The Kamasutra is an ancient Hindu text on the art of attainting kama, or pleasure, one of the three prescribed goals for twice born males in the Hindu tradition (Doniger, Kakar and Vatsyayana XI). It was composed by Vatsyayana Mallanaga, possibly in the third century CE and has since been the subject of commentaries, criticisms, and translations. Vatsyayana drew on many scholars before him, and this text is certainly not the only of its kind. In the west, the book is often perceived as a catalogue of sex positions. For Hindus, it is a unique and elaborate text containing several books on topics such as finding and pleasing a wife, and the use of drugs and other substances to enhance kama.
For many years, the translation by Sir Richard Burton, published in the 19th century stood as the western world’s best understanding of the erotic Kamasutra (Burton and Vatsyayana, 1981). However, a more recent translation by Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar provides a fresh insight into the discussions of the Kamasutra, its nature, its function as a religious text, and the argument of whether it is to be a descriptive versus prescriptive text. Of course, in ancient India and even today, the reader should decide with discretion. The 2002 translation by Doniger and Kakar was used for this summary.
An important aspect of the Kamasutra is that its audience was most likely male, but according to Wendy Doniger in her book, Redeeming the Kamasutra, the Kamasutra can be useful to women (Doniger 93). In Doniger and Kakar’s translation, Vatsyayana suggests nuns and courtesans are the only women in Hindu society who are truly [socially] free (Doniger, Kakar and Vatsyayana XIV); Book 6 of the Kamasutra is dedicated entirely to the courtesan (a high class entertainer for men), which exposes an attitude towards courtesan’s that is very different from the popular opinion in the west. Vatsyayana’s text suggests that courtesans have long played an important role in the Hindu social order. What sets Book 6 apart from the other books of the Kamasutra is that it appears to be written by the courtesan, for the courtesan. She appears to be faithful and affectionate towards her lover at all times, yet she is often involved with more than one man. The courtesan’s main concern is profit, although she makes it appear to her lover that he is her top priority (Doniger, Kakar and Vatsyayana 137).
Chapter one of book six explores how the courtesan “decides on a friend, an eligible lover, and an ineligible lover” (Doniger, Kakar and Vatsyayana 131-136). Men trust women who are driven by desire, sex, and passion, and this is how the courtesan poses herself. Vatsyayana suggests that every woman possesses these traits to an extent, and because the courtesan’s main goal is to make money, she is a natural born tradesperson. She exhibits no greed as she displays herself as goods for purchase, always beautiful but secretive (Doniger, Kakar, and Vatsyayana 131). The courtesan may choose the men with whom it is appropriate to keep company, particularly what kind of company, as she has the whole community at her disposal. Policemen and powerful individuals may offer protection, “ward off loses” and “get money” for her. These men should be considered friends; men who sell goods that aid in the seduction of lovers could also be considered friends because they can ultimately bring her greater wealth and more lovers with their services and connections (Doniger, Kakar, and Vatsyayana 131). Even when choosing a lover, there are certain guidelines that deem whether or not a man is suitable: some lovers are good only for money (jealous, greedy, or impotent men), while other men possess good qualities (knowledgeable, poetic, generous men) and are, therefore, considered the prescribed lovers (Doniger, Kakar and Vatsyayana 133-135). The courtesan should stay away from sick men, old men, and men who are devoted to their wives.
Hindu social norms dictate a woman should be intelligent, honest, of sound mind and body; she should only speak when spoken too, and be knowledgeable enough in the Kamasutra to please her man. Additionally, a courtesan must be all these things, as well as being beautiful, young, versed in the arts, and of course, have a sexual nature (Doniger, Kakar, and Vatsyayana 133-134). These traits will make her a suitable lover.
There are various reasons for taking a lover that Vatsyayana’s predecessors suggested, including passion, fear, gain, religion, and future prospects. Vatsyayana suggests, for the courtesan, that “gain, warding off loses, and love” are reasons she may take a lover; however, gain should come first for her, as her goal is to make money, but she should use her judgement and consider other reasons as well (Doniger, Kakar and Vatsyayana 135).
Before a courtesan engages a lover, she must get his attention and learn about him. Even if he has propositioned her, the courtesan remembers that men want most what is difficult to attain. A courtesan may utilize her friendships to send gifts to her potential lover, in an attempt to mediate the beginnings of the relationship. After this, the courtesan may meet with her prospective lover, and attempt to seduce him (Doniger, Kakar and Vatsyayana, 135-136).
The second chapter of the Kamasutra discusses how the courtesan properly entertains her lover by giving him what he desires (Doniger, Karkar, and Vatsyayana 137-142). She may act as a wife does, infatuated with him, inquiring about his interests and behaving as if he is the centre of her life, suggesting that she may even become ill if he does not make love to her. Of course, this is all a façade, as the courtesan must act attached even though she is not (Doniger, Kakar and Vatsyayana 137 lies). If questions of infidelity arise, the courtesan may refuse to eat in order to show that she is upset and remains dedicated to her lover. At the same time, she is known to be deceptive—such as inventing a demanding mother to whom the courtesan is obligated or devoted—when she is to meet with another man.
The traditional Hindu wife, as depicted in the Kamasutra via the perspective of Vatsyayana and the courtesan, is that of a devoted, infatuated woman, who speaks only of things her husband knows and prays for him while he is away, even taking up ritual responsibilities in order to honour him. She affirms his intelligence and proclaims a love that will last beyond life itself. A courtesan may actually engage in some or all of these practices, but she most definitely portrays herself as a loving devotee to her man—as Vatsyayana comments at the end, however, this is the nature of the courtesan, as she is really just playing a part.
Of course, as previously mentioned, the courtesan has a goal, which is to make money. According to chapter three of Book 6 in the Kamasutra, there are natural and contrived ways in which a courtesan may be able to extort money from her lover (Doniger, Kakar and Vatsyayana 142-147). Vatsyayana disagrees with previous scholars when he says that the courtesan can heavily increase her profits if she uses contrived means. She may create debts to creditors, or even terrible scenarios, such as being robbed of her jewellery, or a fire that burned down her home and all of her belongings, in order to gain sympathy and ‘reimbursement’ from her lover (Doniger, Kakar and Vatsyayana 142-143). She may even pretend to need money in order to bring gifts to him, or help friends of his/hers that are in need. The courtesan may also then express to her lover how much his kindness has helped her and made her happy. The lover often obliges and gives the woman money or gifts, as it is implied throughout Book 6 of the Kamasutra that this is how a man shows attachment, or at least this is his understanding of showing attachment.
Occasionally, her lover may shows signs that his passion is fading or that he is no longer interested, and the courtesan is a master at picking up on these signs (Doniger, Karkar, and Vatsyayana 145). He may portray his receding desire through his body language or his actions, by giving her too much or too little money, sleeping elsewhere, or breaking his promises. A courtesan knows that a devoted man does not act in this way, and because her affection is only manufactured for profit, she’ll make one final attempt to hustle what remains of his money from him, and then she will get rid of him. In Doniger’s commentary text, she suggests that this may reflect the courtesan’s attitudes and point of view (Doniger 105).
There is an entire section of chapter three dedicated to getting rid of a lover (Doniger, Karkar, and Vatsyayana 145-147). The courtesan needs very few reasons to abandon her lover; if he is depleted of funds to give her, if he desires another woman, or if his passion diminishes, she will leave. In Redeeming the Kamasutra, Doniger suggests that the courtesan “employs…passive-aggressive behavior to indicate that it is time to [end the affair]” (Doniger 105). This includes refusing to sleep with him, showing contempt for his interests, making herself seem unattractive and uninterested in him. This will often result in the ending of the relationship. At the end of this section, Vatsyayana includes a verse that summarizes the job of the courtesan: she is to enchant man, take his money, and then release him (Doniger, Kakar and Vatsyayana 147).
A courtesan may, after careful consideration, get back together with an ex-lover. There are conditions, of course, she must consider, which are outlined in chapter four of the sixth book of the Kamasutra (Doniger, Kakar and Vatsyayana 147-151). In fact, there are six different scenarios that the courtesan should consider, and then there are suggestions as to how to deal with these different scenarios. Essentially, the courtesan should only get back together with her ex-lover if he still has money or has made more money, if he is still interested in/attached to her, and/or can continue to provide the courtesan with a source of income. She should reject him if he is fickle or ungenerous. If the relationship rekindles, a courtesan will begin courting her lover again. She may bring back her demanding mother to make her lover believe that it was the mother who was keeping them apart all along. A messenger may suggest to her man that even though she has a new lover, she is not in love, and only desires this one man. At the end of the chapter, Vatsyayana once again disagrees with his predecessors when he suggests that, between a new lover and an old one, a new lover is more aligned with her goals. He then comments that this can be dependent on the nature of the man (Doniger, Kakar and Vatsyayana 150).
In the fifth chapter, Vatsyayana discusses how the courtesan may weigh or prioritize her profits, posing it as a discussion between himself and past scholars. A courtesan should not limit herself to one lover if she feels she can make more money this way, but there are scenarios to consider. In the choice between lovers, Vatsyayana suggests that the one who gives gold is preferable to the one who gives her what she wants, because gold is most valuable and can give her the greatest monetary return. Vatsyayana elaborates on other scenarios, but the answer is always the same. However, he does suggest that there are certain situations in which avoiding conflicts or losses can be more beneficial to the courtesan than monetary profit.
The sixth chapter in the Kamasutra’s sixth book contains methodological approaches to calculating gains and losses, consequences, and doubts (Doniger, Kakar and Vatsyayana 155-159). Losses are the result of fate, or of some fault of character or decision making. These losses may have terrible consequences and should therefore be carefully avoided. As a business person, a courtesan should focus on gains. Vatsyayana says that there are three losses: money, religious merit, and hatred; and three gains: money, religious merit, and pleasure (Doniger, Kakar and Vatsyayana 155). Vatsyayana suggests a formula that considers doubt as either pure or mixed, and consequences as having one sided, two sided, or group results. This formula can help the courtesan control her losses. The discussion that follows is one of contemplation, and suggests that gains and losses of the three types can occur depending on the level of doubt that is present. Essentially, because the courtesan wants to maximize gains and minimize losses, she should consider these arguments for the purpose of her business.
The last chapter of book six, entitled “Types of courtesans” (Doniger, Kakar and Vatsyayana 159-160) suggests that there are certain women more suited to this profession than others. In contrast to women who are virgins, courtesans may be women known for dancing, artistry, or simply for being an intelligent member of an upper class. These women may be more inclined to money than passion (as opposed to virgins and wives), and could therefore be considered for this particular kind of work.
Ultimately, Book 6 of the Kamasutra depicts courtesans as intelligent, masters of deceit and feminine sexuality. They are not portrayed as shameful women who are degraded in society; instead, they are respectable business women who play a major role in cultivating a Hindu man’s sexual experience. They reverse the conventional gender norms that Doniger discusses in her commentary; instead of being passive and innocent, she is active and powerful (Doniger 109). The Kamasutra and the courtesan are similar in this way, neither are well known [in the west] for their religious and social functions in Hindu society. At the end of the second chapter of Book 6, Vatsyayana writes a verse that could be used to sum up the portrayal of women, mostly courtesans, in this book of the Kamasutra:
Because of the subtlety and excessive greed of women,
And the impossibility of knowing their nature,
The signs of their desire are hard to know,
Even for those who are its object.
Women desire and they become indifferent,
They arouse love and they abandon,
Even when they are extracting all the money,
They are not really known (Doniger, Karkar, and Vatsyayana 142).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Burton, R. and Vatsyayana (1981) The Kama Sutra: The Richard Burton Classic Translation. London: Unwin Paperbacks.
Doniger, Wendy (2016) Redeeming the Kamasutra. New York: Oxford University Press.
Doniger, W., Sudhir Kakar, and Vatsyayana (2002) Kamasutra: Oxford world’s classics. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.
Related Readings & Websites
Doniger, Wendy (2002) “On the Kamasutra.” Daedalus 131: 126-129.
Doniger, Wendy (2007) “Reading the ‘Kamasutra’: the strange & the familiar.” Daedalus 136: 66-78
Courtesans, Kamasutra: http://www.indianetzone.com/37/part_vi__about_courtesans_kama_sutra.htm
Kamasutra Summary: http://www.gradesaver.com/kama-sutra/study-guide/summary
This article was written by: Jessica Freehill (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.