Sādhanā (Sanskrit साधना), is a term for "a means of accomplishing something" or more specifically "spiritual practice". It includes a variety of disciplines from Hindu and Buddhist traditions that are followed in order to achieve various spiritual or ritual objectives. The word is also used in the same connection within Sikhism.
The historian N. Bhattacharyya provides a working definition of the benefits of sadhana as follows:
"... religious sādhanā, which both prevents an excess of worldliness and moulds the mind and disposition (bhāva) into a form which develops the knowledge of dispassion and non-attachment. Sādhanā is a means whereby bondage becomes liberation."
Iyengar (1993: p. 22) in his English translation and commentary of Patañjali's Yoga Sutras defines 'sadhana' in relation to 'abhyasa' and 'kriya':
Sādhana is a discipline undertaken in the pursuit of a goal. Abhyāsa is repeated practice performed with observation and reflection. Kriyā, or action, also implies perfect execution with study and investigation. Therefore, sādhana, abhyāsa, and kriyā all mean one and the same thing. A sādhaka, or practitioner, is one who skillfully applies...mind and intelligence in practice towards a spiritual goal.
The term sadhana means spiritual exertion towards an intended goal. A person undertaking such a practice is known as a sadhu or a sadhaka. The goal of sadhana is to attain some level of spiritual realization, which can be either enlightenment, pure love of God (prema), liberation (moksha) from the cycle of birth and death (Samsara), or a particular goal such as the blessings of a deity as in the Bhakti traditions.
Sadhana can involve meditation, chanting of mantra (sometimes with the help of a japa mala), puja to a deity, yajna, and in very rare cases mortification of the flesh or tantric practices such as performing one's particular sadhana within a cremation ground.
Anthony de Mello, an Indian orphan who became a Jesuit priest and founder of the Sadhana Institute in Pune, India, wrote a book of Christian meditations with the title Sadhana: A way to God.
Traditionally in some Hindu and Buddhist traditions in order to embark on a specific path of sadhana, firstly a guru may be required to give the necessary instructions. This approach is typified by some Tantric traditions, in which initiation by a guru is sometimes identified as a specific stage of sadhana. On the other hand, individual renunciates may develop their own spiritual practice without participating in organized groups.
Kinds of Sadhana
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Sadhana or Spiritual practice need not be directed towards a higher cause like Enlightenment or moksha. Sadhana can be done by individuals for lower aims like obtaining worldly pleasures. Sadhana is also done by a group for the society at large.
Sakaam Sadhana (Devnagari = सकाम, Sa = yes / with, Kaam = desire) is spiritual practice done for worldly pleasures. This is the lowest form of sadhana. There is no spiritual progress with sakaam sadhana. Examples of sakaam sadhana is praying for any worldly goals like getting money, job, marriage or any other aim which is temporary and will not last beyond death. In Ramayana it was mentioned that though Ravana and Kumbhakarna were great devotees of Shiva and performed various tapas, they were performing sakaam sadhana as their main aim was to become powerful and rule the world.
The fruits of this kind of spiritual practice are used to fulfill the worldy desires of the individual and no spiritual progress takes place. Thus it is not possible to reach enlightenment, moksha or even heaven as the merits needed to achieve this are used up. So sakaam sadhana provides only temporary happiness and no spiritual progress.
Nishkaam (Devnagari = निष्काम, Ni = no / without, Kaam = desire) sadhana is spiritual practice done for higher aims. It is done to achieve the aim of enlightenment or moksha. It is done for the spiritual upliftment of the individual so that he is taken out of the cycle of life and death (samsara).
This is nishkaam sadhana done for one's own spiritual upliftment. No one else is benefitted except the person doing vyashti sadhana. Thus this form of spiritual practice is an individualistic practice.This form of sadhana is very important if one wants to do samashti sadhana.
Examples of Vyashti Sadhana
- Chanting God's name (Naamjap)
- Reading books on Spirituality
Benefits of Vyashti Sadhana
- Spiritual Progress
- Increase in Saatvikta
- Increases Bhaava(faith)
- Increases the talmal (Desire for God)
- Lower level Anubhuti (Spiritual Experiences)
Pitfalls of Vyashti Sadhana
Note :- These pitfalls exist if the sadhana is done without a guru and if not accompanied by samashti sadhana
- Ego can increase
- Needs a lot of time for little spiritual progress
- One can lose motivation as fast progress is not achieved
This is the kind of nishkaam sadhana which is done collectively for the spiritual progress of entire humanity. It is the highest level of sadhana. For samashti sadhana to be maintained, vyashti sadhana is a must. The same logic that a teacher must read the book first before teaching the students can be applied to this. In Kaliyuga, samashti sadhana is important as the people do not know the significance of sadhana. This kind of sadhana is more difficult and increases the saatvikta of the entire area. Samashti sadhana is not possible without a guru.
Examples of Samashti Sadhana
- Taking satsangs
- Helping in organising satsangs, meditation camps etc.
- Telling others about spirituality.
- Helping others overcome ego by telling them their mistakes from the point of view of spirituality.
Benefits of Samashti Sadhana
Samashti level sadhana is more difficult compared to vyashti but it has added benefits
- We become closer to God
- Faster Spiritual progress
- Priti (Love for all living beings) increases
- Superior level anubhutis( spiritual experiences)
- After death we go to higher planes of existence ( swarga or heaven and beyond )
- Ego and Personality Defects can be easily removed
- Movement from saguna to nirguna
Pitfalls of Samashti Sadhana
- More energy is required (physical, mental and spiritual)
- Attitude is important
- More chances of ego increasing
- Very important to do samashti sadhana under correct guru.
- One mistake in samashti sadhana has a cascading effect and many are affected. This increases the sin of the person who made the mistake.
The Tantrik rituals are called Sadhanas. Some of the well known sadhnas are
- Sava Sadhana ( Sadhana done sitting on a corpse).
- Smasana Sadhana ( Sadhana done in the cremation ground).
- Pancha Munda Sadhana. ( Sadhana done sitting on a seat of five skulls)
According to the Nalanda Tradition of India-Tibet-China, there are fifteen major Tantric Sandhanas in Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet and East Asia: 1. Shurangama Sitatapatra, 2. Nīlakantha, 3. Tara, 4. Mahakala, 5. Hayagriva, 6. Amitabha Amitayus, 7. Bhaisajyaguru Akshobhya, 8. Guhyasamaja, 9. Vajrayogini Vajravarahi, 10. Heruka Chakrasamvara, 11. Yamantaka Vajrabhairava, 12. Kalachakra, 13. Hevajra 14. Chod, 15. Vajrapani. All of these are available in Tibetan form, many are available in Chinese and some are still extant in ancient Sanskrit manuscripts. 
In the sadhana of Buddhism and Vajrayana in particular, the upaya of the 'dedication of merit' (Sanskrit: parinamana) is a component.
- V. S. Apte. A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary. p. 979.
- Flood, Gavin. An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1996. pp. 92, 156, 160, 167. ISBN 0-521-43878-0.
- Bhattacharyya, N. N. History of the Tantric Religion. Second Revised Edition. (Manohar: New Delhi, 1999) p. 174. ISBN 81-7304-025-7
- Iyengar, B.K.S. (1993, 2002). Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. Hammersmith, London, UK: Thorsons. ISBN 978-0-00-714516-4 p.22
- Bhattacharyya, op. cit., p. 317.
- Flood, Gavin. An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1996. p. 92. ISBN 0-521-43878-0.
- Sakam Sadhana :- Sanatan Sanstha
- Valmiki Ramayana - translated by RALPH T. H. GRIFFITH, M. A
- Table 3, Point 15
- Nishkam Sadhana :- Sanatan Sanstha
- Vyashti and Samasti Sadhana by Dr. Jayant Balaji Athavale p10
- Vyashti and Samasti Sadhana by Dr. Jayant Balaji Athavale p39
- Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon - University of the West Archives of Ancient Sanskrit Manuscripts