Inner Journey: Four Stages of Sadhana

This article elaborates on the four stages of sadhana (practice). 

What makes one seek something permanent, something subtler than the world we know or something deeply profound and mysterious? Most seekers want to have freedom from suffering. This suffering may be of physical, social, mental or emotional nature. The greatest suffering is poverty: poverty of resources, poverty of education, poverty of health or poverty of talent. On the other hand, there are those who experience acute suffering even though they have everything. They suffer because they feel separated from the unconditional love of the Divine. Whatever the reason that motivates them, the seeker want to overcome all suffering and attain union with the Divine. 

The search begins: a great adventure into the unknown

One of the first places a seeker starts is looking for information in books and lectures. Out of these, only a few devote themselves to the study of scriptures. Most are satisfied with the information they glean out of the scriptures. A few, however, are not satisfied with this "second hand knowledge". They are confused by the contradictory scriptures. Some scriptures declare reality to be non-dual, while others claim the Divine is separate from the world. Some say God and the Universe are real, while others insist God is the only reality and everything else is an illusion. Tired of these contradictions only a discerning few set out to attain knowledge through direct experience. This is a great milestone on the spiritual journey.

A Pravartaka: One at the initial stage of practice

One who is just starting on the path of direct experience is called a pravartaka. He has realized that it is not enough to read or just listen to the teachings of different teachers. He begins seeking direct contact to teachers from different traditions with the intent of gaining direct experience. This is one of the most exciting but also a difficult stage of the inner journey. The search may lead the pravartka to various teachers broadening his horizons but it may also lead to a lot of painful experiences. 

Many students get stuck in this first stage for decades, even a lifetime, because they hop from one teacher to another teacher, from one tradition to another, collecting techniques, creating their own versions of sadhana. Most of these students are unable to distinguish between authentic teachers and charlatans. They become victims of teachers who are running big businesses or who seek only to build up their own egos. Some of these seekers collect practices and mantras to create their own brand of spirituality and declare themselves to be teachers though they have not attained any direct knowledge. Such a student has got lost on the path and only succeeds in building up the ego, rather than surrendering it. For the pravartaka this phase is about narrowing down his search to what seems like a good teacher from an authentic tradition. 

Rarest of the rare is the student who finds a good teacher and an authentic tradition. His "practice" is in fact more about setting priorities and organizing his life to prepare for sadhana. He learns the right techniques and works on self-discipline (tapas) as well as begins to correct the false interpretations of the scriptures with the help of his teacher (svadhyaya). At this stage, the pravartaka thinks he is practicing, but in fact he is preparing himself for sadhana. 

A good teacher of an authentic tradition works with compassion to make the student more self-aware. Almost all students in this initial phase believe that they are very spiritual or even advanced. The process of helping the student re-assess his own progress on the path is a difficult task even for the best of teachers.

A Sadhaka: One at the intermediate stage of practice

At this stage, a student has all the resources he needs to dedicate himself to practice: a good teacher, an authentic tradition, a systematic method of meditation, a healthy self-assessment of his own development and the determination (sankalpa) to practice and attain. He does not dissipate his energies with intellectual studies or hopping from teacher to teacher. He utilizes his precious time to practice. Such a student is called a sadhaka.

In the intermediate stage of practice the sadhaka focusses on developing a relationship with his own teacher and tradition. With gradual but consistent progress on the path through practice, he develops trust in the teacher and the tradition. The sadhaka may not have had the direct experience of the Highest , but he has integrated his sadhana as the most important part of his life.

A Siddha: One at the stage of achievement in sadhana

At this stage, a student has had a glimpse of the non-dual Truth. It is important to understand that lights, sounds, sensations, fragrances, visions, vivid images or emotions such as joy and happiness are dualistic experiences. The non-dualistic Truth can only be described as "Neti, neti," or "not this, not this."

The practitioner may have experienced this non-dual Truth only momentarily, but it is a direct experience and not "second hand" information from books or teachers. This strengthens his sankalpa. He must no longer just believe the scriptures and his teacher, because he has validated these himself through direct experience. He now has unshakeable trust in the scriptures, his teacher and this trust develops into a gentle but indomitable willpower. This can be compared to the faith required to walk on water – a wonderful metaphor for total trust in the subtler powers of the Divine that comes from direct knowledge. He is now a siddha and constantly longs to return to his true home, the one he has briefly experienced. His sadhana consists of repeatedly returning to and trying to maintain that highest state of Sakshi Bhava. He is ready to renounce the desire for family, for material wealth and comforts, and for recognition to attain the highest non-dual Truth and become a paramasiddha.

A Paramasiddha: One who is an adept in practice

Strictly speaking this is not a stage of practice but the culmination of many lifetimes of evolution and disciplined effort. A paramasiddha is an adept. All effort has dropped away as his practice has matured. The paramasiddha can remain established in the non-dual reality effortlessly. If such a paramasiddha has chosen to remain in the body, he is called a jivanmukta. It is difficult for most seekers and practitioners to conceive of such an adept. Most students project their own limitations on such an adept and are unable to relate to such a being. Such an adept, though he may look human, is in fact divinity personified.