He Said, She Said

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He Said, She Said: An Interview with the translator of the Kamasutra

In her numerous books, religious historian Wendy Doniger has illuminated the sexual conundrums, fantasies and symbols of ancient Indian mythology. Her latest work is a new translation of the Kamasutra, published this month by Oxford University Press. Arguably the best-known Indian text in the West since the publication of Sir Richard Burton’s translation in 1883, the Kamasutra of Vatsyayana dates to the third century A.D. Not formally published in England and the United States until 1962, the Burton translation was one of the most pirated books in the English language, and its numerous translation errors and peculiarities of Western prudery have gone uncorrected until now. A faculty member at the University of Chicago, Doniger spoke to me about women with insatiable appetites and the appendages of weird, dark people long ago and far away.

What makes the Kamasutra relevant today?
It’s so unusual for a book to be this frank and knowledgeable about sex. It’s a brilliant exposition of sexual psychology and physiology, amazingly complete and wide-ranging. It treats a timeless subject in a timeless way. Sex is here to stay, and the text transcends culture, time and space, to speak to us here and now.

Why is a new translation necessary?

When I compared the Burton translation to the Sanskrit original, I realized the Burton translation is seriously flawed. His translation incorporated commentary written a thousand years later directly into Vatsyayana’s text.

What are some examples?

Burton used lingam and yoni for the sexual organs, which was stupid: those are not the words that Vatsyayana used. It’s part of the Orientalism that the text was not about real sexual organs, but the appendages of weird, dark people far away. The word most often used by Vatsyayana is “jagana,” which is neither male nor female. It’s a unisex word, like “genitals.”

Why do you think Burton did this?

It’s important to acknowledge that Burton did not do the Burton translation. A man named Freddy Arbuthnot did a lot of the work on it, but the real work was done by two Indian pundits, Bhagavanlal Indrajit and Shivaram Parashuram Bhide. Burton came to India for a couple of months and put it all into beautiful English. So when I say Burton got it wrong, it’s really shorthand for saying that someone in that group of men got it wrong. But the pattern is obviously to play down the force of women in the text, and any of those guys could have had that as a goal.

Is the text aimed only at men?

No — several of the books are specifically addressed to women, and a great deal of the advice is for women. A lot of the text has women speaking, and this was lost in the Burton translation. In the section on slapping, for instance, the woman may say, “Stop!” “Let go!” — it’s very vivid. In Burton’s translation, “Stop!” comes out “She may protest” and “Let go!” comes out “She may ask to be released.” You lose the fact that women are speaking in this text. There’s a whole meditation on whether you take a guy back after you’ve kicked him out. If he’s gone to another woman and he’s left her too, then maybe, but if she’s kicked him out  . . .

Dear Abby  . . .

Yeah! Burton just leaves things out. There’s a wonderful verse in a chapter on married women: “If her husband has committed an infidelity, she should abuse him with sharp language when they are alone or with friends, though she should never use black magic on him.” Burton says, If the husband has done something to displease her — we’re talking about screwing another woman, right, so he already softens that — she should never abuse him with sharp words when they’re alone or with friends, nor should she ever be a scold. So the sense of the original text is that a married woman is not going to let her husband screw around, she calls him on it right away, and she has black magic she can use  . . . she’s got a lot of power in this relationship. In Burton’s translation, it’s all turned upside down. Women just keep being eroded throughout the text.

How does the Kamasutra approach homosexuality?

Book two has a section called Oral Sex, which is about fellatio between men. The one who performs the fellatio is called “the man of the third sex,” which Burton translates as “eunuch.” If you read his text, you would have no idea that there are male homosexuals: the one who receives the fellatio is just any guy. He could be heterosexual. But, in the original text, the person of the third sex is treated quite seriously as a person. It says that there are men who live together out of affection and do this for one another mutually, so it’s not just that the one who does it is queer and the one who has it done to him is straight. It’s a remarkably open-minded text about homosexuality.

Is there an Indian preoccupation with sexual matters beyond other cultures?

The Kamasutra is a very healthy book. In other texts, there are a lot of pathological obsessions about sex — about loss of semen, the whole mythology of women “draining” a man. There’s none of that in the Kamasutra. It does not present sex as scary. As a whole, there’s a very good argument that sex is like food, you need it as part of your health.

How does the book approach heterosexual intercourse?

At the very beginning of book two, men and women are divided up according to the size of their genitals. The woman is either an elephant-cow, a mare, or a female deer; while the man is a stallion, a bull or a hare. Some pairings are grotesquely out of proportion, like a female deer with a male hare. The woman in the pair is enormous. This reflects a real nervousness about sex — that women are sexually larger than men. One of the arguments is implicit: women have enormous sexual appetites, so watch out, or they’ll be unfaithful to you; keep an eye on them. In another Indian text,The Laws of Manu, it says, “Lock them up!” But the Kamasutra says, “Work on your technique!”

As far as the downplaying of women  . . .

In the discussions of women’s orgasm, I think it’s clear that Vatsyayana believed, as many people did in ancient India, that a woman has seed, which she contributes to the making of a baby, and that her seed is released in the same way that a man’s seed is released — with orgasm — so that you wouldn’t have a baby if you didn’t know how to make the woman achieve orgasm, and having a baby is very important.

You know what is quite different and really worth reading in my translation is in Book 2, Chapter One, on whether women have orgasms the way that men have them. And Burton gets that really wrong. The arguments are really complicated.

What are some of the arguments?

Vatsyayana’s argument is that women do have orgasms — for one, they like a man who makes love for a long time, rather than one who does so for only a short time. The argument against says they just have an itch they want scratched, and it’s nice to have it scratched for a long time. So Vatsyayana responds, No, no, it’s not like scratching an itch because at the beginning, a woman is a little cold, and when she makes love she’s very excited and you could do anything to her then, and at the end she wants to stop, which shows that she’s like a man. No, says the other guy, Women are just like tops — they spin slowly at first, then really fast, then they stop. Then Vatsyayana says, Women are not like tops! It’s just hilarious.

Did you run into problems during the translation process?

The worst thing was what words to use for the sexual act. You don’t want to say “fuck,” you don’t want to say “cunt.” Nor did I want “copulation” or “congress” which is what Burton calls it. I kept thinking of going to Washington, DC, and “having congress.” For a long time, I resisted the term “making love.” Love is not what the Kamasutra is mostly about. I talked about it a lot with Sudhir Kakar, [co-writer] and we decided that the tone of the book, really, is like a very good erotic novel. It’s not a textbook.

Ginu Kamani is the author of Junglee Girl, and co-author of the play The Cure, with Joel Barraquiel Tan. She is also a filmmaker, a Writing Fellow with the Sundance Insitute, and teaches creative writing at Mills College in Oakland, California.
He Said, She Said
A new translation of the Kamasutra reveals that the ancient work is ahead of our time.