Hinduism Kāma and Kāmaśāstra
Lee Siegel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 January 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 January 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0028


The term kāma comes from the verbal root kam, meaning “to love, be in love with, or have sexual intercourse with.” in its earliest usages it designated any “desire, wish, drive, or urge,” it suggested sexual desire in particular. While kāma was invoked in the Vedic hymns as a cosmogonic power holding the universe together, by the Epic period the semantic range had expanded to incorporate both desire and the pleasure derived from fulfilling desire. Kāma was personified in Indian mythology as Kāmadeva, the Love God, and it was established and codified as a puruṣārtha, a “mode of human fulfillment,” in the kāmaśāstras, the Brahminical treatises on erotic love, of which the Kāmasūtra is the most authoritative, influential, and widely known.

General Overviews

General critical surveys of the role, place, and power of kāma in Indian cultural traditions include Schmidt 1902, Smith 2008, and Kakar 1990. Hardy 1994 devotes considerable attention to the significance of kāma as love, in both its sacred and profane aspects, in traditional India. Meyer 1930 focuses particularly on the role and function of kāma in the Indian Epics. The attitudes toward kāma in that and later Indian literature are typically ambivalent, and that ambivalence is examined by O’Flaherty 1973 and Siegel 1983. Varadpande 2007 and Thomas 1959 base their surveys of the sexual mores, customs, and symbols in India upon both literary and sexological literature

  • Hardy, Friedhelm. The Religious Culture of India: Power, Love, and Wisdom. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    A large portion of this panoramic and erudite overview of Indian religion is dedicated to reflecting on the place of love in Indian religious culture, and on the ways in which kāma has been construed as both challenging religious practice and serving it.

  • Kakar, Sudhir. Intimate Relations: Exploring Indian Sexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

    Kakar uses Sanskrit, Tamil, and Hindi texts, as well as Bollywood movies, Gandhi’s autobiography, interviews with women from Delhi’s slums, and case studies from his own professional psychoanalytic practice, to analyze the dynamics and status of kāma in Indian culture.

  • Meyer, Johan Jakob. Sexual Life in Ancient India: A Study in the Comparative History of Indian Culture. London: Routledge, 1930.

    A detailed elucidation of love, sex, the relations of the sexes, and the concepts underlying those relations in the Māhabhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa. Understanding those Sanskrit epics as normative for the majority of Indian society over the greater part of India’s history, Meyer looks particularly at the sundry roles that women have played in Indian social history. Reprinted in 2003.

  • Donniger O’Flaherty, Wendy. Śiva, the Erotic Ascetic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.

    An influential structuralist analysis, abounding in psychological and social insight, of the allure and impact of erotic and ascetic ideals in India. Donniger O’Flaherty evaluates the relationship between sexuality and asceticism in the mythology of Shiva as articulated in a wide range of Sanskrit textual genres.

  • Schmidt, Richard. Liebe und Ehe im alten und modernen Indien. (Vorder- Hinter- und Niederländisch-Indien). Berlin: Hermann Barsdorf Verlag, 1902.

    An eminent Sanskritist’s historical survey of sexual desire and the psychology of love in India, with specific consideration given to Indian theories of sexual physiology and reproductive biology, to the role of sexuality in traditional family life, and to the place of the prostitute in Indian society.

  • Siegel, Lee. Fires of Love—Waters of Peace: Passion and Renunciation in Indian Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983.

    juxtaposes ascetic ideals as personified in the hagiographies of the philosopher Śaṅkara with the celebrations of kāma inherent in the poetry of Amaru. A legend in which the spirit of the philosopher leaves his own body to enter that of the poet king so that he might experience and understand kāma is used to present a reconciliation of these essentially opposing ideals.

  • Smith, David. The Hindu Erotic: Exploring Hinduism and Sexuality. London: I. B. Tauris, 2008.

    A scholarly and yet accessible textual and visual exploration of the significance of kāma in Indian religious life, counterbalancing Hindu ascetic ideals with an Indian appreciation of the power of sensual experience.

  • Thomas, Paul. Kama Kalpa, or, the Hindu Ritual of Love. Bombay, India: D. Taraporevala Sons, 1959.

    A panoramic survey of the customs, festivals, rituals, and beliefs concerning marriage, sexual morality, women, and eroticism in India, from ancient times up until the 20th century, based on both kāmaśastra and literary sources.

  • Varadpande, M. L. Love in Ancient India. New Delhi: Wisdom Tree, 2007.

    For this very general survey of love in ancient India, the author selected and comments upon extracts relating to the theory and practice of sexual love from religious, literary, and sexological texts.

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