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the Complete Review
the complete review - literature / history

Redeeming the Kamasutra

Wendy Doniger

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To purchase Redeeming the Kamasutra

Title: Redeeming the Kamasutra
Author: Wendy Doniger
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2016
Length: 164 pages
Availability: Redeeming the Kamasutra - US
Redeeming the Kamasutra - UK
Redeeming the Kamasutra - Canada
Redeeming the Kamasutra - India

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Our Assessment:

B+ : entertaining and revealing Kamasutra-readings

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 11/1/2016 .
The Spectator . 21/5/2016 Nicola Barker

  From the Reviews:
  • "Doniger reveals the classic Indian text as far more than a sex manual, calling it a handbook for sensuous living. (...) Doniger’s prose cuts to the chase, and her book delights and informs the lay reader. Erudite, entertaining, and to the point, this work demonstrates her talent for clear thinking and clear writing." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Doniger believes the Kamasutra to be not only a precious and under-appreciated part of the Sanskrit canon, but also a great Indian literary landmark which has been — for way too long now — criminally undervalued in its place of origin. Hence its need for ‘redemption’ (a paradoxically Christian notion, perhaps)." - Nicola Barker, The Spectator

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:

       Several of the seven chapters in Redeeming the Kamasutra are based on previous work by Doniger, but in revised ("much revised", she emphasizes in some cases) and refashioned versions, and now loosely fitted together as a more unified work. Her ambition is clear from the title -- a reaction, too, in part, as she admits in her introduction, to: "the rise of a wave of puritanical censorship in India in the past decade". But the work she wants to redeem isn't exactly the salacious version readers often have in mind when they hear the title Kamasutra -- and this is another of her goals in this book: to remind readers about the exact nature of the work: yes, there's a lot of sex, but the dubious Richard F. Burton translation definitely gives the wrong impression. (Doniger of course also set out to right that impression with her own translation (with Sudhir Kakar) of the Kamasutra (2002, Oxford University Press); see also A.N.D.Haksar's recent translation of the Kama Sutra.)
       Doniger's take on the 1883 Burton translation of Vatsyayana Mallanaga's mid-third century C.E. work -- "In many ways, it should be called the Burton mistranslation" ... -- is of particular interest, given that this has endured so long as the definitive (if, as she easily demonstrates, anything but authoritative) version of the Kamasutra, even in India -- a reminder of how fundamentally a work, its meanings, and even its impact can be transformed in translation. (Among the other interesting side-notes: "the Burton translation is not primarily the work of Burton", Doniger noting that: "It really should, therefore, be known as the Indrajit-Bhide-Arbuthnot-Burton translation", but Burton's fame so overshadowed the others that their contributions remain easily ignored.)
       A chapter on 'The Kautilyan Kamasutra' is an interesting textual comparison between the Kamasutra and the second century C.E. Arthashastra, as well as a Dharmashastra by Manu -- showing:

The Kamasutra is closely based upon the Arthashastra, and this connection strongly influences the worldview of the Kamasutra.
       This introduction to the less well-known Arthashastra, and its influences on Vatsyayana is particularly interesting, Doniger suggesting that while the "Arthashastra is often said to be Machiavellian" that doesn't begin to describe it, as Kautilya (the author the work is ascribed to): "makes Machiavelli look like Mother Teresa".
       A chapter on 'Women in the Kamasutra' helpfully considers the text (and advice) from a female perspective -- with Doniger suggesting even: "Vatsyayana also knew about the G-spot". And among her observations:
He tells the man how to recognize when a woman has reached a climax -- or, perhaps, if we assume (as I think we should) that the text is intended for women, too, he is telling the woman how to fake it
       While the thoroughness of the textual analysis, and the historical and cultural understanding Doniger brings to her discussion impress, Redeeming the Kamasutra is also particularly enjoyable for a lightness in tone and the humor that she brings to her writing. Whether discussing sexual positions, such as the so-called missionary position -- "The Kamasutra mentions this position briefly, but without enthusiasm" -- or discussing genital size (where she offers also the parenthetical mention: "We will simply note, in passing, the racist and Orientalist aspects of penis envy") she covers a lot of ground succinctly, sharply, and often very amusingly.
       Redeeming the Kamasutra is a scholarly but very accessible work. It isn't truly just an 'introduction to the Kamasutra' -- Doniger gives a good overview, but also only focuses on some specifics: in redeeming the Kamasutra she assumes some familiarity with it, its history, and how it has been viewed/read. Informative, her study is also a lot of fun -- Doniger impressively providing lots of scholarship but never falling into the dryly academic.
       Certainly of interest to anyone interested in the Kamasutra (anyone who doesn't (want to) think of/see it solely as a sex manual, that is).

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 March 2016

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Redeeming the Kamasutra: Reviews: Wendy Doniger: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American scholar Wendy Doniger teaches at the University of Chicago. She was born in 1940.

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