If there is one book in the world which is identified with India, it is the Kama Sutra. And even 2,000 years after it was written, Vatsyayana's seminal study of love remains in constant circulation, with over 200 different editions currently in print.
This year has been particularly bountiful – there are at least five new versions of the book: The New Age Kama Sutra For Women by Alka Pande (Brijbasi Art Press Ltd), Pavan K Varma's contemporary Kama Sutra (Roli), Suraksha Gajwani and Komal Taneja's Recipes for the Kamasutra (Brijbasi), 365 days of Kamasutra by Madhu Singh and Malini Saigal (Brijbasi) and Sandhya Mulchandani's Kama Sutra for Women (Roli). Last year there was Kama Sutra: Amorous Man & Sensuous Woman (Roli) and there is a same-sex Kama Sutra (Roli) and also a pop-up version in the offing.
These are only the latest in a line of publications that began with Richard Burton's The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, printed in 1883. Burton, who was in the Indian Army, ‘went native' – he learnt Sanskrit, Hindi, Arabic and Persian, and took an Indian mistress. Described as a “a darkling Heathcliff,” Burton's interest in Indian attitudes to sex and sexual practices spurred him on to bring out his book.
Except that the Kama Sutra is not just a book about sex. Ironically, the man who wrote the book was a celibate. Vatsyayana, a Brahmin, lived in Pataliputra in the 4th century AD (in the Gupta period). He compiled the Kama Sutra from the works of different sages during his stay in Benaras (he had gone there for religious studies).
The book advocates the enjoyment of love and material wealth, held on a tight leash by sound ethics.
The ancient text is divided into seven books which deal with subjects like sexual union, the acquisition of a wife, the wives of other men, courtesans, ways of attracting others and so on. But first the invocation.
Usually, a book of that period would begin with an invocation to some god or the other. But the Kama Sutra is perhaps unique in that it invokes values. It begins with the words, “Praised be the three aims of life, virtue (dharma), prosperity (artha), and love (kama)…” Vatsyayana also talks unabashedly, ‘nonjudgementally' and almost clinically about homosexuality, lesbianism, orgies, extra-marital affairs, even sex for revenge or money. And given his description of the kind of man you must stay away from – “one who has tuberculosis, sick, with worms in their excrement, with bad breath, in love with their wife…” – he is not entirely humourless either.