On reading the ‘Kamasutra’ by Vatsyayana, it is with ease that one can identify multiple descriptions of sexual practices that seem either too fantastic for the conventional notion of Indian society two thousand years ago to have condoned, or simply beyond fathom for a product of India as we know it. According to “Anonymous”[i],
The entire sex positive attitude that the Kama Sutra propagates is progressive even by today’s standards.
The general perspective of Vatsyayana, as my peer says, does not seem to be as sex-negative as most Indians grow up thinking ancient India was. Similarly, other unconventional practices, such as homosexual relationships or sexual relations with transgenders, could be considered permissible, in Vatsyayana’s perspective, as long as they took place behind closed doors[ii].
The most important thing to note before discussing this is to understand that the “either one or the other” dynamic need not be true [in the understanding of the Kamasutra].
The understanding of the Kamasutra involves a breakdown of the specific practices listed in it and an analysis of the linguistics used to describe each one of them, so as to denote which of them have been stated as descriptions of the regular (and acceptable) sexual practices of that time, and which have been included in the text simply because of the sex-positive outlook of the author.
The author describes sexual acts in detail, but seems to have little regard for the chapter on sex as a truly important set of laws to study in the book. In fact, they don’t even seem like laws because: He begins most verses by describing specific situations that one might get himself into, and then illustrates how they can derive and provide the most pleasure to their partner in this situation; but almost every verse ends with him emphasizing that “passion knows no order”. It seems like he wants us to believe that the chapter is simply advice to help one get started, but once they are in the flow, or caught in the passion of sex, they no longer need to be guided by a rule book – their sexual drive will express itself to bring satisfaction. You could even take it one step further and say that he, on some level, knows that laws cannot govern what takes place in the bedroom because sexuality can’t be reigned in by anyone, not even it’s owner.
This added emphasis on the fluid nature of sexuality shows that Vatsyayana was far ahead of his time, and all the notes he made when he was observing the daily lives of the courtesans (the revered brothel workers of the age) of Patliputra truly taught him more than breaking his own sanctity would. But the fact was that others did not have such liberal notions.
It is essential to converse with the society of that time about their perspective of the author’s unabashed disregard for their norms, which is clear from his compulsively inclusive attitude in the prescription of rather ambiguous ‘laws’ about sex and who partakes in it. One practice that instigates ambiguity regarding who – society (and Vatsyayana) or just Vatsyayana – condoned it, is polyamory[iii]. The Kamasutra seems to suggest that polyandry was a practice consistent with the beliefs of Vatsyayana.
In the lines below, Vatsyayana talks about how people view a woman who has remnants of a recent sexual encounter on her body:
“Respect for her, desire too,
Rise even in a stranger who
Sees a young woman from afar,
Her breasts bearing marks of nails.”
The idea of desiring a woman who already has – or recently had – a sexual partner is illustrated here, subtly. This raises many questions: why, for example, would someone be interested in a woman who clearly has a sexual partner already? Information passed down through generations tells us an awful lot about female sexuality in India – that women are supposed to be submissive sexual beings and that men are supposed to hold dominion over them, such that women who are not virgins at the time of their marriage are not fit to marry and that they are bound to commit to their husbands sexually, even if their husbands have multiple wives.
This is also elucidated by Vatsyayana himself, when he provides multiple reasons for men to cheat on their wives and instigate various kinds of sexual relations for purposes such as revenge, or to alter their power dynamic with various people; but provides no set of exceptions that allowed women to cheat on their husbands. And yet, he writes that any average man at that time would respect and desire a sexually active woman.
The idea of this is so fascinating: either Vatsyayana wishes to tell the readers that they will simply want a woman who is desired by other men as well – somewhat like a product in high demand – or he wishes to provide a space of dignity to women who are in multiple sexual relations, no matter how far in the fringes of society they lie.
I think that the first of those possibilities was ruled out though, because the author prescribes no punishment for the women that cheat on their husbands (or get ‘trapped between men and their affairs’, as sexual objects would). This, again, proves that Vatsyayana is prepared to have loopholes in his law that allow women to engage with their sexuality, even if the larger society at the time did not.
This, I believe, is justified because it seems like the only compromise that would allow him to be received well while also portraying a juvenile approach (but an approach that is nonetheless more advanced than Indian society today) to sexual liberation.
[i] Anonymous. “Can the Kama Sutra be considered a progressive text?” piazza.com, 10 Feb. 2018,
https://piazza.com/class/jcfvknfoy1f685?cid=30#. Accessed 9 March, 2018.
[ii] Vatsyayana, Kamasutra.
[iii] Polyandry means the practice of a woman to have multiple sexual relations.