The Kāmasūtra occupies an unusual place in the popular imagination. Since the first private publication in 1883 of an English translation – a project fronted by the Orientalising self-promoter Richard Burton – there have been a great number of illustrated versions. To many, the Kāmasūtra’s connection with India is almost incidental. Most do not know what the text as a whole is like: the best-known portions take up only one of its seven chapters. Others have to do with the cultivation of love affairs and pleasure more generally, and provide information for the man about town: about furnishing his home; about games, music and other arts; even about colouring his hair. There is guidance for women as well, especially those who are married and those whose profession is pleasure. In its language, style and mode of disquisition, the Kāmasūtra is more like an academic text than a practical manual: it cites learned authorities and conducts arguments with those of differing opinions.
Even within Indology, the Sanskritic discipline of erotics has been relatively neglected by comparison with logic or theology, law or poetry, first by European academics, and later by Indian ones. What work there has been has left largely unexplored the Kāmasūtra’s potential use as a tool for understanding India’s social and political history. Knowledge of its textual history is also noticeably weak: there have been no attempts at a ‘scientific’ edition.
Wendy Doniger is just the person to tackle this text. Just as Karņa, the undervalued hero in the Mahābhārata, was born with armour embedded in his skin, making him all but impervious to spears and arrows, so Doniger seems invulnerable to prudish disapproval. Since the 1970s she has produced volumes on aspects of India’s ancient culture that others found difficult to discuss. Alongside her work on Indian religions, there were early books about sexual metaphors, about Siva, the high god, and about ‘women, androgynes and other mythical beasts’, the title of a book she published in 1980. There is a later book about sexual masquerade or the ‘bed-trick’, and another about ‘the woman who pretended to be who she was’, subtitled ‘myths of self-imitation’. She has also written many other studies of gender and mythology, in Indian culture and comparatively.
Doniger writes in a humane and distinctive voice, with humour and irreverence. She makes frequent use of allusion to and comparison with other cultures and other periods of Indian culture in order to explain herself to a general audience. She frequently borrows from herself, recycling examples, epigrams and jokes. Her early work from the 1970s brought the insights of structuralist anthropology into Indology, then a mostly philological discipline. She used to be called ‘Wendy the Trendy’ by puzzled men in the field who were accustomed to working on safer topics, or busied themselves with editing and classifying. Doniger ignored most of the fashions that swept through American humanities departments in the 1990s, remaining true to her interests in myth and narrative, in gender and the social dimensions of religion. Redeeming the ‘Kamasutra’ is a return to the text she translated in 2002 with Sudhir Kakar, an Indian psychoanalyst, novelist and essayist on Indian culture. At the time, Doniger wrote a series of articles exploring the Kāmasūtra’s humanistic possibilities. In the new book she has revisited those articles, and substantially redone them with two new things in mind.
The first is the recent shift in understanding of the world in which the Kāmasūtra was composed. This has been brought about by the work of Patrick Olivelle and Mark McClish on the Arthaśāstra, or ‘Treatise on Success’, a Sanskrit text concerning governance, political economy and foreign policy written roughly a century before the Kāmasūtra. Later attributed to the master of intrigue and statecraft Cānakya, according to legend scheming minister to the fourth-century bce emperor Candragupta, it has sometimes been compared with Machiavelli’s The Prince. Olivelle and McClish translated it and uncovered the history of the text, identifying an earlier recension that remains embedded in the extant work and presents a view of social and political value noticeably different from that in the reworked text. What had been taken to be the Arthaśāstra’s superordinate ideal, dharma, religious and legal obligation according to the hierarchical Brahminical model, appears to have been added to the text by editors working several centuries later. Without this overlay, the Arthaśāstra operates in a more realistic and pragmatic world, one possessing a less demanding ideal of human nature and obligation.
The Kāmasūtra is clearly indebted to the Arthaśāstra. There are similar passages in both, about spying, for instance – in one case on one’s enemies, in the other on one’s lovers – and the political uses of seduction. Doniger argues that the earlier version of the Arthaśāstra originated in an India more worldly and pluralist than later literature pretends, and whose values the Kāmasūtra shares.
The notion of ‘redeeming’ the Kāmasūtra floated by Doniger’s title means, in the first instance, redeeming it from the caricatural version of modern popular understanding, as well as from its burden as the specimen text of Orientalist lubriciousness. To some degree she seeks to excuse its perceived sexism, and its sins, of the Ovidian or Chaucerian sort, against love. She also proposes to redeem the text in another sense, for her far more important. Through the study of the Kāmasūtra she seeks to reclaim the erotic and sexual side of India’s ancient culture, to enable an expansive, humanist vision of the country’s past. This sets her against the suppression of that aspect of India’s history, and requires her to point out the politics of that suppression. The promulgation of Hindu nationalist identity depends on a carefully managed vision of the past, in service of a majoritarian cultural politics of unified, collective Hindu being.
India’s cultural history – the propriety of its worldwide use and its proper treatment in India’s national discourse – has preoccupied Doniger in the past two decades. In recent years she has produced two colossal volumes: The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009) and On Hinduism (2014), a selection of substantially reworked articles. In these volumes, she reclaims voices, topics and modes of thought that have been removed from the nation-building version of Hinduism’s history. The Kāmasūtra occupies pride of place in Doniger’s treatment of the sexual aspect of Hinduism because of something largely unknown, its typology of same-sex behaviour. The Kāmasūtra is almost unique in Sanskrit literature both in dealing with the subject in any detail, and in its relatively neutral presentation. The subject receives hardly any mention in treatises on dharma, but in the Kāmasūtra it is attributed to a ‘third nature’, which exists alongside the masculine and the feminine. The Kāmasūtra notes that third-nature behaviour can occur between men and between women, and further distinguishes between males who behave as women when engaging in such activity and males who do not. Thus the Kāmasūtra’s terminology and typology, along with the subjects discussed in it, testify to the variety of life that was acknowledged in India’s past.
On the related topics of bisexuality and transsexuality, Doniger draws especially from ancient Vedic literature and from Sanskrit epic and mythological texts. Here her interest is particularly in narratives of gods and humans who undergo sex changes or gender inversions. This provides a jumping off point for an exploration of gender roles in Hinduism, and especially of the place of women, their voices, their pleasures and their freedoms. Along the way she deconstructs the enforced order of dominance by men from higher social orders enshrined in the Manusmŗti, the ancient code of dharma she translated with Brian Smith in 1991. She uncovers internal contradictions and dissenting voices, which she takes as evidence of second thoughts and internal disagreements even in that classic of normative precept.
Doniger’s version of India’s past, one that recognises multiplicity and fluidity in sexual and gendered behaviour, runs counter to the emphasis on clearly defined roles that religious nationalists favour. The preoccupation with heroic masculinity began in the days of British cultural hegemony, when the subject peoples of the East were depicted as ‘simultaneously oversexed and feminised’, to use Doniger’s phrase. To be deserving of national independence required a reassertion of manly vigour, the thinking went, and fortifying sexual continence.
The Hindus was banned for a time in India as a result of a lawsuit filed by six defenders of the nation’s self-respect. They claimed to be offended by, among other things, the sexualised version of Hinduism that Doniger presented. The ban resulted in an increase in local sales of the book: curious readers ordered the overseas edition online, or bought the ebook; some shops stocked the title behind the counter. It was back on the shelves in Delhi when I was there last year. Doniger told friends she was able to buy a new car on the proceeds of the new sales.
Doniger was one of the first to encounter the new para-academic politics. Someone threw an egg at her during a lecture she was giving in London in 2003. At the time, the Bharatiya Janata Party had been in power in India for four years, and was seeking changes in the Indian history curriculum in schools and universities, and bringing in new people at the top of the institutions that controlled it. During the BJP years, academics in departments of religious studies in the US reported that their teaching of Hinduism was being scrutinised: a Hindu student group was arranging the monitoring of classes, petitions originating off campus demanded the firing of academics whose publications, it was claimed, offended sensitivities, and it was proposed that course plans be passed to external review bodies made up of practising Hindus. The presence of a nationalist government in India, for which a sizeable number of the expatriate Indian community in the US had sympathy, appeared to have emboldened some.
After the BJP’s surprising defeat in the election of 2004, postmortems declared that Indian voters had reacted against the intercommunal tension that culminated in the atrocities in Gujarat in 2002, where many hundreds, mostly Muslims, were killed. Others hoped it meant voters did value India’s open society after all, what Amartya Sen has called the ‘broad idea of a large India proud of its heterodox past and its pluralist present’, rather than ‘a small India, bundled around a drastically downsized version of Hinduism’.
With developments in India and the US in mind, Doniger and Martha Nussbaum edited a collection of essays by Indian and American writers called Pluralism and Democracy in India: Debating the Hindu Right. The volume appeared in 2015, but the articles look back to questions thrown up by the first BJP government. The authors of some of the essays were encouraged by the election results of 2004, and had some confidence that assaults on the ‘broad idea of India’ would eventually fail. But Pluralism and Democracy went to press just as the BJP was returned to power with a clear majority in 2014, after a campaign that made use of American-style techniques, and was funded by unprecedented sums of money from corporate interests. The party ran on a different platform this time, focused on jobs and economic growth, from which majoritarian cultural politics was all but absent. The foreword by Doniger and Nussbaum includes a postscript noting the result and wondering whether BJP 2.0 would limit itself to the execution of its technocratic objectives.
Four years on, the BJP has been slowed down by the upper house of India’s parliament from enacting central parts of its economic agenda. On the cultural front, its tactics have evolved. At the top level of the party there is talk of comity and amity, but that discipline is not evident elsewhere. Yogi Adityanatha, now chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, is most famous for his scheme to reconvert Muslims to Hinduism (‘Ghar Wapsi’), and for his provocative statements about Islam. There have been sporadic incidents of violence against Muslims and Christians, and in turn against Hindus across the country, and lynchings of those, especially Dalits, accused of eating beef.
Meanwhile the national government has been quietly centralising control of universities and civic institutions such as museums, libraries and research centres, replacing their leaders with political operatives and ill-qualified academic sympathisers. Dissenting writers, public figures and members of the press feel under increasing pressure. One writer, Gauri Lankesh, was shot and killed on the street in Bangalore last autumn. Large amounts of cash have been poured into developing the student wing of the BJP, which is now active across the country on university campuses. History curriculums and textbooks for schools and state colleges and universities are again being redrafted.
The teaching of Hinduism and Indian history at American universities has come in for renewed attention, especially when it is done by people who don’t have Indian ancestry. Expatriate groups and individuals are working in concert with Hindu nationalist political operatives in India, mostly through social media. The politics enacted is a strange blend of long-distance nationalism, in Benedict Anderson’s phrase, and that strain of American identity politics in which majority groups claim to be victims. Phrases such as ‘academic Hinduphobia’ and swadeshi (‘home-grown’) Indology are bandied about. Nativism is the order of the day. Against Sanskrit, a vanishingly small and sleepy academic subject in Western countries, are marshalled armies of internet trolls and bots, supported by wealthy Indian expats.
These attacks are, however, fuelled by an understandable resentment. No one likes to be treated like an anthropological specimen. English-language shaming of Indian civilisation has a history going back at least to Thomas Macaulay’s ‘Minute on Education’ of 1835, which made it official East India Company and then government policy in India to use English to carry out teaching in English literature, history, law and science. Not that long ago I had colleagues who would adopt funny Indian accents when teaching, or characterise Indian cultural monuments as specimens of foolishness or bizarrerie. The dislocation and disconnection in self-understanding felt at elite levels of Indian society, a legacy of British imperial rule known in the trade as the postcolonial predicament, stem in part from this history of casual condescension.
Increasingly it appears that India’s cultural legacy may lie in the hands of the educated Hindu middle class, which has been growing rapidly and many of whose members remain committed to the idea of a liberal, secular state. Some are religiously observant, perhaps as a form of family fidelity – that is, as a way to remain connected to ‘custom, community and natural feeling’, in the phrase of Burke that Gurcharan gingerly invokes. There are also many traditional Hindus who have never been keen on right-leaning Hindu majoritarianism, in which they see little to do with godliness or the daily cultivation of bodily dignity.
The lives of many Indians have been enriched by the overlapping history of two cosmopolitan cultures, Sanskritic and Persianate, with many regional, vernacular ones. Yet politics increasingly exerts a centrifugal pressure: an interest, for example, in Sanskrit literary monuments designates Hindu sectarians, while an interest in the blended culture fostered by Muslim rulers in Delhi and elsewhere designates ‘pseudo-secularist’ iconoclasts, haters of the nation and themselves. Meanwhile, Hindus settled in the US who would have thought of themselves as Gandhians a generation ago are attracted by the appeal to national pride that comes from the Hindu nationalist project. There are heartening signs in Indian performance arts, where a younger generation of musicians and dancers has been experimenting with the limits of genre, revitalising traditions that had been freeze-dried as inoffensive symbols of an official national heritage. Even some think tanks in India, once the home of a social theory derived from continental European sources, have begun to take an interest in reclaiming the long history of discursive thought in Sanskrit, Persian and other languages. And there are still a few academics like Doniger who are sufficiently robust to keep on with their public endeavours with humour and aplomb.