On Sex, Sanskrit, and the fallibility of Richard Burton. Ginu Kamani meets Dr. Wendy Doniger, who, along with Dr. Sudhir Kakar, is the author of a new translation of the ancient (and apparently, much misunderstood) text.


“God put me on the earth to translate the Kamasutra. The question is why it’s taken so long.”

No small claim from Wendy Doniger, Professor in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, translator of The Rig Veda, The Laws of Manu, Puranas galore and an assortment of other Sanskrit texts. Her new translation of the Kamasutra, in collaboration with Sudhir Kakar, has just debuted from the Oxford University Press.

“Sanskritists tend to be a pretty dried up bunch. You know what they say: it’s a shame that youth is wasted on the young. Well, it’s a shame the Kamasutra is wasted on Sanskritists!”

Perhaps this assertion explains her choice of partner in this project. As she puts it, it was just nice to have a companion. “He (Sudhir Kakar) gave it a balance: he’s a man and I’m a woman, he’s an Indian and I’m an American, and we are very good old friends.” It also helped that Kakar is a well-known psychoanalyst, and his help with the Hindi commentary around the original Sanskrit text of the Kamasutra was invaluable.

Easily the Indian text best known to the West, the Kamasutra has been continuously in print since 1883, though it only achieved legal status in 1962, in England and the United States.

The original translation is attributed to Sir Richard Francis Burton, but we now know that the majority of the work was done by two pundits, Bhagavanlal Indrajit and Shivaram Parashuram Bhide, who weren’t credited until 1962. Burton’s compatriot Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot prepared the texts for Burton, and received some credit, but Burton’s was by far the biggest name. 

Doniger recounts: “Burton and Arbuthnot were working on the Anangaranga, a fifteenth-century text, when they found out about the Kamasutra.  They got a couple of Indian pundits to collect the manuscripts and give them a rough translation into English. Arbuthnot knew some Sanskrit, and worked on it a bit, before Burton tidied it up into an elegant translation.” The Burton translation really should, therefore, be known as the Indrajit-Bhide-Arbuthnot-Burton translation. 

Burton was a legend in his own time. Born in England in 1821, he arrived in Bombay in 1842 as an ensign in the Indian army. His biographers claim he learned Hindustani, Sindhi, Marathi, Gujarati, Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian, all in two years. His Kamasutra translation is, however, riddled with errors, according to Doniger. The first, most important falsehood is that Burton draws material from Yashodhara’s commentary on the Kamasutra, written a thousand years later, without acknowledging this conflation. “When the text puzzles Burton, he uses the commentary, but he gives it to you as the Kamasutra text,” complains Doniger. No rigorous scholar, this.

Burton also downplays the role of women throughout the text.

“There are parts that are for men, parts that are for women,” explains Doniger, “but a lot of the text has women speaking, and this was lost in the Burton translation.  There’s a lot of first-person direct discourse, so, when in the section on slapping, for instance, the woman may say, ‘Stop!’  ‘Let go!’ ‘Mother!’—it’s very vivid, you hear her saying things you’d say if you were in pain and fighting. And Burton’s translation says, ‘If she’s not accustomed to being slapped, she may protest or ask to be released.’ You lose the fact that women are speaking in this text. 

“There’s a great deal for and about women, and Burton just leaves things out. For example, there’s a wonderful verse in a chapter on married women, which I’ve translated as:

Mildly offended by the man’s infidelities, she does not accuse him too much, but she scolds him with abusive language when he is alone or among friends. She does not, however, use love-sorcery worked with roots, for, Gonardiya says, ‘Nothing destroys trust like that.’

The Burton translation reads:

In the event of any misconduct on the part of her husband, she should not blame him excessively, though she be a little displeased.  She should not use abusive language towards him, but rebuke him with conciliatory words, whether he be in company of friends or alone.  Moreover, she should not be a scold, for, says Gonardiya, ‘there is no cause of dislike on the part of a husband so great as this characteristic in a wife.’

The sense of the original text is that a married woman is not going to let her husband screw around, she calls him on it right away, and she has black magic she can use if she wants…she’s got a lot of power in this relationship. In Burton’s translation, it’s all turned upside down. So the women just keep being eroded throughout the text.” 

Vatsyayana not only expressed a clear desire for women to read this work, but he knew about the G-spot, as the following passage illustrates:

When he is moving inside her, and her eyes roll when she feels him in certain spots, he presses her in just those spots.

Burton, who seemed confused by the G-spot, translated this as:

While a man is doing to the woman what he [sic] likes best during congress, he should always make a point of pressing those parts of her body on which she turns her eyes. 

As Doniger explains, “Burton has missed one point of the passage, how to locate the G-spot, and by inserting, gratuitously, the phrase ‘what he likes best,’ he has totally missed the larger point, the importance of learning how to give a woman an orgasm.” 

Burton was a legend in his own time. Born in England in 1821, he arrived in Bombay in 1842 as an ensign in the Indian army. His biographers claim he learned Hindustani, Sindhi, Marathi, Gujarati, Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian, all in two years.

The idea of doing a formal translation for publication came up in the classroom. “I’d taught courses in English on the Kamastura for years,” says Doniger, “and I’d have the students read Burton, what else was there. Then an English version of Danielou’s new French translation came out, and I thought, Hey, a new translation, with the commentary!  So I had the students read Danielou and as we got into it, I realized it was terrible. And then I went back to the Burton, comparing it against the Sanskrit, and I realized that he too was very inaccurate. I realized there was no English translation of the Kamasutra I could use, and I thought, ‘Wow, I have to fix that.’

Before embarking on the project, Doniger looked at every translation she could find. “When you’re translating a difficult text, you take all the help you can get. Several English translations have been published in India, but most lack the frankness about sexual matters that is Burton’s strong point. The best translation into any European language is a German translation by Richard Schmidt in 1897, which is very good in many ways: he translated the entire text, and he translated the entire commentary by Yashodhara, the only one to do so. It’s a very good translation for a number of reasons: first of all, it’s just a careful translation; secondly, German is a much better language to translate Sanskrit into than English, because the structure is more similar. The trouble with Schmidt is that he put all the sexual parts in Latin! So you get membrum virilae and all that kind of stuff.

“It’s an old tradition,” laughs Doniger. “There are parts in Griffith’s translation of the Rig Veda—that wonderful Vrsakapi hymn where the human woman and the monkey’s wife argue about whose husband has the largest genitals—that’s all in Latin, too. The idea was, if you put it into Latin, only scholars could read it. And scholars, as everybody knows, never get sexually excited, so it’s safe.”

The structure of Sanskrit makes it a particularly challenging language to work with. Says Doniger, “Sanskrit is a wonderful language, very concise. Sanskrit words can have many meanings. There’s an old joke that every word in Sanskrit means itself, its opposite, the name of a god, a word for an elephant, and a position in sexual intercourse. But certainly you have words suggesting many different meanings, and the question is which one do you need to bring out in the translation? So you do a lot of translation and then you get an idea of what the whole book is about. And then you go back and see that in the given context, you have to choose meanings different from the ones you selected earlier.”

Doniger gives an example: “There’s a verse about making love to a virgin who’s very shy, and Vatsyayana talks about shyness at one point: ‘With difficulty, secret touching.’ That’s the whole sentence. Now, ‘secret’ may either mean ‘secret places’ in the plural, or in the singular, it means ‘the genitals.’ The next question is: touching of whom, by whom? Burton assumes that the man touches the woman, and he writes: ‘Only with difficulty can he touch her secret place,’ which is only one possibility. But the previous verse is about how the man has become aroused. In that context it may very well mean that he wants her to touch him. Which is what often happens in that situation: “I have an erection. Come and feel my erection!” The Sanskrit allows both. Burton ruled out what I think is the more reasonable possibility, and I wanted to put that back in.”

The most egregious error on Burton’s part, however, is his use of the terms yoni and lingam throughout the translation. “First of all, these terms do not represent Vatsyayana’s text,” emphasizes Doniger, “which only rarely uses lingam to refer to the male sexual organ and never refers to the female sexual organ as yoni. These terms had Orientalist implications for most English readers. The use of any Sanskrit term at all in place of an English equivalent anthropologized sex, distanced it, made it safe for English readers by assuring them, or pretending to assure them, that the text was not about real sexual organs, their sexual organs, but merely about the appendages of weird, dark people far away.”

Doniger is adept at many languages. “Of all the Indo-European languages, Sanskrit is the most compact and takes the most unpacking. I wish it were much easier. The reason I read Sanskrit texts is because they are the most interesting texts I know. As soon as I get really close to them I wish they were in English. Sanskrit is a very beautiful language and it’s a lot of fun to read, but there were times when I was furious with Vatsyayana for not making it easier for me. I like puzzles, I like doing double crosswords, I used to love algebra. And I must say there’s a puzzle-solving aspect to Sanskrit which does interest me.” 

This investigative sensibility helped root out some of the more embarrassing translation errors. “In the Danielou translation, the very first verse has a commentary which says: ‘This was composed by Vatsyayana Mallanaga, who was the teacher of the demons.’ I thought, this is very interesting, the association of the demons with the Kamasutra? I rushed to the Sanskrit original and realized that Danielou had gotten the sundi wrong:  Sanskrit words are written in manuscripts with no breaks, which means that when the end of one word comes into contact with the beginning of the next word, they combine, so that both of them are changed, and in translating you have to take them apart. Well, the Sanskrit text read, ‘he desired to teach’ and the phrase ends in asur, ‘to desire,’ and then the next word is acharya, ‘he was the teacher.’ So, in Sanskrit it read asuracharya and Danielou took the asur at the end of one word and the acharya at the beginning of the next one and he got the word asura which means ‘a demon.’”

Doniger is pleasantly surprised at the buzz surrounding the new translation. “I thought that people would say, ‘Oh, the Kamasutra, I already have a copy,’ because people don’t believe in translations. They believe everything is written in English. There’s the wonderful line in Pygmalion where Henry Higgins says that Eliza Doolittle is ruining the English language, such a great language, the language of Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible…as if the Bible were originally written in English!

“I was hoping rather, that people would say, ‘Oh, wow, the other translation didn’t get it right, and this one does,’ and they are responding that way. They’re thinking of it as a new book. Being aware of a difference in translation is a pretty sophisticated idea for the masses.”


This story was first published in the April 2002 issue