By William Markiewicz
A while ago I read a humorous story about an ancient Egyptian writing a love letter, in hieroglyphs of course:
"My most beautiful " -- he drew her face as well as he could. "Your eyes are bewitching " -- and he drew her eye. She read it: "Horrible woman, blind in one eye," etc. Sometimes the causes and effects of wrong communication are too subtle to be pinpointed with humor and not easily perceived when cultural differences come into account. For instance, a thought transmitted through centuries can be totally misunderstood, creating a false conception of one particular culture. The old words take on new meaning when impregnated with new philosophy or knowledge. I read for instance in the Kama Sutra: "The duty of the public woman is to resist any sentiments; she should seduce her client, take all she can from him, and then discard him." For the Western person, raised in Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition, the word "duty" has a positive resonance associated with the notion of "reward." In this context, a Christian, for example, would see the Kama Sutra as a Satanic text with a heartless trollop placed on a pedestal. The best translator may translate faithfully and still be wrong if he transmits the words, not the spirit, of the text. Simply, the word "duty", without our moral and emotional charge, becomes equivalent to the word "tactics." The tactics of the courtesan are ..." etc. etc. Then it's clear that her conduct is not to her credit but becomes a caution to her client, which is probably what the author of the text had in mind. The Kama Sutra, one of the cynical texts of antiquity, is not necessarily a code for how to behave as much as a warning of what to expect.
The monotheistic religions protect from evil through a code of rules. The Kama Sutra leaves the human without armour, perhaps showing the way to beat the enemy with his own weapon.
Judaism and Islam rose above pragmatism with the concept of a Supreme Judge of infallible justice. Christianity speaks first of all to the heart "which has its own rights." The Greeks, not dogmatic, put everything into question. Therefore they've successfully passed the test of centuries and can be understood always and everywhere. The Kama Sutra remains more hermetic. We've lost the message and through its prism we see ancient India as a theatre played by marionettes rather than as a world of living comprehensible creatures. I think that the Kama Sutra's example warns us to keep the necessary distance between ourselves and an alien message in order not "to cover it with our own shadow", as Karl Jung said.Back to the index of the Vagabond