God of Desire

Tales of Kāmadeva in Sanskrit Story Literature

By Catherine Benton

Subjects: Asian Studies
Series: SUNY series in Hindu Studies
Paperback : 9780791465660, 252 pages, June 2006
Hardcover : 9780791465653, 252 pages, November 2005

Alternative formats available from:

Table of contents


Stories externalize internal complexities
Kamadeva teaches: Sexual desire (kama) as paradigm for generic desire (kama)
Stories mold worldview
Tale of Yayati: Telling stories about desire
A flow of stories with no reliable dates
Visual representations of Kamadeva
Structure of this study of Kama and kama

1. Stories of Beginnings: Kamadeva and his wives
The birth of Kamadeva
Kamadeva’s wife: Rati
Kamadeva’s companions: Vasanta and the Maras
Kamadeva’s other wife: Priti / Karnotpala
Who is Kamadeva?
Translation: The tale of Karnotpala

2. Kamadeva, Skilled Marksman
Siva wins: Kama turned to ash
Kama wins: Kama’s power within Siva
Devi wins: Kama as devotee of the goddess

3. Kamadeva as Pradyumna, son of Krsna
The story of Pradyumna
Variant Pradyumnas and Sambaras
Kama marries Mayavati: Desire embedded in and wedded to Illusion
The story of Pradyumna as allegory

4. Kamadeva and Khandasila: rituals and metaphors
The story of Khandasila
The parallel tale of Indra and Ahalya
Why women become stones
Reflecting on Khandasila: Siva in the Pine Forest
Devotion to Kamadeva
What Kama and Khandasila say about desire
Translation: The tale of Khandasila

5. Worshipping Kamadeva
Kamadeva’s festivals and pujas: The Damanakotsava
Kamadeva as fertility god, and vratas for prostitutes
Rituals for beauty and husbands: Tirthas for couples
Why rituals of Devotion to Kamadeva
Translation: The Damanaka Festival (damanakotsava)

6. Recognizing Kama: Perspectives of early texts—anger, pursartha, invincible power, tentric energy
Kama in the Rg Veda and Atharva Veda
Kama in the Brahmanas
Kama in the Upanisads
Kama as a human goal, a purusartha (Mahabharata)
Kama and Krodha: Desire and anger (Mahabharata)
Kama: Upholder of the earth and cosmic will (Mahabharata)
Song of Kama (Kamagita): The power of desire (Mahabharata)
Kama in service to a Tantric goddess: Chinnamasta
Historical progression of Kama and his Greek cousin, Eros

7. Kamadeva’s assistants: Celestial beings, birds, and crocodiles
Parrot: Kamadeva’s vehicle
Makara: Emblem of the god of desire

8. Kama as the Buddhist Mara and Manjusri
Attitudes toward kama in early Buddhist literature
Kama and Mara: Desire and Death
Upagupta and Mara: Mara as the Buddha
Vimalakirti and Mara: Enlightened Maras
Manjusri and Kamadeva: Desire as a path to wisdom

9. Conclusions: Kamadeva and the Meaning of Desire
What does Kamadeva teach about desire?
Attitudes toward desire in Sanskrit story literature

Bibliographies: Sanskrit Texts


Sanskrit Translations
General Sources


Presents Kamadeva, the Hindu god of desire, in tales, art, and ritual. Also covers Kamadeva's appearance in Buddhist lore.


God of Desire presents Sanskrit tales of the Indian deity Kāmadeva as he battles the ascetic god Śiva, assists the powerful goddess Devī, and incarnates as the charming son of Kṛṣṇa. Exploring the imagery and symbolism of the god of desire in art and ritual, Catherine Benton reflects on the connection of Kāmadeva to parrots, makaras (gharials), and apsarases (celestial nymphs), and to playful devotional rituals designed to win his favor. In addition to examining the Hindu literature, Benton also highlights two Buddhist forms of Kamadeva, the demonic Māra, who tries to persuade the Buddha to trade enlightenment for the delights of a woman, and the ever-youthful Mañjuśri, who cuts through ignorance with the bodhisattva sword of wisdom. Tales of Kāmadeva from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions present desire as a powerful force continually redefining the boundaries of chaos and order and gently pulling beyond the ephemeral lure of passionate longings.

Catherine Benton is Lecturer in the Religion Department at Lake Forest College.