In one of his talks at the second edition of the Dehradun Community Literature Festival 2017, A.N.D. Haksar, who is a well-known translator of Sanskrit classics into English, talked about the subject of “Female Sexuality in Indian Literature”.  During the session, he expounded upon the Kama Sutra and why it is an important text for those who wish to understand female sexuality. After the event, Haksar talked exclusively to Guardian 20 about this subject, and his other academic interests.  

Q. Why is female sexuality seen in popular culture as some sort of a dark force?

A. I’ll put it very briefly. It is perhaps the result of an intermingling of occidental ideas which have come into India in the last centuries. With the ideas prevailing in this country before that, I believe, that intermingling has led to many changes and perceptions in various ways, including sexuality. That’s my answer to it very briefly.

Q. Women in India are not given enough space to explore their sexuality. Why is that so?

A. This phase has been going on all this while. It is the question of conditioning of the minds. If this phase is not sorted or explored then it remains unsorted and unexplored. Now, we are living in times when more people are seeking it and exploring it. Therefore, it’s becoming more visible. But it’s been there all along.

Q. You have translated the Sanskrit classic Kama Sutra into English. How have conservative ideas taken over the real essence of the Kama Sutra?

A. When I asked the organisers of this session about why they were choosing me for this particular session rather than someone else, they answered that, “Well, we are choosing you because you have translated the Kama Sutra.” And I said that, I would be glad to speak about it because it’s a fact that I translated it and let me tell you, the Kama Sutra was first translated into English at the end of the 19th century. From then up to now, it has been translated into English umpteen times. But it happens that in the process of translation, the Kama Sutra in itself obtained an image which is very partial and an image of pornographic sex. You see books of Kama Sutra in bookstores with pictures and cartoons and sometimes it doesn’t have text at all. So, that’s an image which has come to prevail. Now you may say that, this is the result of the perceptions which have been prevailing in the last hundred years or more in both this country and outside. The conservative ideas have not taken over but you may say over the last century or so the prevailing mindset focused only on one aspect and did not focus on others. And as the mindset is changing gradually, other aspects are also taken into account.

Q. So, could you talk about some other aspects of the Kama Sutra?

A. With the passage of time, it is worthwhile to look at it extensively. And if you see it extensively, which I have done in the course of this translation, I think the translation has to be faithful today with the entire text. It consists of seven books. But only one book of the Kama Sutra is about sex. The other six are about other aspects of life. One book describes the aim and objectives of a life as a whole. Another one describes the life of men and women, and yet another describes marriage and the life of a courtesan.  And there are different books for these things. And then there’s finally a book which tells you about medications to preserve and increase your beauty. It covers many subjects but only one subject is seen and maybe sex has received all the publicity. So, this book needs to be seen for all its aspects and two aspects which I think need to be seen more are: first, the perceptions in our civilisation of human ends and activities as a whole, of which it says very clearly that pleasure is one of them but it also says that it is not the only one, and that other ends are equally legitimate. This is one perception. And the other perception is the picture it provides of social life and a life between men and women that prevailed at the time when it was written. So, these are the things which deserve to be known today and that is why I chose to translate it.

“Now you may say that, this is the result of the perceptions which have been prevailing in the last hundred years or more in both this country and outside. The conservative ideas have not taken over but you may say over the last century or so the prevailing mindset focused only on one aspect and did not focus on others.”

Q. How would you define or explain sexuality?

A. I started out my talk saying that the dictionary meaning of sexuality is feelings and activities connected with the person’s desire for sexual pleasures. That is what sexuality is. What the Kama Sutra says in so many words — and the opening chapter of this book is worth reading for everyone today — it says very specifically that human activity basically has three pursuits — goodness and righteousness, power and prosperity, and the third is Kama, which means desire or pleasure. These are basic human activities. And all these activities are legitimate and natural, and all deserve to be pursued. But they also deserve to be pursued in an overall context. One should not overshadow the other. So, when you say one is being overshadowed then as a result you may say, perception has changed over the last years.

Q. What are your views on censorship of content, which is considered adult or explicit?

A. I think it has to be taken in a much broader way. I do not know why they are doing it. I do not follow these things closely. But I imagine one purpose of doing these things is to prevent a situation where human activities will go out of decorum and control. To avoid this situation where after witnessing and experiencing some expression of this nature, people will not indulge in rape, misbehaviour and things like that because people can be provoked to do such things, because it is very well-known that people go to see pornographic films and they come out and get aroused and do other things.  So, it’s possible this kind of censorship is intended basically to avoid that, but maybe it is overdone. But I don’t know, because I don’t watch many films to be able to add much to the ongoing debate over censorship.


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