SANT TRADITION comprises those medieval monotheistic and devout personalities belonging to different shades of Indian society who are supposed to have been quiet, tranquil non-sectarian, opposed to Brāhmaṇical ritualism, piously tired of the duplicity of the world but otherwise deeply conscious and critical of the outrageous anamolies professed by certain vested interests among the people around. In general terms these mystical personalities are known as nirguṇ bhaktas or more commonly sants.
The Sanskrit form of the term sant is rooted in śam meaning 'appeased' or 'pacified'. Sometimes this tradition is directly linked with Vedic and Upaniṣadic thought but very often it is accepted as influenced by Sahajyāna, an offshoot of Buddhism. Commonly the practices of Sant tradition are remembered as Haṭhayogic, however, with the exception of Sikhism which, sufficiently influenced by this tradition, has repudiated all sorts of mortifications of body through Haṭhayoga. Very early the term sant had acquired two specific connotations. On the one hand, it served to designate a school or rather a particular group of Vaiṣṇava bhaktas devoted to the incarnations of Viṣṇu and hence called saguṇvādins but on the other we find Gurū Nānak, Ravidās, Kabīr, Dādū, Palṭū, etc., who without getting led astray by excessive emotionalism never miss to delineate their last aim of liberal attitude, universal thinking and hence a pure ethical code of conduct. The vast literature of this tradition radiates a specific dynamic energy containing in it a challenge of frankness and fearlessness.
It is significant to note that often the term sant is distinguished from bhakta by calling them nirguṇvādins and saguṇvādins, respectively. In Marāṭhī literature the worshippers of qualified God and the meditators of the unattributed Supreme Being, both are called bhaktas and the latter ones sants. However, there is a sharp difference in their dispositions. We find bhakta literature replete with the warm emotions for the incarnations of God but in nirguṇa literature the sants contradict this theory. They don't involve themselves in the riddles of hell and heaven and their worship is realizational and not based on śāstras. The sants seem little bothered about the hollow premises and rhetoric. They spread from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries of the Christian era throughout the whole of north India and part of the Deccan. Within the tradition on itself the term sant seems to have been used as a synonym for sādh or sādhu in the sense of one who has "perfected" or "accomplished" the ultimate unitary experience. The sant tradition of medieval India, though predominantly theistic and devotional unlike the śramaṇa tradition, is however supposed to have carried forward the moral and social ideas and ideals of non-Brāhmaṇīcal origin first diffused by the ancient munis and śramaṇas. In this medieval period the emphasis on a personal God stems from a tendency, in Indian religions, which became prominent in the Upaniṣads, to find divinity present, immanent in nature and by extension, in the very being of man. We must also note that the personalization of the deity in Vaiṣṇavite religion and in certain sects which worshipped local anthropomorphic forms of the deity was countered by the general pantheistic tendency of the Upaniṣads with their emphasis on the identity of all with the Divine. Caught between the various sectarian developments and driven towards a personalization of deity on the one hand and accepting the monistic tendency of much of earlier Indian philosophy on the other, the people of India, drew on the earlier tradition of munis and śramaṇas to establish numerous sects of practitioners of the discipline of yoga and of wandering sants and yogis with differing degrees of spiritual realization and theories about the manner of achieving it. The influence of Mahāyāna Buddhism, especially of its esoteric variety lingered in India long after the final disappearance of the Buddhist Saṅgha in its homeland. Further, the institution of the Buddhist monks and several philosophical moral doctrines of Buddhism became incorporated into Hinduism in its reflowering from the eighth century of the Christian era onwards.
In this milieu the Sant tradition was essentially a synthesis of four principal dissenting movements, a compound of elements drawn from the Mahāyānism of the siddhas, the vaiṣṇava bhakti, the Haṭhayoga of the Nāth-yogins and with a marginal contribution from Sūfīsm. The non-vedic strand in the Sant tradition was an important legacy of Buddhism and the numerous terms and concepts of Buddhism of the siddhas found a lasting home in the writings of the sants. In several respects, however, the sants disagreed with traditional Vaiṣṇava-bhakti also and some of these differences were fundamental, such as their (sants') rejection of avatārvāda, accepted by all Vaiṣṇava bhaktas. Their devotion directed to an invisible all-pervading Reality to be realized 'within' was a novel experience for the people of medieval northern India, for they had been habitually worshipping some sort of 'qualified' visible anthropomorphic gods or goddesses. The bhakti of sants is generally termed as Vaiṣṇava-bhakti but in this bhakti a monistic and strictly non-idolatrous attitude was injected by their chief exponents like Kabīr, Ravidās, Rajjab, etc. The sants eschewed all forms of idolatry, most clearly seen in those times in the worship of Rāma and Kṛṣṇa. True, the sants were prone to use term nirguṇa in speaking about God but the term seems related more to a rejection of its antithesis, the saguṇa concept of divine avatārs than an appropriation of the metaphysics of Advaita Vedānta of Saṅkara. Further, their expression of love for God was through inward meditation and devotion, a method which involved certain disciplines controlling the senses and emotions and not the easy path of traditional bhaktī.
Traces of the Nāth school are also by no means absent during the earlier stages of this movement but they are not prominent, and in some cases they may even represent later additions. It was not until the time of Kabīr that nāth concepts assume a significant role and the influence of siddhas and nāths emerges in much of Kabīr 's thought and basic terminology in the form of rejection of all exterior formalīties, ceremonies, caste distinctions, sacred languages and scriptures. It further lays strong emphasis on the interior unitive experience which destroys duality, caste distinctions and prejudice for sacred languages and scriptures. The stress is put on the importance of the satgurū, the power of śabda and the related notion of "sumiran," which leads the soul to the mystical experience of parachā through which the jīva is reabsorbed into the unity of Rām, the mysterious state of sahaj. A further indication of siddha--nāth influence is Kabīr's use of ulṭabāṅsīs, the use of language with often reversal of usual meaning of words. This kind of enigmatical speech with intentional meanings hidden under the cover of obvious meanings was employed extensively by the siddhas like Sarahapād and Kṛṣṇapād. However, as characteristically indicative as any in this regard is Kabīr's essentially pragmatic approach to the mystery of human destiny. Like the siddhas and the yogis before him, Kabīr seeks to penetrate the mystery rather than to triumph over death.
The sants were basically monotheists, but the ultimate Reality (paramatattva) whom they addressed and with whom they sought union was in no sense to be understood in anthropomorphic terms. His manifestation was through His immanence in His creation and, in particular, through His indwelling in the human soul. It was there that He, by grace (prasād), revealed Himself, and man's appropriate response was love and devotion (nāmsumiran) as a means of merging with the Divine. Great importance was attached to the gurū who might be a human teacher or who might be understood not as a person but as the inner voice of God. The sants attached little importance to celibacy and asceticism and hence together with the sūfis they were commonly laymen or householders rather than monks or ascetics in the formal sense. The spirit of the movement was essentially non-sectarian though many of the sants left their names to the sects which sprang up in their wake, of which certain ones still survive today.
Their beliefs the sants expressed not in the classical Sanskrit language, but in a language which was closely related to that of the common people to whom they addressed their teachings. There seems to have evolved a "dialect" which, with minor modifications, was used by the sants all over northern India. The basis of this dialect, which has been called Sadhūkaṛī was Khaṛī Bolī, mixed with old Rājasthānī, Braj, Pañjābī and Pūrvī Bolī spoken in what is now eastern Uttar Pradesh. Most of the sants were generally poorly educated or completely illiterate, and hence their compositions were usually oral utterances which came to be written down only after a period of oral circulation.
The Sant movement was composed of two principal groups during its period of greatest importance and influence, from the fourteenth to eighteen centuries of the Christian era, the one centred in north India and the other centred in Mahārāshṭra, the latter being the older.
It was this sant tradition which provided the basis for Gurū Nānak’s thought, an inheritence which he interpreted in the light of his own personality and experience. Before the advent of Sikhism, when the onslaughts of the hordes of invaders were rampantly crushing the people, the Indian mind and body unable to withstand it, started preaching, on the contrary, the doctrine of illusory nature of the world. People were advised to accept the non-existence of the very world in which they were being cramped. Sikhism asserted itself as the most self-respecting and fearless religious way of life to accept the challenge and to look into the real cause of the malady of helplessness of men. Sikhs could not remain passive onlookers and thus a very constructive culmination of Sant tradition is obvious in the advent of Sikhism. The thought of Gurū Nānak was a reworking of the Sant synthesis, which he received and passed on, which was in some measure amplified, and in considerable measure clarified and integrated.
David C. Scott