As far as Indian stereotypes go, some are more popular than others. The representation of Indians in international pop-culture usually includes a strange accent no one in the country has ever actually heard, an allusion to spicy food and curries, snippets of familial control, jokes about cows and the myths associated with an ancient culture mired in mysticism and enlightenment. One Indian text comes up more often than any other in discussions of this mysticism and that is the Kama Sutra. It is brought up in similar conversations by both foreigners and Indians alike. Either it is to state that this was once a culture that valued sexual relations and spoke about them openly (sometimes this is to prove that the “real” India was a progressive place and it was colonial rule that turned it into this conservative, prudish country, which has some merit, but is a different discussion) or it is done, like every discussion of “1000 years ago” to demonstrate how the ancients knew it all and if only we valued our culture, we would be in the vanguard of soft propaganda.
The discussion about the Kama Sutra is usually vague and focused on the 64-positions of lovemaking that exist within its pages. It is presented as a veritable guide to the pleasure of Kama (sex) and its position in modern society seeks to paint India as a once-glorious land of lovemaking and the art of sex. It is often cited to question the conservatism of modern Indian society, with pretentious khadi-clad, bespectacled members of the intelligentsia waxing poetic about how we have lost our way, and were we to return to the glory of this mythic sex-positive society we could deal with the issues of rape culture, prudishness, conservatism and control that now plague our society. And that, my dear readers, is how I know that no one has ever fucking read the Kama Sutra.
It Is not what you think it is.
The Kama Sutra is essentially the horrifying sexual manual of yesteryear laden with blatant sexism, casteism, bigotry and rape advocacy. The focus on the “sexual positions” mentioned in the Kama Sutra distract from its deeply problematic nature and there are forces that exist that want you to focus on that because it looks better than the text contained within its pages. The irony we think exists, the irony of coming from a glorious land of sex that is now the land of rape, is a misdirect. In fact, reading the Kama Sutra will show you exactly where modern rape culture and the caste-informed class system took root.
While there are some “progressive” seeming factions to the text, its primary purpose is to elucidate the morality of sex. For instance, while you are permitted to have sex with women of your caste and that sex is “sinless” enough to produce progeny, sex with women of a higher caste is prohibited and sex with women of a lower caste is meant to be seen only as pleasure. The entire text is geared towards men and while women are allowed its study, this is a private study for which she attains the position of “Ganika” and that is meant only to augment her value as a potential wife. There are detailed guidelines on what type of woman is unfit for sexual relations (a lazy woman, a women who is “too white or too dark,” women with ill-sounding names, women with crooked thighs, bald women, women who are in unpleasant moods etc). There is a high premium on virginity and it is only sex with your virgin wife that is encouraged and considered sinless (though there are some stipulations that permit marriage to a widow which is quite progressive for the time, heck, it’s considered progressive even today). Large portions of this text are dedicated to teaching women how to behave in marriage, whether that is by serving your husband as a divine being or refraining from faulting him too much if he were to upset you, or by fulfilling all the duties of ornamentalisation and decoration of self and home that have befallen women for generations.
However, it is not its relentless objectification of women that makes this text as problematic as it is, it is its advocacy of child-marriage and rape. The Kama Sutra states that it is unwise to marry a girl who has attained “full puberty.” A suitable wife is one who has not yet begun to menstruate (so, a child, and still a child until adulthood even is she is getting her periods) and the practise of polygamy is permitted for men, and we can see even in modern India how men are given young girls in marriage regardless of their ages (and in parts of the country polygamist practises continue in members of various religions, if you think it is just one, you have consumed more propaganda than news), often when their age-appropriate wives die or their other wives become too old to bear children. Girls are still being betrothed at birth and handed over once they are able to bear children (ie; have periods), this is not contrary to the prescription of this text imagined to be sex-positive, it is prescribed within it.
While the Kama Sutra makes some mention of consent, it is not to empower women with it, it is to instruct men on how to coerce consent from women. A man must be wary of a woman who consents too easily to get into one of those sizzling 64-positions that bring lecherous tourists to the streets of Paharganj ever year, usually a woman who consents too easily will be a woman who stares at you, vain women, widows (so much for progress), a sick woman, a barren woman, a woman whose family and caste is not well known. You know, you’re loose if you stare at men, I wonder if that idea still exists today and from whence it came? A thinker, that. It teaches men how to obtain consent going so far as to say that if a girl does not relent, you should bite her and then yourself, and frighten her by telling people that she did that to you and then everyone will know she’s a dirty fucking ho. You know, the loving sanctity of marriage that keeps us from criminalising marital rape.
In fact, you know section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (now struck down), the one that criminalised “unnatural” sexual acts that included homosexuality and also, on a technicality, fellatio? Well, it has some roots here too (as well as in Victorian era laws). Oral sex, according to the Kama Sutra, is fit only for dogs. Men will suffer from bringing their cocks into contact with mouths, tis unholy, and it should definitely, definitely never be practised by a Brahmin, a man of state or a man of good reputation. Hell, this extremely heterosexual-focused text even manages to be homophobic and transphobic. Even in its delineation of polygamy it manages to belittle women and demonstrate exactly how we came to be the kind of society we are today. It lists various reasons polygamy is permitted for men such as the ill-temper of a wife, his dislike for her, her continuous production of daughters, her inability to produce children. You know, the exact same reason why men today feel entitled to a wife-replacement?
All this to say, the Kama Sutra isn’t divergent from our conservative sensibilities nor our deeply oppressive or problematic ones, it contains the roots for all of them. Merely talking about sex does not make one progressive, it is worth noting what is being said. Always read the articles in your porn mags, that’s where the truth often lies.