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What Can You Learn From The Kama Sutra?

03/01/2012 08:02 am ET | Updated May 01, 2012

Preparing a modern translation of this ancient text first needs attention to some obvious questions. How is the Kama Sutra generally seen today? Is it of any interest apart from the scholarly or the prurient? Can it have a wider appeal? And, could that have some contemporary relevance? The answers may naturally vary, but the objective background for considering these queries is the same.

The Kama Sutra was composed in India about 2000 years ago. History shows that it remained a living text in that land, influencing its art and literature. In the modern world it became known only about a century ago with its first translation from the original Sanskrit into English by the explorer and linguist Sir Richard Burton in the Victorian age. Since then it has been retranslated into many languages and achieved both celebrity and notoriety as the first work of its kind in world literature.

Just over hundred years of its repeated presentations have tended to stereotype the Kama Sutra's image. This happened in the West and then, because of the growing western influence on mass communication of ideas, also in the wider world. India was no exception as it too began to view itself increasingly through prisms it had inherited from its colonial past.

The stereotyped image of the Kama Sutra is presently a byword for sex. On the one side it is of techniques and positions for human coition. On the other it is of some esoteric spiritual dimension of the physical act. Yet another aspect is that in most presentations pictures now overshadow the word. The Kama Sutra today is more looked at than read. In a further evolution, its title has also become a brand name for a variety of products and services.

How this stereotyping came about could be the subject of a college thesis some day. The gradual change in western values, power and commerce, and their increasing spread and world-wide influence during the 20th century no doubt played their role. The end result for the Kama Sutra was that its scholarly renditions were soon overtaken by many more editions meant mainly for pictorial titillation.

In the 21st century, the time has perhaps come for the work to be seen beyond this stereotype. The Kama Sutra is certainly about sex and positions for intercourse, but that is only one of its seven books. A full reading, without additions or subtractions, shows its totality as a work on various other aspects of human relations also. It is addressed to both men and women. Its other aspects include courtship and marriage, family and social life, extra-marital and same-sex relations, prescriptions for beauty, passion and power, and an interesting conceptual framework for what human relations actually are.

The Kama Sutra was also a guide for pleasure and refined living. It describes in vivid detail the life styles of cultured men and fashionable women, as also numerous social and artistic skills considered a part of elegant living. These ranged from music and gastronomy to books and sports, wit and repartee, and add to the work's value as a record of its times.

What about matters of more lasting relevance like ethics, morality and spirituality? The text of the Kama Sutra largely keeps away from such questions. Its approach is amoral and down to earth, not other-worldly or judging between good and bad. But it does envisage human relations as caring for others and not causing them hurt.

It also conceptualizes three basic ends of worldly human action: Dharma or virtue and righteousness, Artha or wealth and power, and Kama or pleasure. The pursuit of each is legitimate, it says, but all need to be pursued in balance. At this level there is an over-arching ethic to the work as a whole.

Seen in this background, while the Kama Sutra is largely about sex, it also has a wider sweep giving it a place in the mainstream of more general reading. It gives fascinating glimpses of life and thought in ancient India, some facets of which exist to this day. In their course it also dwells on aspects of human relations which re timeless. And it does all this in a style enlivened by some wry descriptions and tongue in cheek observations. To move beyond the stereotype and present the whole accurately in contemporary readable language which also gives some flavor of the original is the prime challenge of a modern translator.

Aditya Haksar translated a new edition of the Kama Sutra [Penguin Classics, $15.00]