The Kama Sutra

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While it is one of the most famous traditional texts from ancient India, and it is beloved of modern neo-Tantrics, the Kama Sutra is not a traditional Tantric text.

Who wrote The Kama Sutra?

The Kama Sutra has been considered one of the authoritative texts on sex and relationships in Hindu literature for centuries. Many different versions existed by the time Englishman Sir Richard Burton sought to create an English translation in the late 19th century. Very little is known about the author. He was certainly not a Tantric guru, and it is believed that he was actually a celibate monk when he composed the authoritative guide to sex and marriage.

It is impossible to fix the exact date either of the life of Vatsyayana or of his work. It is supposed that he must have lived between the first and sixth century of the Christian era, on the following grounds:

He mentions that Satakarni Satavahana, a king of Kuntal, killed Malayevati his wife with an instrument called kartari by striking her in the passion of love, and Vatsya quotes this case to warn people of the danger arising from some old customs of striking women when under the influence of this passion. This king of Kuntal is believed to have lived and reigned during the first century A.D., and consequently Vatsya must have lived after him. On the other hand, Virahamihira, in the eighteenth chapter of his 'Brihatsanhita' treatise of the science of love, appears to have borrowed largely from Vatsyayana on the subject. Virahamihira is said to have lived during the sixth century A.D., and as Vatsya must have written his works previously, therefore be must have lived not earlier than the first century A.D., and not later than the sixth century A.D.[1]

Vatsyayana did not compose an original work; he summarised documents written by earlier authorities, which were themselves explanation and summaries of even earlier documents. Allegedly, the contents of the Kama Sutra can be traced back to a summary of one percent (one thousand verses out of a hundred thousand verses) of the instructions for living a righteous life originally handed down by "the Lord of Beings" when men and women were created. This particular one percent was devoted to an explanation of "kama" - love, pleasure and sensual gratification.

Sections of the Kama Sutra

Section I: Introduction

This section explains how the Kama Sutra was assembled and translated, and talks about the life stages for a Hindu citizen, being student, householder, and sadhu (spiritual practitioner). It defends the importance of kama (love, pleasure and sensual gratification) against claims that these are mere distractions from material and spiritual accomplishment. While kama is less important than artha (work) and dharma (spiritual practice), it should still be given its place.

This section also outlines the 64 arts and sciences which both men and women should master, to make them attractive partners. It also points out the practical benefits of such skills.
The daughter of a king too as well as the daughter of a minister, being learned in the above arts, can make their husbands favourable to them, even though these may have thousands of other wives besides themselves. And in the same manner, if a wife becomes separated from her husband, and falls into distress, she can support herself easily, even in a foreign country, by means of her knowledge of these arts. Even the bare knowledge of them gives attractiveness to a woman, though the practice of them may be only possible or otherwise according to the circumstances of each case. A man who is versed in these arts, who is loquacious and acquainted with the arts of gallantry, gains very soon the hearts of women, even though he is only acquainted with them for a short time.[1]
These 64 arts and sciences are:
  • Singing
  • Playing on musical instruments
  • Dancing
  • Union of dancing, singing, and playing instrumental music
  • Writing and drawing
  • Tattooing
  • Arraying and adorning an idol with rice and flowers
  • Spreading and arranging beds or couches of flowers, or flowers upon the ground
  • Colouring the teeth, garments, hair, nails and bodies, i.e. staining, dyeing, colouring and painting the same
  • Fixing stained glass into a floor
  • The art of making beds, and spreading out carpets and cushions for reclining
  • Playing on musical glasses filled with water
  • Storing and accumulating water in aqueducts, cisterns and reservoirs
  • Picture making, trimming and decorating
  • Stringing of rosaries, necklaces, garlands and wreaths
  • Binding of turbans and chaplets, and making crests and top-knots of flowers
  • Scenic representations, stage playing Art of making ear ornaments Art of preparing perfumes and odours
  • Proper disposition of jewels and decorations, and adornment in dress
  • Magic or sorcery
  • Quickness of hand or manual skill
  • Culinary art, i.e. cooking and cookery
  • Making lemonades, sherbets, acidulated drinks, and spirituous extracts with proper flavour and colour
  • Tailor's work and sewing
  • Making parrots, flowers, tufts, tassels, bunches, bosses, knobs, etc., out of yarn or thread
  • Solution of riddles, enigmas, covert speeches, verbal puzzles and enigmatical questions
  • A game, which consisted in repeating verses, and as one person finished, another person had to commence at once, repeating another verse, beginning with the same letter with which the last speaker's verse ended, whoever failed to repeat was considered to have lost, and to be subject to pay a forfeit or stake of some kind
  • The art of mimicry or imitation
  • Reading, including chanting and intoning
  • Study of sentences difficult to pronounce. It is played as a game chiefly by women, and children and consists of a difficult sentence being given, and when repeated quickly, the words are often transposed or badly pronounced
  • Practice with sword, single stick, quarter staff and bow and arrow
  • Drawing inferences, reasoning or inferring
  • Carpentry, or the work of a carpenter
  • Architecture, or the art of building
  • Knowledge about gold and silver coins, and jewels and gems
  • Chemistry and mineralogy
  • Colouring jewels, gems and beads
  • Knowledge of mines and quarries
  • Gardening; knowledge of treating the diseases of trees and plants, of nourishing them, and determining their ages
  • Art of cock fighting, quail fighting and ram fighting
  • Art of teaching parrots and starlings to speak
  • Art of applying perfumed ointments to the body, and of dressing the hair with unguents and perfumes and braiding it
  • The art of understanding writing in cypher, and the writing of words in a peculiar way
  • The art of speaking by changing the forms of words. It is of various kinds. Some speak by changing the beginning and end of words, others by adding unnecessary letters between every syllable of a word, and so on
  • Knowledge of language and of the vernacular dialects
  • Art of making flower carriages
  • Art of framing mystical diagrams, of addressing spells and charms, and binding armlets
  • Mental exercises, such as completing stanzas or verses on receiving a part of them; or supplying one, two or three lines when the remaining lines are given indiscriminately from different verses, so as to make the whole an entire verse with regard to its meaning; or arranging the words of a verse written irregularly by separating the vowels from the consonants, or leaving them out altogether; or putting into verse or prose sentences represented by signs or symbols. There are many other such exercises.
  • Composing poems
  • Knowledge of dictionaries and vocabularies
  • Knowledge of ways of changing and disguising the appearance of persons
  • Knowledge of the art of changing the appearance of things, such as making cotton to appear as silk, coarse and common things to appear as fine and good
  • Various ways of gambling
  • Art of obtaining possession of the property of others by means of mantras or incantations
  • Skill in youthful sports
  • Knowledge of the rules of society, and of how to pay respect and compliments to others
  • Knowledge of the art of war, of arms, of armies, etc.
  • Knowledge of gymnastics
  • Art of knowing the character of a man from his features
  • Knowledge of scanning or constructing verses
  • Arithmetical recreations
  • Making artificial flowers
  • Making figures and images in cla

This section contains detailed instructions for the architecture and interior design of the home, how often and in what way the citizen should bathe, shave, meet with friends, and entertain his lovers, and the activities with which the citizen should fill his day. It is clear from the text that the citizen is male, and that he doesn't have a day job. The Kama Sutra was written with the upper-class Brahmin in mind. This section also introduces the notion of a "public woman", who lives an entirely different life from the "women of the household".

This section also contains a list of the types of woman with which a citizen may enjoy kama (sex for pleasure) - women of lower caste, women twice married, and public women. There is also a lengthy list of the circumstances in which it is righteous to "enjoy" the once-married wife of another man, which includes such circumstances as:
This woman will turn the mind of her husband, who is very powerful, in my favour, he being at present disaffected towards me, and intent on doing me some harm.
By making this woman my friend I shall gain the object of some friend of mine, or shall be able to effect the ruin of some enemy, or shall accomplish some other difficult purpose.
By being united with this woman, I shall kill her husband, and so obtain his vast riches which I covet.
The union of this woman with me is not attended with any danger, and will bring me wealth, of which, on account of my poverty and inability to support myself, I am very much in need. I shall therefore obtain her vast riches in this way without any difficulty.
This woman loves me ardently, and knows all my weak points; if therefore, I am unwilling to be united with her, she will make my faults public, and thus tarnish my character and reputation.
The utilitarian and materialistic approach to sex in this text makes it clear that this text is not about lovemaking as a spiritual practice. Indeed, this text is not about spiritual practice at all. It is about the ordinary lives of upper-class Brahmin men who considered themselves entitled to enjoy a romp with the maid after a busy morning of training birds to speak and watching cock-fighting.

The following women are not to be enjoyed:

  • A leper
  • A lunatic
  • A woman turned out of caste
  • A woman who reveals secrets
  • A woman who publicly expresses desire for sexual intercourse
  • A woman who is extremely white
  • A woman who is extremely black
  • A bad-smelling woman
  • A woman who is a near relation
  • A woman who is a female friend
  • A woman who leads the life of an ascetic
  • And, lastly the wife of a relation, of a friend, of a learned Brahman, and of the king (although there is debate between sages on whether a woman in these categories who has been enjoyed by five or more men is rendered appropriate, or whether the sanction should still stand).

The section ends by outlining the types of people who can be developed as friends, and those suitable to be used as messengers to summon a lover.

Section II: On Sexual Union

The second section is the most famous part of the Kama Sutra, containing as it does, vivid and detailed descriptions of various types of sexual activity.

Part I classifies men according to the size of their lingam (penis) as the hare man, the bull man, or the horse man. Women, according to the depth of their yoni, are a female deer, a mare, or a female elephant. Some pairings are compatible, while others are incompatible. This part also classifies both men and women as having scant, middling, or intense sexual desire, and a preference for short, moderate, or long durations of lovemaking. There is an extensive discussion on whether or not women emit semen, and there is no mention of brahmacharya (conservation of semen), which is foundational to Tantric practice. This part concludes with an examination of different kinds of love.

Part II is the most well-known of the parts of the kama sutra, which spells out in great detail all the ways in which lovers can embrace. It includes separate sections on kissing, marking with the nails, biting, lying together, sex positions, holding the lingam in the mouth, "females acting the part of males" (which refers to nothing more than women taking initiative, undressing the man and being on top during intercourse), how to begin and end sexual congress, and how to conduct "love quarrels".

Section III: On Marriage

This section covers the appropriate type of woman to marry, the way to win the confidence of a bride after an arranged marriage, methods by which a poor man can groom a wealthy girl from childhood to fall in love with him, and by which a girl of poor means can seduce a wealthy young man into marriage against the wishes of his parents, and forms of marriage which can be contracted without he consent of the parents.

Section IV contains instructions on how wives should behave, Section V contains instructions for seducing the wives of other men, Section VI is devoted to courtesans (public women), and Section VII includes instructions on attracting others, including personal adornment and reputed ways to enlarge the lingam.

How to use the Kama Sutra in Tantric Practice

Frankly, the Kama Sutra is not a Tantric text. Much of its content is culturally specific to pre-Medieval Northern India, and some of its recommendations are directly opposed to the yamas and niyamas which underpin all genuine yogic spiritual practice.

The Kama Sutra is famous primarily for its depictions of sexual positions which were exotic to the repressed British overlords who commissioned the first translations. It also has some value in its demonstration that sexual pleasure can be regarded as a normal part of life, to be cultured in the same spirit as singing, dancing, and preparing delicious food.

Tantrics may derive some value from trying different sexual positions, or from learning some of the sixty-four arts and sciences. In the modern world, however, there are places to learn such things without the cultural baggage of racism (section I), grooming of children for sex (section III), rape and forced marriage of an intoxicated woman (section III) and determining when a woman is vulnerable to rape ("capable of being enjoyed by the use of a little force", section V).


  1. The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana by Sir Richard Burton.