Gowda graduated in Science from the St. Philomena College, Puttur and then went on to obtain his degree in law at Udupi Vaikunta Baliga College of Law. He became active in student politics during this period and was elected as the General Secretary of the Students Union of the Law College. Subsequently, he became the District General Secretary of the ABVP.
He started his political career as a member of the Jan Sangh. He was President of the party's Sulya Assembly segment. After the split of the Janata Party, he became a member of the BJP. Later on, he served the BJP as Dakshina Kannada BJP Yuva Morcha President, Dakshina Kannada BJP Vice-President, State BJP Yuva Morcha Secretary, State BJP Secretary and National Secretary of the party.
Sadananda Gowda was elected to the Karnataka Legislative Assembly in 1994 and 1999 from the Puttur Assembly seat in Dakshina Kannada. He was elected to the 14th Lok Sabha in 2004 from the Mangalore Lok Sabha seat, defeating Veerappa Moily of the Indian National Congress. In 2009, the party shifted him to the Udupi-Chikmagalur constituency. In parliament, he was on the Committee on Science & Technology, Environment & Forests. In the 14th Lok Sabha, he was a member of the Committee on Commerce.
Sadananda Gowda was chosen as the Chief Minister of Karnataka in August 2011 following the resignation of his mentor B.S. Yeddyurappa in an illegal mining case. Handpicked by Yeddyurappa, he was the second ethnic Tuluva Chief Minister of Karnataka after Veerappa Moily. As Chief minister, he strived hard to improve the image of his party that had been tarnished due to allegations of corruption.
On 26 May 2014, Sadananda Gowda was sworn in as a cabinet minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's newly elected government.