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Chapter Three



The most comparable strand of Indian spirituality to the Gnostic tradition is the medieval and modem Sant tradition, an eclectic philosophy concerned with traversing spiritual realms to reach God. Resembling Gnostic metaphysics, there is a God beyond all gods, and this God invites the soul to know It. One achieves God-Realization by turning within one's own consciousness, realizing the microcosm/macrocosm relationship with the Divine.[1] A Sant is one who has accomplished this--an enlightened soul.

For a Westerner the term "saint" usually connotes a holy person, one who has sacrificed one's life to serve humankind in some way. In India, these attributes are likewise inherent in a Sant, but, more importantly, a Sant has merged the spirit entity (jiva [2]) into the Highest Reality, losing all identity. Having reached the highest state of consciousness, one is no longer subject to any form of illusion (maya) or ego (ahamkara). Such a person is considered, in effect, the embodiment of the Divine. This ineffable being, also called the satguru (the true guru), is believed to appear/return in every age to awaken souls from ignorance. Thus, unlike Christianity, salvation is not a onetime event in which the Son of God incarnates once and for all for the salvation of humankind. In other words, the salvific process in the Sant tradition is a continuous one, and a Sant is born in every age to enlighten/free human beings from their ignorance.

While this tradition can clearly be traced back to the North Indian mystic Kabir in the fifteenth century C.E. (as well as Guru Nanak [3] and Dadu), some speculate that it has even earlier roots, manifesting in the twelfth or thirteenth century in Maharashtra under the non-sectarian Vaishnava poet-Sants Namdev and Jnaneshvar(otherwise known as Jnanadeva), and later spread under the influence of Eknath (1548-1600) and Tukaram (1598-1649).

Recent scholarship suggests that there are really two distinct yet related strands of the "tradition of the Sants": The first, the Maharashtra poet-Sants who flourished from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century, are devotees of the god Vitthala or Vithoba of Pandharpur and contemplate his form (svarupa). Saguna bhakti, worship of a manifestation of the Divine, characterizes the attitude of the Maharashtrian Sants. Vaishnava Hinduism, which was based upon Bhagavata Purana and promoted bhakti (or devotion), plays an extremely important role in shaping this movement; in fact, early in their history, these Sants did not set themselves apart from it. Yet, this group of poet-Sants appear as more or less heterodox, since they pride themselves in being advocates of "true" Vaishnavism, challenging many of the practices and beliefs of the orthodox Vaishnava bhakti tradition. For instance, the Sants, often belonging to the lower strata of the Hindu and the Muslim society, emphasize egalitarian social values, believing in essence that salvation was not the exclusive rite of the "twice-born." Along with the rejection of the caste system, they emphatically insist that ethical behavior is a basic requirement for every devotee, not just the priestly caste. And perhaps what sets this religious tradition apart the most from orthodox Hinduism is the claim that devotion to the Divine Name of God is the only means to attain salvation. Altogether, however, the Maharashtrian Sants are generally placed within the Hindu milieu, primarily because they do not openly reject the authority of the Vedas.

The second branch of the Sant tradition spans the area of the Punjab and Rajasthan as well as eastern Uttar Pradesh and has been active from the fifteenth century up until today. Like the Maharashtrian Sants, the northern Sants rebuff orthodox Hinduism for the value it places on rituals, holy books, and idol worship, and they ridicule the caste system, which presents moksha as the privilege of the Brahmin pandit. But, even. more extremely, they vehemently reject the authority of the Vedas. Such a severe anti-Brahminical attitude places the northern Sants outside the Hindu fold.

While the Maharashtra poet-Sants attribute anthropomorphic characteristics to God by referring to It as "father and mother," the North India Sants generally do not. They seem to reject a saguna God, and, instead, direct their efforts towards a nirguna one. Nirguna bhakti suggests that God cannot be captured in an icon or temple, since God is beyond all attributes and distinctions. Yet, several scholars have pointed out that while the northern Sants may conceptually conceive of a Supreme Being beyond qualities (nirguna brahman), there are also strong elements of saguna bhakti, especially in relation to the satguru [4]. The dual structure between the devotee and the object of devotion (the guru) allows for an intense emotional experience (anubhava), which is said to pull the devotee towards (but not into) the nirguna God. This religious quest (based both upon separation and union) certainly presents contradictions that are not easily reconcilable (and perhaps not meant to be). [5] Also, repeating the name of God, their primary meditative practice, inherently concedes some form to God by suggesting a quality of saguna bhakti.

On ethical issues, there is little differentiation between the northern and southern Sants. [6] While frowning upon rigid asceticism, both greatly stress living a moral life that entails three basic requirements: 1) ahimsa (non-violence), which implies maintaining a strict vegetarian diet, free of meat, fish, chicken, and eggs; 2) no intoxicants, such as alcohol; and 3) a moral life in society, including sexual restraint (i.e., no illicit sex).

If we look at the Sant tradition as a whole, it seems to be a mixture of Vaishnava bhakti and the esoteric Tantric tradition of the Nath yogis: the Maharashtrian Sants present a "purified" Vaishnavism and the northern group, led by Kabir, advocate a form of Tantric Buddhism in which there is an ineffable Reality transcending all attributes (i.e., sunya). According to Charlotte Vaudeville, a renowned scholar of this movement, "the Sant sadhana or the Sant ideal of sanctity therefore may be viewed as a subtle blending of two main traditions of Hindu mysticism, apparently antagonistic to each other: Vaishnava bhakti and an esoteric Tantric tradition, whose most popular representatives are Gorakhnath and the Nath Yogis, often referred to by Kabir and his followers." [7]

Additionally, several scholars argue that there is a great deal of Sufi influence on the Sants. As Bruce Lawrence points out, there is an apparent affinity between Sant poetry and the Sufi worldview--namely, the repudiation of scriptural authority, the inner vision of a Transcendent God, the emphasis on the pangs of separation of a bereaved soul and God (viraha), and intense love and devotion to God (prema-bhakti). [8]

Arguably, though the Maharashtian Sants and the northern Sants may differ somewhat in their theological approach there are certain underlying characteristics that both share which marks them as a distinctive group. Each stresses the necessity of devotion to and the practice of the Divine Name as the means to achieve salvation, along with three cardinal principles: satsang, satguru, shad [9]. The following is an explanation of these three immanent foci: 1) Satsang: satsang to the fellowship of the true believers who have congregated to hear the spiritual discourse of the satguru. Also, internally satsang refers to the union of the soul with God. 2) Satguru: The satguru is, employing Max Weber's terminology, the charismatic leader (both of the exemplary and ethical type). Initiates generally refer to the guru as the physical embodiment of the Divine/Numinous, and, as such, all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving. [10] What we are confronted with in the guru is a classic hierophany: a profane object which manifests the sacred. Yet, this hierophany has a penultimate theological twist: the human guru not only manifests God, acting as a conduit between the Transmundane and the mundane (axis mundi or tirtha--cross place from profane to sacred), but is, in point of spiritual fact, God Itself. [11] Ideally, this is exactly how the guru is to be regarded. [12]

According to the Sant tradition, as exemplified by Tulsi Sahib, one must follow a living guru. It is said that past Sants cannot take the soul back to the God. This is due to two main reasons: 1) the original message of the Sants is believed to be misconstrued after the Sant passes away, while the teachings of a living Sant are pure and charged; 2) and guru-bhakti (devotion to one's guru) aids one's spiritual progress, simply because it is believed to be easier to love someone alive and tangible than someone who has been dead for centuries. At all times, contends this philosophy, at least one God-realized soul ("Son of God") walks the face of the earth imparting divine secrets for those spiritually searching souls. [13] 3) Shabd: And lastly, the Sants, emerging as heirs to a mixed tradition, can be distinguished from other followers of Indian spirituality by the emphasis they give to a practice known as surat shabd yoga, [14] perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Sant tradition. Surat simply means spirit entity or soul, shabd refers to the sound-current, and yoga, in this context, [15] means union. Hence, it is the ancient science of joining the soul with the sound-current. This sound-current is believed to be the manifestation of the Divine that resounds in every being in creation and upholds all creation. It is also known as the "Audible Life Stream," "Music of the Spheres," "Nad, " "Logos," "Akash Bani," "Divine Melody/Harmony," "Word," "Light and Sound," etc. One who seeks liberation (moksa) from the unending cycle of birth and death (samsara) must sit in meditation, withdraw one's consciousness from the body, contact this divine melody within, and attach oneself to it.

For nearly two thousand years, Indian mystics have written devotional poems and hymns about this mystical sound. For instance, presumed traditionally to have been written between the second century B.C.E. and the second century C.E., the Maitri Upanishad and the Nadabindu Upanishad contain significant portions dedicated to shabd and to elaborating a technique of auditory mediation (surat shabd yoga). These are advocating an experiential methodology for spiritual ascent. At each stage of ascent a particular sound is heard, like those proceeding from the ocean, the thunder of the clouds, the kettle drum, and as tinkling bells, the conch, the flute, and the vina (a stringed instrument). The writer of the Nadabindu Upanishad expounds:

The yogin...should always hear the internal Sound through the right ear...When he comes to that stage when the great kettle-drum is being heard, he should try to distinguish only sounds more and more subtle. [16]

The Maitri Upanishad further explains that surat shabd yoga is the "most secretdoctrine" [17] to be disclosed to no one. The following passage illustrates the importance of this spiritual practice for attaining moksha:

By closing the ears with the thumbs they hear the sound of the space within the hearts. There is the sevenfold comparison of it, like the rivers, bells, a brass vessel, a wheel, the croaking of frogs, the rain ... Having passed beyond this variously characterized sound, they disappear (become merged) in the Supreme, the non-sound, the unmanifest Brahman.. There are two Brahmans to be known, the sound Brahman and what is higher. Those who know the sound Brahman get to the higher Brahman ... [18]

While surat shabd yoga presumably remains alive in India for centuries, we encounter the clearest articulation of auditory meditation in the Sant tradition. Nam Dev evidently practiced this ancient spiritual method of surat shabd yoga and initiated others into it. Many of the basic tenets of the Sant tradition were then further laid down by Kabir.

As with the Gnostic tradition, there is no fixed institution or set boundaries of the Sant tradition, and, in fact, there exists some diversity among the individual Sants. A multiplicity of sects exists for several reasons. First of all, as we have stated, Sants are found throughout history, and each of them usually appoint a successor(s), who is likewise a Sant, to continue the philosophy. But historically at the time of a Sant's death there often appears a multitude of adherents each claiming to have been condoned the rightful successor, and, consequently, numerous factions occur. [19]

The proliferation of spiritual sects, each following a particular Sant lineage, perplexes scholars as to whether we can consider this movement as a distinct religious tradition, as we do with Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, etc. Simply, is there a "Santism"? According to Daniel Gold, a scholar of the Sant tradition, we can regard it as a religion in its own right comparable to and separate from Hinduism. [20] What lends evidence to a positive affirmation of a larger field of the Sants and not simply disconnected lineages is the intriguing relationship between the earlier Sants and those in the modern, movement. Later Sants give allegiance to earlier ones by citing their verses and drawing upon their theological expressions, bridging the gap between the pioneers of the Sant tradition and the contemporary poet-Sants. Kabir, Dadu, Nanak, Ravidas, Tulsi Sahib, Namdev would be among the many Sants to whom the tradition pays homage.

As an example, Shiv Dayal Singh (1818-1878; also known as Soami Ji), the founder of a modem lineage of the Sant tradition known as the Radhasoami Movement, [21] contends that his path and the path of the previous Sants is the same. Shiv Dayal Singh openly remarks:

Kabir Sahib and Tulsi Sahib came into the world, and started the path of Dayal (the Absolute Lord). Openly doth Radha Swami say: "I, too, am one of them, teaching the same Path..." If thy mind believeth not my word, then see thou the writings of Kabir and Guru Nanak. The path of Tulsi Sahib is the same, and so to Paltu and Jagjiwan state. Quote I the authority of these Sants; their utterances do I state as witness to my teachings. [22]

Tulsi Sahib, a Sant of Hathras from the nineteenth century, recognized that Sants drew upon the teachings of other Sant figures as spiritual resources. Pointing out the common spiritual roots, he identified this movement as a coherent religious tradition, which he called Sant Mat, simply meaning a "Sant faith." [23] Tulsi Sahib comments:

The principles and tenets of Sant Mat are one and the same, only there is a difference in terminology. Since the same principles have been stated using different names, you become confused and do not understand them ... Kabir explained Sant Mat in his way, other Sants in other ways. The religion of all those who have gained access within is one and the same. [24]

Since most world religions traditionally revere only one particular saint from the past, such as Jesus, Buddha or Zoroaster, the recognition of more than one Son of God, or enlightened being, may seem strange. The Sant tradition argues, however, that the original message of all genuine or perfect Sants is the same. Still there are others (those outside of the Sant tradition) who twist the perennial teachings and construct formal religions, with elaborate rituals, symbols, sanctified books, holy places, and outward observances, whether consciously or, most likely, unconsciously, to accommodate social, emotional and perhaps intellectual needs. Thus, the theologically unique stance of each religion results from a creative interpretation of the primal message. According to Lekh Raj Puri, a devotee in this tradition, no Sant comes into the world to create a religion; this is all the workings of their followers. Puri asserts:

Sants have no religious bias; they are free people not bound by the dogma and ties of any religion. They are above all religions. Neither do they try to destroy old religions, nor do they start any new one ... The sole object of the life of a Saint in this world is to lift people from here, and take them back Home, to our true Heavenly Father, Satnam. Saints do not set themselves to reforming this world by changing or altering the existing social, moral and religious practices, nor are they interested in the ritual and ceremonial aspect of life. [25]

It should be noted here that the Sant tradition is not against conventional religion. Indeed, it recognizes that one's religious affiliation is in many ways synonymous with one's culture, often serving as a social institution. However, this spiritual tradition claims that conventional religion is like a picture frame, outwardly adorning but ultimately unnecessary, while the Sant's teaching is the picture, the heart or inner message. It questions the value of a picture frame with no picture.

If this is the case, as the Sant tradition contends, what is the picture or the spiritual inner message that has been consistently overlooked? The objective in this study is not to unravel "hidden truths" (certainly this is not the task of a phenomenologist), but simply to compare the portrait painted by the Sants with that of the Gnostics.


1. To illustrate this microcosm and macrocosm relationship with the Divine a simple analogy is employed. As an individual one is a bubble floating on the Ocean going through life outwardly looking through a bubble shell, assuming one's existence is unique and divisible. The Sants of this tradition petition humans to turn their attention inward, to look within themselves, and realize that the bubble is not separate from the Ocean but is part of the Ocean. This is true gnosis, according to the Sants. Hence, from the ultimate viewpoint, as with the Gnostics, there is non-duality. But until that realization, until that bubble bursts, one remains misled in a world of dualism.

With respect to Indian terms, I will try to be consistent with the forms used in Sant

literature. Since a large number of books have been published in English, there is some consensus on how to spell key theological terms. For instance, the English Sant Mat and Radhasoami books usually refer to divine sound as shabd, and not the Sanskrit form sabd.

3. W. H. McLeod argues that the origins of the Sikh tradition came from the teachings of the Sants. He says, "Nanak did not found Sikhism, for this would have meant founding something which already existed." See W. H. McLeod, "The Sikhs: History, Religion and Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), p. 16. Also see McLeod, The Evolution of the Sikh Community (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), pp. 6-7, and Daniel Gold, The Lord as Guru: Hindi Sants in North Indian Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 14.

4. See John Stratton Hawley, ed., Saints and Virtues: Comparative Studies of Religion and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

5. Frits Staal asserts that pure nirguna bhakti in the Sant tradition is a logical impossibility. He questions how can one have a relationship with that which is ineffable or without qualities. See Frits Staal, "The Ineffable Nirguna Brahman," in Karine Schomer and W. H. McLeod (eds.), The Sants (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987), pp. 41-46.

6. See Charlotte Vaudeville, "Sant Mat: Santism as the Universal Path to Sanctity," in Karine Schomer and W. H. McLeod (eds.), The Sants (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987), pp. 38-39.

7. Ibid., p. 36.

8. Bruce Lawrence, "The Sant Movement and the Indian Sufis", in Karine Schomer and W. H. McLeod, The Sants (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987), pp. 360-373.

9. Vaudeville refers to these as "the three pillars of the Sant sadhana (i.e., the means to achieve moksa). See Vaudeville, op. cit., p. 31.

10. Charlotte Vaudeville posits that in the Sant tradition the satguru may possibly be viewed in two ways: 1) a guru in human form, 2) or an interiorized one. While most Sants refer to a satguru or "Perfect Guru", it is ambiguous whether all Sants, from both medieval and modem times, agree that the guru must assume a human form. That is, can the satguru be in fact an inward manifestation o shabd which leads the soul through the inner realms to the Highest God and not necessarily a human figure? For instance, when Kabir proclaims that "the satguru is the true hero, who loosed off a single shabd," it is uncertain if he is alluding to a particular religious figure since he is reluctant to name her/him. (Kabir, Sakhi, 1.9.) Vaudeville claims that earlier traditions may possibly have relied upon an interior form of a guru, while later traditions identify with a particular religious figure. See Vaudeville, op. cit., pp. 33-35.

11. Daniel Gold has captured this important point with the title of his 1987 book on the subject, The Lord as Guru.

12. My research of the Radhasoamis, adherents of a modem manifestation of the Sant tradition, seems to indicate a spiritual and emotional tension concerning the paradox of the guru. The paradox is the following: teachings which state unequivocally that the guru is God (replete with all the attributes that such a claim entails) coupled with the day to day humanness of the guru, suffering from physical ailments, memory lapses and the like. Moreover, the guru seldom, if ever, displays miracles to her/his devotees. And it seems ironic that (s)he emphasizes that the guru is God, but denies this title for herself/himself. What is the neophyte to do? That is, how do satsangis respond to the paradox of the divine master and the human one? How does such a belief system translate into the day to day lives of the believers? For some it is a paradox which is never satisfactorily resolved and may affect the way they act within the community. This is a theoretical question that intrigues me as a scholar. For more on this subject see Andrea Diem, A Phenomenological Approach to Field Research: A Look at the Radhasoami Group of Santa Barbara and San Diego (UCSB archives, 1989).

13. In this tradition, Jesus is revered as a past Sant. In the Gospel of John (9:5), when Jesus says, "As long as I am in the world, I am the Light of the world," the Sants interpret this quote to suggest that Jesus was not the Light of the world for all people and all time.

14. It is interesting to note that. shabd yoga can go either of two ways: 1) If shabd yoga takes on primary importance for a group then this usually includes an adjacent philosophical superstructure or a moral framework (such as emphasis on a particular diet, a living master, etc.). 2) However, if shabd yoga is secondary or minor for a group, then the superstucture seems to be much less emphasized. This is usually the case in s. For instance, Swami Muktananda's group, Siddha Yoga, stress more on kundalini/sakti and is clearly more physically oriented.

15. In classical yoga (Samkhya Yoga), the term yoga does not mean union, but the disentangling of buddhi (awareness, a sense of I-ness) and consciousness (Purusa). See Gerald Larson, Classical S27mkhya (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979), pp. 156-192..

16. K. Narayanasvami Aiyar, trans., Thirty Minor Upanishads (Privately Published: Madras, 1914), p. 257.

17. S. Radhakirishna, trans., The Principal Upanishads, "Maitri Upanishad, Chapter VI, 22" (Great Britain: George Allen & Unwil LTD, 1953), p. 839.

18. Ibid., p. 833.

19. A will signed by the Sant directly indicating the rightful successor has in some cases reduced this problem but not entirely. Sawan Singh of the Radhasoami Movement (a modem manifestation of the Sant tradition) signed a will indicating that his successor at Dera Baba Jaimal Singh would be Jagat Singh. However, several different disciples claimed they were also duly appointed (Kirpal Singh being the prime example) and a proliferation of branches resulted. For more information on the dynamics of guru successorship, see David Lane's The Politics of Guru Successorship (La Jolla: U.C.S.D Ph.D. dissertation, 1991).

20. Gold, op. cit., pp. 3-9.

21. The movement Radhasoami was not named out of any reverence to Radha, the consort of Krishna. Rather, Soami Ji utilized the analogy of Radha's love for Krishna when describing to his disciples the love the Lord has for the soul, and the love the soul has for the Lord. Hence, the name Radhasoami in this context simply means the Lord of the Soul.

22. Lekh Raj Puri, The Radha Swami Teachings (New Delhi: Privately Published, 1968), p. 16.

23. J. R. Puri and V. K. Sethi, Tulsi Sahib: Saint of Hathras (New Delhi: Rekha Printers Pvt. Ltd., 1981 second edition), p. 18.

24. S. D. Maheshwari, Param Sant Tulsi Saheb (Agra: S.D. Maheshwari/Soami Bagh, 1979), p. 99.

25. L. R. Puri, op. cit., pp. 16-17.