The 1964 publication of Sir Richard F. Burton’s translation marked the first wide appearance in English of the Kama Sutra and was celebrated as a literary event of the highest importance. As vital to an understanding of ancient Indian civilization as the works of Plato and Aristotle are to the West, the Kama Suta has endured for 1,700 years as an indisputable classic of world literature.
Written with unassuming candour, the Kama Sutra remains one of the most readable and enjoyable of all the classic of antiquity. A work of philosophy, psychology, sociology, Hindu dogma, scientific inquiry, and sexology, the Kama Sutra’s importance is so great that it has, at the same time, both affected Indian civilization and remained an indispensable key to understanding it.
One of the curious, but rather saddening, aspect of colonialism in Asia was that those of us who managed to get an education at all were largely educated in the language and culture of our foreign rulers. While we learned "A is for Apple" (in a part of the world where apples don't grow) and while we were lulled to sleep by parents (as I was) with long recitations from Shakespeare or Tennyson, we never had a chance to learn our own classics. It took a major effort and considerable intellectual stubbornness to explore, say, the great Sanskrit literature of ancient India.
At the same time, Westerners, more concerned with im- posing foreign cultures on Asians than in learning about the cultures they were ruling, did not do a great deal toward fostering Asian studies in their own schools and colleges. For the most part, it has been only since the end of World War Il, and the ensuing end of colonialism, that the great literature of Asia has been authoritatively translated and has found an audience in the West.
To me, in an age when we are urged by politicians to "understand" one another (although they never seem to tell us how to understand a foreign nation), the best bridge between cultures is literature. Most of us have not the opportunity to travel very widely, and even if we do, we usually cannot stay in a country long enough to "understand" or appreciate the culture. Writers-often accidentally help us to this goal. They work from some core of truth in themselves and their perception of their world. In a way, this is a splendid and enjoyable short cut to that vital grasp of another civilization.
The Kama Sutra is a perfect case in point. Erotica, in the West, is considered rather wicked. Possibly it is the Puritan tradition that persuades people that sex is wrong-or, at least, something to be ashamed of and not to be mentioned in polite society. India, prudish as it is in many ways, seems on this score to be more realistic. In most Hindu temples, in the many-layered carvings, you will usually see a panel depicting scenes from Hindu mythology or religious stories or various aspects of differ- ent deities. You will also see bas-reliefs of artists, musi- cians, dancers, in another panel. And, finally, you come to the erotic sculptures, boldly emblazoned in all their gran- deur on the temple walls. In the very heart of a Siva temple you will find the lingam-a classic phallic symbol of the god that is both the creator and destroyer. If it seems odd to foreigners that such a symbol should stand in a place of worship, to Indians it is the most natural, most obvious sign of "the Creator."
The point of these diverse subjects for sculpture is, of course, that Hindus feel that the full human life must con- cern itself with religious, sexual, and artistic experience. Consequently all must be shown in that center of Hindu life the temple.
So, perhaps, if a reader comes to The Kama Sutra with modesty and an open mind, he will enjoy the literature and also learn an important facet of a foreign civilization.
A literary and historical classic which has survived for over a millennium should need no Introduction. The Kama Sutra, however, is from India, and since much of the Western world is still plunged in ignorance concerning Indian civilization, an Introduction is not only justifiable, it is necessary. Even today, schools give hardly more than a casual passing reference to India, while colleges and universities, for the most part, still consider Indology an esoteric subject. This is both shameful and harmful- shameful in that academic institutions in a democratic society have failed in their responsibility to provide means for enlightening its people about the major events and ideas of the world's second largest country, and harmful because in the absence of this knowledge serious errors in interpretation and judgment have been made.
There is an Indian proverb which states that Truth is like a diamond that has many facets and no view can claim to see its entirety. The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana enables us to see yet another view of society and customs. This is well, for we cannot, without error and arrogance, pro- claim Truth merely by having recourse to our own his- tory, values, and cultural foundations. The purpose of studying about other countries is not to learn how we can "deal" with them, but rather to learn what we can learn from them. I am convinced that no one can justly claim to interpret or understand contemporary Indian society, thought, or problems without some knowledge of the major forces of ancient Indian civilization.
The Background of The Kama Sutra
The object of this Introduction is to give some of the more important concepts, traditions, and legends relating to kama in ancient India. This will help us to place the Kama Sutra within a framework which, we hope, shows both how it was affected by the society from which it arose and how, in turn, it affected aspects of Indian civilization. The Kama Sutra is not only a thoroughly delightful and readable book; it is also one of India's most important original works, giving us an insight into the history, politics, secular life and social customs of ancient India. In view of the paucity of original sources at our disposal concerning ancient India, the evidence contained in the Kama Sutra becomes even more significant. In Sanskrit, Kama means desire, affection, love, lust, sensual pleasure, and the like. It is also one of the four purusarthas or goals of life. Kama may also refer to the Indian god of love who, in some ways, is similar to Cupid or Eras in Western mythhology. Sutra, in this context, refers to the style of writing used by the author. This style consists of the use of aphorisms, short rules, or precepts. Thus, this work is called Kama Siara owing to its subject and style.
There have been many other Kama Sutras and this work by Vatsyayana (pronounced as Vaht-syah' -yana) admits to being a compendium of previous texts written by authors lost in the haze of legend. Even the Kama Sutras of those writers who seem to have some historical existence, such as Svetaketu or Dattaka, are not available to us. The earliest writer, Nandin, is said to have composed his Kama Sutra in one thousand chapters. He is sometimes identified as the attendant of Siva who recited the Kama Sutra while the high god was engaged in intercourse with his divine con- sort, Parvati. We cannot rule out the possibility that he ac- tually lived, and the Nandikesvara mentioned by Kokkola, another writer on kama, may refer to Nandin. But there is no clear evidence of this and we really know nothing for certain about Nandin. Svetaketu, the next author, is said to have abridged Nandin's work to five hundred chapters. He is mentioned in the Chdndogya Upanisad as Uddalaka's son who held discussions at an assembly house (samiti). The Brhaddranyaka Upanisad also speaks of Svetaketu going to an assembly (parisady. of the Pancala tribes. In a discussion which ensued, Svetaketu had to admit ignorance concerning certain philosophical questions. The sexual symbolism of one of these is given in a later passage which says, "Woman is fire, 0 Gautama, her haunch the fuel; the hairs on her body the smoke; the yoni, the flame; intercourse, the coals; the fits of enjoyment, the sparks. The gods offer seed in this fire. From this offering man springs forth. He lives as long as he lives.'?
Charms, magic, and incantations have a special place in the sphere of sex. This is true even today when manufacturers offer potions which are based on the principles of homeopathic or sympathetic magic to restore or increase virility. Like produces like, and the extract of some organ of an animal noted for its virility is supposed to produce virility in man. The dividing line between sex and religion is not always clear, and in all religions one is an aspect of the other. Another passage from the Brhaddran- yaka Upanisad indicates this very well.
Prajapati (the Lord of Creation) thought to himself: "Let me provide a firm foundation." So he created woman. When he had created her, he honored her below. Therefore one should honor women below. He stretched out for himself that stone which projects.' With that he impregnated her. Her lap is a sacrificial altar; her hairs, the sacrificial grass; her skin, the soma-press. The two lips of the yoni are the fire in the middle. Verily, indeed, as great as is the world of the person who performs the Viijapeya sacrifice [the drink of strength], just as great is the world of him who practices sexual intercourse knowing this. He takes the good deeds of women to himself. But he who practices sexual intercourse without knowing this-women take his good deeds for themselves.
It seems clear from the evidence that Svetaketu dealt with the subject of kama. His abridgment of Nandin's treatise was further summarized by Babhravya. All we know about the latter is that Vatsyayana consulted his work of one hundred and fifty chapters.
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