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Sex and ancient Indian women: Excerpts from Wendy Doniger's book

Composed in the third century CE, the Kamasutra is the most famous text of erotic love. In this scholarly book, Wendy Doniger seeks to highlight what the book reveals about life in ancient India, the mores and practices, and the surprisingly modern outlook to sex and sexuality. In this excerpt, Doniger looks at the role women played in the Kamasutra and also what female readers took from the book.

books Updated: Jul 19, 2015 15:01 IST
Hindustan Times
Wendy Doniger,The Mare's Trap: Nature and Culture in the Kamasutra,Kamasutra

The Mare's Trap: Nature and Culture in the Kamasutra

Wendy Doniger

Speaking Tiger

184pp; Rs 399

The Kamasutra for women

The assumption that the intended reader of the Kamasutra is male persists in popular culture today… But… The Kamasutra is for women-it was intended to be used by women, and has much to offer to women even today.

Vatsyayana argues at some length that some women, at least, should read this text, and that others should learn its contents in other ways:

A woman should study the Kamasutra and its subsidiary arts before she reaches the prime of her youth, and she should continue when she has been given away, if her husband wishes it...
This is an important text, for it argues for the method by which the Kamasutra (and indeed, other Sanskrit texts) would have been known not only by women, but by the wider population in general; such knowledge was by no means limited to men, or women, who knew Sanskrit.

The eighty century CE playwright Bhavabhuti, in his Malatimadhava, depicts women actually citing the Kamasutra (2.2.6-7). At the start of act seven, when a woman complains that her friend was raped by her husband on the wedding night, she changes from the dialect in which she is speaking (as most women in Sanskrit plays do) and 'resorts to Sanskrit' (as the stage directions indicate) to say, 'The authors of the Kamasutra warn, "Women are like flowers, and need to be enticed very tenderly. If they are taken by force by men who have not yet won their trust they become women who hate sex."' This is important evidence not only of the common knowledge of the Kamasutra in literary circles, but of the use of it by women who knew Sanskrit as well as the dialects in which they conventionally spoke. It is also evidence that the Kamasutra was regarded as a counterforce to the prevalent culture of sexual violence.

In addition to this general expectation that all women should know all of the Kamasutra, particular parts of the book were evidently designed to be used by women. Book Three devotes one episode to advice to virgins trying to get husbands, and Book Four consists of instructions for wives.
Book Six is said to have been commissioned by the courtesans of Pataliputra, presumably for their own use.

Women's rights

The Kamasutra reveals relatively liberal attitudes to women's education and sexual freedom. To appreciate this, it is useful briefly to recall the attitudes to women in two important texts that precede it, the Laws of Manu and the Arthashastra. Kautilya, the author of the Arthashastra, is far more liberal than Manu. He takes for granted the woman with several husbands, who is unimaginable for Manu and poses a problem even for the permissive Kamasutra.

Kautilya is also more lenient than Manu when it comes to divorce and widow remarriage; where Manu does not allow either of these options for a woman whose husband has died, Kautilya gives a woman some control over her property, which consists of jewellery without limit and a small maintenance; she continues to own these after her husband's death-unless she remarries, in which case she forfeits them, with interest, or settles it all on her sons. In these ways and others, Kautilya allows women more independence than Manu does. But both of them greatly limit women's sexual and economic freedom.

The Kamasutra, predictably, is far more open-minded than Manu about women's access to household funds, and about divorce and widow remarriage. The absolute power that the wife in the Kamasutra has in running the household's finances stands in sharp contrast with Manu's statement that a wife 'should not have too free a hand in spending' and his cynical remark that, 'No man is able to guard women entirely by force, but they can be safely guarded if kept busy amassing and spending money, engaging in purification, attending to their duties, cooking food and looking after the furniture.'

And when it comes to female promiscuity, Vatsyayana is light years ahead of Manu. Vatsyayana cites an earlier authority on the best places to pick up married women, of which the first is 'on the occasion of visiting the gods' and others include a sacrifice, a wedding, or a religious festival. Secular opportunities involve playing in a park, bathing or swimming, or theatrical spectacles. More extreme occasions are offered by the spectacle of a house on fire, the commotion after a robbery, or the invasion of the countryside by an army. Somehow I don't think Manu would approve of the man in question meeting married women at all, let alone using devotion to the gods as an occasion for it, or equating such an occasion with spectator sports like hanging around watching houses burn down.

Sexual freedom

The Kamasutra assumes a kind of sexual freedom for women that would have appalled Manu but simply does not interest Kautilya. Vatsyayana is a strong advocate for women's sexual pleasure. He tells us that a woman who does not experience the pleasures of love may hate her man and leave him for another. If, as the context suggests, this woman is married, the casual manner in which Vatsyayana suggests that she leave her husband is in sharp contrast to the position assumed by the Laws of Manu: 'A virtuous wife should constantly serve her husband like a god, even if he behaves badly, freely indulges his lust and is devoid of any good qualities.'

The Kamasutra also acknowledges that women could use magic to control their husbands, though Vatsyayana regards this as a last resort. He casually mentions, among the women that one might not only sleep with but marry, not only 'second-hand' women (whom Manu despises as 'previously had by another man') but widows: 'a widow who is tormented by the weakness of the senses…finds, again, a man who enjoys life and is well-endowed with good qualities'.

Vatsyayana dismisses with one or two short verses the possibility that the purpose of the sexual act is to produce children; one of the things that make sex for human beings different from sex for animals, he points out, is the fact that human women, unlike animals, have sex even when they are not in their fertile period. Given the enormous emphasis that Manu and all the other dharma texts place on having sex only to produce children, the Kamasutra's attitude here is extraordinary.

Vatsyayana's discussion of the reasons why women become unfaithful rejects the traditional patriarchal party line that one finds in most Sanskrit texts, a line that punishes very cruelly indeed any woman who sleeps with a man other than her husband (cutting off her nose, for instance). Manu assumes that every woman desires every man she sees: 'Good looks do not matter to them, nor do they care about youth; "A man!" they say, and enjoy sex with him, whether he is good-looking or ugly'.

The Kamasutra takes off from this same assumption, but then limits it to good-looking men and modifies it with an egalitarian, if cynical, formulation: 'A woman desires any attractive man she sees, and, in the same way, a man desires a woman. But, after some consideration, the matter goes no further.' The text does go on to state that women have less concern for morality than men have; it does assume that women don't think about anything but men; and it is written in the service of the hero, the would-be adulterer, who reasons, if all women are keen to give it away, why shouldn't one of them give it to him?

Women's voices

Passages such as the woman's thoughts about beginning an affair, or a courtesan's thoughts about ending one, may express a woman's voice, or at least a woman's point of view. The Kamasutra often quotes women in direct speech, expressing views that men are advised to take seriously, and it is clearly sympathetic to women, particularly to what they suffer from inadequate husbands. But if parts of the text are directed toward women, is it also the case that they reflect women's voices? Certainly not always. For, while the Kamasutra quotes women in direct speech, we also encounter the paradox of women's voices telling us, through the text, that women had no voices.

Male texts may merely engage in a ventriloquism that attributes to women viewpoints that in fact serve male goals. The Kamasutra not only assumes an official male voice (the voice of Vatsyayana) but denies that women's words truly represent their feelings.

We must admit that we find women's voices in the Kamasutra carrying meanings that have value for us only by transcending, if not totally disregarding, the original context. Were we to remain within the strict bounds of the historical situation, we could not notice the women's voices speaking against their moment in history, perhaps even against their author. Only by asking our own questions, which the author may not have considered at all, can we see that his text does contain many answers to them, fortuitously embedded in other questions and answers that were more meaningful to him.

First Published: Jul 18, 2015 14:24 IST