When I began reading The Complete Illustrated Kama Sutra I thought it would simply contain diagrams of the famed yogic sex positions. And yes, the book does demonstrate how to drape your legs over your partner’s shoulders and assume split leg headstands, but it contains far more comprehensive instruction than that. The ancient Indian Hindu text, originally written in Sanskrit by a guy called Vatsyayana (probably not his real name), was the authoritative book on love, seduction and pleasure of its day, back around 100–600 A.D. Obviously, life was different then, and equality between men and women wasn’t a thing, but with the exception of a couple overtly sexist passages, much of the advice in the Kama Sutra is surprisingly relevant to couples’ lovemaking today. My edition was based on the original English translation by Sir Richard F. Burton and is beautifully illustrated with sensual works of classic Indian art collected by editor and erotica scholar Lance Dane. Here’s what I learned.
The Kama Sutra was intended to be the main teaching vehicle for obtaining Kama, defined as “love, pleasure and sensual gratification” — not to be confused with Karma, which means “deed or act.” Kama is one of the main goals of Hindu life in combination with Dharma (virtue, religious merit) and Artha (material wealth). All three conditions are seen as necessary to fulfillment. “Pleasures are as necessary for the existence and well-being of the body as food,” says the book. “They should, however, be followed with moderation and caution.” In other words, you need to know what you’re doing.
The Art of Sex
According to Vatsyayana, sensuality is an art that both men and women should study fully before engaging in the physical acts. Men should read the book, of course, but young women should learn the tenets of sexuality from a more experienced woman — like an aunt or trusted female friend. The intent is to obtain a sophisticated and comprehensive lovemaking education. Engaging in sex without understanding the art of love results in unrestrained or “brute” behavior, which doesn’t achieve Kama and is frowned upon. Imagine if in our society the art of pleasure was passed down from older women to younger women and included in modern day sex ed.
In contrast to our hook-up culture, the Kama Sutra places a high value on courtship and offers specific instruction on how young couples should use romantic techniques to win each other’s affection and build desire. In the beginning, they should spend time doing playful activities such as picking flowers, cooking, and organizing group games of hide and seek. The boy should surprise the girl with thoughtful little gifts — flowers, rings, carvings or yarn — and try to present them in private. He should impress her with his skills in juggling, singing or athletics. If interested, the girl responds by “becoming abashed when he looks at her” but gazes after him longingly and “shows her limbs to him under some pretext” and uses little tricks to gain and keep his attention.
After they’ve established they like each other, things start getting physical. The guy finds reasons to hold the young woman’s hand or touch her feet. He should express his love to her and find ways they can be alone. She wins over her man by giving him gifts, talking to him about subjects he likes, and encouraging his caresses without letting things progress too far.
Timing is Everything
Once married, the Kama Sutra advises that a young bride be introduced to sex slowly. The chapter “Instilling Confidence in the Bride” outlines a gradual process of intimacy; beginning gentle love-play the tenth night after the wedding, and letting the bride set the pace from then on. “Women desire gentle beginnings, and if forcibly approached by men with whom they are only slightly acquainted, they can become fearful of a sexual relationship, and may even become male haters. The man should therefore approach the girl according to her liking.” No kidding.
After the couple has established intimacy, lovemaking is still a leisurely undertaking. Lovers bathe and dress for their encounter and enjoy flowers, music, refreshments, conversation, and games beforehand. The book addresses timing during sex as well saying, “a man must sexually arouse the woman by ardent love play, and then vigorously commence his sex act, so that she reaches the climax earlier or simultaneously with him.”
Hurts So Good
The Kama Sutra describes a whole bunch of sensuous activities couples can engage in to enhance their pleasure. They are divided into eight areas: the embrace, kissing, scratching, biting, lying down (the famous positions!), making sounds, switching roles, and mouth congress (oral sex.) There are a lot of interesting variations to employ — 64 in total — and a few of them could be straight out of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Consider the practice of “Pressing and Nail Marks.” It’s not for everybody, just those who like the idea, generally “persons with intense passions.” After an appropriate manicure, they use their nails to press into their lover’s flesh deeply, leaving marks in different patterns with names like “tiger’s nail” or “peacock’s foot.” Like biting, the experience is intended to be erotic in the moment, while the marks leave a lasting remembrance of the passionate encounter for both parties to savor. Techniques that involve pain should be introduced only with mutual consent for the purpose of mutual pleasure, says the text.
The author of the Kama Sutra is matter-of-fact about some of the issues that Americans can get hung up on. Monogamy isn’t highly valued, at least not for men. Formal relationships with courtesans are respected and the book has an entire chapter devoted to “Seducing the Wives of Others,” although going after your friends’ wives is a no-no. Same-sex frolicking is treated as no big deal and even expected in certain situations. What else are the women of the harem supposed to do all day when there’s only one king?
Much of the instruction given in this ancient tome doesn’t apply to modern life, and not all the sex stuff may be your cup of Darjeeling. I completely skipped the chapter on the “Duties of the First and Junior Wives,” for example, and I wasn’t all that hot on “Striking and Spontaneous Sounds.” But the Kama Sutra does present a timelessly enlightened view on sensuality in that it’s considered a vital component of a full life, and an art that requires study and practice to thoroughly enjoy. It’s a reminder to all of us to get creative.
Editor’s note: We at Make It Better believe that well-researched writing and open, honest conversation about human sexuality is both important and healthy, and many experts agree. We also believe that thoughtful, informed discussions about sex facilitate a greater openness to and understanding of the importance of many of the services provided by organizations like Planned Parenthood. As such organizations continue to face funding cuts (with affordable access to reproductive healthcare, including birth control, STD testing and treatment, and cancer screenings, compromised as a result), we remain committed to providing a forum for such dialogue.
More from Make It Better:
- 7 Ways Yoga Makes You Sexy
- Things Women Should Know About Their Guy’s Parts
- Long-Distance Marriage: How These Couples Make It Work
Marjie Killeen is a freelance writer who has been covering sex and relationships for Make It Better since it began. She is a regular supporter of the Greater Chicago Food Depository and is a member of the Human Rights Campaign.