When I started reading the famous sex guide from ancient India the Kama Sutra by Vatsyayana, I did not know what to expect. I had always heard that it was about sex positions, but it is so much more than that. Most of the sex positions discussed will be familiar to any sexually active person, but a few left me trying to picture them. After describing the exotic positions, the author would inevitably note that practice was required. This makes sense considering this is the same society that developed yoga, which has positions that often require practice.
Some of the most fascinating chapters in the Kama Sutra discuss the sexual privileges enjoyed by kings of that era. In this excerpt Vatsyayana describes the rights to other wives exercised by the kings of various countries:
But according to the customs of some countries there are facilities for Kings to make love to the wives of other men. Thus in the country of the Andras the newly married daughters of the people thereof enter the King’s harem with some presents on the tenth day of their marriage, and having been enjoyed by the King are then dismissed. In the country of the Vatsagulmas the wives of the chief ministers approach the King at night to serve him. In the country of the Vaidarbhas the beautiful wives of the inhabitants pass a month in the King’s harem under the pretence of affection for the King. In the country of the Aparatakas the people gave their beautiful wives as presents to the ministers and the Kings. And lastly in the country of the Saurashtras the women of the city and the country enter the royal harem for the King’s pleasure either together or separately.
I think that the Kama Sutra is best described as erotic anthropology. The richness and artistry of ancient Hindu society are revealed just as much as the sexual practices. Many rules for wooing lovers are contained in the work because what good is sexual knowledge unless you have someone upon which to practice? Advice on how to use go-betweens in the seduction of another person is abundant and used more liberally than the most complex Shakespearean comedy.
The seemingly constant marital infidelity described in the Kama Sutra reveals the primary sexual problem of traditional cultures. The ancient Hindus, like many other historical societies, valued the virgin bride, but young men had seemingly total freedom to pursue sex outside of marriage. This is often accomplished by having affairs with married women. The Kama Sutra also focuses on the upper levels of society. Men of high class can have sex with peasant women as they please, but they are to use more artifice and charm with women of their own class or of higher classes. This attitude illustrates the accepted inequalities among social classes, as described in this excerpt.
The head man of the village, the King’s officer employed there, and the man whose business it is to glean corn, can gain over female villagers simply by asking them. It is on this account that this class of woman are called unchaste women by voluptuaries.
The union of the above mentioned men with this class of woman takes place on the occasions of unpaid labour, of filling the granaries in their houses, of taking things in and out of the house, of cleaning the houses, of working in the fields, and of purchasing cotton, wool, flax, hemp, and thread, and at the season of the purchase, sale, and exchange of various other articles, as well as at the time of doing various other works. In the same way the superintendents of cow pens enjoy the women in the cow pens; and the officers, who have the superintendence of widows, of the women who are without supporters, and of women who have left their husbands, have sexual intercourse with these women. The intelligent accomplish their object by wandering at night in the village, and while villagers also unite with the wives of their sons, being much alone with them. Lastly the superintendents of markets have a great deal to do with the female villagers at the time of their making purchases in the market.
The Kama Sutra re-animates the world of high class Hindus in ancient times. The sculptures on temple walls and the gardens of long crumbled palaces came alive in my imagination as I read it.