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Lecture notes: On the Kamasutra – III

In the first post in this series, I discussed the “discovery” of the Kamasutra by Richard Burton and its publication in the nineteenth century, and in the second post the western reception of Kamasutra and its incorporation into sexological discourse throughout the twentieth century. These two posts were useful for me to write, in that they enabled me to think about some future directions for exploring the relationship between representations of tantra and sexology/sex-therapy, which I may return to at later date, but in doing so, I realised some months later, that I hadn’t paid much attention to the actual content of the Kamasutra. So, for this third post, I’m going to take a cue from Daud Ali’s (2011) suggestion that, in examining the Kamasutra (and related texts) it is useful to move beyond the limited frame of viewing these texts as simply books about sex, and instead, approach them from a wider perspective – what Ali terms a “kama world” – wherein kama (sensual pleasure) “was not abstracted into a special, sui generis category in and of itself, but instead formed part of wider practices of aesthetic, material and ethical transformation.”

The kama-world of the Nagaraka
The Kamasutra is generally thought to have been compiled between the 2nd-4th century A.D, in northern India – possibly within the middle of the 3rd century AD – a period of rapid urban expansion. Daud Ali (2002, 2004) argues that it is within this milieu that the institution of Indian Romantic love emerged, out of the context of royal courts and the refined and noble men who depended on the court for their livelyhoods.

There is a general scholarly consensus that the Kamasutra, for the most part, is addressed to the wealthy and urbane city-dweller – the nagaraka (from nagar – “city”). The nagaraka is not just any city-dweller, but a member of the elite classes surrounding the royal court and other political power-centres. The lifestyle of the nagaraka is described by Vatsyana in the following quotes from the Doniger & Kakar translation of Kamasutra:

“When a man has become educated, he enters the householder stage of life and begins the lifestyle of a nagaraka, using money that he has inherited, on the one hand, or obtained from gifts, conquest, trade, or wages…. He settles down in a city, a capital city, a market town, or some large gathering where there are good people. or whererever he has to stay to make a living. And there he makes his home near water, with an orchard, seperate servant quarters, and two bedrooms.


“He gets up in the morning, relieves himself, cleans his teeth, applies fragrant oils in small quantities, as well as incense, garlands, beeswax, and red lac, looks at his face in the mirror, takes some mouthwash and betel, and attends to the things that need to be done. He bathes every day, has his limbs rubbed with oil every second day, a foam bath every third day, his face shaved every fourth day, and his body hair removed every fifth or tenth day. …After eating, he passes the time teaching his parrots and mynah birds to speak; goes to quail fights; engages in various arts and and games; and passes the time with his libertine (pithamanda), pander (vita), and clown (vidushaka). ..In the late afternoon, he gets up and goes to salons to amuse himself.”

The nagaraka’s house is extensively furnished – Vatsayana’s ideal consoisseur has not only perfumes, but musical instruments, books. gaming boards, a place set aside for “woodworking”, cages of pet birds, and in the orchard, a “well-padded swing” and a bench covered with flowers.

The nagaraka’s social world is a round of festivals, picnics, theatrical entertainments, festivals, cock-fights, gambling and the salon – gosthi – is the place where nagarakas of equal means and disposition sat together in conversation, discussing works of art, poetry, and romantic liaisons. These meetings took place in the outer apartments of the nagaraka’s house, at the houses of courtesans, or within the buildings of the royal court. Vatsyanana lists seven major contributors to the gosthi: learned persons, poets, bards, singers, jesters, historians, and those learned in the Puranas.

Such a nagaraka character can be found in Sudraka’s play Mrichchhakatika (“The Little Clay Cart”). Although impoverished, the nagaraka Charudatta attends musical concerts and spends most of his time in the outer compartments and gardens of his house with his friends, whilst his devoted wife stays in the inner sanctum. (plot summary on wikipedia).

The nagaraka is depicted as being accompanied by several dependants who assist him in his pursuit of pleasure: the pithamanda– a man who, though well-versed in the arts of pleasure, has no money himself; the vita – a well-regarded man or nagaraka who has spent his wealth; and the vidushaka – a trustworthy and humorous companion or advisor. Such persons were frequently employed by men and women of rank (including courtesans) as “counsellors” in the pursuit of romantic affairs. Both the vita and the vidushaka frequently appear in court dramas; the vidushaka as the companion and messenger of the king in his love intrigues, and the vita as the comic narrator of bhana monologue plays. In Varuchi’s bhana, the Ubhayabhisarika, (“the mutual elopement”) the Vita narrator supplies a glimpse of the city of Kusumapura as he strolls around it:

“How wonderful is the supreme beauty of Kusumapura! Here between the rows of houses the streets are well-watered, well-cleaned, and are scattered over with flower-offerings great and small, look like the (floors of) dwelling houses. And at intervals, shop fronts have become interesting due to the people engaged in buying and selling of various commodities. By the recitation of the Vedas, musical performances, and the twangs of bow-strings palaces are calling, as it were, one another like the ten mouths of Ravana. Sometimes lightning-like women curious to have a look at the streets, open the windows of cloud-like palaces, and shine like Apsarasas on the Mount Kailasa. Moreover, important high officers of the King, mounted on family horses, elephants and chariots add to the beauty of the scene. And young serving maids wearing ornaments in proper places are going about with attractive movements …daughters of courtesans; the beauty of whose lotus-like faces is drunk by the eyes of all people. are gracefully walking up and down, it seems, to bestow their favour in the thoroughfare.”

The worldly and urbane city-dweller tended to counterposed the refined pursuits of city life against that of the village. The term gramya – “rustic” – was used to slight men at court, implying both coarseness and unsophistication, and in poetics, indicated inappropriate behaviour or action or incomprehensible speech (see Ali, 2004, pp67-68). The Vita in the play Durta-Vita Samvada declares that “living in a village” (amongst other things) brings an end to “one’s amorous passion.” Just as cities are depicted as centres of pleasure and prosperity, so too there are expressions of tensions – cities as not being conducive to the pursuit of moksha. The bauddhayana for example, says that “it is impossible to for one to attain salvation, who lives in a town covered with dust” whilst the Guatama Dharmasutra advocates that “one should not recite the Vedas at any time in a town” (Chattopadhyaya, 2006, pp125-127).

Cities were not only places where one could enjoy a lifestyle of wealth, entertainment and pleasant companionship; they also afforded opportunities for the self-cultivation and discipline required for the nagaraka lifestyle.

Disciplining pleasures

Pleasure is the activity of the organs of the hearing, touch, sight, taste and smell, which are overseen by the mind conjoined with the self, conducively each with respect to its appropriate object. In the primary form, pleasure is someone’s fruitful experience of a sense-object, pierced through with affective pleasure, from and object of the particular touch.
Kamasutra 1.2 11-12

Vatsyanana’s definition of pleasure is striking both in its wide scope, and for the differences in how pleasure is conceptualised in contemporary western culture. Kama is the activity of the senses (indriyas) whilst engaged with particular sense-objects under the direction of mind (manas – which denotes both cognition and emotions) and the self. It is manas which organises sense-impressions and produces both affective and volitional states, one of which is Kama (desire and pleasure). See The Sugarcane Bow for some related discussion of Kama.

As Laura Desmond (2011) points out, pleasure is not viewed as an expression of an individual’s unique interiority, nor does it point to a subject who exists independently to actions, but rather, pleasure occurs within the intermingling of sense and sense-objects in the world – both of which are considered as active agents: “The senses are a two-way channel through which sense objects and the mind come into contact with one another, with the material world serving as the zone of engagement between senses and sense objects” (Desmond, 2011, p87).

Moreover, pleasure is something that is achieved only through cultivation and discipline. The nagaraka’s daily routines in the quoatation above point to “an ethos of constant vigilance to oneself, to those with whom one has intercourse with (in all senses of the term) and to oneself as an object of other’s knowledge” (Desmond, p150). The body’s capacities for pleasure must be continually refined, monitored and cultivated. The practices of cultivation – Foucault’s “technologies of the self” – included the development of qualities which made the nagaraka able to attract others (abhigamikagunas “inviting qualities”). Ali (2004) cites a circa-eighth-century Gurjara inscription which states that the goddess of fortune is attracted to the King Ahirola, via his abhigamikagunas – and that it is the mind (manas) of Lakshmi which is attracted to the King. These qualities encompassed both ethical self-development, and Vatsyanana’s sixty-four arts, which included practices such as dancing and singing, the cultivation of plants, singing, arranging flowers, inlaying floors with jewels, applying perfumes, and teaching parrots to speak.

The means by which the nagaraka achieved the goal of seduction required the acquisition of a wide range of accomplishments – from the cultivation of personal virtues to the ability to correctly divine the feelings of a woman from her expressions and gestures. Vatsyanana says that although a woman might feel attraction to a man, she will not act directly on her feelings – and that a woman who submits too readily to a man’s desires is – eventually – detested by men. So too, he recommends that men approach women neither too directly or too slowly, but in a “proper cadence” (Ali, 2004, p256). The expressions and gestures of the seductive trajectory, rather, proceed through subtle and fleeting signs; whilst a direct fixation of the eyes indicated too much ardour, the sidelong or darting glance – which “caught” the mind and increased desire – was preferable. There are obvious parallels between this highly stylised repertoire of of hinted approaches and feigned refusals expressed in gesture and glance and the arts of the Nityashastra. The narrator of Ubhayabhisarika, in referring to the accomplishments of a courtesan, says:

For all the accomplishments of dance, such as mastery of four kinds of abhinaya, twenty-two kinds of hand gesture, five kinds of hand movement, eighteen kinds of eye, six postures, two foot movements, eight rasas, three tempos of songs – and playing of instruments, have been embellished in relation to you.

Ali (2004) points to the relationship between courtship as a game and the prominence of other kinds of games and contest as a feature of court life – which often required highly sophisticated verbal and poetic skills – such as completing poetic stanzas and recitation of verses from memory. He argues that courtly aesthetics – from those of the 64 arts concerned with bodily adornment – the nagaraka’s routines of applying perfumes, taking care over clothing, etc., to the growth of courtly poetry (Kavya) and subhasita (“well-spoken sayings”) depended on emerging ideas of ornamentation, artifice and virtuosity (see Reading the Saundarya Lahari – III for some notes on poetic ornamentation and aesthetic experience). The overall point Ali makes is that the Kamasutras’ practices – it’s “rules of engagement” – were understood as a form of “self-mastery”. As Vatsyanana states: “he who knows the principles of this sastra is one who has conquered his senses (jitendriya) and will be able to conduct himself in the world and firmly guard dharma, artha and kama.” This in itself is interesting, if only because the notion of “disciplining the senses” is usually associated with ascetic withdrawal from the world, yet these two “worlds” – that of the renouncer or ascetic sadhu and the courtly nagaraka may not be as far apart as previously thought. I will return to this theme in a future post.

Some closing thoughts
Over the last few years, there has been an increasing scholarly focus on the relationship between tantra and royalty (for example, work by Gavin Flood, Hugh Urban and David Gordon White) – which has shown that tantric groups and practices – far from being entirely located at the margins of Indian culture – had a much more complex relationship with centres of political power (see Natha history for related discussion).

Through my reading of the Saundaryalahari, I have become increasingly interested in the relationship between tantra practices and courtly life and ethics – in how, for example, that particular text (and by extension, more explicitly “tantric” texts) draw on both royal scenes (court arrangements, pleasure gardens, etc) and poetic conventions in describing the gods. Although the Kamasutra – as I pointed out in my 2012 Treadwells lecture (out of which this “lecture notes” series emerged) is not (as is often assumed) a tantric text. However, this doesn’t mean that it cannot help us in theorising tantric concepts – particularly in respect to ideas such as disciplining the senses, ethical self-making, or understanding South Asian practices relating to pleasure and aesthetic experience – both key concerns in the Kashmir Saivism of Abhinavagupta.

Daud Ali Technologies of the Self: Courtly Artifice and Monastic Discipline in Early India (Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol.41. No.2, 1998: 159-184)
Daud Ali Anxieties of Attachment: The Dynamics of Courtship in Medieval India (Modern Asian Studies 36, 2002:103-139)
Daud Ali Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Daud Ali Rethinking the History of the Kama World in Early India (Journal of Indian Philosophy, 2011, 39:1-13)
Anjali R. Arondekar For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India (Duke University Press, 2010)
Brajadulal Chattophadhyaya Studying Early India: Archaeology, Texts and Historical Issues (Anthem Press, 2006)
Laura Desmond Disciplining Pleasure: The Erotic Science of the Kamasutra (Ph.D thesis, University of Chicago, 2011)
Wendy Doniger & Sudhir Kakar, Vatsyayana Kamasutra: A new translation by Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar (Oxford University Press, 2002)
Anne Hardgrove Sex and the City: Debates over the Medieval Pasts of Khajuraho in Cynthia Talbot (ed) Knowing India (Yoda Press, 2011)
S.G Kochuthara Kama without Dharma? Understanding the ethics of pleasure in Kamasutra (Journal of Dharma, 2009, 34, 1:69-95)
James McConnachie The Book of Love: In search of the Kamasutra (Atlantic Books, 2007)
Jyoti Puri Concerning Kamasutras: Challenging Narratives of History and Sexuality (Signs Vol.27, No.3., Spring 2002, pp603-639)
Kumkum Roy Unravelling the Kamasutra in Janaki Nair, Mary E. John (eds) A Question of Silence: The Sexual Economies of Modern India (Zed Books, 2000)
Ruth Vanita, Gandhi’s Tiger and Sita’s Smile: Essays on Gender, Sexuality and Culture (Yoda Press, 2006)