A history of the world’s most famous sex manual.
Everyone’s heard of it, but societally we're confused about what kind of manual it is. The public perception of the Kama Sutra often seem to be that it’s a list of sexual positions. There was a lot written about it in the 1970s, around the same time as Dr Alex Comfort’s The Joy Of Sex was published, and the two seem to have been slightly conflated in the public consciousness.
While there is a lot about sex in the Kama Sutra, there’s plenty more going on as well, from hygiene advice to relationship tips to, er, how to get away with cheating. It’s essentially a guide to getting pleasure out of life in various ways. Some of it is fairly timeless, while some very much adheres to class- and gender-based norms of a bygone era.
One of the reasons it’s so seen as sex-focused is the way it came to the West. The Kama Sutra was written in the fourth century by the philosopher Vātsyāyana. It’s a long, dense text incorporating both prose and poetry and including some story-like sections where men and women are represented by characters. It existed in many different forms over the centuries, with multiple partial versions and various edited and updated sections.
The British explorer, diplomat, linguist and anthropologist Sir Richard Burton (no relation to the actor) learned of the Kama Sutra while travelling in India in the early 1880s, and commissioned an archaeologist and translator, Bhagwan Lal Indraji, to compile and translate it. His translation was then edited by Burton, who filtered it through an imperialist Victorian mindset. A lot of the references to specific body parts were made slightly more vague, with ‘lingam’ and ‘yoni’ — much more complex religious terms in Sanskrit — taking their place in order to both exoticise and de-scandalise the text. The result, published in London in 1883, was less explicit but also less constructive and relatable.
It was still, for Victorian England, illegally indecent. One way around the censorship laws of the time was to create books solely for circulating within one group, so copies of the Kama Sutra were labelled as exclusively being for members of the quickly-formed Kama Shastra Society. Burton was very into collecting writings on sex, and the society also published copies of The Perfumed Garden (an Arabic guide to ‘exotic delights’) and Arabian Nights (which contains a lot more sexual content than people who know of it from Disney’s Aladdin might suspect). He also published accounts of his travels, during which he obsessively measured the penises of groups he encountered and got as hands-on as possible with interesting sexual practices he learned about.
Burton’s Kama Sutra became widely pirated, and even ended up becoming the text that other Indian language translations were based upon — a Hindi version of the Kama Sutra was based not on the Sanskrit original but the bowdlerised, paraphrased English translation.
Later translations made in the late 20th and early 21st centuries are more accurate, maintaining the nuance and intricacies of the original Sanskrit text, but the common idea of the book as a list of positions to try to tick off was firmly entrenched in the Western public consciousness by that point. In the early days of the internet, an extract from one translation largely focused on showcasing a variety of positions was widely circulated as being the whole thing.
Burton died in 1890. His coffin can be seen by visitors to the cemetery in London’s Mortlake, sitting inside a crypt with a viewing window. He left behind a complicated legacy — even given the era, some of his attitudes towards the people he met were incredibly dodgy, but at the same time, he learned as much as he could about them. He spoke 40 languages by the end of his life, mostly learned by embedding himself in different cultures.
But in terms of lives he touched, his legacy might be the fame and notoriety he gave this ancient Indian guide to getting what you can out of life. A century after his death, the legendary status of the Kama Sutra was what prompted people to open badly-compressed, endlessly forwarded PDFs and consider being slightly more sexually ambitious. He’d probably be pretty happy with that. And while that wasn’t what Vātsyāyana had in mind 1600 years ago when he sat down to compile everything he knew about life, it’s certainly something.