A Beginner's Guide To The Kama Sutra, From Indian Sexuality Experts
When you hear the words "Kama Sutra," what comes to mind?
If it has something to do with acrobatic sex positions, you wouldn't be the only one. However, sex positions are just one of many varied topics discussed in the ancient Indian text known as the Kama Sutra.
To understand what the Kama Sutra is truly all about, we spoke with two Indian sexuality experts about its history, misconceptions, and a few of its most noteworthy teachings.
What is the Kama Sutra?
The Kama Sutra is an ancient Indian treatise on living a pleasurable life. Though it''s most known for one of its sections that gives instructions on how to have better sexual experiences, the book isn't predominantly about sex. It was originally written to teach young, wealthy men how to live well, and it includes instructions on a wide variety of topics, such as how to build a house, how to find a wife, how spouses should treat each other, and much more.
"You can actually say that it's a little bit of everything," says Varuna Srinivasan, MPH, FRSPH, a sexual health consultant and gender justice advocate. "It's a book about how to live life and appreciate the finer things."
The word kama translates to "love, desire, and pleasure," according to Srinivasan. A sutra is a specific type of Indian literature, typically written in aphorisms and meant to be instructive. Therefore, kama sutra roughly translates to "pleasure manual"—though again, it's about pleasure in the broader sense.
"It's very much about elegance. It's about refinement," says Seema Anand, a sexuality educator, mythologist, and scholar of the Kama Sutra. "And I get really annoyed when we talk about positions because it's not a book about positions."
The history of Kama Sutra.
The Kama Sutra is thought to have been written around the year A.D. 300 by a Hindu philosopher named Vātsyāyana Mallanaga, of whom historians know very little other than his name. However, the book is actually thought to be a collection of previous texts that the author simply stitched together. And according to Anand, some believe that much of the book may have actually been written by women.
"He says that he took all his information from texts that were written a thousand years before, and that he's pretty much copied and pasted the bits that he likes. He says that in his introduction," Anand explains. According to Indian mythology, she says, some of those original texts are believed to have been written by the wife of the God of Love himself, Kama. Other stories suggest courtesans of the time paid for the book to be written, she says. Anand personally believes the famous section on sex (section two out of seven sections) may have been written by a woman because of the way it focuses so much on women's pleasure, which was still radical at the time of its writing.
While its authorship remains shrouded in mystery, the Kama Sutra went on to become a very important and widely disseminated text across the region that later became India. According to Anand, there have been hundreds if not thousands of versions of the Kama Sutra. "Literally every kingdom across what we call India would have their own version of this written," she explains, though she says that over time, as different cultures and different ideas of morality came into play in the region throughout history, the text gradually fell from prominence.
Then, in 1883, a British explorer named Richard Burton published a translation of the book that became massively popular across Europe and the world. "That's when it also goes askew because a lot of it is translated pretty badly," says Anand. Burton's version focused heavily on the erotic themes of the Kama Sutra and specifically the sex positions, which is where today's misunderstandings about the text stem from.
"Unfortunately, as result to Richard Burton's translation and Western caricatures of what it means, it has now been marketed as a 'solution' to sexual health problems," Srinivasan adds. "I don't know of one Indian woman who hasn't been accosted by a white man asking her if she can do some of the moves from the Kama Sutra. Common misconceptions are that it is a book about sex positions and that all Indians are experts in the Kama Sutra. Wrong."
While the Kama Sutra talks about many topics, below are a few of the teachings from it related to pleasure and sexuality, according to Anand and Srinivasan:
1. Sex is about pleasure.
The Kama Sutra is all about pleasure at its core, says Anand, and it emphasizes the idea that sex should always feel good for both people. "It says that if sex is to be had between two people, it should always be joyous. It should be fabulous. It should be totally mutually pleasurable; otherwise, it's not worth it."
She notes that the Kama Sutra never actually talks about thrusting, sexual fluids, or the physical act of intercourse in any great detail—it simply talks about ways to increase the physical sensations and erotic pleasure of sexual experiences.
2. Prioritize women's pleasure during sex.
The Kama Sutra places a lot of emphasis on women's pleasure, says Anand. "It does tell women how to pleasure the man, but sort of the focus is all about how it takes much longer for a woman to come to pleasure. You've got to give her that time. You've got to kiss her like this. You've got to do this to her. So it's all about that," she explains. "If it takes her three days to come to arousal, you spend those three days."
One version of the text explains men must make sure their wife is fully pleasured for the good of his business, according to Anand. The logic goes: If your wife is pleased in her life and in the bedroom, she'll support you in your work and in all your endeavors. But if she's dissatisfied, she'll find other lovers or spend your money or otherwise make your life miserable.
Other versions compared lovemaking to the skills of a warrior, drawing connections between sex positions and battle positions.
More broadly, Anand says a mutually happy relationship was seen as the bedrock of a healthy society. "Literally every single king of every kingdom who ever came to the throne would have [a copy of the Kama Sutra] written because they believed that if a couple were to share truly mutually pleasurable intimacy, then their relationship would be stable. And if the relationship was stable, society would be stable. And if society was stable, the kingdom would be stable," she explains. "So the stability of the kingdom depended on the pleasure of the woman."
3. Penetration isn't everything.
The Kama Sutra makes it clear that penetration isn't the be-all and end-all of good sex. "That's not what pleasure is all about. It's not all about penetration," says Anand. "Sex is not just that one thing."
Anand notes that many non-penetrative activities are described in the Kama Sutra as being potential sources of pleasure. For example, she says the book tells men to keep drawing materials in their bedroom and to make portraits of their lover prior to sex, as a way to create moments of intimacy, eye contact, and one-on-one special time together. It also describes activities like juggling, using perfumes and jewelry, and specific types of kisses and "love bites" as key parts of intimacy.
"I think sex, for most people, is about that penetration, isn't it? And nothing more. And for most women, that doesn't even count as pleasurable. There's nothing exciting about that. It's like the least exciting thing," Anand says. "There are so many other things to the sexual act that should be explored."
She notes that men are instructed to make sure their female partner has at least two orgasms before he even considers penetrating her.
4. Size matters.
When it comes to penis-in-vagina intercourse, the Kama Sutra teaches that size does, in fact, matter.
"It says that, if two people are going to have sex, then one of the first criteria is that the sexual organs should match in size," Anand explains. "If the woman is too tight, and the man is too big, it's gonna lead to pain. And if the woman is too large, and he's too small, there's going to be absolutely no sensation. So the idea is that the organs should be the same size."
This is actually the basis for why the Kama Sutra talks about sex positions so much in the first place, says Anand: It says that if two partners' sexual organs are not matched in terms of size, they should engage in specific positions meant to help maximize sensation and pleasure (and/or minimize any sexual pain). Those are the sex positions described in the Kama Sutra.
"So for instance, if the woman is really, really big, and the man is really small, it recommends that the woman should lie on her side. She should pull her legs up a little bit. That makes [her vaginal opening] a bit smaller, [and then] the man should enter from a particular angle so that he will feel the friction against her a little bit more," Anand explains. "That's what [the sex positions] were originally meant for."
5. Pleasure can be derived from many parts of life.
Although sexuality and intimacy is a big theme throughout the Kama Sutra, the point of the book was not simply to teach people how to have good sex.
"While we think of sex when someone says the word kama sutra, what it really is about is finding self-love, being a dutiful husband/wife, and learning to appreciate the arts," Srinivasan explains. "It teaches us to derive pleasure from inherently nonsexual activities."
Kama Sutra sex positions.
If you are curious about some of the sex positions discussed in the Kama Sutra, here are a handful:
Indrani's Position (Queen of Heaven)
Named after the wife of the God of Heaven, this sex position is a twist on the classic missionary that requires a bit of flexibility: The receiver lies on their back with knees drawn toward their chest in fetal position, drawing their calves as far down to touching their thighs as possible. The penetrator kneels with their thighs on each side of their partner and thrusts.
In another variation of missionary, the receiver lies on their back with the penetrating partner on top, chests close together. The receiver wraps their thighs and legs around the thighs of the penetrator, "clasping" them as they thrust.
Congress of a Cow
The receiver stands on their feet and then bends over to place their hands on the ground, keeping their legs straight so they're standing on all fours (somewhat like a cow, hence the name). The other partner then penetrates them from behind, massaging and fondling their back at the same time.
Milk & Water Embrace
The penetrating partner sits on a chair or the bed, and the receiver sits on their lap, facing away, for penetration from behind.
The classic lotus sex position is beloved in the world of tantric sex: It involves the penetrating partner sitting on the bed upright with legs crossed, with the receiving partner sitting on the penetrator's lap facing them and wrapping their legs around them. In the Kama Sutra, a similar position involves the receiver lying on their back with their legs crossed into a pretzel and pressed toward the stomach, while the penetrating partner kneels over them and penetrates their exposed vagina or anus.
In this difficult position, the penetrator leans their back against a wall and holds the receiving partner up by their buttocks, while the receiver hangs off the penetrator's neck and plants their feet on the wall. The receiver then presses their feet against the wall to help them bounce on their partner's penis or strap-on. (This position can potentially be dangerous, so be very careful if you do try it. Consider modifying it to make it easier on both parties.)
The Kama Sutra offers an impressively holistic, pleasure-positive vision of sexuality for a book written nearly 2,000 years ago. But importantly, our experts stress that the book is about so much more than just sex positions. "It was just about adding refinement, elegance, variety, and keeping the passion alive," says Anand.
If you want to learn from the Kama Sutra, Srinivasan recommends finding a modern (and accurate) translation and seeking out Indian authors with expertise in the field. "If you're reading the book, try something new that you've never tried before," they add.
When it comes to our sexuality, the biggest takeaway from the Kama Sutra is perhaps this: Sex is part of a full, healthy, well-lived life, and good sex is an endeavor worth pursuing.