Kama Sutra, Kitsch & Kitchen
It's the country of the Kama Sutra and of arranged marriages: India. As in so many areas of life on the colourful subcontinent, that seems a big contradiction, at least at first appearance. The Kama Sutra is now merely a tradition, and arranged marriages gradually give way to the modern type of long-term relationships. Two dinosaurs then? Let's take a closer look.
By: Elke Allenstein It’s the country of the Kama Sutra and of arranged marriages: India. As in so many areas of life on the colourful subcontinent, that seems a big contradiction, at least at first appearance. The Kama Sutra is now merely a tradition, and arranged marriages gradually give way to the modern type of long-term relationships. Two dinosaurs then? Let’s take a closer look.
The Kama Sutra, the ‘verses of desire’, was created in the courtly sphere roughly between the second and the third century AD and is considered one of the most influential texts of world literature on the topic of love. It is a work of erotic and sexual instruction as well as a guide to ethical living. The world-famous book contains descriptions of coital positions and advice for married couples as well as many practical tips for other areas of life: how to plant a garden, how to arrange a kitchen or furnish a house. It is the first attempt to fully describe the relationship between man and woman. It shows that eroticism and sexuality are not the same thing: sexuality is nature, while eroticism is culture. Sexuality needs culture. From the Kama Sutra we can learn how to turn sexuality into eroticism. For instance, by doing without something. Kama is the name of the Indian god responsible for the art of love. The name means ‘desire’ or ‘joy’. In the Indian context, desire means more than just sexual desire. Kama comprises any kind of desire that can be experienced with the senses: “Kama is the pleasure that the body, the mind and the soul derive from exquisite sensations. Arouse the eyes, the nose, the tongues, the ears, the skin – and between feeling and the things felt, the nature of Kama will flourish.”
After more than eleven years of countless trips to the bustling subcontinent and keen observation, I find it hard to believe that these writings are rooted in today’s India. Have these instructions always been a mere theory then, or have they simply lost their practical relevance in the course of the centuries? And if that is the case, why did this happen?
The erotic tradition of the Kama Sutra and the ascetic tradition have always been in conflict with each other. From the 12th century on, moral control of sexuality gained the upper hand. Add to this the influence of the British colonialists and their Victorian prudishness. Thanks to globalization, there has been a gradual return to the erotic tradition in recent years. However, changes in sex morals happen more slowly than political and social changes.
What is the conflict about?
In India, social assignment is essential. One’s behaviour is determined by what is prescribed in the respective caste. Any deviation from the norm is punished. Society is ruled at all levels by a patriarchal and heterosexual system. In the urban centres, however, this system is more and more weakened. But moral ideas remain very conservative. In some Indian communities, sexual taboos are so strong that women have no terms for their genitals. Sex before marriage is strictly forbidden. However, this applies mainly to women, men are quite free to have premarital sex. Most families, usually large, live in confined circumstances without any of the privacy necessary for a healthy sex life.
The balancing act between movie pathos and plain reality
Popular Indian cinema, which combines images and symbols from traditional regional cultures with modern, western themes, is one of the most important forces of Indian society. It is a kind of collective imagination. And people pin their hopes on this imagination, which heals the trauma and protects against reality. Hindi films – perhaps more than they are in other countries – are vehicles of the imagination in this particular sense. The stock repertoire of stories which the audience is probably entirely familiar with is strikingly similar to popular theatre. But cinema goes far beyond that: films are pitched at such a diverse audience that they have to bridge social and geographical boundaries. The values and the language of popular cinema, which attracts an audience of several tens of millions every day, have long since moved beyond the large cities and have pervaded the culture of the rural population. There, they are beginning to influence the standards by which the quality of life is measured, as well as social, family and sexual relations. It is interesting to note that the fictional world of film does not satisfy the need of the destitute to escape from reality. No Indian in their right mind – poor or otherwise – believes that Hindi movies give a true image of reality. Perhaps there is an explanation for this discrepancy between Indians’ realistic attitude to love and partnerships in daily life and the fictitious emotional romanticism in Hindi films. Recent films feature sexuality and taboo topics like adultery. Until lately, not even a kiss was permitted, since it belongs to the sphere of private life and that is not shared with others. Not even married couples kiss in the street. On the other hand, the obligatory dancing scenes in movies burst with sexuality. Personally, I find them downright crude. However, those scenes are permitted, but they aren’t erotic, because eroticism needs suspense, mystery and romanticism.
The films’ romantic plots and the recent developments described above do not have any effect on the idea of partnerships in India. Even today, about 80% of young people prefer arranged marriages to love matches.
The first reason for this is that the main principle of the family is not the man-woman relationship. Sons and parents live together in an extended family, rather than a couple living in opposition to it. Often, sexual love is even considered disturbing and to be in the way, because it is detrimental to the male self-image as a son and brother. Men’s attachment to their parents almost always proves much stronger than that to their lover. Put generally, men are infantile in their relationships, fickle in love and merciless when enraged. This is why the woman’s love is limited to placating and to masochistic humility. It is also about the age-old division of the wife into the roles of mother and whore – the object of both admiration and desire, entailing a conflict that apparently cannot be solved. A Punjabi saying sums it up: “A woman that shows you more love than your mother is a slut.” Given such a view of women, sexuality is inevitably fated. Love-making becomes a shameful affair, mere hurried desire with little love and even less passion. Women experience sexuality as a rather bothersome affair that they want to get over with quickly, a male need and privilege. The metaphors used for the act speak for themselves: ‘a weekly injection – painful, but good for your health’, ‘work’, ‘business’. Even Gandhi sees female sexuality as ‘passive and sorrowful acceptance of a male attack’. He argues for the complete desexualisation of the relationship between men and women as a solution to the basic problem between the sexes.
Secondly, for some Indian religions the downward movement of sexual energy and its ejection as semen means a weakening of the man, a waste of vitality and essential energy, which should rather have been channeled upward towards the mind and thereby been transformed and have become the source of spiritual life. Another reason why people support arranged marriages is that everybody can be sure to find a partner – your looks don’t matter. That takes away a lot of the pressure.
Thirdly, boys and girls are prepared for arranged marriage. from an early age. Right from the beginning the sexes are kept strictly separate. In the years before getting married, sexual pressure becomes very strong and the probability to fall in love with the allotted partner is high since there is no way of comparing them. Young people know close to nothing about the other sex. Ignorance thrives under the veil of silence decreed by society. This makes a love marriage very difficult. Mutual expectations, shaped by previously unfelt emotions, are so much higher. Also, it’s a personal decision and you alone take responsibility, while in an arranged marriage it’s the parents who have made the match and who are therefore responsible for its success. This gives the protagonists a degree of security.
Astrological considerations also play a considerable part in choosing the candidates, an indication of how resigned people are to their fate and how prepared to delegate responsibility for their own future.
A divorce rate of just 2% seems to vindicate the practice of arranged marriages. Such marriages stick to the traditional rules and customs of caste, while love marriages may ignore the boundaries of caste and even of religion – that way making things even more difficult for these courageous couples.
Thus, sexual relationships in India are driven more by hostility and insecurity than by feelings of tenderness and love. The images each sex forms of the other are full of fear and hate just as much as of longing and desire.
And what about the Kama Sutra?
The Kama Sutra belongs to a past culture, but it lingers on in the cultural memory. It is proof that a liberal attitude to sexuality is not a western product, but that sexual liberty is indeed a part of Indian culture – and could be revived.
About The Author: Elke Allenstien is German writer, traveler and passionate about India, its culture and traditions. Elke is fond of Udaipur and also write about her experience in Udaipur via her German Blog mewar.de. Elke can be reached via facebook.
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