Women of Kamasutra
Women of Kamasutra

The 3 Century CE text of erotic love Kamasutra by Vatsyayana challenges the conventions of its time and continues to do so. Wendy Doniger, one of the world’s foremost authorities on ancient Indian texts seeks to restore the Kamasutra to its proper place in the Sanskrit canon, in her book ‘Reading the Kamasutra: The Mare’s Trap and Other Essays from Vatsayana’s Masterpiece’. An Excerpt where she talks about Women in Kamasutra:

Women in Kamasutra

The Kamasutra assumes a kind of sexual freedom for women that would have appalled Manu but simply does not interest Kautilya. Vatsyayana is a strong advocate for women’s sexual pleasure. He tells us that a woman who does not experience the pleasures of love may hate her man and leave him for another. If, as the context suggests, this woman is married, the casual manner in which Vatsyayana suggests that she leave her husband is in sharp contrast to the position assumed by the Laws of Manu: ‘A virtuous wife should constantly serve her husband like a god, even if he behaves badly, freely indulges his lust and is devoid of any good qualities.’ The Kamasutra also acknowledges that women could use magic to control their husbands, though Vatsyayana regards this as a last resort. He casually mentions, among the women that one might not only sleep with but marry, not only ‘second-hand’ women (whom Manu despises as ‘previously had by another man’) but widows: ‘a widow who is tormented by the weakness of the senses…finds, again, a man who enjoys life and is well-endowed with good qualities’.

Vatsyayana dismisses with one or two short verses the possibility that the purpose of the sexual act is to produce children.

Vatsyayana dismisses with one or two short verses the possibility that the purpose of the sexual act is to produce children; one of the things that make sex for human beings different from sex for animals, he points out, is the fact that human women, unlike animals, have sex even when they are not in their fertile period. Given the enormous emphasis that Manu and all the other dharma texts place on having sex only to produce children, the Kamasutra’s attitude here is extraordinary.

The text does go on to state that women have less concern for morality than men have; it does assume that women don’t think about anything but men.

Vatsyayana’s discussion of the reasons why women become unfaithful rejects the traditional patriarchal party line that one finds in most Sanskrit texts, a line that punishes very cruelly indeed any woman who sleeps with a man other than her husband (cutting off her nose, for instance). Manu assumes that every woman desires every man she sees: ‘Good looks do not matter to them, nor do they care about youth; “A man!” they say, and enjoy sex with him, whether he is good-looking or ugly’. The Kamasutra takes off from this same assumption, but then limits it to good-looking men and modifies it with an egalitarian, if cynical, formulation: ‘A woman desires any attractive man she sees, and, in the same way, a man desires a woman. But, after some consideration, the matter goes no further.’ The text does go on to state that women have less concern for morality than men have; it does assume that women don’t think about anything but men; and it is written in the service of the hero, the would-be adulterer, who reasons, if all women are keen to give it away, why shouldn’t one of them give it to him?

But the author empathetically imagines various women’s reasons not to commit adultery (of which consideration for dharma comes last, as an afterthought), and the would-be seducer takes the woman’s misgivings seriously, even if only to disarm her:

Here are the causes of a woman’s resistance: love for her husband, regard for her children, the fact that she is past her prime, or overwhelmed by unhappiness, or unable to get away; or she gets angry and thinks, ‘He is propositioning me in an insulting way’; or she fears, ‘He will soon go away. There is no future in it; his thoughts are attached to someone else’; or she is nervous, thinking, ‘He does not conceal his signals’; or she fears, ‘His advances are just a tease’; or she is diffident, thinking, ‘How glamorous he is’; or she becomes shy when she thinks, ‘He is a man-about-town, accomplished in all the arts’; or she feels, ‘He has always treated me just as a friend’; or she cannot bear him, thinking, ‘He does not know the right time and place,’ or she does not respect him, thinking, ‘He is an object of contempt’; or she despises him when she thinks, ‘Even though I have given him signals, he does not understand’; or she feels sympathy for him and thinks, ‘I would not want anything unpleasant to happen to him because of me’; or she becomes depressed when she sees her own shortcomings, or afraid when she thinks, ‘If I am discovered, my own people will throw me out’; or scornful, thinking, ‘He has grey hair’; or she worries, ‘My husband has employed him to test me’; or she has regard for dharma.

Just as he had imagined the reasons why a woman might be positively inclined to betray her husband, Vatsyayana here brilliantly imagines the resistance of a woman who is tempted to commit adultery, and his thinking is both more subtle and more thorough than the psychologizing of novelists like Gustave Flaubert and John Updike. This discussion is ostensibly intended to teach the male reader of the text how to manipulate and exploit such women: ‘A man should eliminate, from the very beginning, whichever of these causes for rejection he detects in his own situation.’

Kamasutra is equally informative about women’s (more precisely, courtesans’) thinking about ways of ending an affair.

But, perhaps inadvertently, it provides a most perceptive exposition of the reasons why women hesitate to begin an affair. And the Kamasutra is equally informative about women’s (more precisely, courtesans’) thinking about ways of ending an affair. It describes the devious devices that the courtesan uses to make her lover leave her, rather than simply kicking him out:

She does for him what he does not want, and she does repeatedly what he has criticized. She talks about things he does not know about. She shows no amazement, but only contempt, for the things he does know about. She intentionally distorts the meaning of what he says. She laughs when he has not made a joke, and when he has made a joke, she laughs about something else. When he is talking, she looks at her entourage with sidelong glances and slaps them. And when she has interrupted his story, she tells other stories. She talks in public about the bad habits and vices that he cannot give up. She asks for things that should not be asked for. She punctures his pride. She ignores him. She criticizes men who have the same faults. And she stalls when they are alone together. And at the end, the release happens of itself.

The woman’s method is an example of what James Scott has taught us to recognize as the ‘weapons of the weak’, the ‘arts of resistance’.

A little inside joke that may not survive the cross-cultural translation is the word used for ‘release’—moksha—which generally refers to a person’s spiritual release from the world of transmigration; there may be an intended irony in its use here to designate the release of a man from a woman’s thrall. The rest comes through loud and clear, however: the woman employs what some would call passive-aggressive behaviour to indicate that it is time to hit the road, Jack. There is no male equivalent for this passage, presumably because a man would not have to resort to such subterfuges: he would just throw the woman out. The woman’s method is an example of what James Scott has taught us to recognize as the ‘weapons of the weak’, the ‘arts of resistance’.

Also Read: Context and Controversy: Priyanka Pathak Narain On Her Book On Baba Ramdev

Excerpted from ‘Reading the Kamasutra: The Mare’s Trap and Other Essays from Vatsayana’s Masterpiece’, by Wendy Doniger published by Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2016

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