Burton, posted to Trieste, remained unhappy with his fate whilst his friend Foster Arbuthnot was in India searching for the ‘book of Vatsyayana’. Although told that no Sanskrit library was without one, Arbuthnot found that to be an exaggeration. The state of Indian libraries did not make matters easier at all.
It was only in the 1870s that the British study of Sanskrit was to be taken up again after years of neglect. Political aspirations and forcing English as the only education language into Indian schools did not endear the British to the local scholars either.
But Arbuthnot felt that if England did not take the lead there will be others to do so. A German scholar, Johann Bühler sided with the British sentiment but was hampered by lack of funds to obtain Sanskrit manuscripts and by his non-indian status. He was however to be the key that lead Burton to the Kamasutra.
Bühler was given permission to investigate the holdings of the old libraries in India once he realised the huge problem of the lack of preserved manuscripts. Paper were not properly looked after and there was a risk of losing all this valuable information. It was an ambitious task to catalogue every Sanskrit manuscript in India. Fortunately, he was not alone in this undertaking, but it was still a task that could not have been easy no matter how scholars helped.
Bühler’s persistence did produce results and it wasn’t too long before the manuscripts came rolling into his hands by the thousands. But the Kamasutra was nowhere to be found. Another German scholar, Hermann Jacobi did find it, but did not tell anyone about it. And he wasn’t the only one inhibited by his prudish beliefs.
These guys really knew how make a girl growl in frustration. Prudish or not, dammit, couldn’t they just have told someone?
Bühler introduced Arbuthnot to an Indian scholar, Bhagvanlal Indraji who turned out to be ideal guy to help Arbuthnot in his search for the Kamasutra. After an initial awkwardness between the two, the language barrier being the greatest obstacle, Arbuthnot was elated to find out that his new acquaintance owned a copy of the Kamasutra. Although incomplete, it was the best news he had had that day!
Without hesitation he wrote to his friend Burton, who implored his bosses (although carefully) that they send him back to India. They didn’t, but the Burtons went for a visit anyway. The friends concocted the idea of establishing a club for enthusiasts of erotics of the East, under the guise of a publication house. They would call it the Kama Shastra Society!
By now the complete Kamasutra had come to Indraji’s possession. But before it could be brought to the West, the Sanscrit text had to be prepared and then translated. Indraji played the pivotal role in the preparation, from Sanskrit to Gujarati, but he was hampered by his English. That task fell onto the shoulders of Foster Arbuthnot, and a scholar named Shivaram Bhide, to complete the translation.
Burton’s role as a translator is not that clear, since the work was done after he left India, but his contribution was definitely that of the celebrity editor. He received a smuggled copy of the final translation from Arbuthnot and set about polishing it. Limited by Arbuthnot’s requirement that the translation remain true to the original, however dry in style, Burton could only add his comments as footnotes.
Although credit for the translation is to be laid at the doors of Indraji, Arbuthnot and Bhide, it was Burton’s notoriety and drive to find the manuscript, that brought it to the notice of the West.