SANT, commonly translated as saint though not very exactly, for the English term, used in the adjectival sense ‘saintly' for a person of great holiness, virtue or benevolence, has a formal connotation in the Western culture, is a modified form of sat meaning lasting, real, wise and venerable. Sat or Satya has been used since the Vedic times for the Ever-existent, Unchanging Reality or the Self-existent, Universal Spirit, Brahman or God. The term sant came into vogue much later. The word occurs frequently in the ancient Pālī literature of Buddhism in the sense of tranquil, true or wise. From Pālī it was resuscitated during the middle ages when Bhakti movement took its birth. The epithet sant was usually added to the names of the Vaiṣṇava bhaktas of Mahārāshṭra belonging to Viṭṭhal or Vārkarī school such as Jñāndev, Nāmdev, Eknāth and Tukārām. According to R.D.Ranade, Mysticism in Maharashtra, "Now 'Santa' is almost a technical word in the Vitthal Sampradaya, and means any man who is a follower of that Sampradaya. Not that followers of other Sampradayas are not 'Santas' but the followers of the Varkari Sampradaya are santas par excellence." Within the Bhakti movement there is a distinct Sant tradition clearly distinguishable from South Indian Śaiva bhakti and the Vaiṣṇava tradition of Northern and Central India. The Sant-bhaktas were essentially non-sectarian. They were strict monotheists and were opposed to Brahmanical ritualism, idol-worship and caste system. Like other bhaktas, they valued love-relationship between the individual and the deity, but their deity, although usually given Vaiṣṇava names, is the Absolute Reality, Unborn, Formless, All-pervading, Self-existent, nirguṇa (without attributes) God, who makes Himself manifest in the Name (nām) which may be uttered or meditated upon. Nirguṇī bhaktas refute avatārvāda or incarnation, but they believe that the sant, through living a life of piety and practising nām, can attain final release.
Through Bhakti the term passed into the Sikh tradition. In the Gurū Granth Sāhib there is frequent mention of the status and significance of the sant, a holy man who represents the salt of the earth and the hope of mankind. Gurū Arjan defines a sant thus : jinā sāsi girāsi na visrai harināmāṅ mani mantu/ dhannu si seī nānakā pūranu soī santu-- They who do not put away from their minds the Name Divine even for the duration of a breath or as they swallow a morsel are indeed blessed, o Nānak! They are the perfect sants" (GG,319). Gurū Arjan in another hymn :
All the twenty-four hours of day and night,
He knows God to be close to his heart,
And to His will he cheerfully submits.
Name alone is the sustenance of the sant;
A sant considers himself to be the dust of the feet of all.
This, brothers, is the sants' way of life,
Beyond my power is it to describe its excellence.
Name alone is their occupation,
In blissful kīrtan do they find their peace.
Friend and foe are to them alike.
Besides their God they acknowledge not another.
Myriad sins can a sant erase,
He is the dispeller of sorrow and the bestower of life.
Heroes true to their word are the sants,
Even poor māyā is by them beguiled.
The gods themselves tong for their company;
To have a sight of them is fulfilling in the extreme,
To be able to serve them a blessing.
Nānak does with folded hands supplicate:
Grant me this favour, O Treasure of Merit,
that to the service of the sants do I dedicate myself.
W. H. McLeod