The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana

Vatsyayana compiled the Kama Sutra, a Hindu text written in Sanskrit, the literary language of ancient India, nearly two thousand years ago, most probably in the third century CE.

  • kama = desire, sensual pleasure, love
  • sutra = threads, stitches (sutures), bindings, and, metaphorically, aphorisms, remarks

In it, he abridges and embellishes texts composed by at least nine different authors between the eighth and first century BCE, covering topics of love, desire, marriage, and gracious, cosmopolitan living, as well as a wide variety of intimate and sexual practices.

This is not exactly a new translation of Vatsyayana’s work but rather, like the original, an abridgment and embellishment of earlier texts, hopefully preserving much that is useful and interesting whilst attempting to expurgate or at least mitigate material that’s unacceptable to a modern eye.

Determinedly patriarchal, decidedly heteronormative, and frequently pedagogic in style, the Kama Sutra nevertheless promulgates a view of sexual relations that’s remarkably free of moral posture: female dominance, homosexual practice, sex work, and various kinds of kink are all presented with an open-mindedness, levity, and precision that’s as delightful as it is rare. Female agency may be encouraged to play coy, but the treatment is remarkably secular and humane: pleasure, orgasm, & sexual energy are posited equally for all sexes of the human species.

From a scholarly perspective, our approach is probably best characterized as one of reckless abandon: we have omitted, amended, and augmented large sections of the text whilst wantonly disregarding their syntax, structure, and even, at times, their authorial intent.

We have freely consulted later Indian commentaries, which are typically translated and published alongside Vatsyayana’s own work, but have, in the interests of brevity, not presented them here, as doing so would have tripled the word count.

If you desire an unexpurgated and more faithful rendition, please consult the English-language translations listed in Further Reading.

In deracinating the text we have made liberal use of the pronoun ‘they’ in order to render the sex and gender of each participant deliberately ambiguous and have removed any reference to practices that are obviously non-consensual. We have, however, stopped short of attempting to neutralize the male gaze of the narrators and, accordingly, made little serious effort to redress the patriarchal violence lurking beneath mutually consented but nonetheless aggressive sexual practices such as biting and slapping.

On Courtesans & Sex Workers

Most English-language translations of the Kama Sutra use the term ‘courtesan’ to describe the kind of upscale sex worker to whom the book’s sixth section is primarily addressed and by whom it was reputedly commissioned.

We have preferred to use the more prosaic term ‘sex worker’ because it purports neither to glamorize nor stigmatize the activity, carries no whiff of euphemism, covers a broad spectrum of practice, and has the added benefit of being gender neutral (although we acknowledge that sex work is gendered and that the vast majority of workers have been and continue to be women).

Courtesan is a narrower term than sex worker, in that it is intended to apply to an elite type of sex worker, one with a relatively high degree of social status and financial independence. While this usage is faithful to many facets of the text, it does not speak to higher volume, lower income workers, whom are also addressed.

Courtesan is also a broader term than sex worker, because not all courtesans in ancient India were sex workers. More generally, the courtesan was a highly skilled female performer who was culturally permitted to enter male spaces and to manifest certain male behaviors, including the accumulation and disposal of significant wealth. For sure, this codified norm-breaking was for the benefit and pleasure of a male audience, but the point here is that the range of skilled performance included dancing, singing, poetry, intellectual conversation and philosophical sparring, and was not limited to and need not include sexual performance.

In contrast, the intended audience for section six quite clearly comprises workers who make their living from selling sex and simulating romantic intrigue. Hence our preference for a less luxurious, less euphemistic word.