Kama: The Riddle of Desire
On September 5, 2018, Asia Society India Centre hosted Indian author and public intellectual, Gurcharan Das, for a conversation with psychotherapist Amrita Narayanan, and Scholar, Arshia Sattar, around Das’s book Kama: The Riddle of Desire, at the Royal Opera House, Mumbai.
The evening began by Das providing a brief introduction to his book and reading out a few excerpts from his fictional memoir on love and desire. He expressed his discontent towards the repression of sexual and emotional wellbeing in society and said, ‘We often speak of our economic and political lives, but rarely do we speak about sex and pleasure.’ Tracing the origins of Kama in classical Indian texts such as the Rig Veda and the Upanishads, he highlighted the conflict between the Kama optimists–those who subscribe to the tenets of the Kama Sutra and the Kama pessimists–those who abstain from it, in their path to spiritual liberation. He further added that there existed a compromise between the two which led to the emergence of the Kama Realists- those who believed sexual intercourse was acceptable so long as it was within marriage.
Arshia, who moderated the discussion, opened the conversation by bringing up the question of mutuality in desire, she asked if desire was always equal, to which Das responded by quoting the Kama Sutra, he said that in order to truly be satisfied one must first give pleasure and only then expect to receive it in return. He was also of the opinion that the one who desires more is often left more vulnerable. Amrita said that Das’s book helped her understand Kama as a form of self-awareness. She quoted Freud’s definition of Eros to make a distinction between lust and affection, the former seeking to be gratified while the latter being more understanding of mutual gratification.
The panellists discussed the idea of Kama being closely linked to smara (memory), Das believes that the memory of love is far more powerful than the act itself. They went on to speak of Kamadeva (the God of desire) being ananga (bodiless), Sattar said it is was a poverty of imagination to consider Kama only as bodily love. Addressing the #metoo movement, they expressed their concern for the victims of sexual harassment in India. While Das was optimistic of the positive effects of the movement, Arshia hoped for a more mindful expression of desire among people.
In conclusion the panel discussed the evolving nature of desire, Das expressed the hope that coming generations would embrace Kama while Narayanan spoke of being hopeful about a more democratic, polyvocal idea of Kama throughout the world.
As reported by Swati Gopalkrishnan, Programme Development Intern, Asia Society India Centre.
Watch the full programme below: