Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469
Mallanga Vatsyayana is credited with compiling the classic collection of Hindu aphorisms on love known as the Kama Sutra early in the first millennium c.e. Nothing is known about him beyond the fact that he was a student of ancient Hindu works, from which he adapted his own book. The texts of the Kama Sutra taught that human life should be directed toward three goals: dharma, or doing good works to gain religious merit; artha, acquiring wealth and fame; and kama, achieving pleasure. Sutra are aphorisms—brief instructive statements—so Kama Sutra can be translated as “aphorisms on pleasure.” The Kama Sutra contains explicit descriptions of various forms of human sexual activity, but much of it is taken up with more prosaic advice on matters such as finding a spouse, making oneself more attractive, and how spouses should treat each other. It carries the underlying message that people in love should do whatever brings them pleasure.
In 1883 the English explorer and linguist Richard Francis Burton privately published his own translation of the Kama Sutra. The public at large could not buy an unexpurgated edition of the book until 1963, when it appeared in lavishly illustrated editions in Great Britain and the United States (early editions were not illustrated). No one tried to censor the work at this time. In 1969, however, Milton Luros, an American book publisher, tried to bring sexually graphic Indian illustrations into the United States for a new edition of the Kama Sutra. U.S. Customs agents confiscated thirty-seven of his illustrations from his suitcase and charged him with violating the Tariff Act of 1930, which prohibited importation of obscene material. Luros sued, claiming that the law violated his First Amendment rights. A federal district court in California ruled in his favor, declaring the 1930 law unconstitutional.
In 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision, in United States v. Thirty-Seven Photographs. The majority opinion, written by Justice Byron White, rejected Luros’ argument that Americans had a right to possess obscene material in the privacy of their homes and that his suitcase was an extension of his home. Earlier, in Stanley v. Georgia (1969), the Court had proclaimed citizens’ right to such privacy; however, White ruled that because a suitcase was not part of a person’s home, it was not protected from searches. Moreover, since Luros had clearly intended to make his pictures available to the public, he was not bringing them into the country solely for his private viewing. Congress thus had the power to prohibit any commerce, including obscene material, from entering the country. Justice Hugo Black dissented, defending a “zone of privacy” for citizens that included their luggage. In his view, Congress had no power to act as censor, and he asserted the right of citizens to read and view whatever they pleased.