Vatsyayana generally simply ignores social dharma, with what A. B. Keith called “sang froid.” And his idea that the pleasures of kama should be taken wherever one can find them, within reason, is very un-Brahminical indeed. Yet he is concerned that people control their sexuality, in a way that is very Brahminical; so I think he really does mean much that is expressed in the cautionary, afterthought, backpedaling verses at the ends of the chapters. Though modeled on both the form and the slippery ethics of the Arthashastra, the Kamasutra still tries in many ways to make sex ethical in the deepest sense while trashing the conventions of Hindu social dharma.
At times, Vatsyayana seems to assume a dharmic position. He offers a detailed defense of dharma against the imagined assertions of skeptics or materialists, whom he quotes as saying: “People should not perform dharmic acts, for their results are in the world to come and that is doubtful. Who but a fool would take what is in his own hand and put it in someone else’s hand? Better a pigeon today than a peacock tomorrow, and ‘Better a copper coin that is certain / than a gold coin that is doubtful’” (1.2.21–24). Vatsyayana then blows these arguments out of the water with an uncharacteristically otherworldly credo:
Vatsyayana says: People should perform dharmic acts, because the text cannot be doubted; because, sometimes, black magic and curses are seen to bear fruit; because the constellations, moon, sun, stars, and the circle of the planets are seen to act for the sake of the world as if they thought about it first; because social life is marked by the stability of the system of the four classes and four stages of life; and because people are seen to cast away a seed in their hand for the sake of a crop in the future. (1.2.25)
By defending the “stability of the system of the four classes” Vatsyayana may be subtly seeking the support of the religious and secular critics of his work and undermining their criticism of a text dedicated to pleasure. The argument for the regularity of the planets may be meant either to defend astrology, regarded as a part of dharma, or to imply a divine conscious- ness in the heavenly bodies. The fact that Vatsyayana cites the use of black magic in defense of dharma would certainly not please Manu. On the whole, this is a strange cluster of defenses of dharma, and the whole exercise (along with the defense of artha) is surely nothing but a prelude to Vatsyayana’s real con- cern: the defense of kama.
In listing reasons why a married woman might resist the protagonist’s invitation to betray her husband, one of the “scholars” Vatsyayana often cites as predecessors (in this case, Gonikaputra) says, “A woman does not consider dharma or adharma; she just desires. But consideration of some other factor keeps her from making advances. . . . A man, by contrast, considers the stability of dharma and the conventions of noble people and turns back even when he desires. And even when he is pursued he does not give in, because he is aware of these considerations” (5.1.10, 13–14). Mind you, Vatsyayana by no means necessarily agrees with this view, which, in any case, merely tells us what people do, not what they ought to do. But Vatsyayana himself contradicts at least the first sentence when he mentions, as the very last in a long list of the possible reasons for a woman’s resistance to committing adultery, her regard for dharma (5.1.42). And he contradicts his own exemplum of the man turning back from adultery because of dharma by describing, throughout the rest of this long section, men who do in fact commit adultery.
In contrast with almost all other shastras of this period (including the Arthashastra), the Kamasutra largely ignores caste and class. There are only a few references to class (varna), all peripheral. And there are equally few references to caste (jati), embedded in lists, never discussed (3.5.5, 6.1.17, 6.2.51). But we can read, throughout, the unexpressed assumptions about class and caste behind this text. The Kamasutra nods to the notion of class as it introduces its section on the women with whom one may and may not have sex: “Kama enjoyed according to the texts, with a woman who is of the man’s own class, and who has not been with another man before, is a means of getting sons, a good reputation, and social accep- tance. But . . .” (1.5.1). But that “But” introduces a long, long list of other sorts of women that a man may enjoy if he is not particularly concerned about class, sons, reputation, or social acceptance—indeed, it introduces the rest of the text, since this is the attitude of the man-about-town who is its protago- nist. Vatsyayana repeats the dharmic part of this idea later, in slightly different words: “In a [virgin] who is of the same class, who has not been with another man before, and who has been taken in accordance with the texts, a man finds dharma, artha, sons, connections, the growth of his faction, and straightfor- ward sexual pleasure” (3.1.1). Again, there is a “But,” though this one comes two chapters later: “But a man who has good qualities but no money, or who has indifferent qualities but no opportunities, [etc. etc.] should not court a virgin, because he will not get her” (3.3.1). And so the text goes on to offer other, more viable alternatives.
In book 1, Vatsyayana notes that kama with women of higher classes or with women married to other men is forbid- den (1.5.2),3 but in book 5, married women of all classes are considered fair game. So the issue of class (and legitimate sons) is briefly considered on several occasions—but always quickly rationalized away. And we can see Manu’s deeply ingrained hi- erarchical and hypergamous attitude toward class—the insis- tence that the man should always be of an equal or higher class than the woman he marries (3.12, 3.43–44, 10.5)—scandalously adapted, indeed satirized, in the Kamasutra’s basic and per- vasive ranking of sexual partners according to size, with the insistence that the man’s genitals should always be equal to or bigger than those of the woman whom he beds (2.1.1–4).
One of the rationalizations for having sex with a woman normally off limits takes class into consideration:
Gonikaputra says: “Under the pressure of some other reason, a woman who aids his cause may be- come his lover, even if she is married to another man. The man may think, ‘This is a loose woman. She has already ruined her virtue with many other men. Even though she is of a class higher than mine, I can go to her as I would go to a courtesan, without offending against dharma. She is a second- hand woman. Since another man has kept her be- fore me, there is no reason to hesitate about this.’” . . . For these and similar reasons one may seduce even the wife of another man. (1.5.4–7, 21)
Here the justification for disregarding dharma either with a married woman or with a woman of a higher class (or both) is put in the mouths of two other people—first Gonikaputra and then a man of a relatively low class—and rationalized.
The relatively rare references to dharma in the Kamasu- tra sometimes occur in surprising contexts. The courtesan, for instance, wonders, “Will I serve dharma or violate it if I go, on the sympathetic advice of a friend, to a Brahmin who knows the Veda, or to a man who is under a vow of chastity or con- secrated for a sacrifice, or a man who has taken a vow or who wears the sign of a religious order, if he has seen me and con- ceived a passion for me and wants to die?” (6.6.29). She would violate dharma in one way if she allowed or helped any of these men to break his vows, but she would violate it in another way if she let him die through his unsatisfied passion for her. (The Kamasutra elsewhere remarks that when a man sees that his desire is progressing from one stage to the next, then, in order to ward off these fatal blows to his own body, he should even make advances to other men’s wives [5.1.3]. This escape clause apparently also applies to men under religious vows.)4 This unexpected, and unconvincing, concern for Brahmins also oc- curs elsewhere in the Kamasutra. In the midst of a magic spell, Vatsyayana remarks, “You become famous and live a long life if you drink the milk of a white cow who has a white calf,” and then adds, surprisingly, and as a kind of afterthought, “or if you receive the blessings of respected Brahmins” (7.2.50–51).
Vatsyayana also states that top courtesans spend their ex- cess profits in solidly dharmic ways: “building temples, pools, and gardens; setting up raised mounds and fire altars; giving thousands of cows to Brahmins through the mediation of people worthy to receive them; bringing and offering articles of worship to the gods” (6.5.28). Dharma slips in in another unexpected spot in the Kamasutra, too. The long list of women a man should not sleep with ends with “a wandering female ascetic, or the wife of a relative, of a friend, of a Brahmin who knows the Veda, or of a king” (1.5.29), though the final one, the king, reminds us that it is the power, rather than the sanctity, of the Vedic Brahmin that might make a man hesitate to seduce his wife.
These scattered positive references to dharma prompted Albrecht Wezler to suggest that “Vatsyayana either wants to take the wind out of the sails of possible critics or, and more probably, reacts to a criticism already directed against one or the other of his predecessors.” And S. K. De tactfully remarks, “On the whole, it would seem that Vatsyayana, contrary to accepted ideas but consistently with his knowledge of human nature, was a believer in free love so far as social conditions permitted it” (italics added).6 Or, as Friedrich Wilhelm drily remarks, “Obviously the Kamasutra is less in conformity with dharma than it claims to be.”
Excerpted with permission from Beyond Dharma: Dissent in the Ancient Indian Sciences of Sex and Politics, Speaking Tiger 2018.