When New Agers talk about Tantra, more often than not they’re actually referring to Neotantra, a modern movement focusing on sacred sexuality but having little to do with the ancient and medieval Tantrik traditions. According to Christopher D. Wallis in Tantra Illumined, a book that deals with nondual Ṥaiva Tantra, “no Indian tradition has been more misunderstood, relative to its deep influence on global spirituality, than Tantra.”
The word Tantra simply means “treatise” and refers to divinely revealed texts that discuss spiritual practices, often including initiation and purification ceremonies. Many elements of Tantra are said to be pre-Vedic, going back to the 4th millennium BCE, but Tantrik texts have only existed since the sixth century BC. However, it was between the eighth and fourteenth centuries that thousands of Tantrik texts were written. This was the medieval period in India, after several great empires collapsed and India was broken up into feudal kingdoms, much like Europe at the time. This allowed for numerous divergent traditions to develop, since each Tantrik text was a complete system of spiritual practice. In fact, each guru generally only worked with one Tantra, so there was no broad category of “Tantra” like there is today. This meant that one Tantrik sect in India could be engaged in practices with very little in common with neighboring Tantrik sects.
Here are six ways most authentic Tantrik traditions differ from modern Neotantra.
Classical Tantra taught no sexual techniques. It’s true that there are a few Tantrik scriptures that discuss sexual energy, but these practices often were simply visualized and if practiced, were only done after many years of training, and perhaps only once. Neotantra, on the other hand, is almost exclusively focused on sexual practices, such as maintaining erections, achieving better orgasms, or doing Tantrik massage. None of these have any connection to traditional Tantra. There’s nothing wrong with exploring sexuality using Neotantrik methods, but practitioners should know these techniques spring from America, mostly starting in San Francisco with “Oom the Omnipotent” (Pierre Bernard) in early 1900s and being further refined in New Age circles from the 1960s onward.
There is one well-known ritual dealing with sex that comes from chapter 29 of the Tantrāloka by the philosopher and mystic Abhinavagupta in the Kashmir Ṥaivic tradition. One version of the Kaula ritual involved using “five jewels” in ritual and then consuming them: semen, menses, urine, feces, and phlem (usually immersed in wine). Being the most impure substances in Indian culture, consuming these “was considered proof that the practitioner had gone beyond the petty dualistic notion that some things are purer or more divine than others,” according to Wallis. The second version of the ritual used the “three Ms”: meat (māṃsa), wine (madya), and extramarital intercourse (maithuna). As Wallis details, “the real nail in the coffin for those who fantasize about so-called ‘Tantrik sex’ is this: . . . one’s partner in the sexual ritual must be someone you are not attracted to, lest the drive of ordinary sexual desire take over, which would spoil the liberative purpose of the ritual. . . . Furthermore, if the practitioner is high-caste, the partner should be low-caste so as to challenge him to overcome the cultural construct that differentiates caste and social status—since the rite requires him to perceive his partner as an incarnation of the Divine.” The reason for the admonition of extramarital sex was because it was assumed people were attracted to their spouse and chosen sexual partner.
Paramahansa Yogananda, along with other teachers, asserts that these practices are engaged in purely in the mental sphere. However, there is evidence these sexual practices did sometimes occur, involving the transformation of the partners into Shakti and Shiva. Unlike Neotantra, if the two partners were not transformed into these divine entities, it was considered a sinful act.
In Tantra Illumined Wallis asks, What does the Kāma-sūtra have to do with Tantra? The answer is that it’s not Tantrik at all, “because in Tantra, the goal of pleasure, when present, is always subordinated to the goal of final spiritual liberation . . . Nor do any of the public erotic temple carvings seen in India … relate to Tantrik practice.”
2. Tantra Relies on Scriptures, Neotantra on Modern Books
The word Tantra originally referred to a treatise or text, though many Westerners translate its meaning as “warp” or “weave.” There are thousands of Tantras, each representing a different form of practice and each said to be divinely revealed. An adherent would generally only be familiar with one Tantra, or sacred text. From the name Tantra alone, we can ascertain that these scriptures themselves were very important to Tantrik practitioners.
Modern practitioners of Neotantra may never have read any Tantrik scripture, or they may take the opposite, and equally non-traditional, route and read tons of Tantras without the assistance of a guru. But Neotantra adherents generally use modern books on Tantra that contain no primary sources such as the Tantras themselves. For example, the bibliography of Diana Richardson’s The Heart of Tantric Sex cites no sources prior to the 1970s and relies heavily on the work of Osho.
Modern Neotantra books are likely to mix very diverse traditions–a common theme in New Age literature. The writer may discuss the yin and yang of Taoism; raising kundalini energy and activating chakras from Hinduism; or achieving compassion like in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition.
3. The Importance of a Guru and Initiation in Tanta
The reliance on a guru in Tantrik sects is called guruparampara and is of the utmost importance. It’s said a guru is absolutely necessary for spiritual advancement on the Tantrik path, but this idea is mostly discounted among Neotantriks. The Tantrik scholar and guru Rāma Kaṇṭha said proper initiation is required for the Tantrik path, in order to destroy karmic barriers and to bring the goal of liberation within reach in just one lifetime.
A guru is also important because the Tantras use sāṃdhyābhāṣā (translated as “twilight language”), which is incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Those without an authentic guru certainly will be lost trying to decipher the symbolism of the Tantras, and may even get further away from the spiritual path.
A true Tantrik guru will not charge for his teachings. However, today there are many self-styled gurus teaching modern sexual Tantrik techniques in exchange for money (or sex). If you think you’ve found an authentic Tantrik teacher, Wallis recommends a simple test to determine if they’re following an original, authentic tradition: Simply ask which Tantra (scripture) they follow.
4. Tantra Is Fundamentally a Spiritual Practice
The ultimate goal of Tantrism, like Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism), is union with the divine. Rāmakaṇṭha, a tenth-century Tantrik scholar in the Śaiva Siddhānta school, said, “A tantra is a divinely revealed body of teachings, explaining what is necessary and what is a hindrance in the practice of the worship of God; and also describing the specialized initiation and purification ceremonies that are the necessary prerequisites of Tantrik practice.”
In Tantra, spiritual practices are called sādhanā and are aids to the aspirant in his or her quest for spiritual awakening. Maithuna (“sexual union” in a spiritual context) is only one of many spiritual practices, and as noted its use is highly contested among scholars. More common sādhanā include prayers, hymns of devotion, worshiping deities, reciting mantras, yoga and meditation, visualization exercises, puja (making offerings to deities), initiation rituals, puja to one’s guru, ritual use of mandalas, and ritual dance or music.
5. The Left-Hand Tantrik Path Implies Truly Transgressive Acts
Orthodox religious practices are called the right-hand path (Dakṣiṇācāra). These include meditation and asceticism, and generally are aligned with the Vedic tradition. The left-hand path (Vamachara) involves practices seen as transgressive from the viewpoint of Vedic society. Common left-hand Tantrik practices include sādhanā done in cremation grounds or while sitting on corpses. Eating meat is considered a left-hand path practice from a Vedic standpoint, but it wouldn’t be for a modern Westerner. Having sex would be transgressive for a vowed ascetic, but not for the average American. Hence, many modern left-hand path traditions have expanded the traditional Vamachara to include things that actually do push today’s practitioners’ boundaries, such as drug use or engaging in undesired sexual practices (homosexual sex for a straight person, or vice-versa, or undesired S&M practices).
Characteristics of traditional Tantra that fall into the left-hand path category include: revaluation of the status and role of women, transgressive acts, sexual yoga, and sahaja, a Sanskrit term meaning spontaneous, which refers to “a recognition of the identity of spirit and matter, subject and object,” in which “there is then no sacred or profane, spiritual or sensual, but everything that lives is pure and void,” in the words of Ananda Coomaraswamy in The dance of Śiva.
6. Visualization Practices Are Extremely Important in Tantra
Traditional Tantra is highly focused on visualization techniques. Practitioners will visualize a deity and try to completely identify with that god or goddess. This is a similar practice to the assumption of god-forms taught, using Egyptian deities, by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley. By proper visualization, the aspirant takes on the qualities of that deity.
The great scholar and Tibetan Buddhist teacher Alexander Berzin talks at length about visualization in discussing the Tantrik teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. More properly called “using the imagination,” this technique involves imagination using all of the senses rather than just sight. In the Tantrik tradition, they imagine various Buddha-figures (higher deities)–either visualized in front of the practitioner or more typically, they imagine themselves to be that Buddha-figure.
These differences don’t mean participants won’t get something valuable out of Neotantra practices, only that they shouldn’t be said to have any link to the Tantrik tradition. A great starting point for learning more about traditional Tantra is the well-researched, textbook-style Tantra Illumined by scholar and practitioner Christopher D. Wallis.