Kama Sutra : recueil indien écrit entre les IVe et VIIe siècles, attribué à Vâtsyâyana
When to Quote Poetry or Moan Like a Moorhen
The Kama Sutra, Newly Translated
The book resides in the popular imagination as kitsch, as if it were a series of aroused and arousing Pilates poses for two. In bookstores you will find inanities like “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Supercharged Kama Sutra Illustrated” sooner than a faithful translation of the original manuscript, which contained no drawings whatsoever.
This clear and elegant new translation is the work of A. N. D. Haksar, a former Indian diplomat and a well-known translator of Sanskrit classics. It’s worth attending to, and not merely because Valentine’s Day is nearly here, and your partner might find this sleek new Penguin Classics edition an intellectual aphrodisiac, though it contains no erotic illustrations, except several sublime ones on its cover.
Mr. Haksar reminds us how little of this book is a sex tutorial and how much of it is an intricate and surprisingly modern guide to the art of living. It is addressed to women as well as men. It is about decorating, about spouse wooing and about intellectual pastimes, among other things. That it also has chapter titles like “Scratching,” “Kissing,” “Biting,” “Oral Sex,” “Hitting and Moaning” and “Reversing Roles” only adds to its epicurean foxiness.
The Kama Sutra — “kama” roughly means desire, while “sutra” means thread — is an old book but a relatively new one to Western eyes. About its author, Vatsyayana, we know little, except that he — the author of the world’s Ur-dirty book — was said to be celibate. The Kama Sutra was first translated into English in 1883 by the explorer and linguist Sir Richard Burton who, given censorship laws, helped get it published privately. The book was formally issued in the United States only in 1962, one year after Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” and a decade before Alex Comfort’s “Joy of Sex.”
The Kama Sutra feels modern in its pleasure-seeking impulses, but much of the pleasure of reading it in 2012 comes from its ornate and antiquated sexual taxonomies. Bliss would be an audiobook adaptation read by Salman Rushdie and Tina Fey.
There is an impressively esoteric list, for example, of varieties of moaning during sex. These include: “the whimper, the groan, the babble, the wail, the sigh, the shriek, the sob and words with meaning, such as ‘Mother!’ ‘Stop!’ ‘Let go!’ or ‘Enough!’ Cries like those of doves, cuckoos, green pigeons, parrots, bees, moorhens, geese, ducks and quails are important options for use in moaning.” America’s porn actors have clearly not made anywhere near a proper study of this sonic landscape.
The “four embraces at the time of actual sexual union” are the “twining creeper,” the “climbing a tree,” the “sesame seeds and rice grains” and the “milk and water.” In a different embrace “the thighs are used like a pair of tongs.”
A list of recommended after-dinner entertainments includes “well-known games peculiar to different regions, like plucking the mango, eating roasted grain, nibbling lotus stems, collecting new leaves, squirting water, pantomimes, the silk-cotton tree game and mock-fights with wild jasmine flowers.”
There are, Vatsyayana writes, eight types of marks lovers can make with their fingernails, including the “leaping hare” and the “peacock’s foot.” It’s a sign of this book’s observant and free-floating tenderness that a man is advised to make certain light scratches while “squeezing her pimples.”
The Kama Sutra provides a recipe to make a man invisible so he can sneak into a harem. There is wince-inducing advice, involving insect bristles and a string hammock, for enlarging the penis. If you would like a woman to be faithful, we are told, sprinkle her with “a mixture of powered milkweed thorns, hogweed,” monkey feces and “root of glory lily.”
You might not think the Kama Sutra and “Downton Abbey,” the warm PBS soap opera about intrigues on a large rural estate in England, would have a great deal of thematic overlap. You would be wrong. Both are to some degree investigations into the kind of life a gentleman (or gentlewoman) should aspire to lead.
There is advice about the types of people with whom you should socialize, and a section that functions as a kind of charm school primer for women. Among the “64 arts” a woman should master are “improvisation of poetry; knowledge of dictionaries; knowledge of prosody” and “reciting difficult verses.”
There are some surprisingly metrosexual grooming tips. About men, Vatsyayana writes, “The nails and the whiskers should be trimmed every fourth day, and the body hair removed every 5th or 10th day.”
The Kama Sutra will not be mistaken for a feminist manifesto. There are lessons about when forcible marriage is appropriate, about how a man should be like a god to his wife and about the ease with which a man can pluck ripe servant girls for his delectation.
But most of its strictures are along the lines of don’t be hurtful or barbaric. Men are told to satisfy a woman first in bed. This book may have a fetish for slapping and punching during sex, but it’s an equal-opportunity fetish. In a short poem we read: “Do what is done to you,/ hit back if you are hit.”
This poem closes with the Kama Sutra’s fundamental advice about life in general: “In the same way,/if you are kissed, kiss back.”