From Kama to Karma: The Resurgence of Puritanism in Contemporary India

Wendy Doniger
University of Chicago
Erotic religious imagery is as old as Hinduism. The earliest Hindu sacred text, the Rig Veda, revels in the language of both pleasure and fertility. In addition to this and other religious texts that incorporated eroticism, there were more worldly texts that treated the erotic tout court, of which the Kamasutra, composed in north India, probably in the third century CE, is the most famous. The two words in its title mean "desire/love/pleasure/sex" and "a treatise". Virtually nothing is known about the author, Vatsyayana, other than his name and what we learn from this text. There is nothing remotely like it even now, and for its time it was astonishingly sophisticated; it was already well known in India at a time when the Europeans were still swinging in trees, culturally speaking. The Kamasutra's ideas about gender are surprisingly modern, and its stereotypes of feminine and masculine natures are unexpectedly subtle. It also reveals attitudes to women's education and sexual freedom, and views of homosexual acts, that are strikingly more liberal than those of other texts in ancient India—or, in many cases, in contemporary India.
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