Shava sadhana (śāva sādhanā) is a Tantricsadhana (spiritual practice) in which the practitioner sits on a corpse for meditation. Shava sadhana is part of the Vamachara (heterodox, Left-hand path) practice of worship, which is followed by the esoteric Tantra.
Shava sadhana is regarded as one of Tantra’s most important, most difficult and most secret rituals. Tantric texts as well as oral tales detail the process of the ritual and also tell its importance. The purpose of practicing the ritual range from knowledge, propitiating a deity, material motives, even dark objectives to gaining control over the spirit of the deceased. There are strict rules that need to be followed in the ritual, even in selection of a suitable corpse for the ceremony.
The following Tantric texts detail the ritual process: Kaulavali-nirnaya, Shyamarahasya, Tara-bhakti-sudharnava, Purasharcharyarnava, Nilatantra, Kulachudamani and Krishnananda’s Tantrasara. The Kali tantra says that those who worship goddess Parvati without shava sadhana will suffer in Naraka (hell) until dissolution of the world.
An oral tale about the shava sadhana is told by the Tantrikas of Bengal. Vasudeva Bhattacharya of Tipperah (West Bengal) went to the Goddess temple of Kamakhya and worshipped the deity by Tantric means. A voice told him about the ritual and that he will gain moksha in his next life when he will be reborn as his own grandson Sarvananda. Vasudeva gave his servant Purvananda an engraved copper plate with a mantra. Purvananda, now an old man, now served Sarvananda, who he passed the secret of shava sadhana ritual, told by his former master. Purvananda volunteered to be used as the corpse for shava sadhana and Sarvananda performed the ritual, where ghosts tormented him; storms tried to interrupt his practice; beautiful dancers tempted him, until the Goddess gave him a vision. She blessed him with vak siddhi, the ability to make something happen by just saying it. She also revived the servant. Sarvananda became a siddha and the first tantrika to see the theophany of the Goddess’ ten mahavidya forms. The Shakta poet Ramprasad Sen is also told to have performed the ritual and gained the vision of his patron, goddess Kali.
Shava Sadhana is regarded the most important ritual in Shakta Tantra, particularly in West Bengal. Shaiva Aghoris from Varanasi are also known to practice this ritual. Shava sadhana is “the most secret part of Tantric mysticism” and is regarded one of the most “misunderstood” due to its non-Aryan nature. It is also regarded as the “most difficult form of spiritual practice”. The sadhaka needs to adhere to all rules of the ritual and is warned that violation of the regulations may lead to dire consequences. Even a small mistake in the ritual can lead to death or insanity of the practitioner. Due to the intensity of consequences if the ritual is not properly done, a Tantric priest from Bolpur said that the ritual is rarely practiced in the area.
The purpose to do shava sadhana varies from person to person. An aim of shava sadhana is to unite the Kundalini with Param Shiva. From a yogic or Tantric point of view, it signifies detachment from the physical world, and uniting with the Absolute, identified with the male god Shiva, the Divine Mother Shakti or the abstract Brahman. The detachment leads to freedom from Samsara (the cycle of birth, death and reincarnation) and the adept goes beyond the orthodox concepts of purity and impurity; auspiciousness and inauspiciousness. The ritual is done using a corpse, considered a highly impure and inauspicious symbol in traditional Hinduism. Since it deals with directly encountering death, it is believed to lead to non-death, symbolized by longevity, wealth and power. The ritual is said to erase the fear of death from the practitioner’s mind. It may also be conducted to placate a personal deity. For Aghoris, the purpose is not spiritual, but simply to acquire the skull for rituals or gain power over the soul of the deceased so that he can act as a medium to other spirits or acquire powers to control them. Andre Padoux interprets shava sadhana as black magic which is done to accomplish evil motives.