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New translation hopes to show ‘Kamasutra’ in new light

By Jill Lawless, The Associated Press
Saturday March 30, 2002

LONDON — More than 1,700 years after it was completed by an enigmatic Indian scribe, the “Kamasutra” is among the most famous Hindu books ever written — and, many believe, the most misunderstood. 

Most who have encountered the book recall it as a do-it-yourself sex manual, an eye-opening encyclopedia of acrobatic positions. 

Academics hope a frank new translation will help the “Kamasutra” — which means “a treatise on desire” — shake its saucy reputation and regain its status as a literary classic. 

“It’s by far the most complete and interesting work about sexual psychology that has been written — a cross between ‘The Joy of Sex’ and ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover,”’ said Wendy Doniger, who translated the book from the original Sanskrit with psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar. 

“The great misconception is that it is about the positions, which is the silliest part of the book, and a very short part of the book,” she added. 

“Kamasutra” was released today in Britain and Oxford University Press will hit bookstores in the United States in June. 

Written probably in 3rd-century Northern India by Vatsyayana Mallanaga, “Kamasutra” catalogs sexual positions, enumerates the varieties of kissing and expounds on the amorous role of scratching and biting. 

But it also tells readers how to flirt, conduct a lovers’ quarrel, seduce someone else’s spouse and blend potions to stimulate a sagging libido. 

It even advises a woman on ways to dump an unwanted lover: “She talks about things he does not know about. She shows no amazement, but only contempt, for the things he does know about. She punctures his pride.” 

With its aphoristic advice on attracting, satisfying, keeping and shedding a partner, the book is often more “Sex in the City” than sex manual. 

“It is always said to be a book about man’s manipulation of women, but a great deal of it is about women’s manipulation of men,” Doniger says. “It’s really about power, politics and sex.” 

Doniger, who teaches the history of religion at the University of Chicago, says the “Kamasutra” has been ill-served by its best-known English translation, completed in 1883 by British writer-explorer Sir Richard Burton. 

Doniger says Burton’s language is “Victorian and flowery,” while the original Sanskrit is direct and robust. 

“The Kamasutra is punchy, Hemingwayesque — ’he touches her here, she bites him there,”’ Doniger said. 

“Burton uses the Hindu words ‘lingam’ and ’yoni’ to refer to the sexual organs. These words are not in the original text. ... Burton takes all the ambiguity out, and makes it sound like some weird ‘Orientalist’ thing, whereas the book is about us.” 

The new Oxford Classics edition is noticeably more direct than its Victorian predecessor. What Burton calls “supported congress,” the new book terms “sex standing up.” 

The two editions agree, however, on the “lotus” position and the gymnastic embrace called “splitting the bamboo.” 

That kind of exotic eroticism has made “Kamasutra” the bane of generations of parents and teachers, and the book remains controversial. Indian-born director Mira Nair’s 1996 film, “Kamasutra — a Tale of Love,” loosely based on the book, was stalled for more than a year by Indian censors before finally being screened. 

Doniger says the book’s reputation has obscured its value as a work of literature. She says it can be read as a play in seven acts, following its male and female protagonists from seduction through separation, and as an idealized portrait of a sophisticated, monied society. 

“No one in this book ever goes to the shop, no one ever goes to see his mother. All you do all day is plan for the night and get ready for it,” she said. “Its like a Playboy Mansion life. 

“Training parrots and mynah birds to talk and going to cockfights, what sort of food and liquor to serve at a party — the life of pleasure is beautifully evoked. But a lot of it is about men and women in ways that have not changed. 

“It’s an enormously complicated book on the psychology of sex, the psychology of erotic arousal.” 

And those illustrations — they were added much later. 

“They’re an afterthought,” Doniger said. “A very famous afterthought.”