and gooseberry, it puts someone in your power. If you mix the same powder with monkey shit and scatter the mixture over a virgin, she will not be given to another man.”

Doniger claims that the essential nature of the Kamasutra is a progressive one, even though it slips into ambiguity at times about its moral stand. Largely progressive, even for our curent times. It is open to non-heteronormative ideas of sex and genders. Some parts of the book are even said to have been commissioned by courtesans. While it has an open attitude towards sex, there are some misogynistic strains, justifying rape culture, a “no” means “yes” sort of narrative.

Doniger’s style is academic. It is distant for those unaccustomed or unwilling to keep up with this writing style. It’s no Devdutt Patnaik. But at 164 pages, the book is approachable with enough intrigue to make you want to read the Kamasutra.

The Mare’s Trap: Nature and Culture in The Kamasutra, by Wendy Doniger. Published by Speaking Tiger. Pp 182. Rs 399

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Topics:  Kama Sutra 

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