When my clients wrestle with important relationship decisions -- to marry or not, to break up or not, to end an affair or not -- the word "chemistry" often arises. Is it possible to maintain attraction without chemistry? Perhaps the ancient world can provide some insight. But first, I think it's relevant to consider what Americans believe about sexual desire. When I ask people where desire comes from, I typically get some variation of: "It just happens." Some remain single for years and despair that they can't find "it." When they do experience some electricity, they believe it's a sign that this person is special, a "soul mate." If they lose the spark, it could be cause for serious disillusionment, affairs and even divorce. These are some pretty grave decisions for an elusive and transitory feeling most people can't even define.
The book I'm currently writing observes how ancient cultures have handled the capricious nature of love and lust. I thought I'd look to one of the most prurient times in history to see what they expected of desire.
The Kama Sutra, compiled in the 2nd century CE, has an entire 527-page manual dedicated to matters of attraction. This sexy tome provides instructions on seduction and making love so detailed it can't help but read like erotica. According to the Kama Sutra, there were three aims of life: ethics, material success and eroticism. The translation of the title reflects its purpose: "Kama" means "erotic practice" and "Sutra" means "holds life together."
A major difference between the modern world and the ancient lies in the beliefs about the origin of desire. Americans tend to wait to be smitten by a force that we think of as part biological and part mystical. In ancient India, libido was largely considered within one's control. They believed that sexual attraction could be created and maintained through various erotic practices. The notion of chemistry wasn't viewed as magical, it was approached in a deliberate manner, built.
The following is my summary of one of the erotic rituals mentioned in the Kama Sutra.
There is a room, separate from the rest of the house, with nothing in it but a bed, flowers and incense. The gentleman takes a bath, dresses in fine attire then gathers his friends and servants to enter the "Chamber of Love." He sits down next to the woman, offers her a drink and begins to make small talk and tells funny stories. He regales her with riddles and gossip, slowly interjecting "indecent" or "vulgar" themes in order to arouse her. Then music and song begin and they may get up and dance. Afterwards, they talk about art and he encourages her to drink more. As he is chatting, he strokes her hair and while she is distracted, he undoes her robe in the area between her thighs. He may show her some phallic drawings. He will eventually apply scent to her with flower essence and serve her betel, which is a cue for everyone else to leave the room. He then "tears off her robe" and they begin to have sex. He chooses positions that will provide the most pleasure, given the body type and size of sex organs of each lover (which was investigated ahead of time). When they finish, they both to go to the bathroom and clean up in separate quarters and return to the bed. He will then rub sandalwood paste all about her body. He will also pat any bruises incurred by their aggression with a fine powder. He puts his arms around her, talks to her sweetly and offers her "grilled meats, drinks of ripe fruit juice... then, at their ease, they drink sweet liquor, while chewing from time to time sweet or tart things." Afterwards, they climb to the terrace on the roof to enjoy the moon and stars and continue with pleasant conversation.
This ritual may sound contrived, which is an aversion to most of my clients, but the Kama Sutra was all about using a script. There was no expectation for spontaneity or a prerequisite of being in "the mood." A ritual circumvents these two modern expectations about sex.
This process of seduction was carefully orchestrated and included a lengthy preamble and post- sex proffering. Most Americans won't have time for this (at least every night), but rather than the perfunctory duty sex Americans know all too well, the ritual created a special space for sex, an atmosphere of superlative sensuality. Although it's a routine, this custom sounds anything but boring as they mix up art, aggression, food and dance. Both the men and women would show up to this special room set aside for pleasure well-trained in the "amorous arts."
For most people, the Kama Sutra conjures a manual of contortionist sex positions, but a significant portion of the book is actually concerned with behavior outside of the bedroom. A lengthy portion is dedicated to skills of seduction and I noticed that physical beauty seemed to be emphasized much less than the ability to create beauty. There were actually schools that taught a wide-ranging set of charms that included everything from storytelling to decorating to woodwork.
I will concede that this ritual by itself probably wouldn't make one feel turned on to just anybody, and they did first match people according to what was important for their getting along: temperament, astrology and the size of sex organs. The Kama Sutra states that the "true erotic satisfaction" is established by routine sexual practice with someone with whom they have an "ordinary attraction." There only need be compatibility, the very thing many of my clients lament over -- having a perfectly compatible mate except for that one thing: chemistry. For people living in 2nd century India, this wasn't a tragedy, just a foundation.