Margaret Farley on the Kama Sutra
Cambridge, MA. Another reason for reading Professor Margaret Farley’s Just Love, the book recently censured by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is a reason that might occur mainly to people like me, theologian-cum-Hinduism-scholar-and-comparativist: it talks about the Kama Sutra, India’s famous classical treatise (c. third century CE) on erotic love. Everyone knows that Just Love deals with issues central to Catholic sexual ethics today, but it is worth noting that it also, in an introductory way, looks more widely.
For Professor Farley creates space in the center of the book for learning from non-Western cultures and other religions, and most remarkably, for the Kama Sutra. Chapter 3, “Difficult Crossings,” considers first the reasons – closed-minded, lingering colonial condescension toward the rest of the world, and an Orientalist mentality that uses the East simply to buttress our views about the world and what we want others to be, so that we can admire ourselves all the more confidently. It is obviously very hard, if we need to be reminded, for us to take others’ views to heart; it is hard work to break open the circle of the conversation and learn from the wider world without being too judgmental or oblivious to real points of disagreement.
Farley goes on then to take up four cases that potentially have a lot to teach about sexuality and how to think about it: the “pre-modern islands of the South Seas,” “African cultures,” the Kama Sutra, and “The world of Islam.” She does not delve deeply into any of these cases, but as it were, opens the door to further reflection. She does not, in this third chapter, draw any normative conclusions; neither does she blandly approve of what she presents.
Let me say a bit more about the Kama Sutra, of which you can find here the old (Victorian) Burton-Arbuthnot translation (now very much superseded by recent Wendy Doniger-Sudhir Kakar translation). The Sutra is one of a series of instructive Sanskrit texts, summaries and condensations, that appeared in medieval India. Some such texts covered the law and society’s rules, or commerce and the best practices of kings; others condensed the true meaning of the scriptures, be it the ritual texts of the Vedic hymns or the more theological meditations of the Upanisads. Some, like the Yoga Sutras, distilled the practical and intellectual insights required for a true discipline of the bodily, psychological, and spiritual reality of human being. The Kama Sutras distill the overall meaning, physical practices, and social conventions of love, sexual and social, in premodern India. Farley is correct in pointing out, in her elegant few pages on the framing insights of the text, that it puts love and pleasure in the context of human life as a whole, and makes kama – desire, pleasure, yearning, delight – available to learned readers. (It notes that even if women, barred from learning Sanskrit, cannot pick up and study the text, they do nevertheless relate to the same human realities of which the Sutras speak.) She made a good case, albeit very briefly, for learning from India’s tradition of erotic love.
What Farley does not do is give us a feel for the vivid teachings of the Sutra on erotic love, the parts of the treatise that make it one of the world’s most famous books. Nor will I do so here, but some of the Sutra's section themes are wonderfully suggestive, again according to the Doniger/Kakar translation: In Book 2, we hear about the lifestyle of the man-about-town; reasons for taking another man’s wife; ways of embracing, and procedures of kissing; types of scratching with the nails; ways of biting and slapping; varieties of sexual positions; the woman playing the man’s part; a man’s sexual strokes; oral sex; how intercourse is to begin, and end. Great detail, indeed. But the rest of the text expands our thinking about love and desire still more widely. Book 3 is about courtship, ways of winning over a bride, how to manage a wedding, while Book 4 talks about home life after marriage, particularly in the situation where the man, as was in some parts of India allowed, had multiple wives. Book 5 is about extramarital sex, and the remarkable Book 6 is advice to courtesans on what do with the men that come as customers. Book 7 is full of detailed, nearly pharmaceutical advice on stimulants, potions, things to sprinkle and things to rub, and all manner of ways of enhancing pleasure and potency.
Farley gives none of this detail - which would be enough to keep Christian ethicists, right and left, busy for quite a while - but nonetheless closes her section on the Sutra wisely, helping us to begin to figure out what to do with all that detail which we can and perhaps should read for ourselves. She cites an instruction near the end of the Sutra, on its overall purpose: “A man who knows [Kamasutra’s] real meaning sees religion, power, and pleasure, his own convictions, and the ways of the world for what they are, and he is not driven by passion. The unusual techniques employed to increase passion, which have been described as this particular book required, are strongly restricted right here in this verse, right after it.” (Doniger/Kakar tr.) The quote goes on, somewhat paradoxically, to observe that a clinically precise description of body parts, arousals, ointments and procedures, manifold forms of union, does not merely encourage one to do such things, but also – perhaps primarily for the author, Vatsyayana, if we take him at his word – instills awareness and then dispassion: this is sex, this is pleasure; it is nothing more or less.
Farley’s own book, in its careful considerations of today’s sexual values and practices in light of tradition and divergence from it, might not serve to encourage such practices – as if anything goes – but perhaps to banish all kinds of false views - vague, naive, disembodied - regarding what sex is about. As she says in concluding the section, the effect of studying a text like the Sutra may be that “our eyes [are] turned forward and backward,” are “sharpened” and our thoughts “both concentrated and provoked.” Love is itself; it is just; it is just love, when the world is full of other things too.
As a comparative theologian, I wish to commend Just Love for where it points us, even if it does not quite take us there: the wisdom, lofty and exceedingly mundane, that other traditions — the Kama Sutra, and her other examples too — have regarding the meaning and flesh-and-blood reality of human love. Today the uproar is about the rest of the book, about Margaret Farley, and about the CDF’s insight into the fact that her book does not represent official Church teaching. Perhaps, though, 20 or 50 or 100 years from now, it may also be remembered as taking a cautious first step into that wider world, where we do well to learn from many cultures and religions and their classic texts - without necessarily approving of everything we learn - before finalizing our thoughts on the meaning of human reality and our deepest passions.