In the beginning, God created man and woman, and laid down a set of rules in accordance with three main ideas – dharma, artha, and kama. Dharma refers to a person’s “duty” on Earth, artha refers to the acquisition of material possessions, friends, and talent, and kama is the enjoyment of the five senses. These rules will be presented in this Kama Sutra, or Aphorisms on Love. The work is divided into seven books, which cover general principles, sexual union, courtship and marriage, the role of the wife, the process of seducing others’ wives, the prostitute, and secret lore.
Man must realize that dharma, artha, and kama harmonize in different ways over the course of one’s life. In a man’s youth, for instance, artha and kama take precedence, but later on dharma should become the focus of attention. For even though artha and kama may sustain survival by allowing one to find pleasure and comfort, it is the fulfillment of dharma that permits moksha, or release from the karmic cycle of birth and death.
While dharma is learned from the vedas, and artha from those who are expert in the concept, kama is the enjoyment of the five senses and thus must be learned from the Kama Sutra manual, or through first-hand experience. The author says that some will argue that kama is practiced by all “brute creations,” and thus does not merit instruction. The author, however, responds that sex is a thing dependent “on man and woman and requires the application of proper means by them.”
The Kama Sutra addresses the fact that others might argue that pleasure is in itself a weak goal and only leads to misery and misfortune. The author responds that this argument cannot be maintained because sex, food, and other sensory pleasures are necessary for life – and are, moreover, the results of dharma and artha. Pleasure must be sought in moderation and with caution, but it cannot be disdained or ignored, for fear of losing the most vital forces in life.
Men and women should both study the Kama Sutra, since it is an essential part of the livelihood of both. However, the author also argues that women should be trained in a variety of other arts as well, including singing, writing, sketching, painting, arranging flowers, and the adornment of household deities. He presents a long list of useful pastimes for a woman, including intellectual pursuits, useful arts, aphrodisiacs, and even water sports.
Once a man achieves the necessary financial resources, he should become the head of his household. He should reside in a town that can sustain his livelihood, live in a house near the water, and have two apartments – an outer one, and one for privacy. The inner apartment should be the dwelling of his lady (the author even provides a detailed layout for the ideal nagaraka, or male residence). The Kama Sutra also lays out a man’s morning duties, including washing his teeth, putting ointments on his body, rubbing collyrium on his eyes, and even coloring his lips. He should bathe daily, use herbal soap powder every three days, and get his head and face shaved every four days.
The author outlines a number of other responsibilities for the male head of the household, including holding poojas on auspicious days to honor the deities, holding social gatherings for men of similar age, disposition, and talents (these gatherings can include women as well), and even arranging drinking parties. The Kama Sutra is painfully specific in its description of all these rituals, even going so far as to suggest that in the morning, men should go to gardens on horseback, accompanied by society women and their servants – and once they’re done with their diversions for the day, including gambling, watching performances, and other time-passing activities, they should return home in the same manner, bearing bunches of flowers as mementos of their wanderings.
Only when kama is practiced by men of the four castes in marriages with women of their own caste do men achieve a truly effective and “lawful” way of bringing children into the world. The practice of having sex with women of a higher class or with those “previously enjoyed by others” is prohibited. On the other hand, the practice of sex with women of a lower class is “accepted,” but only if the sole objective is “carnal pleasure.” The author outlines eight possible reasons a man might sleep with a woman who has been previously married to another man before adding that there are a number of women who cannot be subject to kama union, no matter what. These include lunatics, outcasts, gossips, unsightly or unclean women, those who have lost their “glow,” near relations, female friends, and masculine women.
The Kama Sutra, for all its mythic sexiness and supposed revelations about the power of intercourse, is remarkably didactic in its presentations. That said, it is a remarkably assured collection of wisdom and anecdotes, one that has achieved a legacy as the “greatest book of love ever written” (Anand 23). While certainly many of its conclusions and prescriptions are bizarre to say the least, the Kama Sutra is singular in its “unabashed directness of the confrontation of sexual relations, the subtleties of apperceptions of feeling, mood, and emotion, the delicacy of nuances of love rendered by a mind, freed from all fears, inhibitions, and awkwardness of the accepting, routine society.” Indeed, it is this frankness, this freedom from inhibition and awkwardness that should guide our analysis as we continue, so that we can understand how sex is placed in the context of self-realization, rather than as a prurient act in itself.
The book begins with a “salutation” to dharma, artha, and kama, the three forces that intertwine for self-realization. Dharma is the duty one has to fulfill over the course of one’s lifetime in order to work off “karma,” or the debts accumulated from selfish actions. Dharma is the most important part of being human, and as we get older, we must focus on it more and more in order to achieve “moksha,” or liberation from the constant rebirths on Earth. Artha is the accumulation of material wealth, specifically those things that help one rise in status, but also applies to the elements that ensure a comfortable life. Early on, we are more conscious of artha as we seek to make a living, but we ultimately lose focus on artha as we grow older. Finally, kama is the experience that comes with the pleasure of the senses. Kama is the first thing we focus on when we are young, but we gradually lose interest in kama as we focus on artha, and then dharma.
The Kama Sutra was collected by Vatsyayana, a scholar who functions as the editor of this work, and each of the seven sections of the book is purportedly elaborated upon by an ancient sage. This first book, General Principles, has a number of strategies for addressing the reader, but the first one we encounter is the Challenge-Response method, not unlike the Socratic method. Upon stating that dharma is more important than artha, which is in turn more important than kama, the author ensures that the reader doesn’t translate this into a casual treatment of the Kama Sutra. Thus he uses challenge-responses to not only establish the necessity of kama – for it is, after all, the source of life itself – but also to underscore its value as a source of pleasure, or bodily satisfaction. Humans are driven to seek out food and sex, implies the author – so why should we judge this desire? It is our duty, our nature, to learn to enjoy it as best we can.
The prescriptions for women may strike modern readers as sexist, but in a way Vatsyayana is attempting to decode the mystery of femininity. He is less concerned with a woman’s role in sex, and focuses more on her role in the household. He suggests that a woman should develop intellectual, physical, and even athletic pastimes to show off her powers and skills. Hidden between the lines of all these prescriptions is a remarkable respect for women – the opposite of the attitude found in a number of other religious or ancient texts. What’s outlined, then, is a comprehensive set of arts, practices and behaviors that will “complement” the Kama Sutra and enable a woman to be the best lover, wife, and mother she can possibly be.
Perhaps the most compelling moment of the first book comes at the very end of it, when Vatsyayana offers a shloka, or piece of wisdom:
The man who is ingenious and wise, who is accompanied by a friend, and who knows the intentions of others, as also the proper time and place for doing everything, can gain over, very easily, even a woman who is very hard to be obtained.
What Vatsyayana suggests here is that love is not only an art, but a science – something that requires careful courtship, psychology, and even a go-between. This sholka is in itself subtly urgent, as it implies that a man can only become wise and ingenious by studying and assimilating all that will unfold in the pages that follow.