How Kama Sutra became an epic

Last Updated: Wed, Jul 09, 2008 07:40 hrs

The Book of Love: The Story of the Kama Sutra
By James McConnachie
Published by: Henry Holt and Co.
Price: $27.50
Pages: 272

There's something almost magical about the words Kama Sutra. They conjure up images of hidden passion, of mystical eroticism, of countless lovemaking positions that are impossibly acrobatic.

But the magic comes from mythology. The original Indian text was indeed a book of love but it was relatively tame, nowhere near as sex-charged as its reputation might suggest.

So how did this guide to civilised behaviour become known as a vault of sexual knowledge? And how did it originate in such a sexually repressive culture?

These are the questions that drove James McConnachie to research and write The Book of Love: The Story of the Kama Sutra, a historical treatise that's certainly interesting but not quite as titillating as a reader might expect.

Fleeting clues suggest the Kama Sutra was composed almost 2,000 years ago, when its author or authors hoped to salvage the content of similar works on the verge of extinction.

The Kama Sutra appears to have been less a sex manual than a guide to sexual culture for young hedonistic playboys. Its seven books advise on topics from grooming to flirtation, including instructions for producing aphrodisiacs, wooing virgins and seducing other men's wives.

But the ancient Indian society that produced this text wasn't necessarily open about matters of physical love. Its author apparently had to make the text more palatable by fusing the concepts of earthly passions with those of spiritual bliss.

The Illustrated Kama Sutra: Buy now!

Over time, written copies of the Kama Sutra began to fade away. They became so rare that all traces would have vanished if not for Richard F Burton.

A British adventurer and diplomat, Burton enjoyed shocking his fellow Britons with frank discussions about sex. He decided his message would be more credible if it were presented as ancient wisdom from Indian mystics. So in the latter half of the 19th century he and others set out to find fabled copies of the guide and translate them from Sanskrit into English.

His team eventually succeeded–sort of. Publishing the translations in England proved nearly impossible under a prudish regime with little tolerance for sexual openness. So Burton toiled in secret with the cooperation of several underground publishers.

Burton took plenty of liberties with the translations, adding his own notes to make the content a bit more explicit. Soon word began to spread about this mysterious Indian sex manual and its forbidden secrets.

Subsequent translators also wanted a piece of the action. They, too, offered their own versions, each increasingly embellished with explicit drawings and descriptions of near-impossible couplings.

And over time, the ancient text morphed into what's generally available now–an erotic guide that claims to hold the sexual secrets of an ancient and mystical society.

It might seem disappointing to find the truth is so much tamer, but McConnachie keeps the tale interesting. He takes the mysticism out of the Kama Sutra, but he does so with respect for the ancient text's original messages.

The Book of Love is a quick read, sometimes dry but usually intriguing. It may not titillate, but it will certainly educate.