While studying in India this past summer, a young woman working at a store recommended what would become my favorite souvenir: a deck of cards, each depicting a sexual position from Kāmasūtra.

The problem with them is these cards is they perpetuate the western misconception that the ancient Indian Hindu text written on sexual behavior is merely a sex manual. In fact, the first five chapters provide an overview of life goals, priorities, knowledge and general etiquette. Only part two, “Of Sexual Union,” concerns copulatory acts. Parts three through seven involve everything from “Acquisition of a Wife” to “The Wives of Other Men.”

The text as a whole is complex, specific and drenched in ancient norms.

Cultural Context

Kāmasūtra” is literally translated as “aphorisms of love.” Kāma is one of the four goals of Hindu life and means desire, which includes sexual desire. “Sūtra” is literally a thread holding things together, referring to a collection of aphorisms. Far more than just sex, the Kāmasūtra concerns philosophies, faculties and theory of love in partnership.

In addition, Hindu philosopher Vātsyāyana likely wrote the Kāmasūtra between 400 B.C. and 200 A.D. In other words, it is very old. Traditions and norms included in this text may appear conservative in nature for us, but at the time it was fairly sex-positive. One might scoff at the chapter “On the Manner of Living a Virtuous Woman,” but then experience surprise reading how Vātsyāyana prioritized female pleasure and included many different sexual interests.

“Sixty-four” (Chatashshashti)

Ten chapters exist on sexual union between lovers. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of intimacy, including embracing, kissing, use of nails, biting, congress (positions), striking (an ancient version of BDSM), mouth congress (oral sex) and how to begin or end sexual activity. Vātsyāyana wrote with precision, even modifying his instructions according to the size of one’s “lingam” (penis) or “yoni” (vagina).

The original text does not include illustrations of any kind, but written descriptions provide plenty of instruction. Also, while the Kāmasūtra acknowledges the existence of a sexual script, Vātsyāyana thinks “that anything may take place at any time, for love does not care for time or order.”

Kissing

Kissing can be done almost anywhere for pleasure, types of kissing branching out into near-endless categories of pressure, positioning and body parts kissed. Perhaps the most charming option is the turned kiss.” This takes place while one holds the other’s head and chin, turning their face up to kiss. This style of kissing resonates well in tender moments, but also adds a drop of gentleness to rough sex or power play moments. Kissing in this affectionate way reminds partners of how much we care about them beyond sex.

When one kisses a partner awake to seduce them, it is called the “kiss that awakens.” Waking up to someone wanting closeness can be a glorious sensation, and yellow morning light sets a lovely backdrop for sexy time. The Kāmasūtra offers a kiss for nearly any situation.

Nails

Of course, use of nails during intimate moments should be done with caution and consent. Indeed, the Kāmasūtra asserts use of nails is practiced in intense moments, such as “on the first visit; at the time of setting out on a journey; on the return from a journey; at the time when an angry lover is reconcile.” Those full of passion might practice “pressing with the nails” more frequently, according to Vātsyāyana.

When pressing with all five nails close to one another near a nipple, it is called “the jump of a hare.” Applying pressure with nails not only produces a titillating response in an erogenous area such as the breast, but leaves faint marks as a sexy reminder of past trysts. Vātsyāyana also recommends using the nails to gently trace over body hair without touching skin, creating shivering sensations all over the body.

Congress

The Kāmasūtra recommends before sex a “pleasure-room,” is set up decorated with flowers and fragrant with perfumes. Not everyone has time to adorn their space with flowers and perfume, but the positions discussed for intercourse include simple, fascinating and challenging options. Some look as if only olympians could have done them, but the majority involve minute positioning and angle changes that create ripples of pleasurable change. In “full press,” for example, a receptive partner should bend their legs and place their feet on their lover’s chest to experience deeper penetration.

Among the more advanced is a position called “position of Indrani, which should only be practiced by extraordinarily strong, flexible individuals. In the illustration on my playing cards, Indrani plays a sitar during the act, but this is likely an unrealistic goal for most. With or without the sitar, the receptive partner must sit atop the insertive partner, who holds themselves in a bridge and supports the receptive partner’s thrusting.

This position appears dreadfully difficult and even dangerous, but could be downgraded with help from an ottoman.

Placing an ottoman beneath the insertive partner’s back can take the pressure off of their spine and allow those untrained for the Kāmasūtra Olympics to participate equally in the pleasure this text has to offer.

This is just the tip of the Kāmasūtra iceberg. The best way to get to know the text is to simply dive in.