Textbook to sexual nirvana

Graphic by Jason Hu

This Feb. 14, forget your candy hearts and your teddy bears. Forsake your chocolate fondue and your G-Heav roses. And instead of reading your friends’ gushy posts, think about this for a change:

In the beginning, the Lord of Beings created men and women, and in the form of commandments in 100,000 chapters laid down rules for regulating their existence with regard to Dharma, Artha, and Kama.

Eight hundred and some odd years before a pagan fertility rite was transformed into a Christian feast day, a book about love was written.

In the Kama Sutra, which has alternately been described as a “textbook to sexual nirvana,” “a guide to erotic living,” and “a lecherous seducer of innocent souls,” there are more than 1,000 chapters organized into seven overarching sections. Apparently. But no one could blame you for thinking that the entirety of the Kama Sutra is a book with dirty pictures, a kind of fourth-century Hindu Playboy. After all, that’s how it’s often presented to us. A quick Google search for “kama sutra” brings up 14,300,000 hits, and most of them follow a similar vein. Blurbs like “10 Kama Sutra Positions That Will Save Your Marriage” and “2 Dirty Girls Go Full On Kama Sutra” pop up. Even Jason Derulo joins the action with a song featuring Kid Ink (Kama Kama Sutra / Kama Kama Sutra babe (yeah) / Kama Kama Sutra). I made the mistake of clicking over to the “Videos” tab, which I do not recommend to anyone in search of spiritual and sexual enlightenment.

There are seven sections of the Kama Sutra, but the only one worth mentioning seems to be the second, “On Sexual Union.” The index of this section reads as follows:

  • Kinds of Union according to Dimensions, Force of Desire, and Time; and on the different kinds of Love
  • Of the Embrace
  • On Kissing
  • On Pressing or Marking with the Nails
  • On Biting, and the ways of Love to be employed with regard to Women of different countries
  • On the various ways of Lying down, and the different kinds of Congress
  • On the various ways of Striking, and of the Sounds appropriate to them
  • About females acting the part of Males
  • On holding the Lingam in the Mouth
  • How to begin and how to end the Congress. Different kinds of Congress, and Love Quarrels

Even this index of the Kama Sutra’s most famous section seems more intriguing than the racy yoga poses we’re all used to associating with the text. I’m sure I could write this entire essay just on erotic spanking, or “Striking, and of the Sounds appropriate to them,” but rest assured.

The rest of the seven sections are written with regard to manly needs and desires: “About the Acquisition of a Wife,” “About a Wife,” the particularly provocative “About the Wives of Other People,” “About Courtesans,” and “On the Means of Attracting Others to One’s Self” (the last section contains an interesting assortment of herbal potions for depleted old men). Based solely on the titles and indexes of the seven sections, the most obvious conclusion is that the Kama Sutra is completely ignorant of womanly needs and desires. Is that the case?

Well, it depends.

On one hand, the Kama Sutra sanctions acts of rape, adultery, and cruelty. Vatsyayana, the central figure of the text, advises his readers to woo virgins first by courting them and then by sending them figurines of erect goats. Then, if that doesn’t work, he instructs his readers to give the virgins liquor and then to take them by force. He also advises men to take advantage of “widows, women who have no male protector, wandering ascetics, and beggars. . . for they are vulnerable.”

On the other hand, Vatsyayana instructs his readers to have sex so that the woman “enjoys her climax first.” Unlike Christian sexual moralities, the Kama Sutra celebrates sex performed solely for pleasure. Moreover, it recognizes women as sexual beings who deserve to have their erotic pleasure valued by men. And although there are instructions for men on how to efficiently commit adultery, the Kama Sutra also puts forward the notion that women who do not derive sexual pleasure from their husbands should leave them and find satisfaction elsewhere. In many ways, the Kama Sutra depicts a recognition of female sensuality (and also for same-sex love) that is still radical today. Vatsyayana famously says, “A woman desires any attractive man she sees, and, in the same way, a man desires a woman.” In the Kama Sutra, women are not an inferior group; instead, they are sexual equals who demand and deserve equal pleasures.

 The Kama Sutra is surprisingly contemporary; throughout its seven sections, sex is considered to be sacred and just. Fourth-century Hindus believed that the three purposes of life were dharma (piety), artha (prosperity), and kama (sex). For them, sexual pleasure was a divine act, and the pursuit of physical love was akin to a spiritual quest. Regardless of what you think of the text and its variability of interpretation, if you come away from the Kama Sutra without understanding that, you’ve missed something rather important. For the readers of the Kama Sutra, sex was good and moral and righteous—if only all of us in the 21st century could feel the same way.

Hopefully you’ll all have exactly the kind of Valentine’s Day that you want. Whether you’re lurking in dark corners of frat houses or scrolling through your Tinder matches, remember that pick-up lines and ambient lighting are not always necessary for falling in love and being sexually fulfilled. Based on what we’ve learned from sacred fourth century Hindu texts, all you need is some erotic spanking and a few highly suggestible goat figurines. Happy Valentine’s Day!

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