Despite Being Progressive, How The ‘Kamasutra’ Still Reinforces Gender Roles

I stumbled upon the idea of reading this book when I came across a reference to it in “Same-Sex Love in India: Readings in Indian Literature”. While I expected it to be erotic literature, I was surprised to find it was a vivid social reflection of the times in which it was written. It revealed the roots of many social setups which are foundational to modern India and was way ahead of its time in exploring the possibilities in a relationship. But still, it was myopic when it came to gender roles.

The Sex And Romance

Only 20% of the book is a sex manual, defining the various sex positions that are possible between a man and a woman. An emphasis has been laid on foreplay, categorising even the different techniques there are to scratch a man’s back with finger nails. Slapping, screaming, dirty talk and biting have been stressed upon persistently, and excessive importance has been given to the virility, sexual energy, temperament and size of the man and woman. “The man is called a ‘hare’, ‘bull’, or ‘stallion’, according to the size of his sexual organ; a woman, however, is called a ‘doe’, ‘mare’, or ‘elephant cow”, it says in the book.

However, the literature even paints the picture of the sexual innovations in the most poetic and romantic way possible: “…she pants gently, rests on him, and gazes at him with love for a while. This is the ‘twining vine’. She steps on his foot with her foot, places her other foot on his thigh or wraps her leg around him, with one arm gripping his back and the other bending down his shoulder, and panting gently, moaning a little, she tries to climb him to kiss him. This is called ‘climbing the tree’. These two embraces are done standing up. Lying on a bed, their thighs entangled and arms entangled, they embrace so tightly that they seem to be wrestling against one another. This is ‘rice-and-sesame’. Blind with passion, oblivious to pain or injury, they embrace as if they would enter one another; she may be on his lap, seated facing him, or on a bed. This is called ‘milk-and-water’.”

There is a lot of mention about oral sex and anal sex. Dildos, roots and bulbs are hilariously recommended. And homosexuality is talked about as socially unacceptable but completely natural. It is strange how this book, which was probably written sometime in the third century, still looks progressive when it comes to such issues, whereas 21st century India has criminalised both anal and sex.

What is extremely bewildering is that even group sex and threesomes are mentioned very suggestively in the book: “As one man can have sex with two women or many women, so a woman can have sex with two men or many men. For ‘sex in a cluster’ also intends to indicate sex between one woman and a cluster of men, such as two men embraced by one woman playing the man’s part. And in ‘sex with a herd of bulls’, one woman acts like a cow with a herd of men as bulls.”

Also, Vatsyayana knows the importance of women’s sexual desires: “‘What sort of sensual pleasure do you feel?’ how can this be known?’ The answer would be: Because when a man reaches a climax, he stops of his own accord and pays no attention to the woman; a woman, however, is not like that.”

“How could two people of the same species who are striving toward a single goal achieve different climaxes? One might argue: because they differ in their methods and in their erotic arousal. But what causes the difference in their methods? Their different physical natures. By his physical nature, the man is the active agent and the young woman is the passive locus; the agent contributes to the action in one way and the locus in another. And the difference in their erotic arousal comes from this difference in their methods that comes from their physical natures. This objection may be raised about that argument: ‘Why do they not differ in their climaxes just as in their methods?’ Not so. The difference in their methods has a cause, namely, the different characteristics of the active and passive roles. But, logically, there can be no difference in their climaxes since that has no cause. For they are not of different species.”

But that is almost the end of the good part of the book. Everything goes downhill from here.

Women

It is very noticeable and heartbreaking at the same time, that the way women are portrayed in the book very much resemble present-day India, as if very little about the position of women individually or with respect to their relation to men has changed. Below are some snippets from the book which depict this.

“There is a fourth sort of woman who may be a lover: under the pressure of some other reason, a woman who aids his cause may become his lover, even if she is married to another man.’ The man may think, ‘This is a loose woman. She has already ruined her virtue with many other men. Even though she is of a class higher than mine, I can go to her as I would go to a courtesan, without offending against religion. She is a second-hand woman.Since another man has kept her before me, there is no reason to hesitate about this.”

“If his wife is frigid or promiscuous or unlucky in love, or if she continually fails to bear a child or gives birth only to daughters, or if the man is fickle, he supplants her with a co-wife.Therefore, from the very start, a woman tries to avoid this by making known her devotion, good character, and cleverness.”

“When she hears her husband’s voice outside as he approaches the house, she stands ready in the centre of the house and says, ‘What should be done?’ Pushing aside the female servant, she herself washes his feet. She does not let the man see her alone when she is not wearing makeup and jewellery. She has spent too much or spent the wrong amount, she tells him in private. n any game, she follows his lead. 17 She lies down after him, gets up before him, and never wakes him up when he is asleep. She keeps the kitchen well guarded and well lit. 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 refrains from bad language, nasty looks, talking while avoiding his gaze, standing at the doorway or gazing from it, chatting in the park, and lingering in deserted places.”

“The things that ruin women are as follows: too much socializing, not enough restraint,* independence from her husband, unrestrained access to men, separation from her husband during his absence, living abroad, the loss of her means of subsistence, close contact with loose women, and her husband’s jealousy.”

Standardisation

The book is almost like a dating guide. It talks about ways to ask others out, to make advances, to understand signs and reciprocate subtly. But it also puts limits and restrictions on who to date and who not to. Following are some excerpts regarding it, some of them very hilarious when seen from a modern day perspective.

“But the following women are not eligible to be lovers: a leper, a lunatic, a fallen woman, a woman who tells secrets, who asks for it in public, whose prime of youth is almost entirely gone, who is too light or too dark, bad-smelling, a relative, a woman friend, a wandering female ascetic, or the wife of a relative, of a friend, of a Brahmin who knows the Veda, or of a king.”

“These are not eligible lovers: A man wasting away, sick, with worms in his faeces or ‘crow’s-mouth’, in love with his wife, coarse in speech, miserly, or pitiless; a man whom the elders have thrown out, a thief, or a hypocrite; a man who is addicted to love-sorcery done with roots, who does not care about honour or dishonour, who can be bought for money even by people he hates, or is shameless.”

“But a wise Brahmin, or a minister of state or a man on whom the king depends or any man in whom people confide, should not indulge in oral sex.”

Emotional Intelligence

A few excerpts from the book make me feel like the author must be extremely emotionally intelligent. Other than considering a woman’s sexual desires, he puts forth important parameters in a few chapters that are worth taking note. Also, he makes it quite clear that he is a hopeless romantic.

“Scholars say: ‘Between a lover who is in love and another who is generous, the obvious choice is the generous one.’ Vatsyayana says: But it is possible to cultivate generosity in a man who is in love. For even a greedy man, if he is in love, spends generously, but a generous man cannot be made to fall in love through mere persistence.”

“When a woman sees the scars that nails have made on her hidden places, her love even for someone given up long ago becomes as tender as if it were brand new. When passions have been given up long ago, love may disappear unless there are wounds made by nails to prompt memories of the abodes of passion.”

Overall, I think the book is what we all knew it for – a sex guide. Because other than that, there is no worthy take away. But there was one excerpt, which was horrific and hilarious at the same time. I have quoted it below.

“Methods of Increasing the Size of the Male Organ

Rub your penis with the bristles of insects* born in trees, then massage it with oil for ten nights, then rub it again and massage it again. When it swells up as the result of this treatment, lie down on a cot with your face down and let your penis hang down from a hole in the cot. Then you may assuage the pain with cool astringents and, by stages, finish the treatment. This swelling, which lasts for a lifetime, is the one that voluptuaries call ‘prickled’.”

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