If you came of age in the 1960s, you may have had two books on the nightstand: The Joy of Sex and the Kama Sutra. You may have even tried some of those melodic-sounding acrobatics: the “splitting of the bamboo,” the “lotus-like position,” or the “fixing of a nail.”
Or, if you’re like me, you never quite figured out what all the fuss was about. In fact, if you’re like me, you may not know what the Kama Sutra is. So, what is the Kama Sutra, anyway, and could it shake up a humdrum, middle-age bedroom routine or give you ideas for new techniques now that you’re not quite up to dangling from the chandelier?
Well, sort of.
For starters, the Kama Sutra is old. It was written in about the Third Century AD in northern India and is considered one of the oldest Sanskrit sacred texts in existence. As such, it gives scholars a fascinating peek into daily life and morés of that time. Its subject is Kama, or the pursuit of pleasure, which is the third goal in life for Hindus. (The first is Dharma, or virtuous living, and the second is Artha, material prosperity.)
The Kama Sutra is as much about the details of gracious living as it is about sex. It’s a systematic and unabashed compendium of the good life in that time and place. Here’s an example:
Now the householder, having got up in the morning and performed his necessary duties, should wash his teeth, apply a limited quantity of ointments and perfumes to his body, put some ornaments on his person and collyrium on his eyelids and below his eyes… Having then eaten betel leaves, with other things that give fragrance to the mouth, he should perform his usual business.
The most intimate details of sexuality are dealt with in the same level of detail and objectivity. There are chapters on attracting a wife, the relationship among one’s wives, relating to the wives of other men, and relating to courtesans. The chapter that gripped the Twentieth Century imagination, however, is the chapter on sexual union. Here are sections on types of kissing, biting, scratching, and “ways of lying down.” And here is where the illustrated sexual positions on your youthful nightstand came from (except that the original text wasn’t illustrated). Also, although we in the West have tended to confuse them, the Kama Sutra has nothing in common with Tantric practices. The first is a treatise for gracious living; the second is an ancient spiritual practice that includes “sacred sexuality”—a foreign concept if there ever was one to modern sensibility.
So, how might a middle-aged woman many centuries removed make use of this text other than as a doorstop or a curious read about a long-ago time in a faroff place? Well, not surprisingly, we inventive Moderns have taken the “naughty bits” from this ancient text, dusted them off, and updated them. So you can find “Kama Sutra” positions for every day of the year, some of them quite amazing.
If you’re looking for ideas that don’t require contortions worthy of a Chinese circus, you could get the actual text in this modern translation by Alain Daniélou. If you want illustrations, go with this one.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.