Art & Culture

Wendy Doniger on how Kamasutra blurs the line between rape and sex

Wendy Doniger
Wendy DonigerJul 29, 2015 | 16:49

Wendy Doniger on how Kamasutra blurs the line between rape and sex

The Kautilyan base of the Kamasutra's  portrayal of the relationship between the sexes is expressed by the astounding statement, "They say that sex is a form of quarrelling, because the very essence of desire is a contest, and its character is competitive." (The commentator, Yashodhara,  explains the competition: "Because the man and the woman each try to achieve their own desires by overcoming the other.") This agonistic  view of sex is the essence of the Kamasutra. But who is the "they" in "they say"? Kautilya  and his colleagues? And does Vatsyayana go along with this opinion? I think he does.


What happens to gender issues when the politics of the Arthashastra are applied to sex? The Kamasutra, under the influence of the Arthashastra, politicises sex. Recall how Freud, in The Interpretation  of Dreams, used the "political" idea of censorship as the basis of his idea of the censoring superego, which repressed  sex more than anything else; for Freud, as for the Kamasutra, politics set the pattern for sex. It might have worked the other way, too; in other times and places, political texts, and in particular military texts (and much of the Arthashastra  is about war), have drawn on sexual texts for their metaphors;  Clive's invasion of India is often called 'the rape of India'. What is striking in the ancient Indian example is that this does not happen; politics gets into  the Kamasutra,  but  sex does not  get into  the Arthashastra.

Much  of the  Kamasutra  is devoted to  trickery and deception of one sort or another: the man tricking the parents of a young girl, and tricking the girl; the married woman telling lies as she jockeys for power against her co- wives;  the adulterer deceiving the woman's husband; the courtesan lying in order to get her customers to give her more money; various people using drugs to cloud the minds of their sexual objects. The resulting agonistic and duplicitous view of sex set the stage for much of the mythological substructure of later Indian  erotic drama, poetry, and narrative.

Stone carvings at Khajuraho.

The Kamasutra also establishes a code of acceptable sexual violence. The inflicting of physical pain by scratching, biting, and slapping is an important part of the sexual act, and so is its aftermath:

When a woman sees the scars

that nails have made on her hidden places,

her love even for someone given up long ago

becomes as tender as if it were brand new.


And a man who is marked

with the signs of nails in various places

generally disturbs a woman's mind

no matter how firm it may be.


There are no keener

meansof increasing passion

than acts inflicted

with tooth and nail.

The lover displays his or her scars as a warrior displays his battle scars. (The Arthashastra,  by contrast, is concerned only about damage to women as property, primarily virgins but also, in passing,  wives; it has no interest in protecting them from physical abuse of other kinds.)

More disturbing are the passages in the Kamasutra where women's exclamations are taken not as indications of their wish to escape pain being inflicted on them, but merely as part of a ploy designed to excite their male partners:


Always, if a man tries to force his kisses and so forth on her, she moans and does the very same thing back to him. When a man in the throes of passion slaps a woman repeatedly, she uses words like "Stop!" or "Let me go!" or "Enough!"  or "Mother!" and utters screams mixed with laboured breathing, panting, crying, and groaning. Those are the ways of groaning and slapping.

These passages inculcate what we now recognise as the rape mentality - "her mouth  says no, but  her eyes say yes" - disregarding a woman's protests against physical abuse. Indeed, as we have seen, all three of our texts list rape as one of the worst, but still acceptable, forms of wedding devices. It should be noted here that the Kamasutra  is in general remarkably favourable to women, but in this one instance, it reflects the darker side of the culture.


For two sharply contrasting attitudes to women can be traced in texts from the ancient period to the modern. The dharmashastras, insisting  on the control and denigration of women, dominated conventional and legal attitudes to women particularly among the middle classes,  while the Kamasutra tradition, with its far more liberal and complex admiration of women, never ceased to be appreciated by royal and upper-class merchant  society. As it combined with other factors in the Hindu social system that led to a more general devaluing of women, the  Kautilyan Kamasutra tradition contributed greatly to the culture of violence against women. The Indian version of the widespread idea that sex and women are dangerous does not of course originate in our two texts. It is well documented in ancient India in the Mahabharata and Ramayana, centuries before the period in question, and it dominates the misogynist traditions of Hindu dharma forever after. Both the Kamasutra and the Arthashastra may be responding to a society in which the political culture of spying and violence is already closely linked with sex, or the Kamasutra may have adopted these elements from the Arthashastra. But in any case, from then on sex and violence are joined at the hip. And the particular concept of a sexual relationship as a war with no Geneva conventions; a conflict in which the two parties try to deceive and outmanoeuvre one another; an encounter that requires ambassadors  and truces; a battle in  which the combatants conceal or display the wounds they receive (from bites, slaps, and scratches92)-these major themes of Indian erotic fiction owe as much to the Arthashastra as to the Kamasutra.

The Kautilyan Kamasutra was a major influence upon the erotic literary traditions of India, particularly but not only court poetry, which revelled in the suffering of the abandoned heroine, the tragedies caused by careless or lustful messengers, the deceptions and betrayals. The text played a less obvious but  more important role in the eroticism of the bhakti tradition, the devotional tradition of Hinduism, with its emphasis on divine abandonment, deception, betrayal, and even physical violence. The surface metaphor of human desire, with its clichés of nail marks betraying infidelity, leads to the dark implications of divine desire, the god who is not merely caught with lipstick on his collar but who is not there for you as a god (the otiose god or deus absconditus, corresponding to the theme of viraha, painful longing for the absent lover), the god who desires your pain-walking on fire, swinging from hooks-and who deceives you with his power of illusion (maya). The  apaché syndrome of Indian eroticism - "He is so cruel to me and I love him so" - inspired Nina Paley to use the torch song, "Mean to Me", for her modern version of the Ramayana.

All of this may also be seen in nuce in the Kautilyan Kamasutra,  which strongly influenced the way in which Indian culture developed its unique understanding of the politics of sex.

The Mare's Trap, Speaking Tger, Rs 399.

(Reprinted with the publisher’s permission.) 

Last updated: March 30, 2019 | 17:42
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