Under the Covers, Between the Sheets

(Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition/Malika Favre)

Cover image of A.N.D. Haksar's new translation of the Kama Sutra, illustrated by Malika Favre.

Sex sells. If you want to push a product, add a dash of sex appeal. Even Sir Richard Francis Burton and his band of co-translators realized this back in 1883: When they first introduced Vatsyayana’s Kama Sutra to the Western world, they sold it as a sex manual. More than a hundred years later, the publishers at Penguin Books know that not much has changed.

Orientalist scholar and Sanskrit translator A.N.D. Haksar’s new interpretation of the 2,000-year-old Indian text allows a fresh opportunity for Penguin to play upon our eroticized beliefs about the Kama Sutra. For this latest incarnation, the publishers hired French graphic designer Malika Favre to create a series of alluring alphabet images for the book’s cover. Each image, composed of a sexually positioned man and woman, forms a letter in the title, such that when you unfold the flaps and lay the book flat, Kama Sutra is spelled out in scenes of cavorting couples.

While the explicit cover art may push the limits of mainstream acceptability, the simple, outline-based images are, for the most part, tastefully composed, appearing in primary yellows and reds that call to mind the original Sanskrit texts. Sexy images aside, as is always the case with Penguin’s Deluxe Classics, the book is a beautiful objet d’art in and of itself; with its French flaps, heavy paper stock, deckled edges, and tactilely pleasing matte finish, the book reminds us that there are still some things a Kindle can’t do—the pleasure of reading isn’t just in reading. What better book to drive this point home than the Kama Sutra?

But something sneaky is still going on here: The book’s erotic jacket is being used to sell us on a somewhat inaccurate stereotype. As the old saying goes, you can’t always judge a book by its cover. Except, maybe, in the case of the countless variations of the text available on today’s shelves—Kama Sutra Erotica, Kama Sutra in Pop-Up, The Little Black Book of Kama Sutra: The Essential Guide to Getting It On—some of which are lavishly illustrated with graphic images. In these versions, the book has become the cover, a Complete Idiot’s-style guide to kinky bedroom behavior.

While all of this certainly is part of the Kama Sutra, what Haksar’s translation of the text shows us is that sex is only one element of the original manual, not the whole thing. And though this new Penguin edition continues to use exotic exterior lures, the interior remains faithful to the original imageless, text-only approach.

Haksar organizes his translation around the traditional seven parts, referred to as books, each of which covers one broad topic: “General,” “Sexual Union,” “The Maiden,” “The Wife,” “Wives of Others,” “The Courtesan,” and “Esoteric Matters.” Within each of these books, Haksar further breaks the text into chapters and sections, some of which contain both prose and verse. In the original Sanskrit, the poetry appears as anuṣṭubh (eight-syllable quatrains), but in translation’s often fraught, delicate process of balancing faithfulness and fluidity, Haksar has decided to render the English as free verse, a choice that pays off in “dispassionate” prose that reads closer to the source.

Of the seven books, only Book Two, “Sexual Union”—which contains sections such as “Embracing,” “Kissing,” “Scratching,” “Reversing Roles,” and “Oral Sex”—is explicitly devoted to the slapping, biting, tickling, and moaning that we’ve come to associate with the Kama Sutra.

What is perhaps surprising to the reader expecting a tome chock-full of dirty, naughty bits, though, is that the majority of the text is a guide to living a virtuous life of moderation, directed at both men and women: “A man should study the Kama Sutra and its subsidiary subjects without detracting from his time for Dharma, Artha and the subjects related to them. A woman should study it too before she reaches the prime of her youth.”

***

Dharma, Artha, and Kama, the philosophical trinity underpinning the text, have, according to Haksar, “multiple meanings but, very broadly, Dharma is virtue and righteous conduct, Artha is wealth, power, and material well-being and Kama is desire for and sensual pleasure of all kinds.” The key to a well-led life, Vatsyayana indicates, is the balanced pursuit of these three areas, though he does admit, “Dharma is more important than Artha, and Artha more than Kama.” 

Of course, what Vatsyayana and his contemporaries considered a well-led life for women might not sit so well in today’s world. Among the wife’s duties listed in the text are cooking, cleaning the house, weeding the garden, and keeping track of the servants and animals. Another section speaks of forced marriage via intoxication and rape: “The girl is plied with some intoxicating drink by her nurse’s daughter. …  After sending the nurse’s daughter away, [the man] takes the girl’s maidenhead while she is alone, asleep and out of her senses.”  Later passages present instructions for adultery and the stealing of another man’s wife: “If she lets herself be seen all dressed up by the [other] man, and comes to him so attired, it is an indication that she is available, but by force when they are alone.”

In the infamous Book Two, Vatsyayana dispenses additional pearls like “The man is the active doer, the girl a passive recipient.” And, “The man is aroused by the thought ‘I am possessing her,’ and the girl by the thought ‘I am being possessed by him.’”

For all of its antiquated, male-dominated views, though, the Kama Sutra also offers a good bit of advice that could still apply today, as in the book’s third stanza:

Civilized folk will act in ways
that give pleasure, but do no harm
to the end of material gain
nor cause worry about results
of their deeds in the world hereafter

This section of verse is followed by a reinforcement of the book’s central theme of balance and moderation, as expressed through Dharma, Artha, and Kama:

Their actions should be for achieving
all the three ends of human life,
or just two or even one,
but not to obstruct two of them
in pursuit of a single end.

About the book’s author, Vatsyayana, we know very little, but it is said that he composed the Kama Sutra sometime between 400 BCE and 200 CE while living a life of celibacy. As surprising as that last part may seem, the author clearly promotes this path early in the text: “Celibacy should be observed while one is a student acquiring knowledge.”

For a book that’s supposedly all about sex, advocating abstinence is just one more unexpected twist. 

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