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Sādhanā (Sanskrit: साधना; Standard Tibetan: སྒྲུབ་ཐབས་, druptap, Wyl. sgrub thabs), literally "a means of accomplishing something", is an ego-transcending spiritual practice. It includes a variety of disciplines in Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Muslim traditions that are followed in order to achieve various spiritual or ritual objectives.
The historian N. Bhattacharyya provides a working definition of the benefits of sādhanā as follows:
... religious sādhanā, which both prevents an excess of worldliness and molds 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.
Sādhanā 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, sādhanā, 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 " sādhanā" means spiritual exertion towards an intended goal. A person undertaking such a practice is known as a sādhu or a sādhaka. The goal of sādhanā 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 (saṃsāra), or a particular goal such as the blessings of a deity as in the Bhakti traditions.
Sādhanā 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 sādhanā within a cremation ground.
Traditionally in some Hindu and Buddhist traditions in order to embark on a specific path of sādhanā, 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 sādhanā. On the other hand, individual renunciates may develop their own spiritual practice without participating in organized groups.
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Sādhanā or spiritual practice need not be directed towards a higher cause like enlightenment or moksha. Sādhanā can be done by individuals for lower aims like obtaining worldly pleasures. Sādhanā is also done by a group for the society at large.
Sakām sādhanā (Devanagari सकाम, sa = yes / with, kām = desire) is spiritual practice done for worldly pleasures. This is the lowest form of sādhanā. There is no spiritual progress with sakām sādhanā. Examples of sakām sādhanā are praying for any worldly goals like getting money, a job, marriage or any other aim which are 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 sakām sādhanā as their main aim was to become powerful and rule the world, but in happiness and peace.
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. sakām sādhanā .
Niṣkām (Devnagari = निष्काम, niṣ = no / without, kām = desire) sādhanā 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 (saṃsāra).
This is niṣkām sādhanā done for one's own spiritual upliftment. No one else is benefitted except the person doing vyaṣṭi sādhanā. Thus this form of spiritual practice is an individualistic practice. This form of sādhanā is very important if one wants to do samaṣṭi sādhanā.
This is the kind of niṣkām sādhanā which is done collectively for the spiritual progress of entire humanity. It is the highest level of sādhanā. For samaṣṭi sādhanā to be maintained, vyaṣṭi sādhanā is a must. The same logic that a teacher must read the book first before teaching the students can be applied to this. In Kali Yuga, samaṣṭi sādhanā is important as the people do not know the significance of sādhanā. This kind of sādhanā is more difficult and increases the sātvikta of the entire area. Samaṣṭi sādhanā is not possible without a guru.
Samaṣṭi level sādhanā is more difficult compared to vyaṣṭi but it has added benefits.
The tantric rituals are called "sādhanā". Some of the well known sādhanās are:
In the Vajrayāna Buddhism of Tibet and East Asia and following the Nalanda tradition of India-Tibet-China, there are fifteen major tantric sādhanas: 1. Śūraṅgama Sitātapatrā, 2. Nīlakaṇṭha, 3. Tārā, 4. Mahākāla, 5. Hayagrīva, 6. Amitābha Amitāyus, 7. Bhaiṣajyaguru Akṣobhya, 8. Guhyasamaja, 9. Vajrayoginī Vajravarāhi, 10. Heruka Cakrasaṃvara, 11. Yamāntaka Vajrabhairava, 12. Kālacakra, 13. Hevajra 14. Chod, 15. Vajrapāṇi. All of these are available in Tibetan form, many are available in Chinese and some are still extant in ancient Sanskrit manuscripts.
...external ritual and internal sadhana form an indistinguishable whole, and this unity finds its most pregnant expression in the form of the mandala, the sacred enclosure consisting of concentric squares and circles drawn on the ground and representing that adamantine plane of being on which the aspirant to Buddhahood wishes to establish himself. The unfolding of the tantric ritual depends on the mandala; and where a material mandala is not employed, the adept proceeds to construct one mentally in the course of his meditation.—
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Islam itself could be understood as a "sadhana". Some more specialized practices include dhikr and chilla-nashini as well as the way of self chosen poverty as a derwish or mendicant as well as the Sama (Sufism) of the various Sufi orders.
The spiritual teacher Meher Baba stated that one participates in part of the goal of sadhana in the spiritual practice itself: "In the spiritual field it is not possible to maintain an unbridgeable gulf between Sadhana and the end sought through it. This gives rise to the fundamental paradox that, in the spiritual field, the practising of a Sadhana in itself amounts to a partial participation in the goal." According to Baba, the goal of sadhana is God-realization: "It aims at bringing about a radical change in the quality of life so that it permanently becomes an expression of the Truth in the eternal NOW. Sadhana is spiritually fruitful if it succeeds in bringing the life of the individual in tune with the divine purpose, which is to enable everyone to enjoy consciously the God-state."