The master work of Vatsyayana, Kamasutra (third century A.D.), a treatise on the science of love in an exquisitely healthy manner is known world-wide. This is not the only work on the subject, but due to the lack of an earlier surviving text, it has become a landmark in the history of the erotic. Further, the erotic element in Indian art, namely, sculpture, painting, literature, etc. indicates that despite the glorification of a life of abstinence and chastity (Brahmacharyd), the sexual aspect of life has been given detailed treatment.
The Kamasutra is often confused with sexual mysticism represented in the temples of Khajuraho (Madhya Pradesh) and Orissa or in Tantrik literature pertaining to the Buddhist Mahayana and Hindu Shaiva and Vaishnava cults. Actually, the Kamasutra is not based on the concept of the identity of sexual passion with divine passion. It is the product of a courtly culture in decline. Its appeal was evidently restricted to court circles and the nobility who craved for sensuality.
The Kamasutra may be called a standard manual on the techniques of sex for erotic specialists. The author has mentioned in the book a list of various types of lovers, each with a different point of view and has offered advice to each in conformity with the Indian principle of ethics suited to the individual’s nature. He has dealt with the subject with systematic thoroughness and moral consistency, thereby instructing men and women in India in the legitimate pleasures of the senses to ensure matrimonial harmony. He says, “of all the lovers of a girl, only he can be her true husband who possesses the qualities most liked by her, and only such a husband enjoys real superiority over her, because he is the husband of love.”
This detailed treatment of eroticism in the face of the expectation of absolute fidelity on the part of woman goes to show that Indian society has always been tolerant towards women in India who sell their favours. Although the penitent lived in the forests, meditating on the deepest mysteries, cut off from the world and strove earnestly for stainless chastity, in towns and cities the harlot, often highly educated, went about the street in her splendour, taking in the fiery hearts of the men along with their purses. India is a land of sharp contrasts. A major part of classical Sanskrit literature is filled with praise for the public woman as the very embodiment of perfect womanhood. In the Epics too, as early as in the Vedas, the woman as entertainment for the individual or in public was a matter of course.
Right from the very early periods, the public woman, open to the visits of all (nari parkas ha sarvagamy) was not marked out as something criminal or vulgar. Although her class was low in the social order, it was for the reason of distinguishing her for the greater ease and comfort of the world of men.
Strumpets were shown in the Epics, as elsewhere in Indian literature, to be an important part of urban society. In the Mahabharata when the armies march out to the battlefield of Kurukshetra, the forces under Duryodhana are accompanied by professional singers and ganikas (women of pleasure).
In the Ramayana (ii, 36), Dashrath gives orders for a splendid army to be fitted out for his son, Rama, and adds (shloka 3), “women that live by their beauty, those skilled in words, shall adorn the well drawn up troops of the prince.”
It is thus clear that veshyas or strumpets were an indispensable part of any expedition (whether for battle or for hunting or for diversion in the countryside or pleasure gardens). Often we find references that ‘city beauties’ danced on joyful occasions (Markandeya Purana, cxxvii, 9). It was believed that the mere sight of them brought good luck, a belief that can be observed in the more traditional sections of Indian society even today. The strumpet was thus not only an adornment of the royal courts or camps but a highly appreciated ornament of civic life. They have been considered protectors of dance and music throughout the ages.
The Tantra Yoga (a branch of Yoga) exalted the position of prostitutes still further. In the Tantra Yoga, Shakti (the female embodiment of divine active power) plays an important part in formal worship. In some Tantrik literature, this role of Shakti has been shown to be assumed by certain categories of harlots, namely, raja veshya (the harlot of the kings), gupta veshya (the secret harlot or woman belonging to a respectable family secretly following this profession), nagari (the city harlot), deva veshya (the harlot of the gods or temple dances, also known as devadasis in south India) and Brahma veshya (the harlot of the centres of pilgrimage). From this classification, it is clear that the term ‘prostitute’ has had a somewhat different connotation in the earlier periods. Hindu society has evinced good sense in giving due recognition to prostitutes in the social structure, enjoining on them the duty of highly disciplined and honourable behaviour. Yajnavalkya, a Hindu lawgiver, lays down (ii, 292) that if a prostitute has already accepted her price and then refuses she should be fined double the amount given to her.
Of the different ancient works on venal love, two more have come down to us, namely, Kuttanimatam (the lessons of a bawd) written by Damodargupta (eighth century, A.D.) and Samayamatrika (breviary of a harlot) written by Kshemendra (11th century A.D.).
In Kuttanimatam, the author has described the personality of a bawd (an old woman) very gay and well mannered, held in high esteem among the harlots as a source of advice, training and protection in the art and profession of venal love, highly calculating in understanding and exploiting human sentiment, dry as dust in refusing to grant gratis favour of her physical charms. While the customers detested and ridiculed her because of her avaricious eyes ever fixed on their purses, the young harlots held her in awe and respect.
The lessons imparted by the bawd to the young harlots on the art of pleasing men indicate the author’s intimate knowledge of Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra. However, from the literary point of view, Kuttanimatam is not a compact work and some passages are even incoherent.
Samayamatrika, apart from being a compendium of warnings to men against the bewitching and enticing ways of the harlots, is a literary masterpiece, compact and unified, bristling with cruel wit and cynicism. In the epilogue, the author says: “Now you have learnt that the cultural benefits mean nothing to a bawd and also how she cheats her daughter’s lovers.” Despite all the warnings, he seems to be convinced of the human tendency of succumbing to the enticement of venal love in the same way as the gazelles in the forest run headlong into the snare despite knowing they are heading towards destruction. Unheeding the discussion among learned circles and the preaching of moralists and saints warning against the evil of associating with harlots; the various punitive measures in this life and threats of punishment in the next, most men succumb to the snares of the harlots.