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the Complete Review
the complete review - philosophy / self-help

Kama Sutra


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To purchase Kama Sutra

Title: Kama Sutra
Author: Vatsyayana
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: ca. 200 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 197 pages
Original in: Sanskrit
Availability: Kama Sutra - US
Kama Sutra - UK
Kama Sutra - Canada
Les Kâma-sûtra - France
Kâmasûtra - Deutschland
Kâma-sûtra - Italia
El Kama Sutra - España
  • A Guide to the Art of Pleasure
  • Sanskrit title: कामसूत्र
  • Translated and with an Introduction by A.N.D.Haksar
  • The Kama Sutra has been translated several times previously, including by Richard Burton (1883) and Wendy Doniger/Sudhir Kakar (2002)

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Our Assessment:

B : not particularly helpful, but an interesting historical/cultural/sexual curiosity

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The American Prospect . 14/2/2012 Ryan Bloom
The Independent . 11/2/2011 Boyd Tonkin
The NY Times . 1/2/2012 Dwight Garner
The Observer . 25/3/2011 Hanif Kureishi

  From the Reviews:
  • "While the explicit cover art may push the limits of mainstream acceptability, the simple, outline-based images are, for the most part, tastefully composed, appearing in primary yellows and reds that call to mind the original Sanskrit texts. (...) But something sneaky is still going on here: The bookís erotic jacket is being used to sell us on a somewhat inaccurate stereotype. As the old saying goes, you canít always judge a book by its cover. (...) (W)hat Haksarís translation of the text shows us is that sex is only one element of the original manual, not the whole thing." - Ryan Bloom, The American Prospect

  • "However modern-sounding the attention to women's pleasure in sex or autonomy in courtship, this trainspotterish drive to fix everything into its formal and cosmic place may strike readers as the book's most alien attribute -- that, and a doggedly pedantic attention to biting, scratching and consensual SM." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "The Kama Sutra feels modern in its pleasure-seeking impulses, but much of the pleasure of reading it in 2012 comes from its ornate and antiquated sexual taxonomies. Bliss would be an audiobook adaptation read by Salman Rushdie and Tina Fey. (...) (M)ost of its strictures are along the lines of donít be hurtful or barbaric. Men are told to satisfy a woman first in bed. This book may have a fetish for slapping and punching during sex, but itís an equal-opportunity fetish." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times

  • "Even reading the Kama Sutra, in a fine new translation by AND Haksar, feels like a guilty pleasure. (...) (I)ts routines appear to render any form of sensual transaction uncreative, predictable and controlled, and the male omnipotent. If it turned out that the woman was also consulting a similar manual then the two characters in this drama would be playing roles that would ensure they'd remain outside the experience." - Hanif Kureishi, The Observer

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Kama Sutra takes itself pretty seriously, beginning the list that promises:

     The following men are generally very successful with women: one familiar with the Kama Sutra
       True, the list then continues to include: "a generous spender who likes picnics and pageants" (and also: "one recently engaged" ...); nevertheless .....
       As A.N.D.Haksar suggest in his Introduction to this recent translation, the book continues to have a reputation as the ultimate sex manual; it is, in fact, a bit more than just that. But while the section on 'Sexual Union' is clearly the most useful one for contemporary readers (though hardly the obvious choice as go-to guide for those looking to spice up their sex-lives), the rest is also of considerable (quirky) historical and cultural interest.
       The introductory section reveals that this, Vatsyayana's Kama Sutra, is in fact the really short version of considerable (other)worldly wisdom about sex and mating that came before it.
       It began when:
     The great god's servant Nandi separated Kama Sutra, the precepts on pleasure, and put them forth in one thousand chapters.
       Apparently this was way too much for everybody, so in quick succession compressed and abridged and partial versions followed, until: "the work itself virtually disappeared" -- and:
The present Kama Sutra, Vatsyayana says, is offered after condensing all the material in one brief volume.
       So the Kama Sutra is very much the summary version -- a mere thirty-six chapters (compared to the original thousand !), covering sixty-four subjects -- and its many lists and quick succession of alternatives, without much exposition, reflect this.
       After explaining the background of the text, Vatsyayana explains Kama -- the third of the 'three ends' (or goals) in human life, alongside Dharma and Artha. These are, very roughly, the spiritual (Dharma), the material (Artha), and the sensual (Kama) -- and Vatsyayana notes: "Dharma is more important than Artha, and Artha more than Kama". But this is a Kama-guide, and that does sound a lot more fun than Dharma- or Artha-talk -- and, on the whole, probably is.
       Exactly how useful (or rather: not) this guide will be is evident fairly soon, as Vatsyayana for example explains how a man should properly live, beginning with setting up his household. He's pretty specific about what's expected -- so for example regarding the first-time homeowner's abode:
It should be near water, have an orchard and separate quarters for working, and contain two bedrooms.
     The outer bedroom should have a good soft bed, low in the middle, with two pillows and a white sheets spread over it.
       And Vatsyayana's suggestions as to how to while away the time might also not be suited to all:
After meals he spends time making his parrots and mynah birds talk, watching quail, cock and ram fights and other similar recreation. He also interacts with his companions, parasites and jesters, and then has a nap.
       (The 'parasites' are, of course -- as Haksar notes in an endnote -- hangers-on.)
       So contemporary readers might have some difficulty fully identifying with the archetypes presented here -- though of course some of the advice should be heeded even at modern social gatherings, e.g.: "do not talk too much in Sanskrit".
       Of course, what everyone is waiting and looking for is the sex advice -- and fortunately that comes early on: the second book (of the seven) is devoted to 'Sexual Union'. But first there's some discussion of who constitute 'permissible women'. Basically, virgins, previously married women, and courtesans are the clear choices -- with a fourth category, the married woman who is "a loose woman robbed of her virtue by many others" (i.e. known for sleeping around), also being deemed acceptable (and Vatsyayana does suggest a few more variations where adultery can be rationalized to be considered okay). Of course, there's also a list of 'forbidden' women (which turns out to be the category of women you're simply better off avoiding), which include lunatics, lepers, nuns, malodorous women, and anyone "past her prime" .....
       The 'Sexual Union' section does offer quite a bit of information, along with many suggestions and positions. There's a rather odd focus on (carefully controlled) slapping, biting, and scratching -- with the suggestion that:
     Marks can also be made in other shapes. There is no end to options or to ingenuity in their usage. Passion is the inspiration and practice can take one anywhere. As such, say the teachers, no one can catalogue all the forms of scratching.
       Which seems a bit of a cop-out, but, hey ... the whole relaxed, go-with-the-flow attitude is typical of the guide, and probably more reassuring than going into all the specifics.
       There are some specifics, too -- detailed instructions as to kissing or oral sex, for example. Some of the practices are frowned upon by some authorities -- "learned teachers" apparently disapprove of oral sex, but Vatsyayana cites the scriptures to suggest otherwise, and fairly concludes with what is some the best advice in the book:
     As there is a discrepancy between learned opinion and scriptural pronouncement, one should act according to the occasion, the local practice and one's own inclination and belief.
       The sex-act is only part of what Vatsyayana offers advice about: much of the manual is also devoted to getting the girl. Here we find some of the entertaining lists -- for example, aside from obvious girls to avoid (the "stooping, hideous or bald") he also reminds readers:
A girl who is asleep, weeping or absent is not to be considered for marriage.
       There's all sorts of advice on how to win the desired girl (or her family) over -- including, if she's already promised elsewhere, to have her be: "informed of the intended groom's defects". Disturbingly, Vatsyayana also offers advice on 'Forcible Marriage': getting her drunk and then taking her maidenhead is one way to proceed, and it's apparently also okay to take: "the girl's maidenhead while she is alone, asleep and out of her senses".
       The role Vatsyayana insists is appropriate for woman -- outside the bedroom, that is -- probably won't appeal to many contemporary women, as it involves pretty much complete subservience. The wife, he suggests, should be entirely devoted to her husband -- to the extent that:
Hearing his voice outside when he is coming home, she stands ready in the courtyard, calling out 'Anything needed ?' and, brushing aside the servant maid, herself washes his feet.
       Brushing aside the servant maid !
       Knowing perhaps that few women can live up these ideals, the section on 'The Wife' is followed by one on the 'Wives of Others' -- and begins by debating the pros and cons of adultery ("Is it doable ? Is it safe ? Is it permissible ? What of the future and one's livelihood ?"). Helpfully, Vatsyayana considers all the possibilities -- right down to those poor under-served women in harems (who are apparently often reduced to dressing up like men so that they can then equip themselves with: "something of appropriate shape, a tuber, root, fruit or dildo" in order to relieve each other's desires ...).
       If not other men's wives, then perhaps courtesans, to whom Vatsyayana also devotes a section -- and which comes with helpful suggestions how courtesans can go about getting money out of her clients, including saying: "that her jewellery was stolen by guards or by robbers when she was on her way to him".
       Finally, there's a section on 'Esoteric Matters' -- including helpful advice about 'Artificial Means' (such as dildos), such as: "Those of tin and lead are soft, have cooling properties and provide better friction", as well as suggesting:
     The inner side of the device should have the circumference of the penis. Its outer surface should be dimpled to make it rough.
       On the other hand, the advice on the perennially popular subject of 'Enlarging the Penis' seems, as always, quite safe to ignore. And presumably few will be willing to test out whether, in fact, it's true that:
     It is said that a man cannot have real sexual union unless his penis has been pierced.
       Overall, A.N.D.Haksar's translation Kama Sutra reads quite easily and well, and its mix of historical and cultural oddities and timeless universals make it a still interesting text.
       Haksar's Introduction and limited endnotes are modestly useful, but it must be said that anyone with greater interest in the text should look elsewhere too; Wendy Doniger's Introduction to her 2002 Oxford University Press translation of the Kamasutra [review forthcoming] is a great place to start.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 February 2012

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Kama Sutra: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Little is known about Indian philosopher and author Vatsyayana (वात्‍स्‍यायन).

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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