New Delhi: Author Wendy Doniger is back with “The Mare’s Trap” which revisits the Kamasutra. Doniger, an American scholar, is no stranger to controversies. Her previous book, “Hindus – An Alternative History” ran into rough weather last year over its alleged misrepresentation of Hindus. Eyebrows were also raised over the publisher Penguin India’s decision to withdraw and pulp the book after a court settlement.
In her new book, Doniger argues that the Kamasutra is more of a feminist text and it is crucial for Indian society to follow its liberal outlook towards sexuality and gender issues. In an email interview with IANS, Doniger said that the Indian government is becoming intolerant and the ban on pornography is indicative of the repression by the state.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: From beef, books to porn, the government is on a banning spree. You were also at the receiving end last year for “Hindus – An Alternative History”. What is the sense you are getting?
A: I fear that the Indian government is becoming very intolerant. It is a terrible shame that India, a culture that was once so open in its support of the arts, has now become so repressive of the arts. Even in the time when the Kamasutra was originally composed, there were elements of the Hindu world that did not accept its values. India has also always had a streak of puritanism, linked to the renunciant and ascetic tradition, and this part of Indian culture grew stronger under the British and again in the post-colonial backlash. Colonialism was repressive of Hinduism in many ways, including a negative valuation of the erotic aspects of the worship of the gods, and this gave rise to a negative valuation of these parts of Hinduism by certain Hindus too. Finally, the rise of fundamentalism around the world in the present period has played upon those old colonial resentments, to produce the present repressive regime in India.
Q: If ancient India was a liberal place according to you, why has it become conservative now? How relevant is the Kamasutra for modern India?
A: My answer to the first question is also an answer to the question of why India has recently become so conservative. As for the relevance, the Kamasutra values pleasure in the broadest sense, including sexual pleasure. Surely today’s global society shares these values, and so the Kamasutra is more relevant than ever. At a time when sexual violence has become a growing concern in India, this book, which is concerned with ways to tame the more savage aspects of sexuality, should be essential reading. The intellectual leaders of India should let people know what sort of a book the Kamasutra really is and encourage them to read it. This would greatly improve the general level of understanding about the nature, including the dangers, of sexuality.
Q: What was the idea behind revisiting the Kamasutra?
A: I was concerned that the Kamasutra was being largely neglected in India and hoped that by writing this book I would make more people aware of the actual nature of the book – and make them want to read it. Among the so-called “triad”of basic Hindu values – dharma, artha, and kama – kama has always been the third, the least valued. This is the result of the cultural ascendancy of the renunciant aspect of the Brahmin tradition.
Q: You describe Kamasutra as a feminist text. How can we ignore the class and caste realities of today’s India?
A: I think it is a feminist text, in the general sense of advancing women’s interests, because it argues that married women should have the primary financial responsibility in the household, that women may leave husbands who do not treat them well, that women’s pleasure is an essential part of the sexual act, that sex should not be limited to the production of babies. All of this, if taken seriously today, would greatly improve the condition of women in India. And the passages that caution against sexual violence may also be useful in making people in India aware of the causes of rape, and possibly some measures to deal with it. This, surely, will be for the benefit of women in India. As for caste, the fact that the Kamasutra finds caste totally irrelevant, that it specifically says that people of all of the “twice-born” varnas can live the life that it describes, is a total denial of the power of the caste system and a fine example of the sorts of attitudes that we need to cultivate today. Neither feminism nor human rights is a primary issue for the Kamasutra, but its extraordinarily liberal attitude to women and people of all castes makes it a valuable weapon for people who are fighting more directly for feminism and human rights in India today.