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India: the Place of Sex

India: the Place of Sex

radhakrishna_lightningby William Dalrymple

The New York Review of Books, vol. 55, number 11, June 26, 2008.

Written by the Scottish historian and novelist William Dalrymple and published in The New York Review of Books (vol. 55, n° 11) on June 26, 2008, "India: The Place of Sex" is an outstanding article, calling into question the conventional Western wisdom on Indian eroticism, in the light of a critical review of four new studies of Indian art and history.

Concerning the source, The New York Review of Books (NYRB), founded in 1963, is a well-known semi-monthly magazine concerning literature, culture and politics, which considers the discussion of books to be an indispensable intellectual and literary activity. As of 2007, it shows a circulation of about 140,000 copies. Throughout its history, it has been reputed to be a left-liberal journal whose readership is to be found among the American intellectual elite. And because of its purported insularity, the Review has sometimes been called "The New York Review of Each Other's Books". It is however a serious magazine which offers in-depth top quality analyses; however it should not be forgotten that it is also quite often criticised as being elitist, for the same reason.

Concerning the author, William Dalrymple, the latter has written several highly acclaimed bestsellers and has presented television and radio series, concerning Christianity, India, British spirituality and mysticism. He has consequently been awarded several coveted prizes, as well as a Degree of Doctor of Letters Honoris Causa by the Universities of St Andrews and Lucknow. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Asiatic Society, and founder and co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival.

In his article entitled "India: The Place of Sex", Dalrymple wishes to smash the Western prejudice on Indian eroticism, mostly reduced to a lurid highlighting of the sexual postures described in the Kamasutra. His purpose is to show that Indian erotic writingshave nothing to do with this poor sexual export frequently sensationalised in the West. For instance, he states that the Kamasutra was originally an art of living closely linked to sacred patterns of belief. In Old India, the human and divine aspects of life were considered to be inextricably intertwined: both sensuality and spirituality were intentionally blended into a global overview of the Arts and good social manners, forming a coherent cultural unity.

In his reviewing here of four notable new books on the question, the author pinpoints both the origins and the aim of the Kamasutra in Classical India, and provides an analytical approach to the link between sensuality and spirituality.


Chola: Sacred Bronzes of Southern India

Catalog of the 2007 exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts of London,

(from November 11, 2006 to February 25, 2007)

Edited by Vidya Dehejia

London: Royal Academy of Arts, 157 pp.


Dalrymple starts by reviewing a recently published book on Indian bronzes from the Chola dynasty. It showcases bronzes from Classical India, representing nude divinities, mixing divine and human beauty and sensuality, in a delicate, refined and subtle manner, rather than descending into the usual coarse vulgarity. These sculptures reveal the close link between divinities and members of the Chola royal family: they are both shown as refined, sophisticated and in the nude. Thus the exhibition succeeds in showing that, at that time in India, divinity and humanity were not two dichotomous concepts, an irreconcilable duality. Furthermore, sexuality was not set apart from spirituality: the adepts frequently reaching religious ecstasy by contemplating representations of divine eroticism. And this analysis is not just a modern reading, since "contemporary devotees (...) have left graffiti asking the deities to transfer the sensual ecstasy they experience to their followers."


Kamasutra: A New, Complete English Translation of the Sanskrit Text

By Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar

Oxford University Press, 231 pp.


Dalrymple later points out that Kamasutra has longed been misinterpreted, as is proved by the new light shed on the subject by the work of Wendy Doniger. She is a scholar of History of Religion, who focuses on a comparative study of elements from Hinduism through modern contexts of gender, sexuality and identity. Her book is the first scholarly English edition of the Kamasutra, and was published in 2002. This work of a great American sanskritist aims at undertaking a serious study of the Kamasutra. Doniger has been able to establish that the text is necessary to the understanding of Classical India society. It does not merely concern sexual acrobatics; the Kamasutra is a guide for the courtly paramour, and aims to help him find his way through the overall maze of Indian social relationships. It is not only a guide to sexual pleasure, but also to all sorts of refined sensual enjoyments of life, such as food, perfume, music, the arts and so forth. Today, Kama (desire) still is one of "the three fundamental goals of human existence along with Dharma (Religion) and Artha (the creation of wealth)." Indeed, Kama has always played a great role in India: "if the Judeo-Christian myth of origin begins with the creation of light", on the other hand, the Hindu tradition "begins with the creation of kama: in the beginning was desire, and desire was with God, and desire was God."


The Book of Love: The Story of the Kamasutra

By James Mc Connachie

Metropolitan, 267 pp.


Another book reviewed by William Dalrymple, James McConnachie's Book of Love: the Story of Kamasutra, is a non-academic study of the context surrounding the compilation of the Kamasutra. It portrays the society in which it was created. The author tries to explain that the Kamasutra represented in fact a reaction against a growing puritanism in ancient Hindu and Buddhist society. The text's main targets are the nagarikas - hedonistic, young urban males - and it describes how these nagarikas should live, behave, build a proper house, with certain specific attributes, and maintain a certain lifestyle. Over and beyond the chapter on sexual positions and practises, to which the Kamasutra mainly owes its current world celebrity, the core of the book explains the characteristics of a nagarikas' life. They are portrayed as being tied to a precise timetable, both mundane and sexual, encompassing courteousness, flirtation, interior decoration, etc. McConnachie points out that though Western readers mostly remember the Kamasutra for its inventory of erotic positions - or kama-kalas - the latter in fact constitute only a part of a nagarikas' education. As Vatsyayana, the author of the Kamasutra explains, " the kama-kalas are not just tools for successful love making, then; they lie at the heart of what constitutes an educated man", and if a man fails to acquire them, "he is not very well respected during conversations in the assembly of learned men".


Kiss of the Yogini: "Tantric Sex" in Its South Asian Contexts

By David Gordon White

University of Chicago Press, 372 pp.


The last book reviewed by William Dalrymple is entitled Kiss of the Yogini: "Tantric Sex" in Its South Asian Contexts and was written by David Gordon White. The author, through his analysis of authentic Tantric texts, tries to place the meaning of Tantric sex and spirituality in its original perspective, breaking with current Western interpretations. White denounces today's Western adepts of "New Age Tantra", as guilty of distorting and appropriating the original rituals by bringing together "erotic art, techniques of massage, Ayurveda, and yoga into one single invented tradition". In his book, he explains that the Western conception of Tantra, linked to sexual intercourse, has little or no connection with the Tantric corpus of writings, which dates from the seventh century C.E. In these texts, the main idea is to intercede with the deities through sexualised rituals, like the oral ingestion of sexual fluids. The book highlights that, in this context, the main purpose of a sexual relation is neither sexuality itself nor indeed pleasure, but the production of bodily fluids "whose consumption lay at the heart of these wild Tantric rituals". The guru-disciple relationship had a great importance for the transmission of Tantric secrets.

In White's view, the original Tantric tradition disappeared around the thirteen century C.E, probably as a result of forced Islamisation, which changed many of the traditional life-styles of Ancient India, as well as the traditional guru-disciple relationship. Islamic conceptions, closer to Christian values, introduced a new attitude towards sexuality, and such ideas as the "sinfulness of the flesh, danger of sexuality, idealisation of sexual renunciation and virginity" began to emerge. But in the meantime, Indian erotic writings survived, and in many Indian Muslim courts, commentaries and translations of classical Hindu writings circulated. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were important for literature and miniatures inspired by sexual subjects. Thus, the most dramatic change did not in fact occur during the Islamic period. The real break in Indian cultural history was introduced by European (mainly British) colonialists and Christian (mainly protestant) missionaries. From the nineteenth century onwards, the "new generations of British-educated Hindu reformers began critically to re-examine their own traditions", and introduced a far deeper Puritanism into Indian society.


To conclude this brief pre-translation presentation, through his erudite and well-documented article, William Dalrymple has attempted to present the western reader with new perspectives on the role of sensuality in Indian cultural and religious history, highlighting how Western prejudices represent an obstacle to any proper understanding of the Kamasutra, Tantric sex and Indian art. According to us he has largely succeeded in this important task. He does not impose his own vision onto Indian eroticism, but rather invites the western reader to call into question his culturally blinkered preconceptions, by lengthily exploring these serious studies on matters of pleasure.


See the WRW Dossier:

>See enlightening Video on Khajuraho erotic sculptures and Tantrism

>Introducing Indian secularism and its uniqueness (1/3)

>The Nature of Indian Secularism (2/3)

>Inde: Statut réligieux et métaphysique du sexe

>Traduire le Mahabharata ('How to escape the curse')