The Sants

Notes from Sant Mat: Santism as the Universal Path to Sanctity


1.     Context of Emergence of Sant Tradition

a.     Bhakti - growth of devotional movements in Medieval Period (600 CE - 1800 CE) - temples, images, sects, Puranas, outward form of devotion such as pilgrimage, festivals, processions.

b.     General characteristics: populist, vernacular, poor, low caste, dispossessed and oppressed = linked in their religious attitudes with orthodox, upper class devotees

2.     14th century onwards (northern and central India) – religious poetry by “poet-saints” or Sants

a.     Mainly Hindu, some Muslim born, non-sectarian

b.     From lower strata of Hindu and Muslim society.  Most shudras, some untouchables.  Poor, uneducated, even illiterate, some were women.

c.     No rights to Brahmanical knowledge, didn’t know Sanskrit, expressed themselves in local vernacular

d.     Contributed to the development of the northern vernaculars into literary languages (especially Hindi).

3.     The Sant Parampara – Two groups

a.     Northwestern provinces of Punjab and Rajasthan and from Gangetic valley

                                      i.     Main figure from that group = Kabir.  Old Hindi

b.     Southern group from Maharashtra

                                      i.     Main figure = Namdev.  Marathi

c.     First collection of Sant poetry with definite date = Adi Granth, composed by Guru Arjuna in 1603.

4.     The Sants are characterized by heterodox and non-conformity : non-sectarian, no common body of doctrine.  Things that they hold in common:

a.     Anti-Brahmanism.  Did not accept the authority of the Veda or the Brahmanical traditions as a whole.

                                      i.     Maharashtrian Sants didn’t formally reject the Veda, pay lip-service., claim descent with the great bhaktas mentioned in the Puranas, linked to non-sectarian Vaisnava tradition (Bhagavata).

                                    ii.     Northern Sants are more extremist: reject Veda entirely, ridicule the vedic traditions and practices.  Muslims among them reject the Qur’an.  Reject authority of all scripture. [Kabir: p.23]

1.     Pandit’s holy books compared to a cell made of paper for the imprisonment of fools.

2.     Don’t look to Brahmans for guidance [p. 24]

b.     Reject image-worship and puja, magic, and many common practices of Hindus. [p.25 – idol worship]

c.     Reject caste distinctions based on purity

d.     Belief in the uniqueness of human life, intense awareness of the brevity of a given life, abiding awareness of death [Kabir – p.26]

5.     The Sants as Adepts of Nirguna Bhakti

a.     Reject plurality of gods, doctrine of avatara.  Sant seek the Absolute = one God, the ultimate reality

                                      i.     Nirguna – corresponds to Upanishadic notion of  Brahman-Atman, Advaita monism.

1.     Kabir speaks of merger, re-absorption of the soul (jiva) into the one.

2.     Relation of nirguna idea to bhakti – if all identity is lost in the infinite, how is loving devotion possible?

3.     Total merger – not the prevailing view among Sants.  Kabir is the most nirguni. Most Sants describe union rather than merger.

6.     Prema-Bhakti: the Way of Love

a.     Southern, Maharashtrian traditions stress tender devotion to the Lord.  Tend to see God as a tender Mother. 

                                      i.     Stress the pain of separation (viraha) from the Lord, like separation of child from father or mother.

b.     Northern Sants – imagine viraha in terms of wife for her husband, the bereaved soul  [p. 29]

                                      i.     Describe the torments of the bereaved soul, “spiritual martyrdom” [Kabir – 30]

7.     Three Pillars of the Sant Sadhana (soteriology, means of reaching liberation)

a.     Nama:  devotion to and practice of the Divine Name (nama).
Hinduism: thinks of the divine as having name and form (nama-rupa).  Sants reject the cult of form.  Emphasize the Name as the essence of the Supreme Being

                                      i.     Main form forayer = sumiran remembrance of God through the Name.

1.     Vocal repetition of the Name – japi, voiceless repetition – ajaapajap.

2.     Ram (“God”) No difference between the reality signified by various names in Hindu and Muslim traditions [Kabir, p. 33]

b.     Satguru:  the Perfect guru, awakens the soul, leads it to mukti.  Need not be in human form, can be internalized.  Some emphasize human guru, others identify satguru with the Word or revelation of the Supreme Being.

c.     Satsang:  “company of saints.”  A means of purification, way to salvation.  Association with the true Sants compared to pilgrimage to the sacred “crossing places” (tirth sthan) of Hindu tradition. Southern tradition, goes along with singing of the Name of Ram – in bhajans and kirtans.