Redeeming the Kamasutra

Wendy Doniger

March 11, 2016 
The following is from Wendy Doniger’s Redeeming the Kama Sutra. Wendy Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago and the author of over 30 books, including On Hinduism and The Hindus: An Alternative History.

Sir Richard Burton’s Version of the Kamasutra

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One reason why the Kamasutra plays almost no role at all in the sexual consciousness of contemporary Indians is that it is known, in both India and Europe, almost entirely through the flawed English translation by Sir Richard Francis Burton. (Popular, abridged versions of the Kamasutra in Hindi and other Indian languages have also often used Burton’s English translation, rather than the original Sanskrit, as the source). This translation was published in 1883, a time when the Hindus, cowering under the scorn of the Protestant proselytizers, wanted to sweep the Kamasutra under the Upanishadic rug. The journalist Curt Gentry, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle at that time, suggested that the publication of Burton’s Kamasutra translation ‘might act as a useful corrective to the prevailing cliché of India as a land of asceticism’. And in many ways, it did. Burton did for the Kamasutra what Max Müller did for the Rig Veda during this same period; his translation had a profound effect upon literature across Europe and America. But it did not bring the sexual freedom of the Kamasutra into Hindu consciousness.

Victorian British attitudes to Hindu eroticism ricocheted between the pornographers and the prudes, and Burton, a connoisseur of eroticism in Arabic as well as Indian culture, was certainly not a prude. His main contribution was the courage and determination to publish the work at all; he was the Larry Flynt of his day. To get around the censorship laws, Burton set up an imaginary publishing house, The Kama Shastra Society of London and Benares, with printers said to be in Benares or Cosmopoli. (The title page read: ‘The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, Translated from the Sanscrit. In Seven Parts, with Preface, Introduction and Concluding Remarks. Cosmopoli: 1883: for the Kama Shastra Society of London and Benares, and for private circulation only.’)

Even though it was not legally published in England and the United States until 1962, the Burton Kamasutra soon after its publication in 1883 became ‘one of the most pirated books in the English language’, constantly reprinted, often with a new preface to justify the new edition, sometimes without any attribution to Burton.

This lack of attribution is actually quite appropriate, for the Burton translation is not primarily the work of Burton. It was far more the work of Forster Fitzgerald (‘Bunny’) Arbuthnot, whose name appears on the title page with Burton’s only in some editions, though Burton later referred to the Kamasutra translation as ‘Arbuthnot’s Vatsyayana’. In fact, the translation owed even more to two Indian scholars whose names do not appear on the title page at all: Bhagavanlal Indrajit and Shivaram Parashuram Bhide. (There is a pre-post-colonial irony in the fact that Arbuthnot later tried to get the censors off his trail by stating, in 1885, a half-truth that he almost certainly regarded as a lie: that the translation was done entirely by Indian pundits.) It really should, therefore, be known as the Indrajit-Bhide-Arbuthnot- Burton translation, but since Burton was by far the most famous member of the team, it has always been called the Burton translation.

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In many ways, it should be called the Burton mistranslation. For, in crucial passages, the Sanskrit text simply does not say what Burton (or perhaps one of the Indian pundits who really did the work) says it says. The Burton translation robs women of their voices, turning direct quotes into indirect quotes, thus losing the force of the dialogue that animates the work and erasing the vivid presence of the many women who speak in the Kamasutra, replacing these voices with reported speech rephrased by a man. Thus, where the text says that, when a man is striking a woman, ‘She uses words like “Stop!” or “Let me go!” or “Enough!” or “Mother!”’ Burton translates it like this: ‘She continually utters words expressive of prohibition, sufficiency, or desire of liberation.’ Moreover, when the text says that this may happen ‘When a man [is] in the throes of passion’, and ‘If a man tries to force his kisses and so forth on her’, Burton says it happens ‘When the woman is not accustomed to striking’, reversing the genders and reversing the point.

Burton also erodes women’s agency by mistranslating or erasing some passages in which women have strong privileges. Take this passage (here translated more or less literally) about a wife’s powers of recrimination:

Mildly offended by the man’s infidelities, she does not accuse him too much, but she scolds him with abusive language when he is alone or among friends. She does not, however, use love-sorcery worked with roots, for, Gonardiya says, ‘Nothing destroys trust like that.’

Burton renders it:

In the event of any misconduct on the part of her husband, she should not blame him excessively, though she be a little displeased. She should not use abusive language toward him, but rebuke him with conciliatory words, whether he be in the company of friends or alone. Moreover, she should not be a scold, for, says Gonardiya, ‘There is no cause of dislike on the part of a husband so great as this characteristic in a wife’.

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What is wrong with this picture? In the first place, Burton mistranslated the word for ‘love-sorcery worked with roots’ (mulakarika), which he renders as ‘she should not be a scold’ (though elsewhere he correctly translates mulakarika). Second, ‘misconduct’ is not so much a mistranslation as an error of judgment, for the word in question (apacara) does have the general meaning of ‘misconduct’, but in an erotic context it takes on the more specific meaning of ‘infidelity’, a choice that is supported by the remedy that the text suggests (and rejects): love-magic. But the most serious problem is the word ‘not’ that Burton gratuitously adds and that negates the wife’s right to use abusive language against her straying husband, a denial only somewhat qualified by the added phrase, that she might ‘rebuke him with conciliatory words’. Was this an innocent error or does it reflect a sexist bias? We cannot know. An even more serious disservice to the Kamasutra was done by Burton’s mistranslation of the passages about people of the ‘third nature’.

The so-called Burton translation is widely read in Europe and America. It is free (at first poached from the illegal editions, then long out of copyright) and recognizable as what people think the Kamasutra should be. Indeed, it is quite a wonderful text: great fun to read, extraordinarily bold and frank for its time, and in many places a fairly approximate representation of the Sanskrit original. It remains precious, like Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat, as a monument of English literature, but it is certainly not a monument of Indian literature.


The Demise of Kama


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An adolescent girl in Vikram Chandra’s story ‘Kama’ says, ‘Sister Carmina didn’t want to tell us. It’s the Kama Sutra, which she says isn’t in the library. But Gisela’s parents have a copy which they think is hidden away on the top of their shelf. We looked it up there.’ And the adult to whom she tells this says, ‘You put that book back where you found it. And don’t read any more.’ In India today, urban, affluent, usually anglophone people will give a copy of the Kamasutra (in English translation) as a wedding present, to demonstrate their open-mindedness and sophistication, but most people will merely sneak a surreptitious look at it in someone else’s house.

A pervasive and often violent moral policing has taken over parts of the Indian world today. A typical instance of this occurred in 2007, when a twenty-three-year-old student of Fine Arts at Baroda University named Chandramohan Srilamantula mounted an exhibition for other students and staff. He had previously received awards for his work, including the Lalit Kala Akademi National Exhibition award in 2006; later he won first prize in the 2009 Bhopal Biennale. In the 2007 exhibition, one painting depicted a crucified Christ with explicit genitals and a toilet beneath the cross; another, entitled ‘Durga Mata’, was of a nude woman attacking, with a trident (the weapon of Shiva), a baby issuing from her womb. Christian leaders lodged protests against the first painting, and a group of Hindu chauvinist activists belonging to the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) and BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) vandalized the exhibition and roughed up Chandramohan for the second painting. (This group was led by Niraj Jain, who has been known to brandish a revolver and once threw eggs at the Gujarat education minister for including them in school midday meals.) The police stood by and then arrested not the vandals but the artist. (He was later released.) When the acting Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Shivaji Panikkar, refused to close down the exhibition, the Vice-Chancellor, Manoj Soni, suspended him. Panikkar, stating that he feared for his life, went into hiding. Students and spokespersons of the Indian art community held protests throughout India, claiming that the closing of the exhibition was a direct assault on the rights of freedom of expression.

In commenting on this event, the well-known editor, columnist and critic Anil Dharker remarked:

What has made the artists come together in protest is that this attack isn’t an isolated one, but one more in a series now increasing in both frequency and wantonness…The Mumbai Police stood by when Shiv Sainiks attacked cinema theatres showing a Deepa Mehta film [Fire, which showed a lesbian relationship in a middle-class Hindu family]…Recently, the Mumbai cops did some moral policing of their own, arresting young couples found in ‘compromising position’ (police speak for young men and women having their arms around each other).

Dharker went on to list several more instances, but even these few are representative of broad patterns of attacks by various Hindutva groups (whose members call themselves Hindutvavadis).

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There has been an increasing number of campaigns against artists and writers who link Hindu deities with sexuality, or talk openly and frankly about sexuality. In 1996, Hindutvavadis began terrorizing M.F. Husain for his paintings of naked Hindu goddesses. In 2006, after death threats and legal cases, Husain, whom many regarded as India’s greatest living artist, and who was then ninety-one years old, was forced into exile in Dubai; he died in London in 2011. Some Hindutvavadis forced Deepa Mehta to leave Varanasi, where she was making a film about the mistreatment of Hindu widows in Varanasi (Water, 2005). In 2013, Rajnath Singh, leader of the BJP, and now India’s home minister (since the BJP won the national elections in 2014), said in an interview to the Telegraph newspaper that ‘homosexuality is an unnatural act and cannot be supported’. In October 2014, the chief minister of the state of Haryana was reported to have said, ‘If a girl is dressed decently, a boy will not look at her in the wrong way…If [they] want freedom, why don’t they just roam around naked? Freedom has to be limited. These short clothes are Western influences. Our country’s tradition asks girls to dress decently.’ In Bangalore, Bombay, Delhi and several other Indian cities, vigilante Right-wing Hindu groups like the Sri Ram Sena (‘The Army of Lord Rama’) routinely beat up young couples seen together in public and women who visit pubs, and vandalize shops that sell Valentine Day cards.

The Hindutvavadis often accuse the people whom they censor of being polluted by Western influences, while, ironically, many of the Hindutvavadis’ own actions closely resemble censoring frenzies in the United States. But the Indian incidents are better seen as part of a separate logic of Hindu Puritanism, which, as we have seen, has a long history of its own. When a group of students and artists at Baroda University attempted to stage a protest demonstration for Chandramohan at the Faculty of Fine Arts, they organized an exhibition of photographs taken from the explicitly erotic sculptures that adorn the temples at Khajuraho, in Madhya Pradesh. In choosing Khajuraho, they were making an implicit historical statement: the art heritage of India is rich in erotic themes, of which the images on the Khajuraho temples (built between 900 and 1100 CE) are a famous example. What happened to that tradition? How did India get from there to the scandal in Baroda?

Nowadays, on the public scene, ‘a Hindu-nationalist health minister can insist that the “Indian traditions” of abstinence and fidelity are more effective barriers against HIV than condoms; and…the 1860 Penal Code [still in effect] defines all extramarital sex as criminal’. Many Hindus, in India but also increasingly in the American diaspora, advocate a sanitized, ‘spiritual’ form of Hinduism (and, in India, a nationalist and anti-Muslim form). For such Hindus, the problem is not (as it was for some liberal Indian intellectuals) how to explain how India lost its appreciation of eroticism but, on the contrary, how to maintain that Hinduism was always the pure-minded, anti-erotic, ascetic tradition that it actually became, for many upper-class Hindus, only in the nineteenth century.

One way to make this argument was to swing to the other side of the pendulum and blame the British not for suppressing Indian eroticism but for causing it. Under Nehru, the Indian government chose to retain a British colonial era penal code of sexual repression, forbidding several acts ‘against nature’—acts that Nehru condemned by saying, ‘such vices in India were due to Western influence’. The irony is that in aping the British scorn for Indian sexuality, contemporary Hindus who favour censorship are letting foreign ideas about Hinduism triumph over and drive out native Hindu ideas about—and pride in—their own religion and in the diversity and tolerance that have always characterized the world of the mind in Hinduism. Among the other bad habits they picked up from the West, from seeds sown, perhaps, during colonization but flowering only in the more recent contacts with American imperialism, was the Protestant habit of censorship. Never before has the old tension between the erotic and ascetic strains of Hinduism taken the form of one path telling the other path that it has no right to exist.


The Rebirth of Kama


But kama, which is to say the India of the ancient erotic past, is not so easily stamped out. Even in the nineteenth century, most Hindus continued cheerfully on the path that celebrated the earthier aspects of life. And now they live on in ‘a reported two-thirds of young adults who would have casual, pre-marital sex before an arranged marriage’, and who, since 1991, can buy condoms called KamaSutra—and chocolate-, vanilla- and strawberry-flavoured condoms, too, marketed freely on Indian television channels. Through all this, many hundreds of folk songs and stories—often sung or told by women—have remained robustly bawdy. Clearly the attempt to transform the culture of the Kamasutra into what many people, Hindus and non-Hindus alike, mistakenly refer to as the Karmasutra (presumably a Vedantic text about reincarnation) has not succeeded.

But reports of the death of Kama have been, as Mark Twain famously said of his own death, greatly exaggerated. Kama is incarnate in a god who, like his Greek and Roman counterparts Eros and Cupid, enflames passion by shooting lovers with arrows of desire. And this Kama was indeed killed, but not permanently. In a poem entitled ‘The Birth of the Prince’, by Kalidasa, often regarded as the greatest poet of ancient India (he probably lived in the fifth century), Kama tried to shoot an arrow at the god Shiva at a time when Shiva was deeply engrossed in ascetic meditation. Shiva opened his third eye and burnt Kama to ashes. But by destroying Kama’s body, Shiva actually infused him into a number of other substances that worked Kama’s magic even more effectively—moonlight, the arched brows of beautiful women, and so forth. I find this an encouraging metaphor for the unofficial thriving of movements that public censorship forces underground.

And it gets better. Later, when Shiva had fallen in love with Parvati, the exquisitely beautiful daughter of the mountain Himalaya, and had married her, he was in a rather different mood. Now when Rati, the wife of Kama and the incarnation of pleasure, begged Shiva to resuscitate her husband, the god granted her wish. (Kalidasa then describes the union of Shiva and Parvati in a canto so erotic that many later, more prudish scholars refuse to accept it as a genuine part of the poem.) I find this poem a persuasive and hopeful scenario for the revival of the Kamasutra, and the ultimate flourishing of its joyous spirit, in India.


From REDEEMING THE KAMASUTRA. Used with permission of Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2016 by Wendy Doniger.

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