Wendy Doniger began translating Sanskrit at the age of 17. Her love of the language and culture of ancient India—with all of its excesses and drama—sent her deep into the Rig Veda, Laws of Manu, Kamasutra, and other sacred texts. Today, she emerges as a preeminent Sanskrit scholar and the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. Here, she talks about her new, full-length audio program Erotic Spirituality and the Kamasutra.
Sounds True: What is the Kamasutra?
Wendy Doniger: The Kamasutra is an ancient Indian textbook about sex—in the very broadest sense of the word. Kama means love, pleasure, sex, while sutra means “a treatise,” or a scientific work. It is about the whole eroticized world of pleasure, so it's about food and soft moonlight and good music and flowers strewn all over the bedroom. It is also about meeting people: how you meet someone you're going to marry, how you meet someone you're not going to marry, how you deal with a married woman or a married man, and so forth. It's about the whole web of interpersonal relationships, which has an erotic basis.
Sounds True: So it's not just a sex manual?
Wendy Doniger: Certainly not! Yes, it's famous for the sexual positions, and it has a section on positions, but it's not simply about the sexual act. The Kamasutra has a rather original take on the hidden dimensions of sex, which is not present in sex manuals. What it means to be pleased, how to please your partner—that's what pleasure is all about.
Sounds True: Your new recording is titled Erotic Spirituality and the Kamasutra. Where is the spirituality in the Kamasutra?
Wendy Doniger: In the Kamasutra, the word ananda is used for the climax of the sexual act; it is the same word used in other texts for “union with God.” So there is no question that a connection between sexuality and spirituality is being made in Indian thinking. The Kamasutra shows us how all of life is integrated. The ideal human life is lived in such a way that pleasure is a part of everything else. The Upanishadic world view is that sensuality was originally a part of this whole embracing of life, and Tantra (a later form of ritual), for instance, includes the embracing of sexuality as a way to find God.
Sounds True: How well can we relate to a text that is over 1,500 years old?
Wendy Doniger: First of all, the text itself is about things that don't change—certainly not the physical aspects of sex. But it's also about relationships between men and women—and sometimes between men and men, and women and women—which in a very basic way are universal. It adds to that some uniquely Indian insights from a world which is totally unlike our own. The Kamasutra invented a lot of this world in India almost 2,000 years ago. The first step was to rescue erotic pleasure from the crude purposes of, on the one hand sexual desire and, on the other hand, biological reproduction.
We also learn from the Kamasutra how to cultivate pleasure, how to civilize our sex lives. I think we need this more desperately now than ever, at a time when the media and everything else in our culture are trying very hard to brutalize and exploit our sexual impulses. We are not animals. When we make love, we are not performing a bestial act, we are performing a human act. A lover is a source of excitement and delight—someone to be explored thoroughly in detail.
Sex is simultaneously an art and a science. It is something you can study as you would a science. And it is something that you have to perfect by doing it, as you would perfect an art. There is this beautiful part of the Kamasutra that shows you what to do before and after you make love. The mood that this evokes is something that we can take away with us as we prepare our own lives, our days and nights, for sensuality.
Sounds True: What about love?
Wendy Doniger: According to the Kamasutra, love and sex are intricately linked together through the sexual act, and through all that goes before and after. It is rather revolutionary for the author of the Kamasutra to advance the notion that the ultimate goal of marriage is to develop love between a couple, and that this is what will make a marriage last. Marriage is not a convenience, it is not a legal fiction, it is ideally a place of love. The Kamasutra advises us to balance the care for love in marriage with the care for excitement and sexuality—and the challenge is to bring them together.