When most people talk about tantra these days, especially in Western countries, they're likely actually talking about neotantra.
What is neotantra?
Neotantra is a modern offshoot of the traditional practice of tantra, which, contrary to what you might hear in pop culture, isn't all about sex. Classical tantra refers to various ancient Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religious practices, all centered around seeking full spiritual awakening. Tantric sex was just one part of this path, though not necessarily the main one. The version of tantra that focuses on sexuality that most of us know about today is actually neotantra. Sometimes referred to as sacred sexuality, neotantra is a sexuality driven spiritual path rooted in philosophies that emphasize the importance of being present and the power of touch.
Below are some of the main differences between classical tantra and neotantra that speak to the philosophical evolutions and practice-based changes in tantric thought.
Classical tantra versus neotantra: 5 differences.
1. Classical tantra doesn't focus on sex, whereas neotantra does.
Classical tantra is based on a collection of ancient texts from various sects within Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism as early as the seventh century, according to Leslie Grace, R.N., a registered nurse and tantric sex educator. Rather than revolving around sex, classical tantra's focus is enlightenment and consciousness. "[It's] really about liberating the body, opening up our energies to heal ourselves, and becoming whole as beings," Grace tells mbg.
As opposed to focusing on sex, classical tantra involves more mantras, yantras, and rituals, says tantra teacher and bodyworker Samya Dhyan. "It doesn't involve many sexual practices; even if there are some, they are mostly through visualization," she tells mbg.
Neotantra originated as a more modern adaptation of classical tantra over the course of the last 150 years or so, Grace explains, and it focuses on sacred sexuality as its main practice, goal, and path toward transcendence. (Here's our full guide to tantric sex in the neotantra tradition, penned by Grace herself.)
2. Some forms of sex may be considered sinful in classical tantra.
Whereas neotantra is all about owning and experimenting with one's sexuality, classical tantra makes much less use of sexual practices. In fact, if a sexual practice doesn't help transform the people involved or help them on their path toward transcendence, sex may even be considered sinful in some forms of classical tantra, according to Dhyan.
Neotantra is much more sexually exploratory. "In neotantra, sexual energy is considered the most potent energy available for the practitioner to play with and to dive deeper into various colors of being alive in this human form," Dhyan explains. "So it can include conscious sexual interaction as part of the practice."
3. Classical tantra has more religious elements.
Classical tantra has fairly religious roots: "These include Kashmir Shaivism, a strand of religious philosophies from Kashmir and India, and the Vajrayana Buddhist path of India and Tibet," Grace writes at mbg. "These paths often involve serious study and personal dedication, meditative practices, and can include various elements of ritual."
Some classical tantra practices directly involve deity workshop, and other accounts of classical tantra have even described the use of magic, sorcery, and other supernatural elements.
Neotantra, while very spiritual in nature, is much more grounded in the psychosomatic experience, as well as the energy work. (Including, for example, energy orgasms.)
4. Neotantra does not rely on ancient scriptures.
Most modern tantra (aka neotantra) is taught by individual teachers and schools, and you'll seldom be given an ancient scripture to parse through during class. If they rely on any materials, Dhyan says, the books are most often written by neotantra teachers in recent years. (There are some sects of neotantra practitioners who integrate both classical tantra with neotantra into their practice. When that is the case, practitioners often use the classical text Vigyan Bhairava Tantra.)
In a sense, neotantra is more accessible in this regard given its open and customizable approach that includes different teachings and multiple philosophies. The lack of reliance on ancient scriptures also allows practitioners to learn from a wide array of teachers.
5. Classical tantra usually requires direct initiation, unlike with neotantra.
Classical tantra requires that disciples undergo an initiation process by a guru or sect. Dhyan notes that with any classical spiritual system, direct initiation is considered as an integral way to ensure the transmission of wisdom. While specific initiation rituals and ceremonies can differ, the primary aspect of the process is a students' receipt of blessings from a guru or spiritual leader.
Neotantra takes a different approach: "Even though many people do get initiated by their teachers, gurus, or sects, it is not considered mandatory," Dhyan explains. This gives practitioners the freedom to move from one sect or teacher to another.
6. Neotantra is more democratized than classical tantra.
Classical tantra practitioners rely on the teachings and acceptance of an often closed and exclusive system of gurus, Dhyan explains. Neotantra is much more accessible and less limiting with respect to who can practice and experience the benefits. Neotantra emphasizes self-knowing, self-healing, and inner empowerment, and as such practitioners may go to any school, teacher, or retreat to understand and learn more about the practice. There are countless sources of knowledge and wisdom for practitioners to explore that make neotantra a boundless method of achieving spiritual transcendence.
To some tantric practitioners, neotantra's seemingly democratized form of tantra is unorthodox given its often experimental teachings and practices. But neotantra practitioners often celebrate the countless opportunities for spiritual growth and self-actualization that are more personalized and less bound by restriction.
Neotantra and classical tantra do share the same roots, though.
Dhyan says neotantra is so different from classical tantra that it almost doesn't make sense to have the word "tantra" in it at all. But the truth is, tantra in general has no one meaning, and teachers, scholars, and practitioners often disagree about the core principles and beliefs of tantra anyway.
"Even though neotantra primarily focuses on sacred sexuality as a means to reach to sacredness, the adherents go through practices for other spiritual purposes as well," she adds. These include "empowering their feminine and masculine energies, emotional release techniques, bioenergetic work, learning the chakra system, and Taoistic practices."
In this regard, neotantra is similar to classical tantra in the pursuit of personal transcendence.
Jesi Taylor Cruz is a writer, doula, community activist, and researcher based in New York City with a focus on Black motherhood, lifestyle, pop culture, and mental health. They have a bachelor's degree in Philosophy from the City University of New York, and their work has been featured in the American Philosophical Association, Self, Vice, Bustle, Zora, Romper, and elsewhere.
Jesi is also a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Research Fellow, Leader Alliance Mellon Initiative Fellow, Rosen Fellow, and a CUNY Pipeline for Careers in College Teaching and Research Fellow. Their research and academic work focuses on how structural violence impacts interpersonal social relations and Black maternal health.