Kama Sutra

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Kamasutram, generally known to the Western world as Kama Sutra, is an ancient Indian text on human sexual behaviour, widely considered to be the standard work on love in Sanskrit literature. The text was composed by Vatsyayana, (~5th century CE philosopher) as a brief summary of various earlier works belonging to a tradition known generically as Kama Shastra. Kama is literally desire. Sutra signifies a thread, or discourse threaded on a series of aphorisms. Sutra was a standard term for a technical text, thus also the Yogasutram of Patanjali. The text is originally known as Vatsyayana Kamasutram ("Vatsyayana's Aphorisms on Love"). Tradition holds that the author was a celibate scholar living in Pataliputra, an important center of learning in modern day Bihar. Most scholarly estimates place him in the 4th century. If this date is correct, Vatsayana lived during the heart of the Gupta Empire (or period), an era known for its massive contributions to classical Sanskrit literature and Vedic culture.


Preceding history

  • Traditionally, the first transmission of Kama Shastra or "Discipline of Erotics" is attributed to Nandi the sacred bull, Shiva's doorkeeper, who was moved to sacred utterance by overhearing the lovemaking of the god and his wife Parvati and later recorded his utterances for the benefit of mankind.
  • Yashodhara, in his commentary on the Kama Sutra, further attributes the origins of Kama Shastra to Mallanaga, the "prophet of the Asuras", meaning it originated in prehistoric times. The attribution of the name "Mallanaga" to Vatsyayana, the author of the Kama Sutra, is due to the confusion of his role as editor of the Kama Sutra with that of the mythical creator of erotic science.
  • During the 8th century BC, Shvetaketu, son of Uddalaka, is said to have produced a comprehensive summary of Kama Shastra. However, according to tradition, this "summary" was still too vast to be accessible. Later, a scholar called Babhravya, together with a group of his disciples, produced a summary of Shvetaketu's summary that was itself encyclopaedic in scope.
  • Between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC, important contributions of Kama Shastra expounding on Babhravya group's work are attributed to great sages such as Charayana, Ghotakamukha, Gonardiya, Gonikaputra, Suvarnanabha, and Dattaka.
  • Dattaka's work on courtesans is reproduced by Vatsyayana almost entirely in Kama Sutra.
  • Suvarnanabha's text mentions Shatakarni Shatavahana, a king of the 1st century BC who killed his own wife accidentally during sadistic practices, thus giving a hint on the time period it was written.

Time and background of Kama Sutra

Most scholarly estimates place Vatsyayana in the 4th century AD, during the heart of the Gupta period. More cautious estimates use inter-textual evidence to set a range for the time of his writing. Varahamihira]s claim in his Brihad Samhita (literally "Grand Opus", composed around the 6th century AD) that he drew inspiration from the Kama Sutra sets the latest possible date and the Kama Sutra's own mention of King Shatakarni Satavahana who lived in the 1st century BC provides the earliest date. In his text, Vatsyayana claims that his inspiration stemmed from the fact that the various major works of Kama Shastra had become difficult to access, thus requiring someone to collect and summarize them.


The Kama Sutra has 36 chapters, organized into seven parts. The parts are:

Part One - Introduction

(5 chapters) - on love in general and its place in the lives of men and women

  • Chapter One: Contents of the Book
  • Chapter Two: The Three Aims of Life
  • Chapter Three: The Acquisition of Knowledge
  • Chapter Four: The Conduct of the Well-bred Townsman
  • Chapter Five: Reflections on Intermediaries Who Assist the Lover in His Enterprises

Part Two - Amorous Advances

(10 chapters)

  • Chapter One: Stimulation of Erotic Desire
  • Chapter Two: Embraces
  • Chapter Three: Petting and Caresses
  • Chapter Four: The Art of Scratching
  • Chapter Five: Biting
  • Chapter Six: On Copulation and Special Tastes
  • Chapter Seven: Blows and Sighs
  • Chapter Eight: Virile Behavior in Women
  • Chapter Nine: Superior Coition or Fellation
  • Chapter Ten: Preludes and Conclusions to the Game of Love

Part Three - Acquiring a Wife

(5 chapters) - courtship and marriage.

  • Chapter One: Forms of Marriage
  • Chapter Two: How to Relax the Girl
  • Chapter Three: Ways of Obtaining the Girl
  • Chapter Four: How to Manage Alone
  • Chapter Five: Union by Marriage

Part Four - Duties and Privileges of the Wife

(2 chapters)

  • Chapter One: Conduct of the Only Wife
  • Chapter Two: Conduct of the Chief Wife and Other Wives

Part Five - Other Men's Wives

(6 chapters) - mainly seduction.

  • Chapter One: Behavior of Woman and Man
  • Chapter Two: Encounters to Get Acquainted
  • Chapter Three: Examination of Sentiments
  • Chapter Four: The Task of Go-between
  • Chapter Five: The King's Pleasures
  • Chapter Six: Behavior in the Gynoecium

Part Six - About Courtesans

(6 chapters).

  • Chapter One: Advice of the Assistants on the Choice of Lovers
  • Chapter Two: Looking for a Steady Lover
  • Chapter Three: Ways of Making Money
  • Chapter Four: Renewing Friendship with a Former Lover
  • Chapter Five: Occasional Profits
  • Chapter Six: Profits and Losses; Reflections on Doubts Concerning the Advantages and Disadvantages of Relations

Part Seven - Practices

(2 chapters).

  • Chapter One: Success in Love - Improving physical attractions by herbs, aphrodisiacs, spells.
  • Chapter Two: Arousing a Weakened Sexual Power.

The Kama Sutra contains a total of 64 sexual positions and depicts positions as arts. Vatsyayana believed there were eight ways of making love, multiplied by eight positions within each of these. In the book, they are known as the 64 Arts. The chapter listing sexual positions is the best-known, and a translation (different from Burton's) is in wide circulation on the Internet. This chapter was pirated from the 1980 translation of Indra Sinha and first appeared on the internet server wiretap.spies in the late 80s. It is commonly mistaken to be the entirety of the Sutra.

However, only about 20 percent of the book is devoted to sexual positions. The remainder gives guidance on how to be a good citizen and insights into men and women in relationships. The Kama Sutra describes making love as "divine union". Vatsyayana believed that sex itself was not wrong, but doing it frivolously was sinful. The Kama Sutra has helped people enjoy the art of sex at a deeper level and can be considered a technical guide to sexual enjoyment, as well as providing insight into the sexual mores and practices of India in those times.

Pleasure and the Spiritual Life

The Indian tradition believes that human life is a spiritual journey, with each and every aspect governed by one or more of the following motives:

1). Dharma: Virtuous living.

2). Artha: Material prosperity.

3). Kama: Enjoyment.

4). Moksha: Liberation.

While the first three, mutually tied to each other, form a group and represent the aims of life, Moksha - the highest ideal, is independent and beyond them. All our actions are governed by one or more of the three motives, individually, or in combination. Thus says the Kama Sutra:

In Dharma, Artha and Kama, the preceding one is better than the succeeding one, i.e. Dharma is superior to Artha, which in its turn is higher than Kama. (1.2.14)

The golden rule is that whenever one motive is in conflict with one or more of the others, we have to choose that which safeguards the highest ideal. For example, when pursuing money, Dharma is not be compromised, and when Artha and Kama are in discord, the latter needs to be sacrificed.

Thus we realize that Vatsyayana has the self-confidence to acknowledge the relative superiority enjoyed by the other ideals over the subject he is expounding. His ambition is not to establish Kama as an ultimate principle, but rather to make us realize its correct and relevant position in the sphere of human existence. Therefore, in the Kama Sutra, sensuality is not glorified in its own right, but given its rightful place in our lives.

In the West, the Kama Sutra is sometimes wrongly identified as a manual for "Tantra Sex" or tantric sex. While sexual practices do exist within the very wide tradition of Hindu tantra, the Kama Sutra is not a tantric text, and does not touch upon any of the sexual rites associated with some forms of tantric practice.


The most widely known English translation of the Kama Sutra was popularized by the famous traveler and author Sir Richard Francis Burton and compiled by his colleague Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot in 1883. The bulk of the translation was produced by two often overlooked Indian scholars, Bhagavanlal Indrajit and Shivaram Parashuram Bhide. An influential recent translation is that of Indra Sinha, published in 1980. Alain Daniélou contributed a translation called The Complete Kama Sutra in 1994. This translation featured the original text attributed to Vatsayana, along with a medieval and modern commentary. It was translated again in 2002 by Wendy Doniger, the professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago, and Sudhir Kakar, the Indian psychoanalyst and senior fellow at Center for Study of World Religions at Harvard University.

Original and translations

This page uses content from SM-201; the original article can be viewed here.
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