Book Reviews

Wendy Doniger: Redeeming the Kamasutra (2016)

Wendy Doniger, Redeeming the Kamasutra. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. 182. Price: $ 24.95. Hardback.

Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religion, of the University of Chicago, and arguably the doyenne of Sanskrit literature and Hindu religion, has produced another of her signature work of translation and exegesis of the much misunderstood (and abused) Hindu erotology, the Kamasutra of Mallanaga Vatsyayana (fl. c. 4th century BCE) —at once a handy no-nonsense academic work for lay readership and a serious discourse (albeit with the familiar “twinkle of Doniger’s” prose) on this ancient book.[1] She intends to carry out a number of corrections in the work of the pioneering English translator the great Victorian Orientalist Sir Richard F. Burton (Burton 1883), compare and contrast the Kamasutra with an even older treatise, the Arthashastra (c. 3rd century BCE) of Chanakya Kautilya c. 350-275 BCE), Emperor Chandragupta Maurya’s (r. 320-296 BCE) mentor and minister, and thus demonstrate the relevance of Vatsyayana in the postmodern present. Doniger’s primary objective is somewhat political as well as polemical. Responding to the current rise of Hindutva movement, she declares: “This made me realize how important it was to try to remind contemporary Indian readers that the Kamasutra was an occasion for national pride, not national shame, that it was a great and wise book, not a dirty book” (12).

In clear and crisp prose, the author provides a new reading of the Kamasutra that (i) brings out the closeted erotica into open, (ii) debunks all detractors of human sexuality, and above all, (iii) includes a spirited comparative analysis with the Arthashastra with a view to making both Indian authors converge on numerous ideas on human sexuality. Doniger’s second chapter titled Kautiliyan Kamasutra seeks to demonstrate the influence of the Arthashastra on the Kamasutra. Although this is not an absolutely novel idea, its systematic elaboration is admittedly new. Indeed, in several instances, both writers’ opinions on sex and sex workers converge. Another novelty of Doniger’s study consists in her postmodernist and postorientalist conclusion in which she writes about emasculation of primarily phallic Hindu religion and sacred texts because of the cultural surgery of the British evangelicals and, apparently to her delight, the resurfacing of Hindu erotica in post-independent India, reminiscent of the resurrection of the reconstructed god of lust Madana following his incineration by the lord of lingam (164).[2]

Arguably, Professor Doniger is a renowned Sanskritist and one of the most engaging scholars as well as interpreters of Hindu religion, mysticism, and religious folklore, witness the massive bibliography of her published scholarship. Sadly however, in the book under review, apparently researched in haste and composed more in zest than in earnest, she makes, unwittingly, some “sweeping generalizations and flippant insertions.”[3] According to her, Vatsyayana’s descriptions of male gay lovemaking was distorted in Richard Burton’s puritanical rendering of oral sex of eunuch shampooers. The issue at stake is the identity of the people of the tritiya prakriti [third nature] whom Burton categorized as eunuch to Doniger’s utter chagrin: “Why…did Burton use the word ‘eunuch’ to translate Tritiya prakriti? Why did he not recognize the text’s reference to sexually entire men who happened to prefer having (oral) sex with other men? (119)

The professor either overlooked or interpreted in her preferred way what the text writes about the advances a eunuch makes toward its male gay customer for a fellatio [auparistaka]: the “eunuch shampooer” “touches the joints of his [customer’s] thighs and his jaghana, or central portions of his body.”[4] Vatsyayana is actually writing about Hijras who are far from “sexually entire men” not happening “to prefer having oral (sex)” but perforce using their two orifices—anus and mouth—for earning a living. This is neither pederasty (in the Greek sense) nor “sexual acts between two men” (emphasis added). Professor Doniger is attempting to transform an ancient Hindu pandit, who averred that while composing the Kamasutra, he was “leading the life of a religious student, and wholly engaged in the contemplation of the Deity,”[5] into a modern gender expert revealing “attitudes to women’s education and sexual freedom, and non-judgmental views of homosexual acts, that are strikingly more liberal than those of other texts in ancient India—or, in many cases, contemporary India” (151).[6]

Doniger seeks to excavate titillating erotic messages and passages similar to the Kamasutra from Kautilya’s (fl 350-275 BCE) magnum opus the Arthashastra. It is noteworthy that Kautilya makes homosexuality as culpable as sex with a woman not through her yoni [striyamayonau gacchatah purvah sahasadandah purusamadhimehatashcha] and the culprit is required to pay the first amercement.[7] In the chapter titled “Of the Ways of Exciting Desire, and Miscellaneous Experiments and Recipes” in the Kamasutra, Vatsayana reminds his readers somberly that “This work is not intended to be used merely as an instrument for satisfying our desires. A person acquainted with the true principles of this science, and who preserves his Dharma, Artha, and Kama, and has regard for the practices of the people, is sure to obtain the mastery over his senses. In short, an intelligent and prudent person, attending to Dharma and Artha and attending to Kama also, without becoming the slave of his passions, obtains success in every thing that he may undertake.”[8]

A disappointing part of the book under review is the author’s failure to use a number of scholarly studies on the Kautiliya, British imperialism, or the Bengal Renaissance (the pioneering movement of the Anglo-Bengali colonial contact and impact). Doniger writes that “the highly Anglicized Indian elite…developed new forms of Hinduism, particularly the movement known as the Bengal Renaissance or the Hindu Renaissance” and “following the British lead, these Hindus largely wrote off the dominant strain of Hinduism that celebrated the passions of the gods” (152). There is no reference to the Brahmos. Had she mined the contemporary sources and some modern studies she would have enjoyed reading about the Anglicized Indian (Bengali) youths (Young Bengal) who exhibited a large appetite for fashion, feast and fun that included, for some, sartorial indulgence, dallying with married women, game of dice, and pigeon flying [pasha-payra-paradar-posak], and for some others, merrymaking, partying, whoremongering, and extravagant spending [khusi-khanki-khana-khairat].[9]

Doniger’s take on Kautilya and Machiavelli is based on the jaded and faded cliché Nick the Lucifer and Chanakya the kutilamati [crooked minded] Kautilya. There exist critical studies based on a close reading of these two authors’ texts. It is now possible to think of both men in human and historical terms with the result that reverses their venerated stereotypes. Kautilya now emerges as a politician who was a realist, though essentially a moralist and Machiavelli, a thinker with a profoundly personal sense of right or wrong in political life. “They join hands not as two notoriously crooked politicians, but as moralists par excellence.”[10]

The book’s chapters on Kautilya and the Third Nature began with some promise but ended up with the author’s personal opinion and agenda presented as academic research. Her purposive disregard of other scholars in the field (maybe due to her personal academic practice of citing from the primary sources mainly), has rendered her research skewed and her interpretation of the sources dubious. Especially her failure to use a pioneering analysis of the Arthashastra’s discussion of life and love nearly half a century ago (but still considered a magisterial study) is unconscionable. [11] Nirad Chaudhri’s two seminal studies on Bengali women in late colonial India (cited in endnote 2 below) provide an erudite and entertaining insight into the rise of prema [romantic love] as well as kama [lust] in colonial Calcutta, the primary site of Mughal India’s contact with the West.


  1. The quoted phrase is borrowed from Chistine Fears, “Kama Sutra,” Erotic Review (April 7, 2011). Online: (accessed 6/14/2017).
  2. Doniger believes that the Protestant missionaries were responsible for popularizing prudery among the free-spirited Hindus. One needs to peruse the Bengali polymath of Oxford, the late Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s Bangali Jibane Ramani [Woman in Bengali Life], 1399 BE and Atmaghati Bangali [Suicidal Bengali], 1399 BE) to gauge the extent of missionary influence on the sensual and sexual sensibilities of the Bengalis, the first group of Indians to come under Western power and culture. Also, Doniger writes about the “Protestant habit of censorship” (163) whereas, historically speaking, it was the Catholic Church that instituted it as the notorious Index librorum prohibitorum [List of Banned Books] (1559). Is the author referring to the Calvinists of Geneva or the temporary regime of the Puritans of England? 
  3. Bibek Debroy, “Unprotected Text” India Today (6 August 2015). Debroy’s review in 2015 provides all the correct paginations of Doniger’s book published in 2016. On p. 23 of Redeeming the Kamasutra the correct Sanskrit word for a “man-about-town” should be naagaraka (or naagarika), not “nagaraka,” which is non-sensical. Doniger similarly confuses kliba with klaibyam while citing Canto 2 verse 3 of the Bhagavadgita (114). See Hari Ravikumar, “Wendy Doniger’s Ignorance of the Bhagavad Gita.” indiafacts:truth be told (November 27, 2014). (accessed 7/2/2017).
  4. The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana: The Classic Burton Translation (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2016), IX, 51.
  5. Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, 7.ii.155
  6. Professor Doniger reveals astonishing innocence of Indian LGBT porn websites that would have made Vatsyayana look like a Manu!
  7. The Kautiiiya Arthashastra, vol. I, ed. R.P. Kangle (Bombay: University of Bombay, 1969), Book IV, Chapter xiii, verse 40.
  8. Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, 7.ii.155.
  9. See Narasingha P. Sil, Problem Child of Renascent Bengal: The Babu of Colonial Calcutta (Kolkata: K.P. Bagchi, 2017). See also Bhabanicharan Bandyopadhyay (1787-1848), Nababibibilas [Dalliance of the Modern Madam] (Kalikata, 1259 Bengali Era).
  10. Narasingha Prosad Sil, “Political Morality vs. Political Necessity: Kautilya and Machiavelli Revisited,” Journal of Asian History, XIX, 2 (1985), 101-142, here at 101. See also idem, Kautilya’s Arthashastra: A Comparative Study (Berne & New York: Peter Lang, 1989), ch. 3.
  11. Pratap C. Chunder, Kautilya on Love and Morals (Calcutta: Jayanti, 1970).


I am uploading my review (slightly emended) that was originally contracted for publication in the International Journal of Hindu Studies [IJHS] to which I contributed numerous book reviews since the past two decades. I personally know its editor, Professor Sushil Mittal, a well-known scholar of Hinduism. As you will notice, I found the author Wendy Doniger, a distinguished (albeit controversial) scholar of Sanskrit and Hindu religion, somewhat deliberately erratic and dogmatic in her purposive interpretation of Vatsyayana as a supporter and explicator of male homosexual love. She also provides a comparative analysis of the Kamasutra and the Arthashastra of Chanakya Kautilya which I find objectionable by the same token. But my book review editor, a hyperactive and egregiously self-conscious as an all-knowing and never-erring scholar (he in fact once tried to teach me how to write a book-review to his taste!!), accused me of unduly debunking the work of a renowned Indologist and Sanskritist without pointing out where I went wrong in my treatment of the tome. The main point which this odd individual took exception to (and this is not just a hunch of mine but well-thought-out deduction) is that I objected to the author’s “homosexual” interpretation on the basis of the text of Vatsyayana. My book review editor appears as one of those academicians who would consider any remark on homosexuality (gaining, increasingly, the status of a kind of sacred sexuality) as utterly sacrilegious and morally wrong even if it is made with due deference to language and its meaning. The upshot is the book-review editor rejected my work with nonchalance, showing himself impervious to even an iota of civility and scholarship. This character does not realize how much I like his journal and how, long before he came on board of IJHS as the book-review editor, I had been generous and patient when the journal (vol. 6, no. 3, December 2002) printed my submitted (on July 25, 2002) review of Lynn Zastoupil & Martin Moir, eds. The Great Indian Education Debate (Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999) under the name of another scholar (George W. Spencer)!


More by :  Dr. Narasingha Sil

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