The Complete Kama Sutra, The First Unabridged Modern Translation of the Classic Indian Text by Vātsyāyana
The Complete Kama Sutra (1994) is a translation of the classic Indian text, which was compiled in the fourth century. It’s an enduring guide to the pleasures of love and sex.
Discover the ancient wisdom of a classic text on the art of love.
The Kama Sutra isn’t the book you probably think it is. It’s gone down in history as a steamy, obscene manual of difficult and acrobatic sex positions. And, to be fair, at times that’s exactly right.
But there’s a lot more to it than that.
In fact, it’s an ancient Indian guide to love and sexual pleasure. In addition to detailing the art of copulation, it explains the role of eroticism in life, how to seduce and behave with a partner, and a couple’s responsibilities in marriage. And although some of its wisdom may not seem quite so wise today, at times the advice sounds almost modern.
It’s worth saying, though, just for the record – these blinks do contain some graphic descriptions of sex.
In these summary, you’ll learn
- what makes human sexual desire different from that of animals;
- how long to wait for sex once you’re married; and
- which types of sexual practice the Kama Sutra permits.
The Kama Sutra isn’t just a sex manual – it’s an ancient Indian guide to a sensually fulfilling life.
Many things have changed throughout history, but plenty have stayed the same.
India in the fourth century may seem unimaginably remote, but one book that originated there is still treasured around the world today – or at least, it’s known. Maybe the best word would be “notorious.”
The Kama Sutra has an illicit reputation, and it’s not undeserved. It contains many passages about sex that are graphic, detailed, and even shocking. But, as startling as some of these passages are, we shouldn’t let the subject of sex shock us. Sex always has been, and will always be, a part of our lives. As the Kama Sutra reminds us, the survival of our species depends on it.
And besides, as you’ll soon learn, the Kama Sutra is about much more than sex.
The key message here is: The Kama Sutra isn’t just a sex manual – it’s an ancient Indian guide to a sensually fulfilling life.
It’s difficult to be certain about the Kama Sutra’s precise history and origins. It’s most commonly attributed to Vātsyāyana, who probably lived around the fourth century CE or earlier. He didn’t author the book entirely, but rather compiled it from more ancient sources.
The first English translation was published in the 1880s, in a heavily edited form that nonetheless became infamous. Daniélou’s complete translation, published in 1994, is closer to the original – although it too has been criticized for inaccuracy. It’s his edition that we’re drawing on in these blinks.
Daniélou includes two commentaries written long after Vātsyāyana’s time. The first is known as the Jayamangala, credited to a scholar called Yashodhara who lived around the twelfth century. And the second is a twentieth-century commentary by Devadatta Shastri that helps to explain the continuing relevance of the text.
The book and its commentaries together don’t just describe sex; they paint a vivid and often beautiful picture of a sensual and erotically rich life in ancient India.
Inevitably, however, not every aspect of the Kama Sutra rings true today. Long passages on courtesans, go-betweens, and harems are hard to relate to, and practices like marking your partner with bites and scratches have different connotations today.
So what we’ll share with you here is just a taste of this fascinating ancient tome – enough, let’s say, to whet the appetite.
Sexuality is common to all animals – but only humans experience it as a transcendent, spiritual power.
What are the aims of life?
If you ask Vātsyāyana, he will say they are threefold: virtue, wealth, and love – all of which you should aim to keep in perfect harmony. But the author’s particular concern is with kama: love, or, more broadly, the pleasures of the senses – of sight, taste, smell, and of course touch.
We are drawn to these pleasures instinctively, just as animals are. So why, you might wonder, do we need a book to guide us?
Unlike animals, humans also have a rich spiritual life. And in order to attain the heights of spiritual pleasure – which animals can’t do – we need to study, and we need to follow rules. Erotic satisfaction is simply too important to leave to instinct.
Which is where the Kama Sutra comes in.
Here’s the key message: Sexuality is common to all animals – but only humans experience it as a transcendent, spiritual power.
Just as we need food for our health, says Vātsyāyana, we need sexuality to survive. After all, without it, we cannot exist at all.
Yet we also have to practice self-control. Unless we’re careful, it’s all too easy to be driven to ruin by lust and lewdness. That’s why a careful study of the Kama Sutra can help keep the balance of emotions in check – a careful study that should begin in childhood, long before theory is put into practice.
According to the Kama Sutra, young people, both male and female, should also learn the “64 arts,” which encompass everything from dance and drawing to carpentry and metal polishing.
Adult life, according to Vātsyāyana, provides plenty of time to enjoy these arts. He vividly describes the life of a wealthy townsman – the sort of person who should know the Kama Sutra well – as a life steeped in luxury.
The townsman’s home should have two apartments, a garden, and a separate bed chamber with two beds – one for sleeping and one for love. He should have a daily bath and be massaged every other day. He is particularly fond of chewing betel leaf, like all civilized people.
He takes pleasure in teaching birds to talk and playing games, and he often entertains his friends. Evenings of pleasant conversation, wine, music, and incense end when the man retreats to his bedroom, where his beloved awaits his embrace.
Finding the perfect partner was a fine art in the days of the Kama Sutra – just as it is today.
How does a man find his beloved? The Kama Sutra, mostly written from the male perspective, is full of detail on matchmaking.
The ideal partner for an eligible bachelor like the one just described is young, well-born, well-educated, and a virgin. It’s best if a couple has matching interests and similar levels of wealth.
Another concern, explained in detail, is organ size. The author divides both men and women into three categories based on the size of their sexual organs, and advises that only those with complementary sizes should be matched. Organ size was thought to influence physical appearance in general.
As we’ll explore later, the Kama Sutra does explore relationships other than monogamous, chaste marriage. But this does remain the ideal. And, then as now, getting it right is a subtle and delicate art.
The key message is this: Finding the perfect partner was a fine art in the days of the Kama Sutra – just as it is today.
The ideal match is with someone you’ve known since childhood. Growing up together, playing games with pebbles and dice, inevitably creates a strong bond. The boy may start to give the girl imaginative gifts and teach her to cook, and then move on to telling her passionate stories. They share fleeting intimate moments, which may develop into love.
The next step is seduction, which begins with something as simple as the boy lovingly taking her hand. He could also show her erotic pictures and begin to talk about the intensity of his feelings and dreams.
The girl should resist him, however, until the marriage is arranged.
Once they have been married in the presence of a priest’s sacred fire, the couple can finally be together. But they should wait three nights before making love.
This is so they can fully relax in each other’s company. They can gradually become more intimate with each other every night, slowly building up trust, until they are ready.
Of course, not every relationship can be as smooth as this. People don’t always fall in love with a childhood friend, feelings of love may not be mutual, or partners may feel ready for intimacy at different times. But aspects of the scene that the Kama Sutra sets touch on deeper, simpler truths.
After making love, the young couple find themselves suddenly shy with each other. The man gently puts his arm around her. They talk, sweetly and softly, into the night.
For both partners to achieve pleasure during sex, it’s important to start slowly.
The most famous section of the Kama Sutra is the one that describes sex. Daniélou translates its title as “Amorous Advances.”
It’s detailed and sometimes surprising, and we’ll take it step by step – just like those amorous young newlyweds. Many details don’t quite match the values and mores of modern life and love, but the Kama Sutra still contains plenty of reminders of just how little we’ve changed in almost two millennia.
First of all, sexual pleasure is, and always has been, important for men and women alike.
The key message here is: For both partners to achieve pleasure during sex, it’s important to start slowly.
Vātsyāyana states that men and women experience similar sensations of pleasure through sex, but that there are important differences. Most of all, because a man loses interest after orgasm, he might leave a woman unsatisfied – which, Vātsyāyana cautions, is a sign of failure and makes the woman less likely to conceive. Couples should aim for simultaneous orgasm, even though it isn’t always achieved.
In order to arouse desire – especially in the woman, who may be less interested at first – making love should start gradually. Kissing and caressing are vital elements. And just as there are 64 arts to learn, there are 64 ways to arouse a partner.
These include gentle positions with interlocking limbs, both standing and lying. A position called “rice and sesame,” for instance, involves lying together with arms and legs entangled with each other, inseparable, like rice and sesame seeds. Partners should also press and rub against each other, and of course kiss – with the tongue, on the lips, all over the body.
Vātsyāyana is keen to stress that foreplay is an area in which passion should rule; the imagination should guide the kisses and caresses. It’s important to be aware of local customs, though, he warns – some practices common in certain regions of India are not to be found elsewhere.
Likewise, things are different today than they were back then. Certain aspects of the Kama Sutra’s advice, when it comes to foreplay, might sound a little strange to us. Biting, scratching, and even hitting each other were not only expected practices at the time – the marks left by them were proudly displayed to all as the signs of a stimulating erotic life.
Times change. Passion, though, remains.
The Kama Sutra talks us through many different sexual positions, from the simple to the complex.
The number of words the Kama Sutra devotes to listing sexual positions is small – but it’s these words that have forged the book’s reputation, aided by countless illustrations made over the centuries.
This is also one of the sections of the book that makes the most sense to us today. Chewing betel leaf and playing games with pebbles have not endured so well through the ages. The human body, however, is much the same now as it was then.
Here’s the key message: The Kama Sutra talks us through many different sexual positions, from the simple to the complex.
Vātsyāyana defines numerous kinds of vaginal sex between a man and a woman, and he encourages experimentation. In the position known as “the box,” the lovers face each other, either on their sides or with one on top. With the man on top, the woman’s legs may be spread out partially or fully, or folded against her breasts.
Organ size is again a factor to consider. “The box” is recommended for smaller male sizes; such men could also consider using dildos.
For the “envelopment” position, the woman crosses her thighs. Further variations are possible by raising the thighs, resting the legs on the man’s shoulders, or pressing her feet against his chest. For “impalement,” which requires practice, she places one foot on his head, stretches out her other leg, and then alternates. Even harder is “the spin,” where the woman begins with her back to the man and then spins around during sex.
Sex in a standing position is just as varied. One should rest against a wall or pillar. With the man against the wall, the woman can sit in his arms like a swing, her legs stretched wide – this is the “hanging” position.
Or the woman can be on all fours, with the man behind her holding the waist – a position Daniélou translates as “the cow.” Watching animals, in fact, is a way to become inspired to try even more positions.
Another possibility was added by the later commentator Yashodhara: the woman may sit on the man’s lap, with her legs wide apart – “peasant fashion” – or together in “city fashion.”
Making love in water was thought to make it easier to achieve complex positions. However, respectable people were not allowed to do such things. They could, however, do a variety of other things, as you’ll soon learn.
An impressive array of alternative sexual practices are discussed in the Kama Sutra.
The Kama Sutra is intended as a manual to be studied – but it isn’t a moral guidebook. So it carefully indexes a wide range of sexual practices that it doesn’t necessarily advocate. Its aim is simply to be complete. That said, it’s not easy to tell just which practices are and aren’t permissible.
Sex with multiple women, for instance, is discussed, and readers are told that it’s fine so long as the women involved are fond of each other. In certain circumstances – for instance, with the wives of a king – women having sex with multiple men is also common.
The key message is this: An impressive array of alternative sexual practices are discussed in the Kama Sutra.
Anal sex was particularly common in southern India, according to Vātsyāyana, and it could be practiced among men or women. He discusses one type of anal sex in some detail. If a woman remains unsatisfied and the man is tired, she may use a dildo to penetrate her exhausted partner.
Vātsyāyana also describes sex between women, using dildos or fingers. He gives a detailed inventory of different techniques for inserting the dildo, with names including “the box” – like the standard sex position – and “the devastator,” which involves violent shaking.
Oral sex is discussed more cautiously. It is said to be common between homosexual men, with a range of methods mentioned for kissing and sucking the penis, but it is possible for any lovers. Like sex in water, though, it is not considered civilized – bringing the sexual parts in contact with the face is deemed unclean.
It’s not totally banned, though. Vātsyāyana explains it’s common in certain regions, and prostitutes practice oral sex freely. He even explains one more position – “the crow” – in which a heterosexual couple practice oral sex on each other.
What about when there is no partner? The Kama Sutra says relatively little about masturbation, although it is described as common among women in a king’s harem, when the king is unable to satisfy all his many wives.
It does refer to male masturbation, calling it “seizing the lion,” and says that men should perform a purification ritual afterward. The text also briefly discusses bestiality as a possibility, in a sharp reminder of how strange the world of the Kama Sutra sometimes seems to us today.
Then as now, there was plenty of sex outside marriage.
Back in the days of the Kama Sutra, a wife was expected to do most of the work around the house – just as she was until quite recently. She was responsible for cleaning and gardening, and she had to present herself elegantly at all times.
Her responsibilities even extended to being polite toward her husband’s other wives, if he decided to take them. On the other hand, if her husband was unsatisfactory, she could leave him or simply have an affair.
Men had affairs, too – sometimes with another man’s wife who had lost her passion, or else with prostitutes.
The key message here is: Then as now, there was plenty of sex outside marriage.
Vātsyāyana describes an affair as a serious matter, subject to courtship and forethought. Affairs are not shocking, the book suggests – but they aren’t advocated either. They are simply sometimes the necessary outcome of passion.
The Kama Sutra also gives considerable detail on the role of prostitutes. There were several types of prostitute, and a courtesan had considerable social standing. Some prostitutes would also take a single, steady lover. The relationship would seem, on the surface of things, like a standard marriage – but the true, financial nature of the arrangement would never be far from sight.
Once again, the Kama Sutra adopts a nonjudgmental tone. It doesn’t mean to encourage such practices; it merely explains that they exist. In the same spirit, it gives various formulas for medicinal ointments and drinks that were believed to make people fall in love or increase virility.
It’s easy to mock beliefs like that today – just as it’s easy to laugh at Vātsyāyana’s strange attitudes toward some sexual practices. It’s also easy to imagine the Kama Sutra as a fascinating, titillating historical oddity.
But it’s worth remembering that the Kama Sutra wasn’t written for us – it was written for a totally different society in an age long gone. You might say it’s remarkable that it still speaks to us today at all. Despite the time that’s passed and all the ways we’ve changed since then, we are, at some of our most intimate moments, just like we’ve always been.
The key message in these summary:
The Kama Sutra’s popular image as a sex manual is only part of the story. Almost two millennia old, it was once a guide to love and sex that young men and women were meant to study before marriage. It explains the central role of eroticism in adult life, advises on how partners should meet and behave toward each other, and describes in detail a variety of sexual practices – from the simple to the strange.
About the Author
Vātsyāyana was an ancient Indian philosopher, known for authoring the Kama Sutra. He was a brahmin, and lived in India during the second or third century CE, probably in Pataliputra
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