Of the three ancient Hindu aims of earthly life, Dharma, Artha and Kama, it is Kama which has inspired most interest in the West, ever since the popularity of 19th-century orientalism brought the concepts to a wider audience. The word, loosely translated, means ‘pleasure’, and includes sex, love, and desire in its scope. Some interpretations expand the meaning of Kama to the aesthetic sphere. Either way, it is in the complete sensual enjoyment of life, rather than the erotic alone, that Vatsyayana instructs the reader in Kama Sutra. A.N.D. Haksar’s new translation is the third significant attempt since Burton’s 1883 pioneering effort to render the difficult Sanskrit text in its complete form into the English language. The introductory passages claim the necessity of this new version by arguing that the Kama Sutra is too often regarded merely as ‘an exotic compendium of positions for human copulation’ rather than a guide for all aspects of social and sexual interaction, and that an accessible but complete translation is needed.
A complete popular translation of the Kama Sutra is rendered difficult by the language of the original. The ‘sutra’ of Kama Sutra refers to a literary form long established in Hinduism, characterised by the compressed, interpretive use of language in a series of short aphoristic passages. While originally meant to simplify instructive texts, for modern translators who lack the 3rd-century nous Vatsyayana possessed, sutras muddy the waters. This challenge was felt by modern translator Wendy Doniger. As she explains, ‘the text is so intensely condensed, so starkly cryptic, that the task of understanding it frequently seems more like deciphering than translating.’ Doniger gets around this problem by including Yashodhara’s Jayamangala, a 13th-century commentary on the Kama Sutra, and extensive explanatory notes. Another modern translator, Alain Daniélou, similarly uses early commentaries as interpretation tools, and parenthesises Sanskrit words for comparative reading. While both of these editions are therefore useful for those with a scholarly interest, Haksar’s simple aim of confining his text to that of Vatsyayana’s original, and capturing the tone and feeling of both the prose and verse elements of the Kama Sutra, renders it a clearer text for the general interested reader, while the occasional notes at the back enlighten where it feels necessary.
One criticism of this attempt to capture the ‘coldly clinical and generally dispassionate’ tone of Vatsyayana’s prose is that the writing occasionally feels a little flat in Haksar’s edition. For comparison, Doniger translates one particular embrace thus:
The woman, her coiffed hair flying loose, leaps on top of the man and presses his pelvis with her pelvis, to scratch, bite, slap and kiss him. This is the ‘closeembrace of the pelvises’.
While Haksar’s prose reads:
And, pressing his pelvis against hers, her massed hair flowing, she straddles across him, to scratch and bite, strike and kiss him. This is the ‘pelvic embrace’.
The name ‘close embrace of the pelvises’ gives a sense of the warmth in the flirtatious manoeuvre, while the woman’s active leap and the repetitious ‘his pelvis with her pelvis’ again add a frisson to the described behaviour. Haksar’s language is far more prescriptive, as the Kama Sutra’s prose passages were, but to the modern reader it can appear a little lifeless; to use the telegraphic language of the original may hold more literal verisimilitude, but without the opportunity for interpreting the subtle compressed meanings embedded in the sutra form, it renders the text dry. Similarly, Haksar’s verse, where he suggests Vatsyayana becomes more ‘personal’ and ‘expansive’, lacks the twinkle of Doniger’s.
Translating the Kama Sutra is not an easy task, and Haksar’s version, for all its occasional stylistic flaws, is an admirable attempt to grab the complex text back from the jaws of shallower popular renderings, and to dispel ‘the clichéd image of an erotic, Oriental curiosity.’ While many modern presentations of the Kama Sutra genuinely add to the tradition which has sprung up around the text (for example the amusing concept of The Kama Sutra in Pop-up, which attempts to remind its reader of the artistic rather than pornographic quality of the original through a series of beautiful drawings in a traditional style, rendered in pop-up form – because nothing says ‘ancient mysticism and spiritual enlightenment’ quite like pop-up), many abuse the exotic appeal which surrounds the title. The scholarly translations may struggle to render the cryptic sutra prose style into our less subtle English language, but subtlety of any kind is lacking from the glorified picture books of ‘sexperts’ like Anne Hooper, who abuse the name of Kama Sutra with the same glee with which Zeus abused nymphs and minor goddess figures. Her 2010 Kama Sutra Erotica, a follow-up to Kama Sutra for 21st-Century Lovers, is a coffee-table collection for those who wish to ‘shock’ their more conservative-minded neighbours (or possibly neighbours who have some knowledge of the original). Hooper has evidently read Burton’s translation (No copyright issues. Handy.) and quotes him frequently, but just as frequently out of context, with little understanding of the context in which Vatsyayana wrote.
One could be easily forgiven for thinking that one had blundered into a heavily-censored 70s sexploitation movie (a sort of Vatsyayana Does Dallas, if you will), for despite being almost entirely soft-focus pictorial, it seems to wimp out and throw a strategically placed head or limb over its models wherever the reader might reasonably expect to see intercourse.
Kama Sutra: A Guide to the Art of Pleasure. Translated by A.N.D. Haksar; Penguin; ISBN 978-1-846-14109-6; £14.99 from www.penguin.co.uk
Originally appeared in Erotic Review Issue 118