It's sex, Jim, but not as we know it. The Kamasutra was no more than a self-help manual for a bored, heartless Indian elite. So why is it so popular today in the decadent west? By Pankaj Mishra

Kamasutra

Mallanaga Vatsyayana. Translated by Wendy Doniger

and Sudhir Kakar <em>Oxford World's

Built in the 10th and 11th centuries, the temples of Khajuraho lay forgotten for hundred of years in the jungles of central India. By chance, a British army captain called T S Burt rediscovered them in 1838. Like most of the British then, who were perhaps surprised at their easy conquest of India, Burt was convinced that the Hindus were a degenerate race. The magnificent architecture of the temple complex seemed to prove that they had once been a great people. Some doubt still remained in Burt's mind, however. He did not know what to make of the apsaras (nymphs) with the full breasts and hourglass waists and the orgiastically entwined couples on the walls of the temple. "The sculptor," he reported to his bosses in Calcutta, "had at times allowed his subject to grow a little warmer than there was any absolute necessity for his doing."

Burt, although excelling in understatement, also gave full vent to his outrage. He wrote that the sculptures were "extremely indecent and offensive". He was particularly appalled that they should profane a place of worship. This attitude, which is shared by a surprising number of educated Indians, seems a perfect example of cultural misunderstanding, which, in Burt's case, was created as much by his ignorance - temples in medieval India played a much more secular role than churches in Europe - as by his preconceptions about sex and religion.

The puritanical tradition of one such as Burt stands in garish contrast to the sexual frankness that now seems de rigueur in the west. Today, the last Victorians in the world seem to live in India and Africa rather than in Britain or America, and a figure such as Osama Bin Laden, while describing the west as "weak" and "decadent", seems to borrow many of his terms of derision from the austere, hyper-masculine Christians of the 19th century who thought that the Ottomans and other Orientals had grown soft from living in too much luxury, and so were ready to be conquered. Burt was obviously marked by a long and tormented western relationship to sexuality: a tradition that began when the once randy Augustine of Hippo suddenly noticed in the early fifth century how the sexual act makes the body jerk in all kinds of terrible and uncontrollable ways, and decided that Adam must have covered his genitals with a fig leaf because they were moving without his consent.

The body and its urges - already under close watch in pre-Christian Rome, as the work of the social historian Paul Veyne reveals - became, after Augustine, something of an obsession. The thought that sexuality was sinful and needed to be monitored constantly gave much-needed employment to the individual conscience and its taskmaster, the Church. One of the more unfortunate results of Augustine's interpretation of "original sin" was that sex took up permanent lodgings in the head, where it seems to have remained even as Christianity lost political power, and the Enlightenment introduced new attitudes to the body. The evidence lies in the so-called literature of transgression, the unreadable novels of the Marquis de Sade and the tedious analyses of Georges Bataille, both of whom seem to be inverse Augustinians in thinking of sex as violation, and stigmatising it with such lonely acts as masturbation and sadomasochism.

Sex was clearly in the head of Richard F Burton, the Victorian adventurer, translator of such oriental exotica as The Arabian Nights and The Perfumed Garden, also a bold and successful liar, when he along with his friend F F Arbuthnot set up a bogus publishing company called the Kama Shastra Society of London and Benares. In 1883, he brought out the first translation of the Kamasutra. He and Arbuthnot inserted in the English version, among other radical changes, the Sanskrit terms lingam and yoni, which denoted the sexual organs that the third-century ascetic creator of the Kamasutra, Vatsyayana, had mostly subtly implied in the original text. The unfamiliar words were meant to dodge the charge of obscenity in England. But, as the translators of the new edition point out, they also made "sex" seem something that happened elsewhere; it had the same sly effect on a western audience as the one produced by pictures of bare-breasted foreign women in National Geographic in the days when Hugh Hefner was still a dreamy adolescent.

Burton judged his prudish audience and their nervous titters perfectly. The Kamasutra sold a lot of copies, was pirated in several editions, and remains the most famous Indian text in the world, particularly the sections in Book 2, which detail several sexual positions, most of which are arduous if not impossible, but have nevertheless been incarnated endlessly, most recently in an American wristwatch that displays a different position every hour, and Cosmopolitan's Cosmo Kamasutra, which offers "12 brand-new mattress-quaking sex styles".

Oxford's scholarly and elegantly illustrated new edition may go some way in rescuing this ancient Indian text from lewd caricature. Its translators - Sudhir Kakar, a distinguished Indian novelist and psychoanalyst, and Wendy Doniger, an American historian of religion - certainly hope so. "The real Kamasutra," they claim in their erudite but lively introduction, "is not the sort of book to read in bed while drinking heavily, let alone holding the book with one hand in order to keep the other free." They are at pains to point out that Vatsyayana's Kamasutra is "about the art of living - about finding a partner, maintaining power in a marriage, committing adultery, living as or with a courtesan, using drugs". As such, it is inseparable from the classical Indian view of life, in which the pursuit of sensual pleasure was as important as fulfilling social and religious obligations and the desires for wealth and political power. But after a quick trawl through the famous bits in Book 2, it is hard to fight the suspicion that Indians of the classical era were better suited to pedantry than passion. The Indian habit of enumeration - unchecked since India introduced the world to the figure zero - is on alarmingly full display here in the lists of 12 embraces, 17 kisses, 16 bites and scratches, 17 positions, six unusual acts, 17 slaps and screams, ten sexual strokes for a man and eight acts of oral sex. Vatsyayana stresses throughout that "when the wheel of sexual ecstasy is in full motion, there is no textbook at all, and no order". But your heart sinks when, in the chapter titled "Types of Scratching with the Nails", he solemnly declares that "eight shapes can be made with the nails: the goose-flesh, the half-moon", etc, and then goes on to specify how people "whose sexual energy is fierce" should have their nails "trimmed into two or three points".

Somewhere among all this frippery is an early, subtle view of female orgasm. And there might be useful hints for jaded and cynical modern readers in the bluntly titled chapters of Book 6 - "Getting a Lover", "Ways to Get Money from Him", "Signs that his Passion is Cooling" and so on.

At its worst, the Kamasutra is very fanciful, when not dangerously nonsensical, and in need of a statutory warning. Certainly, anyone who follows the instructions in the chapter "Increasing the Size of the Male Organ" (Book 7), and applies the "juices of ground cherry, sweet potato, water leeches, fruits of the nightshade, fresh buffalo butter, elephant's ear teak leaves and heliotrope" to the relevant parts, may find himself only adding to the troubles of the NHS, and in the process cutting himself off for ever from the dizzying possibilities described in Book 2. Which raises the question: who or what is the Kamasutra for? The translators themselves seem slightly uncertain of the value of the book they have so lovingly reintroduced and retranslated. Its antiquity alone does not turn the Kamasutra into a classic. Nor is it a work of literature. It would be absurd to compare it to Ovid's Ars Amatoria, and its saucy bits of verse barely match up even to the very inferior Sanskrit erotic poetry found in the Gitagovinda, Jayadeva's 12th-century account of the great love of Krishna and Radha.

At its best, the Kamasutra seems no more than a useful reminder of the many creative ways in which pleasure can be sought. Perhaps David Beckham, who recently revealed that he was "an animal in bed", might learn from it how eroticism is different from mere sexuality, how eroticism is actually animal high spirits transfigured by the imagination. Yet the Kamasutra conceals something cold in its strenuous attempts at rekindling the senses. By rejecting romance in favour of sexual bliss, it closes itself to the no less voluptuous pleasures of longing evoked by, among other Indian texts, the Gathasapatasati, an anthology of love poetry compiled a few decades before the Kamasutra, and beautifully retranslated into English recently by the Indian poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. It has no time even for the bracing fears and disappointments of erotic love. But who will prefer its detailing of the "eight forms of lower-lip kisses" over the paragraphs in Proust where the narrator Marcel describes his first tentative physical contact with Albertine?

There are few egalitarian or generous sentiments in the Kamasutra. It scorns the lower classes when it is not indifferent to them. It is apparent what it once was: a self-help manual for an idle, heartless and mostly male Indian elite that worshipped beauty, to which size mattered and money was all-important. And perhaps this is what makes the Kamasutra, once considered a characteristic product of the exotic east, now seem so much a part of the modern west. It is hard not to note its resemblance to the monthly glossies and weekend magazines that serve as guides to a cultivated sensuality among the affluent middle classes of the west, the magazines where passion becomes a social imperative, orgasm is organised into a rational system of production and profit, and the thin bodies of the models speak of hard work and, paradoxically, of the fasting and self-mutilation of the desert fathers.