The Kama Sutra is mostly notable of a group of texts known generically as Kama Shastra (Sanskrit: ). Traditionally, the first transmission of Kama Shastra or "Discipline of Kama" is attributed to Nandi the sacred bull, Shiva's doorkeeper, who was moved to sacred utterance by overhearing the lovemaking of the god and his wife Parvati and later recorded his utterances for the benefit of mankind.
Historian John Keay says that the Kama Sutra is a compendium that was collected into its present form in the second century CE.
Regarding how the composition became known to the Western world, Burton's translation says the following in its introduction:
It may be interesting to some persons to learn how it came about that Vatsyayana was first brought to light and translated into the English language. It happened thus. While translating with the pundits the `Anunga Runga, or the stage of love', reference was frequently found to be made to one Vatsya. The sage Vatsya was of this opinion, or of that opinion. The sage Vatsya said this, and so on. Naturally questions were asked who the sage was, and the pundits replied that Vatsya was the author of the standard work on love in Sanskrit literature, that no Sanscrit library was complete without his work, and that it was most difficult now to obtain in its entire state. The copy of the manuscript obtained in Bombay was defective, and so the pundits wrote to Benares, Calcutta and Jaipur for copies of the manuscript from Sanskrit libraries in those places. Copies having been obtained, they were then compared with each other, and with the aid of a Commentary called `Jayamangla' a revised copy of the entire manuscript was prepared, and from this copy the English translation was made. The following is the certificate of the chief pundit:`The accompanying manuscript is corrected by me after comparing four different copies of the work. I had the assistance of a Commentary called "Jayamangla" for correcting the portion in the first five parts, but found great difficulty in correcting the remaining portion, because, with the exception of one copy thereof which was tolerably correct, all the other copies I had were far too incorrect. However, I took that portion as correct in which the majority of the copies agreed with each other.'
Dharma, Artha and Kama are aims of everyday life, while Moksha is release from the cycle of death and rebirth. The Kama Sutra (Burton translation) says:
"Dharma is better than Artha, and Artha is better than Kama. But Artha should always be first practised by the king for the livelihood of men is to be obtained from it only. Again, Kama being the occupation of public women, they should prefer it to the other two, and these are exceptions to the general rule." (Kama Sutra 1.2.14)
Of the first three, virtue is the highest goal, a secure life the second and pleasure the least important. When motives conflict, the higher ideal is to be followed. Thus, in making money virtue must not be compromised, but earning a living should take precedence over pleasure, but there are exceptions.
In childhood, Vātsyāyana says, a person should learn how to make a living; youth is the time for pleasure, and as years pass one should concentrate on living virtuously and hope to escape the cycle of rebirth.
The Kama Sutra is sometimes wrongly thought of as a manual for tantric sex. While sexual practices do exist within the very wide tradition of Hindu tantra, the Kama Sutra is not a tantric text, and does not touch upon any of the sexual rites associated with some forms of tantric practice.
Also the Buddha preached a Kama Sutra, which is located in the Atthakavagga (sutra number 1). This Kama Sutra, however, is of a very different nature as it warns against the dangers that come with the search for pleasures of the senses.
A recent translation is that of Indra Sinha, published in 1980. In the early 1990s its chapter on lovemaking positions began circulating on the internet as an independent text and today is often assumed to be the whole of the Kama Sutra.
Alain Daniélou contributed a translation called The Complete Kama Sutra in 1994. This translation featured the original text attributed to Vatsayana, along with a medieval and modern commentary. Unlike Burton's version, Alain Danielou's new translation preserves the numbered verse divisions of the original and includes two essential commentaries: the Jayamangala commentary, written in Sanskrit by Yashodhara during the Middle Ages, and a modern Hindi commentary by Devadatta Shastri. Another noteworthy difference is the preservation of the full explicitness of the original text. All aspects of sexual life have been mentioned -- including marriage, adultery, prostitution, group sex, sadomasochism, male and female homosexuality, and transvestism.
It was translated again in 2002 by Wendy Doniger, the professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago, and Sudhir Kakar, the Indian psychoanalyst and senior fellow at Center for Study of World Religions at Harvard University. Their translation provides a psychoanalytic interpretation of the text.