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Kāma-sūtra: How to Become Free from Desires

Contrary to popular understanding, the Kāma-sūtra is not a manual exclusively for sensual enjoyment between lovers, a topic that covers only twenty percent of the book. Eighty percent of the Kāma-sūtra is a guide for a charming and delightful life. It discusses the nature of love, family life, how to maintain good relationships, and other aspects related to the sensual pleasures of humanity, such as the performance of arts, attending festivals, and cultural events.

In Indian literature, kāma means ‘desire’. Even though kāma often connotes sensual passion between lovers, the concept more broadly refers to any desire, wish, longing, sense pleasure, aesthetic enjoyment, affection, or love, with or without physical intimacy.

Kāma, sensual enjoyment, is an important part of life, similar to earning wealth and following certain principles to lead a virtuous life. This down-to-earth truth has existed in India since the beginning of creation when Prajāpati, the Creator, pronounced one hundred thousand chapters on tri-varga, a treatise on the three goals of life, dharma, artha, and kāma, meaning virtuous living, earning wealth, and sensual enjoyment, respectively[1]. The aim of tri-varga was to ensure the happiness of people in society.

Manu, the original law-maker of mankind, extracted the dharma part of this work and compiled the Dharma-Śāstra[2], which describes the duties of various classes of people.

Br̥haspati, the guru of the devas, took out the artha part and developed Artha-Śāstra[3], the science of earning wealth, which also includes polity and economy.

Nandi, the sacred Bull and doorkeeper of Śiva, extracted the kāma part and composed the Kāma-Śāstra in one thousand chapters[4].

Śvetaketu, a teacher of philosophy who lived in the eight century BCE[5],then compressed these thousand chapters into five hundred chapters[6]. Later, a great scholar named Babhru along with his followers, known as the lineage of Babhravya[7], summarized the vast work of Śvetaketu in 150 chapters and divided it into seven parts[8], which are:

1. General Observations and Lifestyle

2. Different Types of Sensual Enjoyment

3. Selection of a Life Partner

4. Wives

5. Extra Marital Relationships

6. Courtesans[9]

7. Ways to Increase Physical Attraction and Sensual Pleasure

Between the third and first centuries BCE, several other authors wrote treatises based on different parts of this work of Babhravya, which made the text fragmentary, scattered, and more or less destroyed[10].

Vātsyāyana, Author of Kāma-sūtra

When Vātsyāyana, a brāhmaṇa and great scholar who lived in the fourth century CE in the city of Pataliputra, saw how the various works belonging to Kāma-Śāstra had become difficult to access, he collected them and summarized them in his Kāma- sūtra [11].

This is what Vātsyāyana writes about himself at the end of his Kāma-sūtra: “After studying the works of Babhravya and other ancient authors and contemplating on the meaning of the rules given by them, this treatise was composed according to the precepts of dharma for the benefit of the people by myself, Vātsyāyana, while leading the life of a brahmacārī (religious/celibate student) at Benares, and wholly engaged in meditation of the Lord.

One should not view this work merely as an instrument for satisfying our desires. A person who realizes the true principles of this science, who preserves his dharma (virtues principles), artha (acquisition of wealth), and kāma (sensual enjoyment), and who respects the traditions of the people, will surely obtain mastery over his senses. In other words, an intelligent and wise person following dharma, artha, and kāma, without becoming the slave of his passions, will be successful in everything he may do[12].”

Accordingly,Vātsyāyana began his treatise with an explanation of dharma, artha, and kāma and ends it with his assurance that a wise person who follows the rules and principles described in the Kāma-sūtra will become free from all desires.

It is within this kind of freedom from desires that sensual enjoyment can become an expression of love—such love being the purpose of creation.

Tradition of Kāma-sūtra

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[1]Kāma-sūtra1.1.5.

[2]Kāma-sūtra1.1.6.

[3]Kāma-sūtra1.1.7.

[4]Kāma-sūtra1.1.8. The story is also found in Mahābhārata 1.1.6-8.

[5] The date is known, since Uddālaka and Śvetaketu are the protagonists of the Br̥had Āraṇyaka Upaniñadand Chāndogya Upaṇisad, which are generally dated to this period and contain significant verses related to erotic science. The treatises of Śvetaketu on which the Kāma-sūtra was based, have been lost. The translations from the Sanskrit, which we have today, refer to acknowledged commentaries written in later centuries.

[6]Kāma-sūtra 1.1.9.

[7] The Babhravya were originally from Panchala, a region located between the two rivers Ganga and Yamuna, to the south of present-day Delhi, but most probably lived in the city of Pataliputra, the great center of the kingdom of Chandragupta.

[8]Kāma-sūtra 1.1.10.

[9]Dattaka made a separate book out of the sixth part of this work about courtesans at the request of the courtesans of Pataliputra - Kāma-sūtra 1.1.11.

[10]Kāma-sūtra 1.1.13.

[11]Kāma-sūtra 1.1.14.

[12]Kāma-sūtra 7.2.57-59.

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