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Lecture Notes: On the Kamasutra – I

Following on from the last post in this series in which I examined William Ward and his contribution to the assciation between tantra and sex, I now want to turn to the second of the three texts I examined in my Treadwells lecture – the Kamasutra. I selected the Kamasutra specifically because it is so frequently assumed to be a “tantric” text, and because I wanted to use it as a “lens” through which to examine the period it was first published in – the late nineteenth century and in addition, its later influence in the 1960s and beyond. For this first post, I will discuss the Kamasutra and the cultural context in which it was published, and follow up with a discussion of the Kamasutra’s wider reception in the twentieth century.

The Pop-Up Kama SutraThe Kamasutra is one of the most infamous books in the world, and there are numerous editions available, such as The Modern Kama Sutra;The New Kama Sutra; The Real Kama Sutra; Beyond The Kama Sutra; The Gay Man’s Kama Sutra; The Lesbian Kama Sutra; Tantra and Kama Sutra Sex Positions; Kama Sutra 365; The Pop-up Kama Sutra; The Kama Sutra in 3D; The Kama Sutra for Cats; the Kama Sutra of Pooh; The Kama Sutra of Erotic Massage; The Kama Sutra for 21st Century Lovers, and the Viz Fat Slags Kama Sutra. There are also several smartphone apps available. Just as the term “Tantra” acts as a brand – signalling a particular kind of sexual experience, so too the Kamasutra signifies a kind of exotic and masterful approach to sex.

Wendy Doniger, who together with Sudhir Kakar, produced one of the most recent translations of the Kamasutra (2002) describes it as: “not the sort of book to read in bed while drinking heavily, let alone holding the book with one hand in order to keep the other free.” Also: “The Kamasutra is an ancient Indian textbook about sex — in the very broadest sense of the word. Kama means love, pleasure, sex, while sutra means “a treatise,” or a scientific work. It is about the whole eroticized world of pleasure, so it’s about food and soft moonlight and good music and flowers strewn all over the bedroom. It is also about meeting people: how you meet someone you’re going to marry, how you meet someone you’re not going to marry, how you deal with a married woman or a married man, and so forth. It’s about the whole web of interpersonal relationships, which has an erotic basis.”
Interview with Wendy Doniger – The Kamasutra: It’s Not (Just) What You Think It Is

‘Discovering’ the Kamasutra
The “discovery” of the Kamasutra is widely and popularly attributed to Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890) who published the first English translation. Although it is undeniable that without Burton, the Kamasutra would never have entered public consciousness, contemporary scholarship prefers to cast him in the role of a “celebrity editor” adding his own “polish” to the text where he found it lacking. For example, Burton’s Vikram and the Vampire; or, Tales of Hindu Devilry (1870) contains references to a villanous “Tantri” who indulges in “all the pleasures of sense” and “abominable rites” – sections which, according to Hugh Urban (2003, p110), were creatively added by Burton himself and did not appear in the original Sanskrit source on which Burton based his edition.

Burton’s involvement with publishing erotic books from the orient arose from his friendship with Foster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot, a member of the Bombay Civil Service whom Burton had met in the 1850s. The two found they shared a common interest in erotic works. Their first collaborative venture was in 1873, with a translation of the Ananda Ranga – retitled the Kama Shastra, or Hindoo Art of Love (Ars Amorica Indica). Although neither Arbuthnot or Burton had any familiarity with classical Sanskrit, Arbuthnot was able either to obtain a copy in Hindustani or commision a local pundit to translate the text from Sanskrit to Hindustani, and he was able to deliver a manuscript to Burton, who “polished” it. However the printers, after running off a few copies, reportedly examined the text and baulked – posssibly due to moral misgivings or fear of prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 – and refused to print any more copies. It was in the Ananda Ranga that Burton & Arbuthnot found references to the book of the sage Vatsya – which Arbuthnot, consulting the Brahman pundits who had worked on translating the Ananda Ranga learned that Vatsya was the author of “the standard work on love in sanskrit literature,” and that no sanskrit library was complete without it, but that it was now very difficult to find in complete form.

Arbuthnot began a search throughout India for manuscripts of the Kamasutra, and the German Sanskritist Georg Bühler recommended one Pundit Bhugwantlal Indraji to Arbuthnot as a translator. Indraji, it turned out, possessed a copy of the Kamasutra although it lacked a commentary – and Arbuthnot engaged Indraji to track down other versions of the manuscript. By 1877, Indraji had managed to locate four manuscripts to work from (for a detailed account, see McConnachie, 2007). But the translation of the Kamasutra into English was no simple matter. Indraji translated the text from Sanskrit into Gujuarati, and an Indian student – Shivaram Parshuram Bhide – then translated the text from Gujurati into English. Arbuthnot worked closely with both Indraji and Bhide, and eventually was able to deliver a completed manuscript to Burton, who was at the time, residing in Trieste, as the British Consul. Burton then “polished” the text, or as James McConnachie puts it – “sexed it up” (adding his notorious footnotes).

Wendy Doniger, in the introduction (2002) to the edition she co-authored with Sudhir Kakar, asserts that Burton’s “translation” of the text obscures the role of women, making them more submissive. One of the examples she gives is a description of how women should behave when their husband is unfaithful. Burton’s text reads that:

In the event of any misconduct on the part of her husband, she should not blame him excessively, though she be a little displeased. She should not use abusive language towards him, but rebuke him with conciliatory words, whether he be in the company of friends or alone. Moreover, she should not be a scold, for, says Gonardiya, ‘there is no cause of dislike on the part of a husband so great as this characteristic in a wife.’

However, according to Doniger, the text should be translated as:

Mildly offended by the man’s infidelites, she does not accuse him too much, but she scolds him with abusive language when he is alone or among friends. She does not, however, use love-sorcery worked with roots, for, Gonardiya says, ‘Nothing destroys trust like that.’

She also points out that the Burton translation’s use of the terms “lingam” and “yoni” do not represent Vatsyayana’s text, which only uses the term “lingam” infrequently (and in a gender-neutral way) and never refers to the female sexual organ as “yoni”. She says that Vatsyayana, for the most part, uses gender-neutral terms such as jaghana (which can be translated as ‘pelvis’, ‘genitals’ or ‘between the legs’). The terms “lingam” and “yoni” Doniger says, also served to “anthropologize” sex – distancing it, making it “safe for English readers by assuring them, or pretending to assure them, that the text was not about real sexual organs, their sexual organs, but merely about the appendages of weird, dark people far away. This move dodged ‘the smell of obscenity’ through the same logic that allowed National Geographic to depict the bare breasts of black African women long before it became respectable to show white women’s breasts in Playboy” (p lviii).

Publishing the Kamasutra
Burton’s first edition of the Kamasutra was published in 1883. According to the title page, the book was “translated from the Sanskrit and annotated by A.F.F. and B.F.R” – i.e. F.F. Arbuthnot and Richard Francis Burton – the initials reversed on purpose. It was published under the imprint of “The Kama Shastra Society” (which consisted of Burton, Arbuthnot, and, according to Arbuthnot’s correspondence, Lord Hougton – aka Richard Monkton Milnes) and restricted to 250 copies. It was sent to subscribers in seven parts, each of which was marked “for private circulation only”.

In releasing the Kamasutra under the imprint of “The Kama Shastra Society” Burton & Arbuthnot sought to exploit a loophole in Lord Campbell’s Obscene Publications Act (1857) which stipulated that although books brought into the public domain could be prosecuted, privately-circulated books were exempt. This move however, meant that Burton & Arbuthnot could not copyright the book, which enabled “pirate” copies to appear (which I will discuss in the next post). But Burton never intended the Kamasutra to reach a wide audience – he was aiming at a very upscale market – gentlemen who were well-educated and moneyed – the scholars and erotophiles which Burton associated with through his membership of the Anthropological Society of London and the Cannibal Club (see Lecture Notes: On Edward Sellon – I for a discussion of both groups). Although copies of the Kamasutra were given to a few “trusted” booksellers (such as Bernard Quaritch of Picadilly), for the most part, it was the intertwined networks of gentleman scholars and bibliophiles which Burton & Arbuthnot relied on to discreetly pass the word on the availability of the Kamasutra.

The 1883 edition frames the translation of Vatsyayana’s text with an Introduction, a Preface, and “Concluding Remarks” written by Burton & Arbuthnot. The Introduction provides something of a genealogy, referring to other Indian erotic texts which bear the influence of Vatsya(yana) – and that “the contents of these works are, in themselves, a literary curiosity”. The Preface mentions three books “in the English language” which the authors feel “are somewhat similar to these works of the Hindoos,” – Kalogynomia: or the Laws of Female Beauty by T. Bell, M.D. (1821); The Elements of Social Science, or Physical, Sexual and Natural Religion, by a Doctor of Medicine (1880) and Dr. Water’s Every Woman’s Book (1826). Burton & Arbuthnot state that:

After a perusal of the Hindoo work, and of the English books above mentioned, the reader will understand the subject at all events from a materialistic, realistic and practical point of view. If all science is founded more or less on a stratum of facts, there can be no harm in making known to mankind generally certain matters intimately concerned with their private, domestic, and social life.

The Concluding Remarks asserts that the Kamasutra “is a work that should be studied by all, both old and young; the former will find in it real truths, gathered by experience, and already tested by themselves, while the latter will derive the great advantage of learning things, which some perhaps may otherwise never learn at all, or which they may only learn when it is too late.”

Together, the Introduction, Preface, and Concluding Remarks work together to place the Kamasutra as a “timeless” Hindu text; as a rare piece of erotica for the collector, and as an important “scientific” work for the education of men and women. These discourses are “interwoven” (Grant, 2008, p44) so that the representation of the Kamasutra as an erotic text recalls the notion of Indian religion and culture being primarily erotic in character, and makes the text act as a challenge to nineteenth century bourgeois values – as it presents a more enlightened approach to “the subject” (the subject being ‘relations between women and men’).

“Mrs. Grundy”
Burton liked to think of himself as a rebel, kicking against the strictures of normative society. His favourite epithet for the various forces arrayed against him (such as the Society for the Suppression of Vice and its fellow-travellers) was “Mrs. Grundy” (an eighteenth-century term denoting “priggish conventionality” McConnachie, p140) whom he imagined as a “stout and square-looking body with capacious skirts and a look of austere piety (Wright, p34). But who was Burton referring to? Were they merely a collection of Victorian prudes?

The Kamasutra was published at a time when the “sex question” was beginning to be heatedly debated in Britain. The agitation against the Contagious Diseases Acts, together with a new wave of religious revivalism, gave rise to the social purity movement. The Social Purity Alliance (founded 1873) was set up by men who had been involved in the CDA repeal movement, who wished to promote self-control and by so doing, render prostitution unnecessary. Other social purity groups were founded throughout the decade, and many called for a return to monogamy as the foundation of social and political stability. W.T. Stead’s expose of child prostitution in England “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” was published in 1885 (Stead described how he had “bought” a girl of 13 and taken her to a brothel), prompting a public outcry which led, in part, to the raising of the age of consent for women from 12 to 16 and the banning of the procurement of women for prostitution by the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 (which also brought in the Labouchere Amendment, criminalising sex between men).

Both the Society for the Suppression of Vice (founded 1802) and the National Vigilance Association (1884, committe members included feminist Milicent Fawcett, Elizabeth Blackwell, Britain’s first female doctor, and W.T Stead) were busy in bringing private prosecutions against pornographers and brothel-keepers (again see Lecture Notes: On Edward Sellon – I for some related discussion). 1886 brought both a highly publicised divorce scandal which ended the political career of Sir Charles Dilke, a prominent Liberal MP, and the final repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. Luxury and effeminacy from within Britain came to be seen as just as dangerous as that stemming from the colonies (aided by the Boulton & Park trial of 1871, and the later Cleveland Street scandal of 1889) and this decade also saw a sharp rise in anti-masturbatory tracts.

Missionaries, following the attempts to morally improve India (the “Indian Mutiny” of 1857 was seen as a failure of philanthropic efforts to bring civilisation to the natives) increasingly turned their attention homeward, and discovered, in the words of the Salvation Army General William Booth (1890) “a darkest England.” Also, the rise of Malthusian and Darwinian concepts of population control and racial improvement led to an increase in state intervention to ensure “moral hygiene” (see Polarity and Thermodynamic bodies -I for some discussion of the search for universal laws governing society) through various disciplinary and management programmes. Roberts (2004) argues that the Indian Mutiny galvanised support for Lord Campbell’s Act (as the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 became known) and worked to intensify calls for an urgent purification of the nation.

This period also saw the rise of the “new woman” – the ideal of a variety of changes relating to changes in opportunities for women, such as the opening of Girton College to women in 1869, and the entry of a few women into the medical profession, and the opening up of clerical and retail positions. The “new woman” was socially and economically independent; she might even live alone, or take up new fads such as riding the bicycle and smoking. Some commentators of the period fretted over “respectable women” using omnibuses and trams to journey into the West End in order to take advantage of the new Department stores, whilst others wondered if the new mass-produced clothing would enable prostitutes to dress like their social betters. The “new women” also fought for women’s education, railed against the double-standards in what was considered “appropriate” for men and women, and some of them refused the traditional marriage option, in favour of a professional career.

Although Burton is well-known for commenting on the ignorance of his contemporaries when it came to sexual relations, he was no egalitarian, and when he comments about the sexual ignorance of men and women one should bear in mind he is talking about his own class, not British culture in general. Although he asserted that women had a right to sexual pleasure, he frequently refers to women as “the weaker sex” and believed that they should not try and invade traditionally male domains. Publically, at least, Burton seems to have been in favour of the Obscene Publications Act, insofar as it applied to “cheap and nasty” literature, rather than the tasteful “erotica” favoured by his fellow Cannibals. In 1885 for example, Burton wrote a letter to The Academy explaining his rationale for the pricing his edition of the Arabian Nights writing that his aim “is to keep it from the general public. For this reason I have no publisher. The translation is printed by myself for the use of select personal friends; and nothing could be more repugnant to my feelings than the idea of a book of the kind being placed in a publisher’s hands, and sold over the counter”.

This was a point that both the gentlemanly collectors of erotica and social purity campaigners appeared to agree on. It was widely believed that only the educated had the capacity to appreciate the aesthetic and intellectual qualities of erotic works, whilst such literature should be kept from falling into the hands of the young and the uneducated, who would only focus on its immoral content. A great deal of “foreign literature” – including Greek and Latin erotic classics – was allowed to remain in circulation, provided it remained untranslated (see Lecture Notes: On Edward Sellon – II for some notes on the intersection between sexology, anthropology, and erotic genres).

“It will make the British Public Stare”
Burton’s prediction (in a letter to fellow Arabian Nights translator John Payne, 1883) that the Kamasutra would “make the Brit(ish) Pub(lic) stare” seems to have been unfounded – at least, it does not seem to have attracted the ire of reviewers or social purity campaigners that his translation of The Arabian Nights (1885-86) did (see Kennedy, 2007, Burton, 2000 for a variety of reviews both approving and disapproving). Private literary societies such as Burton’s “Kama Shastra Society” (which operated between 1883 and 1890, when Burton died) whilst representing themselves as “subversive” were, at the same time, restricting their influence to a small circle of privileged gentlemen – scholars and erotophiles – who were for the most part, members of the establishment. As Denise Merkle (2010) points out, whilst Burton and co. did “challenge some presuppositions and norms of English culture, they also served to rationalize certain imperialist attitudes, as well as other racial, class, and gender biases” (p124). The reversal of Arbuthnot’s & Burton’s initials on the title page of the Kamasutra functioned, Merkle argues, as a kind of “open secret” as the elite subscribers to this publication would doubtless have known very well who the initials referred to. The private nature of the subscription-based circulation of the text within the confines of a socially-powerful elite, all-male group, guaranteed its invisibility and secured it from the private prosecutions on which the state relied upon the enforcement of the Obscene Publications Act. It was only, in fact, the Kamasutra escaped the boundaries circumscribed by Burton & Arbuthnot that it began to enjoy a wider circulation – and I will discuss this next stage in the next post.

Anjali R. Arondekar For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India (Duke University Press, 2010)
Isabella Burton The Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton (Asian Educational Services, 2000)
Colette Colligan The Traffic in Obscenity from Byron to Beardsley: Sexuality and Exoticism in Nineteenth-Century Print Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)
Wendy Donier & Sudhir Kakar, Vatsyayana Kamasutra: A new translation by Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar (Oxford University Press, 2002)
Jon R. Godsall The Tangled Web: A Life of Sir Richard Burton (Matador, 2008)
Ben Grant Postcolonialism, Psychoanalysis and Burton: Power Play of Empire (Routledge, 2008)
Dane Kennedy The Highly Civilized Man Richard Burton and the Victorian World (Harvard University Press, 2007)
Deborah Lutz, Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011)
Andrew & Harriet Lyons, Irregular Connections: A History of Anthropology and Sexuality (University of Nebraska Press, 2004)
James McConnachie The Book of Love: In search of the Kamasutra (Atlantic Books, 2007)
Denise Merkle Secret Literary Societies in Late Victorian England in Maria Tymoczko (ed) Translation, Resistance, Activism (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010)
M. J. D. Roberts Making English Morals: Voluntary Association and Moral Reform in England 1787-1886 (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Hugh Urban Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion (University of Chicago Press, 2003)
Thomas Wright The Life of Sir Richard Burton (1906, The Echo Library, 2010)

The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana (online version of the Burton edition)