The Kama Sutra, Tantric Goddess Worship and the Song of Songs – a Comparison
Looking at the latest illustrated colour edition of the Kama Sutra one could be forgiven for thinking that that this book is one of the greatest erotic masterpieces ever written. The title of another edition, “Kama Sutra: Aphorisms of Love”, suggests that the Kama Sutra is meant to educate, enhance and expand the sex life of men and women, implying that its philosophy combines sexuality and intimacy with the quest for fulfilment of mind, body and soul.
The media has effectively made the Kama Sutra a widely-accepted byword, and the term itself is often used interchangeably with ‘Tantra’. People take this book as a comprehensive sexual manual, the true path to tantric pleasure. The various sex positions in Part Two are promoted for its forward-looking, sex-positive attitudes to women. Consequently, the Kama Sutra is seen as an empowering tool for women to use.
But how many people have looked at the actual text? Those who start reading Part One of the book would certainly realise that the Kama Sutra will never be mistaken for a feminist manifesto:
“Sexual relations are forbidden with women of lower or higher caste, or with married women of one’s own caste. This is not the case however with prostitutes or widows, provided that it is only for pleasure ...
If the woman who loves me has a rich and powerful husband who is in touch with my adversary, she will arrange for her husband to harm him ...
Once she has fallen in love with me, she (or I) may murder her husband and having obtained of his wealth, I shall live in luxury ...
...There is nothing wrong in having an affair with a woman out of (financial) interest. If I am bankrupt, without any means and livelihood, thanks to this woman, I can become rich easily; I will therefore become her lover.” (Part 1, Ch.5)
Indeed, what most people imagine to be a liberal compilation of ideas about sex, sensation and pleasure for men and women is basically just a handbook describing the best ways to use, control and manipulate women.
The notion that the Kama Sutra is one of the greatest treasures in tantric literature is mostly due to the persistent emphasis on only one of the seven ‘books’ or ‘parts’ that comprise the Kama Sutra - Part Two, which discusses sexual typology, positions, kissing, biting, slapping, oral and unusual sex, etc. Part Two is perhaps also the best known and, because of the erotic illustrations in innumerable editions of the Kama Sutra, has overshadowed the rest of Vatsyayana's text in the popular imagination.
Needless to say, the Kama Sutra is no treasure as far as women’s emancipation is concerned, and scholars have gone into detailed examination to show that, considering the age and period of compilation it cannot be tantric either. The fact that the author mentions, “some learned men, who object, and say that females, not being allowed to study any science, should not study the Kama Sutra”, is just further evidence that the text could not have been written in the spirit and ethos of Tantra, where women are valued as teachers and gurus.
In a previous article I have explored authentic tantric goddess worship, but one doesn’t have to be an expert to know that genuine Tantra requires unconditional respect and reverence to every woman, as each and every woman is seen in Tantra, the representative of the Goddess:
”He should always worship women
With his powerful sceptre or wisdom,
Even crippled women, artisans and women of the lowest caste”
For good measure, the Kama Sutra does mention in the introduction to Part One that it is a duty to “visit the sanctuary of the Goddess Sarasvati” , but as modern translations point out, the Laws of Manu, India’s most famous early legal code, have a clearly more significant influence on the text - including the views on women:
“In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, and when her lord is dead, to her sons; a woman must never be independent ... It is the nature of women to seduce men in this world, for that reason the wise never remain unguarded in the company of females ... Women, shudra (the lowest of four castes), dog and crow embody untruth, sin and darkness.”
The Kama Sutra — “kama” means desire, while “sutra” means thread —was first translated into English in 1883 by two Indian Sanskrit scholars, and polished by the explorer and linguist, Sir Richard Burton, who, given censorship laws at the time, helped get it published privately. The book was formally published only in 1962. We know very little about its author, Vatsyayana, except that he probably lived sometime around the 4th century CE. He never actually presents the Kama Sutra as his original work - but rather as a compilation and impartial examination of existing ideas, texts and traditions of his time. When Vatsyayana interjects a personal opinion, he refers to himself in the third person. He makes it clear that this book is written primarily for rich and powerful men, or as Wendy Doniger’s new translation puts it: “the man-about-town”.
The Kama Sutra itself has 36 chapters, divided into 7 parts: the first is an introduction giving general advice, the second covers sexual union. The next three sections are titled: “About the Acquisition of a Wife”, “About a Wife” and “About the Wives of Other People”. In these parts, the book describes courtship and the way a woman behaves in response to male attention, proposals or sexual advances. The descriptions range from old-fashioned but expected gender-normative idiocy to offensive degradation. Among others, he warns, that the following women should be avoided by prospective husbands:
“... One who looks masculine, whose breasts are too big ... One who has been (raped) polluted by another.1 One who is disfigured in any way (disabled) … also a girl whose name ends in 'r' or 'l'...”
In Part Three, Chapter 5, “On the Different Forms of Marriage”, Vatsyayana also gives details of the various means by which a man can legitimately acquire a wife. While he agrees that a marriage of love is, and should be, the best preferred option, he also lists different scenarios of rape as perfectly legal and legitimate ways of marriage. Some “practical advice” on marriage by rape:
“The man should on the occasion of festivals get the nurse to give the girl some intoxicating substance, and then cause her to be brought to some secure place under the pretence of some business, and there having raped her before she recovers from her intoxication – she would marry him.
The man should, with the connivance of the (female accomplice) nurse, carry off the girl from her house while she is asleep, and then, having raped her before she recovers from her sleep ...
When the girl goes to a garden, or to some village in the neighbourhood, the man should, with his friends, fall on her guards, and having killed them, or frightened them away, forcibly carry her off, rape her ….1)”
… and because of the shame associated with rape, she would have no choice but marry him.
The enormous sense of shame associated with rape in the Indian psyche has filtered through to modern times with lasting damage. Even the “father of modern India”, Mahatma Gandhi, believed that women who were raped lost their value as human beings. He argued that fathers could be justified in killing daughters who had been sexually assaulted for the sake of family and community honour. He moderated his views towards the end of his life. But the damage was done, and the legacy lingers in every present-day Indian press report of a rape victim who commits suicide out of "shame".2
The Song of Songs – “I am my lover’s and my lover is mine; he browses among the lilies” (6:3)
“The following women are not suitable as lovers: A leper, a lunatic, an older woman, a woman ostracized by her caste..., a woman who is too black...” (Kama Sutra, P.1:5)
Unlike the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, which addresses a male readership, the Song of Solomon clearly refers to the “daughters of Jerusalem” in several verses (1:5. 2:7, 3:5, 10, 11. 5:8, 16, 8:4) as her audience. Here the woman’s voice and presence dominates the rest of the Song. The Shulamite is a strong, independent woman – hers is the first word (1:2) and hers is the last word also (8:14). She takes more initiative in the acts of love than her beloved (3:1-5; 5:6-7), and only she makes dramatic declarations about herself: she insists that her very blackness is beautiful (1:5), and “I am a wall and my breasts like the towers; then was I in his eyes as one that found peace (8:10)”
“I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Cedar, as the curtains of Solomon.”3 (1:5) – proclaims the heroine in the Song of Solomon. Doing so however, this sensuous, Goddess-like woman of the Hebrew Bible falls foul of the exceptional “standards” of the Kama Sutra.
The author of Song of Songs is clearly a woman, and we mainly hear a feminine voice that challenges patriarchal values. Astonishingly the Song begins with the female initiating, with the famous opening lines: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your lovemaking (dodecha – דֹּדֶיךָ) is better than wine”. (1:2)
Solomon’s Song is, from the outset, a love poem, two lovers celebrating their mutual love for one another, including the delights of one others’ bodies. Although it has been compared to the Kama Sutra, there is nothing that justifies this assertion. The suggestion that it bears similarities to tantric texts, however, is much more realistic and closer to the truth. The fact that the main protagonist is the female is a good indication of tantric character. The author of the Hebrew Goddess, Raphael Patai (1990), also reminds us about the similarity of tantric hymns to the black and beautiful goddess Kali (p. 150), to certain verses in the Song of Songs, especially (1:5), referring to the contemporary interpretation of M. H Pope.
Marvin H. Pope (1995), in his epic modern translation (over 700 pages) comments that the author of Song of Songs reveals that sexual desire is an integral part of Eros, something to be celebrated. In his focus, being true to the original text, Pope reveals some key aspects of the Hebrew mindset, which both men and women can learn from. Far from the Kama Sutra, where “men are the actors, and women are the persons acted upon”, the Song of Songs is describing a relationship of equals, and genuine tantric dialogue of the lovers, with all the senses, just as Tantra teaches, using the senses in our relationships and sensuality:
Sight - ... show me your face (2:14); You have stolen my heart with one glance of your eyes (4:9); How beautiful are your feet, your navel, your stomach, your breasts, your eyes (7:1-6).
Hearing - ... let me hear your voice (2:14); Listen! My lover is knocking (5:2); You who dwell in the gardens ... let me hear your voice! (8:13)
Touch – Kiss me with kisses of your mouth (1:2); His left arm is under my head and his right arm embraces me (2:6)
Taste – His fruit is sweet to my taste (2:3); ... and taste its choice fruits (4:16); ... your mouth like the best wine (7:9)
Smell – Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes (1:3); The mandrakes give a smell (7:13)
Throughout Pope’s translation one also gets the distinct impression of the empowerment of the woman – she proudly proclaims to the world that she is all woman, and beautiful, betraying a clear confidence in herself and her body – a true Tantric Goddess. While this is present in other translations, it comes through much clearly in Pope. Repeatedly the man and woman within the Song show their care for each other- not just for their bodies, but for their entire being. In tantric terms, the word “prema” love as emotional attachment come to mind, rather than just “kama” (physical desire), in contrast to the language of the Kama Sutra.
In the spirit of authentic Tantra the Goddess literally invites her lover to make love to her – “Let my beloved come to his garden...”. The Hebrew word literally “come into” is used frequently of sexual penetration. “... eat of the sweet fruit” (4:16). Here the Shulamite also seems to encourage her lover to taste her sex. The fact that contemporary scholars are not being constrained by religious constraints has also allowed modern translations to re-interpret centuries-old traditional translations. Significantly, the noun שֹׁרֶר (shorer) is a hapax legomenon, appearing in the Hebrew Bible only once, here (7:2.). There is a debate whether it means “navel” or “vulva”. Pope, in his interpretation asserts that the original intended meaning is “vulva”:
“Your navel/vulva is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine. Your waist is a mound of wheat encircled by lilies.” (7:2)
This is contextually supported by several factors: the descriptive praise of her begins with her feet and concludes with her hair, as if her lover was on his knees at her feet, slowly standing up, worshipping the Shulamite in a true tantric way. The movement from her feet, to thighs (in 7:1), to her vulva (7:2), and then to her waist (7:2), breasts, neck, nose, head and hair would fit this. The vivid comparison to a glass of wine would be strange, if her navel were in view – filled with liquid – but appropriately poetic, if her vulva were in view with the moisture of desire, Pope suggests.4
“How beautiful your sandaled feet...
Your graceful legs are like jewels, the work of an artist’s hands.
Your navel/vulva is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine.
Your waist is a mound of wheat encircled by lilies.
Your breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle.
Your neck is like an ivory tower.
Your eyes are the pools of Heshbon
by the gate of Bath Rabbim. Your nose ...
Your head crowns you like Mount Carmel.
Your hair is like royal tapestry;
the king is held captive by its tresses.
How beautiful you are and how pleasing,
my love, with your delights! Your stature is like that of the palm...”
(Song of Songs 7:1-7)
These verses clearly echo the instructions of the tantric goddess in early tantric texts:
“He should continuously worship Vajrayogini, with flowers incense ...
Honour Her with speeches and ornate expressions ...
He should gaze, touch and contemplate (her) ...
Constantly take refuge at my feet ..., look at my three-petaled lotus, look at me up and down.”5
Drink sweet nectar from the lips below...
Activities that produce the musk of desire ... Looking her up and down.
Thus one attains extensive spiritual perfections and becomes equal to all Buddhas.”
This “spiritual perfection” is also present in the Song of Songs, as Rabbi Akiba, one of the most famous sages of the Talmud declares:
"The whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was written, for all the Scriptures are holy and the Song of Songs is holy of holies.” (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5).
Dane, L (2003) The Complete Illustrated Kama Sutra, Inner Traditions, Rochester
Danilou, A (1994) The Complete Kama Sutra : The First Unabridged Modern Translation of the Classic Indian Text, Park Street Press, [Unabridged edition]
Patai, R (1990) The Hebrew Goddess, (3rd enlarged edition) Wayne State University Press
Pope, M. H. (1995) Song of Songs: A New Translation and Commentary, Anchor Bible 7, Doubleday, New York
Shaw, M (1995) Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism, Princeton University Press
Vatsyayana, M ((Wendy Doniger, Sudhir Kakar - Translators) (2003) Kamasutra, Oxford University Press
1. The Kama Sutra was first published by Sir Richard Burton (1883) and his is the most well-known translation, albeit somewhat archaic and at times inaccurate. Two different modern scholarly translations by Alain Danielou (1994) and Wendy Doniger (2003) also have some difficulty with the ancient Sanskrit text, terms and expressions. Here, I have made an attempt to integrate these translations with my understanding and offer interpretation. It has to be pointed out therefore, that the original text does not actually use the word, “rape” and the English translations also use euphemisms, however in her notes Doniger (2009) does draw attention to the fact that the Kama Sutra is effectively offering a lesson in rape. (return)
3. Traditional bible translations translate this verse: "I am black but beautiful..." - new translations acknowledge that the simple meaning is "I am black and beautiful..." (return)
4. Navel/vulva - Classical Hebrew does not have words for sexual organs and often poetic euphemisms are used instead. For example in Genesis (24:9), “So the servant put his hand under the thigh of his master Abraham and swore an oath to him concerning this matter.” Here the text refers to the servant actually putting his hand on Abraham’s circumcision, this being the most sacred thing to swear an oath on. However, regardless of literal meaning, there can be no doubt that the intended meaning here, is vulva. (return)
5. Quoted in Passionate Enlightenment, by Miranda Shaw - Candamaharosana-tantra, Hevejra-tantra. (return)