How Richard F Burton’s The Kama Sutra symbolised fantastical Orientalism that shaped late 19th century imagination about India
What was presented to the colonial world as The Kama Sutra and taken to be a literal translation of Vatsayana’s Kamasutra was in fact the selective (and poor) translation of one part of a multipart disquisition on erotics and manners.
During the colonial period in India, European scholars, British officials, and elite Indian intellectuals — philologists, administrators, doctors, ethnologists, sociologists, and social critics — deployed ideas about sexuality to understand modern Indian society. In Indian Sex Life, Durba Mitra shows how deviant female sexuality, particularly the concept of the prostitute, became foundational to this knowledge project and became the primary way to think and write about Indian society.
Reframing the prostitute as a concept, Indian Sex Life overturns long-established notions of how to write the history of modern social thought in colonial India, and opens up new approaches for the global history of sexuality.
Durba Mitra is assistant professor of studies in women, gender, and sexuality at Harvard University and Carol K Pforzheimer Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute.
The following excerpt from Indian Sex Life has been republished here with due permission from Penguin Random House.
The Kamasutra is one of the most widely circulated ancient Indian texts in the modern world. It has been described as everything from the first scientific study of sex, to a vital book of Hindu erotics, to an ancient treatise on love, to a sexological manual, to the definitive account of ancient Indian society. It became an object of fascination in the 1880s with the translation and wide circulation of the text by East India Company political agent Richard F Burton (1821–1890) in his The Kama Sutra of Vatsayana. Burton is well known for his role in shaping colonial knowledge across the empire and for his many publications on regions as diverse as Africa and Central and South Asia.
A self-proclaimed explorer, translator, commentator, and ethnographer, he imagined the East as a timeless archive of unchanging social practices from the ancient to the colonial world. He wrote prolifically about his travels and produced interpretive translations of Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian texts that became definitive representations of the region. He was perhaps most famous for his transcreation of The Book of The Thousand Nights and a Night, which shaped nineteenth-and twentieth-century Orientalist notions of despotism, sexual transgression, and wonder of the Muslim world.
Likewise, his travel writings through Sindh and Africa and his erotic publications were critical for popular understandings of “native” sexuality. Through exaggerated representations of sexual practices and religious superstition, Burton claimed to capture the true social lives of colonized subjects.
Burton’s early translation and interpretation of Kamasutra has become emblematic of the fantastical Orientalism that shaped the late nineteenth-century imagination about India. In truth, Burton himself did little of the translation; instead, it was the product of his collaborators Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot (1833–1901) and two Indian men, Bhagavanlal Indrajit and Shivaram Parashuram Bhide. The text gained widespread popularity as Burton’s The Kama Sutra, circulating all over the world (it remains in print today).
As Anjali Arondekar has demonstrated, even the rumor of Burton’s travels produced a furor. People sought Burton’s fantastical depictions of a “perverse” Indian sexuality. The fascination with Burton led to an almost obsessive interest in searching for his lost accounts.
The kama texts that fascinated Burton were in fact not simply treatises on sex but broader inquiries that addressed subjects ranging from domestic practices to cosmetics to gardens.
What was presented to the colonial world as The Kama Sutra and taken to be a literal translation of Vatsayana’s Kamasutra was in fact the selective (and poor) translation of one part of a multipart disquisition on erotics and manners. Burton’s The Kama Sutra was a phantasmatic claim to empiricism based in imagination — the selective translation, interpretation, and reinvention of texts, rather than a comprehensive translation of a Sanskrit treatise.
Burton’s The Kama Sutra was initially based on the partial translations of a fifteenth-century text, Anangaranga. He claimed that he collected parts of manuscripts from across India with the help of Hindu pundits. These manuscripts, Burton asserted, were compared for their facticity through the tools of comparative philology. In later editions, Burton merged his original text with selections from Vatsayana’s Kamasutra, as well as with a thirteenth-century Sanskrit commentary.
What I would like to highlight here is the generative energy of Burton’s publications for a new field of inquiry. Burton’s The Kama Sutra fueled the widespread interest in Sanskrit texts on kama.
Its publication was followed by decades of extended translations and critical editions of the Sanskrit texts across Europe and led to a new interest in the study of kama into other ancient and medieval Sanskrit treatises among German and Indian Indologists and sociologists. Widely circulated by the fictitious Hindoo Kama Shastra Society, it immediately gained an audience across Europe, fueling the public fascination in the metropole for texts that animated ancient Indian sex life.
For his part, Burton claimed the text was meant to be read beyond its titillating details, as a science; The Kama Sutra was a scientific understanding of what he termed the “Hindu art of love.”
Burton sought to assimilate Sanskrit erotics in a comprehensive canon of Oriental texts, which were in his view interchangeable and representative of the highly sexualized and unchanging nature of colonized societies.
In his prefatory remarks to the first edition, he drew links between the classificatory regimes of Sanskrit texts that he paralleled to classification of animals in the natural sciences: “Men and women are divided into classes and divisions in the same way that Buffon and other writers on natural history have classified and divided the animal world.”
Burton’s sensational accounts led scholars of the late nineteenth century to address kama as an object of knowledge in learned, detailed philological studies. Indeed, Burton asserted that his The Kama Sutra should be placed alongside British scientific texts, most notably the pseudonymous medical doctor Thomas Bell’s Kalogynomia: or the Laws of Female Beauty (1821) — itself a pseudo-scientific sex manual on the dangerous sexualities of women, from polygamy to prostitution to infidelity.
For Burton, the theme of “Hindoo” conceptions of love found in the Sanskrit Kamasutraand Anangaranga were to be read by the learned scholar as parallel and in conversation with this English scientific study of female beauty and sexuality. Burton made a conceptual equivalence between the European sciences of female sexuality and ancient kama texts. His interpretation of Kamasutra merged his understanding of premodern Indian sexual practices with scientific studies circulating in the nineteenth century on the status of women, their beauty, and their role in marriage and prostitution.
In The Kama Sutra, Burton produced a comprehensive canon of Oriental erotics, and even extended the analysis to other times and places. All texts on ancient “ars erotica” across the colonial world were to be taken as equivalent and interchangeable. This project was transhistorical in application, transgeographical in scope. In India, he argued, there was an ancient urtext on kama, composed by Vatsayana, which appeared as Anangaranga later and then morphed into the sixth-century Arabic text Lizzat al-Nisa, from which emerged Persian and Turkish versions. Indeed, as the preface to Burton’s Ananga-Ranga proclaims, the knowledge of Hindu erotics was so commonplace as to be the very natural world of all societies of the near and far East: “In these days the Ananga-Ranga enjoys deserved celebrity. Lithographed copies have been printed by hundreds of thousands, and the book is in the hands of both sexes and all ages throughout the nearer East, and possibly it may extend to China and Japan. It has become a part of natural life.”
Put another way, the book was to be treated as an anthropological study of the very nature of Hindu society, naturalized across all of the East. He writes in the preface that “the book becomes an ethnological treasure, which tells us as much of Hindu human nature as the ‘Thousand Nights and a Night’ of Arab manners and customs in the cinquecento.”
Burton argues that Hindu erotics were valuable precisely because they were a social science that could be used to comprehend the whole history and present of the people of India: “The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, concerning which more presently, and Ananga-Ranga must be regarded as two valuable and interesting works on Social Science: they bear repeated readings.”
The publication of Burton’s The Kama Sutra was a signal event. Alongside his exaggerated Orientalist depictions of Indian sexuality, we may consider the enormous impact of Burton’s claims about the systematic study of Indian social life. Burton’s project of reading Sanskrit treatises produced new methods based in the search for origins that constituted a new episteme built on a set of texts. After Burton, sociological inquiry about modern Indian society was to be based in a canon of Sanskrit sources about the sexual practices of ancient and medieval India.
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