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Everything you always wanted to know about the Kama Sutra
A new, faithful translation of the Kama Sutra turns stereotypes on their head and gives the 1,800-year-old text a whole new position -- back on your reading list
The original Kama Sutra does not have any pictures. Only words, no graphic graphics.
The Kama Sutra is not all about sex. Just a fraction of the Kama Sutra, roughly 1/24th, concerns copulation.
Vatsyayana the 3rd BCE author of the Kama Sutra wrote it “while observing a celibate’s life in full meditation.” That’s right, no funny stuff. None at all.
Aditya Narayan Dhairyasheel Haksar’s “Kama Sutra: A Guide to the Art of Pleasure” didn’t set out to be a myth-buster. That was just a corollary of a larger task he undertook over two decades ago “to bring to the present day English readership those aspects of Sanskrit literature that are lesser known,” he says.
Not that the Kama Sutra has suffered much from neglect in recent decades. But since Sir Richard Burton's 19th century English translation was widely published in 1962, successive interpretations have funneled its meaning until it shrunk into a graphic synonym for sex squeezed into a book the size of a pocket.
Perhaps the only real shocker about the Kama Sutra is that, as a text, it isn’t widely read.
As Haksar says, “Any honest reading of the book will tell you that it is a broad survey of sexual and social relationships between men and women.”
What it is not, is a compilation of contortionist sexual positions devised or derived by Hindu sages of a distant millennium.
That this avatar looms large in a collective consciousness can be attributed to the recurrent re-appropriation of the name.
Kama Sutra has launched enough condom brands, Mira Nair movies, airport bookshelf fillers and possibly ships, to put Helen of Troy to shame.
“The time has come for a new translation, to place ["Kama Sutra"] in a contemporary setting and relate it to contemporary concerns,” says Haksar.
Translating sexual relations
For a historic text to leapfrog itself into modern times requires major internal momentum.
The Kama Sutra is approximately 1,800 years old -- and the thought enclosed older still, since Vatsyayana frequently references the work of earlier teachers.
But in the present publishing flurry of self-help books, each seeking to provide definitive solutions for living, this Ur-text on sexual and social dealings can and should be judged on its own merit.
Thus Haksar’s new pared down, lucid translation gives due consideration to each of the seven books in Vatsyayana’s composition.
As a scholar who has previously worked on "Panchatantra," "Hitopdesa" and several other secular Sanskrit texts, Haksar has earned his translating rights and he exercises them in conjunction with his duty to the author.
Haksar worked solely off the original manuscript sourced from Varanasi and refrained from referencing commentaries or consulting previous works, so Vatsyayana’s voice would not be occluded.
The end result is a revelation.
Even as mushrooming philosophies champion a return to roots, sometimes controversially as in this recent treatise by Amy Chua, the minutely mapped world of the "Kama Sutra" is a civilized world of elegance and accomplishment, of sexual intrigue and negotiation, social acceptance and rejection. In this, the vignettes of ancient India can resemble the here and now.
Haksar’s relaxed, idiomatic translation allows us to connect the dots between millennia and color the picture with our current palette. And because the prose is unstilted, the parallels suggest themselves.
The descriptions of the gentleman reader and his aides -- a poor companion, a parasite, a jester -- could well be a casting call for the movie “Swingers.”
Romance novels could trace their plot lines all the way back to moments such as, "It is only when she is sure that ‘He loves me and will not leave me’ that she lets the aroused man do away with her maidenhood."
Under the sub-head Girls to Avoid, Vatsyayana cautions against "a childhood friend like one’s own younger sister or one who perspires too much." It’s an odd grouping but the veto has otherwise carried over unchanged to the present day.
Thus Haksar’s translation is an endorsement for the timeless and universal nature of the Kama Sutra, sure, but at the same time it is also a reminder that all that endures is not gold.
Taboos, like the one ensconced cosily in "She [a maiden] should not make overt advances to the man" haven’t loosened their hold on society.
"A girl ripe for marriage should be attired in all her finery [...] just like a piece of merchandise" hits home because there is an immediate and uncomfortable cultural referent, at least in India.
All's fair in the name of love
Assumptions of misogyny, however, are misplaced.
“We can’t really transpose our anachronistic positions onto the book,” says Alexis Kirschbaum, the editor for Penguin Classics UK who has shepherded the translation through publication.
“Much of it is extremely enlightened and it gives as much room to the woman’s desire as the man’s,” Kirschbaum says.
The clearest example lies in book six, where the author abandons gentlemen readers to fend for themselves and proceeds to address himself solely to courtesans. Over the course of six chapters courtesans are schooled in choosing and wooing clients and squeezing them for every last penny!
To fete this perspective as progressive can also be construed as anachronistic.
Haksar has hazarded the opinion that the ganika (courtesan) is similar to the Japanese geisha or the Greek hetaerae and therefore an inexorable fact of Vatsyayana’s circumstances and study. But an entire book given to bald statements espousing a woman’s prerogative, is unexpected and uplifting nevertheless.
“It encourages women to be hard headed professionally and in no way submissive or relegated to the position of housewives. In that way it reminds me of something straight out of Tracey Cox, or [dating advice bestseller] 'The Rules,” says Kirschbaum.
Not for the self-help shelf
Part of the charm of the Kama Sutra is that it’s a refreshing counterpoint to current diatribes and self-help books on the subjects of sex and relationships, where a single, prescriptive belief dominates. In any case, reading the Kama Sutra cannot be attempted in the same manner as a self-help manual.
“The book is incredibly funny, either intentionally or unintentionally. Its complete lack of moral judgment is striking,” says Kirschbaum. Fortuitous moments of humor help propel some of the dry tracts that are marvelous as historical records but not as guidelines to pleasure.
There are little nuggets scattered throughout; a throwaway reference to sex with transgendered people ("But that is different") in the first book, or recipes for aphrodisiac potions like "the bone of a camel soaked in marigold juice" in the last.
Haksar’s “Kama Sutra” chisels the obscurity away from these little diamonds in the rough. His rendering is either a delightful read with chuckles aplenty or a tome to return to for meditations on transient and timeless human concerns.
If it was lost, then the "Kama Sutra" has been found in translation.
"Kama Sutra: A Guide to the Art of Pleasure" by Aditya Narayan Dhairyasheel Haksar is slated for release by Penguin Classics UK on February 3, 2011. It will also be published by Penguin India in March 2011. Pre-order it on Amazon, here.