An “enticing . . . elegant and stylish” biography of the ancient Hindu manuscript that became the world’s most famous sex manual (The New York Review of Books)
The Kamasutra is one of the world’s best-known yet least understood texts, its title instantly familiar but its contents widely misconstrued as a how-to guide of acrobatic sexual techniques. Yet the book began its life in third-century India as something quite different: a vision of a life of urbane sophistication, with advice on matters from friendship to household decoration. Celebrated, then neglected, the Kamasutra was very nearly lost—until an outrageous adventurer brought it to the West, earning literary immortality.
In lively, lucid prose, James McConnachie provides a rare look at the exquisite civilization that produced this cultural cornerstone. He details the quest of explorer Richard Burton, who—with his coterie of libertines—unleashed the Kamasutra on Victorian society as a slap at its prudishness. And he describes the Kamasutra’s exile to the pornographic underground, until the end of the Lady Chatterley obscenity ban thrust it once more into contentious daylight.
The first work to tell the full story of the Kamasutra, The Book of Love explores how a way of looking at the world came to be cradled between book covers—and survived.
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James McConnachie is a journalist, travel writer, and broadcaster. A graduate of the University of Oxford, he has lived and traveled widely in Nepal and India. His articles and book reviews have appeared in The Daily Telegraph, The Observer, and The Independent, among other publications. He lives in Winchester, England.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter OneThe Wheel of Sexual Ecstasy In the beginning, sings the ‘Creation Hymn’ of the Rig Veda, the holiest and most ancient of India’s scriptures, ‘there was neither non-existence nor existence’. Then, out of nothing and from nowhere, arose kama. Kama was sexual desire, the urge to create and procreate, the atom-like essence of creation itself. According to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the greatest and oldest of India’s philosophical texts, the First Being ‘found no pleasure at all; so one finds no pleasure when one is alone. He wanted to have a companion. Now he was as large as a man and a woman in close embrace. So he split his body into two, giving rise to husband and wife... He copulated with her and from their union human beings were born.’ Kama, then, was the first itch that brought the world into being, and humanity with it. Where the Judaeo-Christian tradition begins with ‘light’, you could say that Hinduism starts with kama. In the beginning was sex, and sex was with god, and sex was god. By the middle of the first millennium BC, long after the Vedas and Upanishads were composed, kama had come to signify not just primal desire, but the particular pleasures of love and lovemaking. In poetic epics of the era like the great Mahabharata, kama was transformed from divine essence into personified god: kama became Kama, an Eros-like figure of youthful beauty praised as the firstborn, the god above all other gods, the son of Brahma, the creator. Kama was said to carry a bow made of deliciously sweet sugarcane, strung with a line of languorously humming bees and capable of firing flower-tipped arrows more deadly than any steel arrowhead. As a god and as an idea, kama was the expression of the divine creativity in humans, an essential principle of existence to be celebrated, praised, enjoyed and expressed through procreation. But as ever, there was a serpent in paradise. Kama was also a threat to the practice of meditation and the pursuit of the divine. It diverted the questing soul from the ultimate spiritual goal of ‘release’, or liberation from the world of birth and death. Hindu myths are full of tales of jealous gods sending heavenly nymphs to distract holy men whose austere meditations had made them too powerful. And the ascetic could not be too careful: one spilled drop of semen, like Samson’s cut hair, was sufficient to burn away all his tapas, or stored-up spiritual energy. Even the greatest ascetic of them all could be tempted. According to an ancient myth recorded in the Shiva Purana, after many thousands of years of perfect lovemaking the god Shiva abandoned his wife Parvati in order to pursue solitary meditation in the cool heights of the Himalayas. Frustrated and angered by her husband’s neglect of his sexual obligations, Parvati dispatched Kama to disturb Shiva’s concentration by piercing him with one of his potent, flower-tipped arrows. Just as the abstract kama had awoken the primal being from his slumber of non-being, the god Kama easily roused Shiva from his meditation. Enraged, Shiva turned the heat of his third, ‘spiritual eye’ on the god of desire, a heat engendered by aeons of yogic austerities, by centuries of sperm retention. Kama was reduced to ashes, becoming ananga, ‘the bodiless one’, a roving, aerial and ethereal spirit with the power to goad even the greatest ascetics towards the pursuit of pleasure. The myth vividly dramatizes the bow-taut tension in Hinduism between asceticism and sensuality. The uncertain dating of almost all ancient Indian texts, the Kamasutra included, makes it very hard to make general statements about eras, but at the time of the Kamasutra’s birth, in around the third century of the first millennium, the ascetic principle seems to have had the whip hand. In the Bhagavadgita, the ‘Hindu Sermon on the Mount’ composed perhaps a little before the Kamasutra, the god Krishna virtually froths at the mouth as he fulminates against kama. ‘By this is wisdom overcast,’ he shrieks, ‘therefore restrain the senses first: strike down this evil thing!’ The so-called ‘renouncer faiths’ of Buddhism and Jainism, which were flourishing in the third century, rejected the tainted physical world even more emphatically. Asvaghosa’s ‘Life of the Buddha’, which may be a hundred years or so older than the Kamasutra, warns that ‘the one who they call Kama-deva here-on-earth, he who has variegated weapons, flower-tipped arrows, likewise they call him Mara, the ruler of the way of desire, the enemy of liberation’. For Buddhists, Mara was the ultimate tempter and was even known as the lord of death. Not all thinkers were so confident in their rejection of kama. The poet Bhartrihari legendarily lived a life that oscillated no less than seven times between the severe existence of a monk and an abandoned pursuit of sensuality. For this writer, who probably lived within a century or two of the Kamasutra’s composition, there was no middle way between the erotic and ascetic principles. ‘There are two paths,’ he wrote, ‘the sages’ religious-devotion which is lovely because it overflows with the nectarous waters of the knowledge of truth’ and ‘the lusty undertaking of touching with one’s palm that hidden part in the firm laps of lovely-limbed women, loving women with great expanses of breasts and thighs’. ‘Tell us decisively which we ought to attend upon,’ he asks in his Shringarashataka, ‘the sloping sides of wilderness mountains? Or the buttocks of women abounding in passion?’ The Kamasutra was firmly on the side of the buttocks. It mounted the greatest defence of sexual pleasure the world had ever seen – or would ever see. Its method, avowed in its very name, was to capture and distil all previous knowledge on the entire subject of sexual desire. It was a sutra, a scholarly treatise designed to compress knowledge into a series of pithy maxims – a row of pearl-like aphorisms strung together in a necklace. Literally, its title means ‘the condensed version of the teaching on desire’, ‘aphorisms on erotic pleasure’ or ‘the grammar of sex’. Yet none of these English translations comes close to conveying the iconic status of the original Sanskrit words. ‘The book of love’ is less precise, but comes closer to capturing the breadth of the Kamasutra’s scope and the incredible force of its title’s cultural impact. The author of this extraordinary book of love was a man named Vatsyayana, about whom nothing is known beyond what he says about himself in his Kamasutra. Which is – rather surprisingly, given that his book is devoted to sex – that he ‘made this work in chastity and in the highest meditation’, and did not labour ‘for the sake of passion’. In the contemporary religious context, Vatsyayana could be forgiven for sounding a little defensive, but this curious statement may even be true. As Vatsyayana himself explains, the goals of life are different at each stage of manhood. Youth is for pleasure, while old age is better suited to contemplation. It’s tempting, then, to think that Vatsyayana acquired his sexual expertise as a young man, and composed his Kamasutra as a grizzled roué looking back on the adventures of his prime. When or where those adventures, or the recall of them, took place is a mystery. Vatsyayana does not mention any dates in his book of love, nor where it was written or set. A thirteenth-century commentator, Yasodhara, believed that Vatsyayana lived in the great city of Pataliputra, which is a plausible enough theory, as it later became the home of the highly cultivated and eroticized Gupta court. But Pataliputra lay in the north-eastern part of India (it is now the modern city of Patna, beside the Ganges and bordering eastern Nepal) while most of the geographical references in the Kamasutra are to the north-west. Vatsyayana does not even mention the city in his survey of regional sexual preferences – though as the Kamasutra expert Haran Chandra Chakladar drily pointed out, perhaps ‘he did not like to calumniate his own people by expatiating on their sexual abuses’. When the book of love was born can only be guessed from a few tantalizing – and rather titillating – clues. The Kamasutra must come after the death of Queen Malayavati, as Vatsyayana tells us that she was killed by her husband’s incautious use of the ‘scissors’ method of love-slap. (Perhaps fortunately, its secret is now lost.) Her wretched husband, Shatakarni Shatavahana, is thought to have ruled in the first century BC. And it must predate the fifth-century poet Subandhu, who pungently described in his poem Vasavadatta how the local Vindhya mountain range ‘was filled with elephants and fragrant from the perfume of its jungles, just as the Kamasutra was written by Mallanaga and contains the delight and enjoyment of mistresses’. The commentator Yasodhara confirms that Mallanaga was Vatsyayana’s given name, and Subandhu is known to have worked in Pataliputra, at the imperial court of Chandragupta II ‘Vikramaditya’. In fact, the Kamasutra is probably considerably older than Subandhu’s poem, as it conspicuously fails to mention the glorious Guptas, dwelling instead on two earlier dynasties, the Abhiras and Andhras – and in not altogether flattering terms. Vatsyayana tells the farcical story of how a certain King Abhira was killed by a washerman brother while making an adulterous sortie into another man’s home. He also observes that the women of the Abhiras ‘like embracing, kissing, scratching, biting and sucking, and although they do not like to be wounded they can be won over with slaps’. As for the Andhras, their women are apparently ‘delicate by nature but have coarse habits’, such as grasping a man inside them ‘like a mare, so tightly that he cannot move’. The Abhira dynasty came to power in the third or fourth decade of the third century ad, while the Andhras are thought to have declined soon after. Vatsyayana, then, must have lived around the early or middle part of the third century AD. In India, this was a time between empires. The adulterous Abhiras were just one of many minor regional dynasties capitalizing on the collapse of the extensive Satavahana empire, and it would be a hundred years before the beginning of the Classical ‘golden age’ of the imperial Guptas. Third-century India was divided into endless kingdoms, principalities and even republican states, but the absence of a presiding imperial government did not necessarily lead to war and chaos – any more than the lack of a Roman emperor or a Grand Duke prevented Florence, Siena and Pisa from flourishing during the Italian Renaissance. Across the subcontinent, new cities were being founded at the crossroads of trade and pilgrimage routes by road and river. Caravans were exporting pearls, perfumes, precious stones, gold, finely worked ivory and pottery as far afield as China, Central Asia, the African coast and the eastern Mediterranean. Some luxury goods even reached Rome, while coins and foreign materials – as well as ideas – followed the caravans home again. The new cities were well ordered and well built, with streetplans meticulously oriented around the cardinal points of the compass, and major thoroughfares neatly cobbled in stone. Segregated quarters were occupied by different castes or trades, while a great central marketplace attracted local peasantry from their outlying cow-herding villages – the appropriate venues, the Kamasutra advises, for the very lowest kind of lovemaking, technically known as ‘sex with a peasant’. The lowest castes were relegated to satellite villages beyond the city’s defensive palisade, while the more prosperous city-dwellers built their homes in sturdy brick, with fine porches overlooking the street. On the balconied roofs of these porches, the Kamasutra tells us, lovers lingered together after sex, gazing up at the moon and naming the constellations. At the very top of the house, dovecotes were installed in the eaves, while more birds were painted on the roof, symbolizing the love between the householder and his wife. The religious-minded may have disapproved, but urban society was luxurious and sensual, the driving force of a highly aestheticized culture that would scarcely be matched again in India. At perfumed and bejewelled courts, poets, scholars and scientists were patronized by minor kings and princes. Women were lavishly adorned with ornamental jewellery, their hair sculpted and held in place by beautifully decorated hairpins, their faces made up in elaborate palettes of colours. Picnic-parties frequented carefully cultivated gardens on the city fringes, where guests swam in pools specially designed to keep out the crocodiles, and frolicked with each other under the trees. As the ‘Libertine’ tells the prostitute-heroine of the mid-first-millennium Sanskrit play, The Little Clay Cart: Behold the splendour of the park! The trees resplendent in their fruit and bloom, Protected by the king’s keen guard from doom And by the creeper vines closely embraced Like husbands with their women interlaced. At temple festivals in the evenings, the wealthy and urbane rubbed shoulders with prostitutes and professional actors, grazing on roasted grains, lotus stems and mangoes, and indulging in water-fights and puppet shows. At the salons of the ganikas, the most exquisite courtesans, the sophisticated gathered for conversation liberally sprinkled with nuggets of philosophy, jokes and elegant literary and erotic references. The citizens of these young and sensual cities were known as nagarakas. Literally, the word translates as ‘he of the city’, but it means much more than that. In the era of the Kamasutra, the word ‘city’ had many of the connotations it has today, of sophistication, urbanity and fast living. Nagaraka has accordingly been rendered into English as ‘worldly-wise citizen’, ‘man-about-town’, ‘city-bred man of fashion’, ‘elegant townsman’, ‘gentleman’, ‘cosmopolite’ and ‘urbane playboy’. But these words do not capture the heady odour of danger or corruption that clung to the original nagaraka. The more religious-minded citizens of third-century India associated cities with moral turpitude. A play by a near-contemporary of Vatsyayana’s, The Recognition of Shakuntala, features a group of ascetics making a journey to a major town. As the ascetics enter the palace, one turns to another: ‘Look at these city people,’ he mutters to his friend, ‘these pleasure-lovers. I feel like a man fresh from the bath caught in a filthy beggar’s gaze.’ Vatsyayana positively wallowed in the nagaraka’s ‘filth’. His book was entirely devoted to these young, urban men who, as he put it, ‘incline to the ways of the world and regard playing as their one and only concern’. Whether or not the Kamasutra was written by a pleasure-seeking playboy – or at least by an older man who used to be one – the book’s structure suggests that it was written for one. The first of its seven books, or sections, ‘General Observations’, puts kama in its philosophical context and describes how our hero should set himself up for a life of pleasure. Like all the books, it is divided into a number of chapters, the most fascinating of which is devoted to the nagaraka himself. It is an astonishing portrait of his lifestyle, and so precise in its detail that if Vatsyayana was not a city slicker when he composed his great work, it is hard to believe that he was not at least recalling private memories. (Unless, like an eminent bachelor don at a fashionable Oxbridge college, Vatsyayana was simply surrounded by nagarakas and knew their habits inside out. In which case perhaps the Kamasutra was not so much a sex manual as a coursebook on sexual culture.) The sheer intimacy of the chapter on the life of the nagaraka makes it extraordinarily, persuasively immediate. It begins at the beg...
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