Wendy Doniger, a professor at the Divinity School specializing in the history of religion, discussed the Kama Sutra in a presentation Thursday sponsored by Sexual Education Activists. Doniger, who re-translated the third-century classic Sanskrit text in 2002 with psychoanalyst and writer Sudhir Kakar, discussed the Kama Sutra’s take on the romantic, social, and sexual lives of men and women, and its implications for a more traditional understanding of ancient Indian culture.
The Kama Sutra, according to Doniger, often gets the reputation of being a repressive and sexist text, focused primarily on the happiness and pleasure of men. There certainly are portions that seem to reflect this view. Men are advised on ways to cheat on their wives, and sexual harassment and rape are sometimes encouraged or condoned.
However, Doniger feels that taking these passages as representative of the Kama Sutra as a whole is an oversimplification. “The Kama Sutra was extraordinarily enlightened for its time,” she said. Women in unhappy marriages are encouraged to leave their husbands, and Vatsyayana, the Kama Sutra’s author, advises husbands to make sure their wives are satisfied sexually and emotionally to ensure that this does not happen.
There are also whole books in the Kama Sutra directed specifically at women, from a chapter on how to meet a man to a book commissioned by high-ranking courtesans detailing the laws of education and behavior for future women in their profession. Though it was penned by a man, Doniger claimed that the Kama Sutra clearly incorporates the voices and concerns of women.
“It’s doubly exploitative,” she explained.
Since much of what is now known about early Indian culture comes from the Kama Sutra, Doniger expressed the importance of this take on the text for a greater understanding of the way women lived in India at the time. “The Kama Sutra was supposed to be read by women,” she said, calling for her audience to consider the fact that women during this time period lived intellectual lives with more kama—or pleasure in Sanskrit—than we would have previously believed.