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A Refreshing look at Kamasutra 


Here is what Vatsayana wrote 1700 years ago 

not how Richard Burton translated in 1883


Subroto Mukherjee

GlobalomNet Media Service





Fortune must have favoured the bold in bed these few generations if they’d been looking to the Kama Sutra for inspiration. They could have been doing it all wrong if they'd been looking at the English translation by Richard Burton in 1883. And that is the translation everyone’s been using.

The mistakes were spotted not in the bedroom but in the classroom. A question on the Kama Sutra put to Wendy Doniger in a class at the University of Chicago sent her to the original in Sanskrit. Doniger, who has translated the Rig Veda, The Laws of Manu and other Sanskrit texts into English for the Penguin Classics series, found that Burton wasn’t saying in English what Vatsayana had written in Sanskrit 1700 years ago.

That was four years ago. Doniger has now translated the Kama Sutra in what its publishers at the Oxford University Press claim is the first ever accurate translation in English. Burton seems at times to have part-authored his own Kama Sutra rather than translated Vatsayana’s.

Burton speaks of the male and the female genitals as the lingam and the yoni. “Those words do not figure in the original at all,” says Doniger. The text uses only the word “jaghana” to refer to the genital area of either male or female. The text only speaks suggestively of pelvic movements. “Vatsayana does not,” she says, “get medical about sex.” What Burton offers in the name of the Kama Sutra is “highly Orientalised pseudo-Sanskrit” and something simply not there.

The Burton translation misses a whole section on male homosexuality from a simple mistake. Burton takes the Sanskrit expression “prtiya prakriti” meaning literally The Third Nature, to mean eunuchs. It actually means homosexuality, Doniger says.  “If you take that to mean ‘eunuch’ in those passages, it must mean that one or more of the males are castrated, and so they are not doing what they are doing,” Doniger says. Unlike Vatsayana, Doniger does get medical, and it helps.

When a woman responds to a sexual slap in Sanskrit, Burton speaks of  “a woman unaccustomed to being slapped”, which is not what Vatsayana says. Faced with an unfaithful man, the text advises the woman to yell at him but not to use black magic. In his translation Burton makes no mention of black magic, and translates to say “the woman should not yell at the man,” quite the opposite of what Doniger says Vatsayana wrote.

A fault line that runs through the Burton translation is his failure to separate the prose text from the shlokas that appear at the end of every chapter, says Doniger. The two are very different in tone and content. In a section on adultery, the prose passage gives all sorts of how-to tips. The shlokas coming after, which seem to offer the conventional wisdom of the day, say no one should commit adultery. “The two are dramatically different, but Burton puts all this into prose, so you can’t tell there are really two voices here,” says Doniger. You get just one text speaking confusingly against itself.

Burton could not perhaps help being the Victorian Englishman. That must explain partly why Burton gets “the tone all wrong” through the translation, Doniger says. So when the woman shouts in the Sanskrit original “Let Go!”, Burton says “she is expressing a desire for liberation.” When she says “Enough!” in Sanskrit, Burton says she has made “an expression of sufficiency.” When the Sanskrit original speaks of infidelity, Burton refers to it as  “something to disclose”. The original “which is so vivid and direct becomes muted and padded in that translation,” says Doniger.

Burton leaves the names of many potent plants untranslated, in Sanskrit, or he translates them into Latin. We could be missing some interesting herbs here. Those he does name cannot be trusted, warns Doniger. Burton speaks, for instance, of potatoes, which were unknown in ancient India and only brought by the British.

The Kama Sutra in the original is “much more interesting and relevant than people seem to think,” Doniger says. “Most people don’t read it, and think it’s all about positions,” she says. “But positions is like just two pages. It’s a great book about eroticism, not something silly. It’s about how to arouse a partner, how to notice responses, how to seduce, what works with who, what does not, the power relations between man and woman, how to get rid of an unwanted lover...the whole range of intimacy between man and woman.” Or, if you are not reading the Burton translation, between man and man.