The Culture of Ancient India

Understanding the culture of India in the time of the original Kama Sutra will help you with some of the more biased portions of the texts. They may be considered biased because at the time the Kama Sutra was written down some men had multiple wives and some of the “erotic” practices might border on abuse in today's culture. Though we won't delve deeply into the parts of the texts that don't fit our modern society, it is instructive to know a little bit about the society from which these ideas came. Even today, many aspects of the Indian culture have seen little change.

India was divided into feudal-like states and provinces in the fourth century A.D. when the Kama Sutra was condensed and written down. Kings controlled the states. Ministers and officials helped conduct the business of the province. Merchants and traders were educated and traveled widely.

The Caste System

The caste system was fully represented in the India of Vatsyayana. One did not associate with members of another caste, let alone marry someone who was either below you or above you in life's station. Generally, it was the upper, or Brahman, caste that studied the sutras and lived according to them. All the castes except the “untouchables” were encouraged to study the sutras and lead good, moral lives.

Who are the “untouchables”?

The “untouchables,” or pariahs, are individuals who are at the bottom of or outside the Hindu caste system. The Indian political and religious leader Mahatma Gandhi gave the untouchables the name Harijans.

Upper-class citizens appear to have known good hygiene and had a detailed knowledge of medical remedies and health care. Women knew how to concoct hair color treatments, makeup, and potions for many uses. Astronomy, Ayurvedic medicine, yoga, meditation, and the sciences were all well-established disciplines.

Spiritual and Cultural Scriptures

Spiritual and cultural scriptures came in the form of sutras or, in earlier days, “shastras.” These included the Artha Shastra, the Dharma Shastra, and the Kama Shastra, among others. These documents contained the information that society held sacred. A well-bred, conscientious man or woman was expected to lead their life according to these scriptures. It is believed that the Kama Sutra was condensed from the original Kama Shastra, which contained 1,000 chapters! Vatsyayana distilled the information to its current size and left couples and teachers to “read between the lines” for interpretations.

The Chinese invented paper around the time of Christ, but it wasn't introduced to India until the fifteenth century A.D. The sutras and scriptures were written on palm leaves before that, and even today, many ancient texts must be rewritten to preserve them from deteriorating.

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