From New World Encyclopedia

Kāma (Devanagari: काम) is the Indian notion of pleasure, which encompasses a wide variety of concepts including sensual gratification, sexual fulfillment, love, and aesthetic enjoyments, among others. Such pleasure is considered an important but ultimately dispensable aspect of life in the Hindu tradition; for Buddhists, meanwhile, sensual desire must be rejected at all costs. Kama also refers to the Hindu god of love, most famous for his incineration (and eventual reconstitution) at the hands of Shiva, the ascetic god of destruction.

Etymology and Origins

The word kama is a masculine noun referring to "desire" in both the Sanskrit and Pali languages.[1] The first appearance of kama in a theological sense appears in the Rg Veda, and in decidedly asexual terms. Here kama is the first movement of the ineffable Absolute toward form, the first desire that necessitated consciousness. With the arrival of the Atharva Veda, kama is elevated to the status of something resembling a creator god, and is afforded supremacy over the other deities (Atharva Veda 9.2.19-20, 25).

Kama: The Principle

In Hinduism, kāma has a variety of meanings, ranging from sensuality to aesthetic enjoyment, although its overtones are predominantly sexual in the popular imagination. All of these connotations are together regarded as one of the four ends of man (the purusharthas), alongside artha (wealth), dharma (righteousness) and moksha (liberation). When governed by righteous action and intent, the fulfillment of such desires is considered to be a healthy and acceptable part of life. It is precisely this philosophy that inspired the kamashastras, a body of texts which detail with scientific precision the various means by which a couple can maximize sexual pleasure. Included in this corpus of works is the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana (third-fourth century C.E.), an authorative and encyclopedic sex manual well-known in colloquial Western understandings of Indian culture. This text expounds upon the various intricacies of lovemaking, including various positions or asanas which can be assumed based upon age, status and experience of the partners. Although kāma is evidently of great importance, it is considered the lowest rung on the ladder of aims in Hindu life, because even animals seek physical pleasures. Thus, kāma must eventually be transcended in favor of the higher moral and spiritual aims.

Buddhism sees absolutely no positive aspects of kāma. In this tradition, Kama refers specifically to desire toward sensual objects and the subsequent joy taken in these things, and is therefore considered a major obstacle upon the path to enlightenment. Kama is listed among the three kinds of craving (trishnas) as well as the five hindrances (or nivaranas), and is identified as one of the most serious defilements (or asrava). Accordingly, Kamaloka, the realm of sensual pleasure, is considered one of the lowest of the three realms which make up the universe. Throughout the Pali Canon the demon Mara attempts to prevent the Buddha's inevitable enlightenment with a number of temptations, including kāma. In the Mara-Samyutta, Mara appears underneath the Bodhi tree where the Buddha meditates, materializing his three alluring daughters in order to pull the Buddha out of his meditative state. The Buddha is not tempted by the potential pleasures of the flesh and so proceeds forth unimpeded toward his awakening, and so the message is clear: dharma triumphs over kāma. More generally, especially in the Theravada school of Buddhism, awakening is preceded by insight (vipassana) which is bolstered by concentration (samadhi) that is developed through the meditative cultivation of advanced meditative states, which are preceded by complete withdrawal from sensuality (vivicc'eva kāmehi). Additionally, the third of the Five Precepts recited daily by the Buddhist lay practitioners involves a commitment to abstain from "sexual misconduct" (kāmesu micchācāra).

Kama: The Diety

Kāma or Kāmadeva (Sanskrit: काम, कामदेव) is the divine personification of sensual desire, and takes a place in the Hindu pantheon parallel to that of the Greek Eros and Roman Cupid as a god of love.[2] Furthermore, like Eros and Cupid, Kāmadeva is depicted as a young and handsome winged man who wields a bow which fires arrows capable of pairing lovers, both human and godly alike. His bow is made of sugarcane, strung with a row of buzzing honeybees, and his arrows are decorated with five kinds of fragrant flowers. These features have won him the epithets Kandarpa ("satisfier"), and Pushpadhanva, the "one with bow of flowers."

Kamadeva is known by a number of additional epithets, including Ragavrinta ("Stalk of Passion'"), Ananga (incorporeal), Manmatha ("churner of hearts'"), Manosij ("He Who Arises from the Mind"; the contraction of the Sanskrit phrase Sah Manasah Jāta), Madana ("intoxicating'"), and Ratikānta ("lord of the seasons"). This latter epithet suggests his connection with the change of the seasons and nature. Accordingly, Kamadeva is often related to the seasons, particularly spring, and the gentle breeze that comes with it. His companions are typically birds, most commonly the cuckoo, the parrot, as well as winged insects such as hummingbees, all of which are symbolic of the springtime.


The sources of the mythological character Kamadeva are varied. The Taittiriya-Brahmana suggests that his father is Dharma, personification of the universal principle of justice, and his mother Shraddha, the goddess of faith. According to the Harivamsa, he is the son of Lakshmi, goddess of material wealth. The Shiva purānam, holds Lord Brahma, creator of the universe, responsible for Kāmadeva's birth. According to other sources including the Skanda purānam, Kāmadeva is a brother of Prasuti; together they are the children of Shatarupa, a creation of Brahmā. Later interpolations consider Kama to be Vishnu's son.[3] All sources concur on the fact that Kāmadeva is wed to Ratī, a daughter of Prasuti and Daksha (another son/creation of Brahmā) who herself personified sensual pleasure. His second wife is Priti, the personification of affection, by whom he has a daughter Trishna or "thirst," representative of insatiable desire. According to some beliefs, Kāmadeva was also once reincarnated as Pradyumna, the son of Krishna and Rukminī.

Perhaps the best-known legend concerning Kāmadeva pertains to his annihilation and subsequent resurrection at the hands of Shiva, commonly known as the Kamadahana ("burning of Kama"). As related in the Kumārasāmbhavam, Kāmadeva (referred to here as Kandarpa) resolved to aid the maiden Pārvatī in gaining the favor of Shiva. This union was of the utmost importance for gods and humans alike, since a demon by the name of Taraka had been granted a boon which rendered him invincible to any creature save for a son of Shiva, and had been terrorizing the world in the meantime. However, drawing the great destroyer god out of his ascetic lifestyle was no simple task. Although Parvati attempted to attract Shiva's attention, the god was too deeply immersed in his ascetic practices to notice her. Desperate to defeat Taraka, the gods sent Kama to stimulate Shiva's lust, disrupting his meditation and thereby helping Pārvati gain the attention of the lord.

Kama shot his arrows-of-desire at Shiva in order to send him into a swoon; however, the ploy backfired with severe consequences for its perpetrator. Angered by the momentary distraction, Shiva unveiled his dreadful third eye and reduced Kama to a pile of ash with a single fiery glance. The consequences of the calamity were more than merely personal, however, since the annihilation of Kāma left the entire earth barren and infertile. Although the gods mourn Kama's incineration, his work did not pass without filling its intents, as Shiva wound up falling in love with Parvati nonetheless. Eventually, the marriage of Shiva and Pārvatī came to be held, and, at the behest of the gods and upon the intercession made by Parvati in favor of Kāmadeva's lamenting wife Rati, Shiva reconstitutes Kama from the ashes, bringing him back to life. However, Shiva resurrected Kama not as an anthropomorphic being but as an incorporeal mental image only, representing the true emotional and mental state of love rather than physical lust (this garnered Kama the epithet Ananga). With that, the procreative continuity of the world was restored, and Shiva and Parvati were able to conceive the child Kartikeya, who goes on to defeat the demon Taraka and save the world.


Although not formally worshipped to the extent of other Hindu deities, Kama still remains a prevalent character in Hindu practice, mainly in his connection with Shiva. The popular festival of Holi, the Indian festival of colors, provides one such example of this association. One variation of this holiday prevalent in South India, particularly in Tamilnadu and Kerala, is rooted in a version of the aforementioned Kama/Shiva legend. This tale suggests that Kama's wife Rati begged Lord Shiva to take pity on her and restore her husband to life, and Shiva finally relented, granting her the boon that she could see her husband, albeit without physical form. Songs sung in this region during Holi tell the pathetic tale of Rati and her lamentations over her husband's both before and after her reconstituion. The bonfire traditionally lit on this day are also believed by some to commemorate this legend. In Tamilnadu, Holi is known by three different names—Kamavilas, Kaman Pandigai and Kama-dahanam—all of which suggest the significance of Kama during this event.[4]


As both a principle and deity, Kama remains a vital aspect of the Indian religious tradition. As one of the four parusharthas, kāma accentuates the necessity of sensuality in a well-rounded spiritual life, although it may not be the most important element. This idea obviously has some cross-cultural appeal, evident in the reverence shown by western culture toward the meticulous, precise and scientific appreciation given to the sensual life in the ever-fashionable Kama Sutra. As the god of love, and in his close mythological relation to the ascetic Lord Shiva, Kama speaks to the ability of the supreme divinity to absorb aspects of both asceticism and eroticism.[5] While Shiva is proof of the power of asceticism, the bland and desolate world which resulted from his impetuous incineration of Kama is tantamount proof of the poignant necessity of love and desire.


  1. Robert Goldman, Devavanipravesika: An Introduction to the Sanskrit Language (Berkeley: Center for South Asian Studies, 2004), 446.
  2. Eva Rudy Jansen, The Book of Hindu Imagery: Gods, Manifestations and Their Meaning (Newburyport, MA: Weiser Books, 1993), 93.
  3. Jansen, 93.
  4. "Holi" by Malini Bisen Retrieved February 3, 2008.
  5. See Wendy Doniger's, Asceticism and eroticism in the mythology of Śiva, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Benton, Catherine. God of desire: tales of Kamadeva in Sanskrit story literature. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006. ISBN 0791465659
  • Dallapiccola, Anna. Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend. London: Thames and Hudson, 2002. ISBN 0-500-51088-1
  • Doniger, Wendy. Asceticism and eroticism in the mythology of Śiva. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. ISBN 0197135730
  • Friedrichs, Kurt. "Kama." In The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion. Edited by S. Schumacher and Gert Woerner. Boston: Shambhala, 1994, 171-172. ISBN 087773433X
  • Jansen, Eva Rudy. The Book of Hindu Imagery: Gods, Manifestations and Their Meaning. Newburyport, MA: Weiser Books. ISBN 9074597076
  • Lochtefeld, James G. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2002. ISBN 0-8239-2287-1

External links

All links retrieved October 4, 2022.

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