Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Is there such a thing as a Hindu saint?

Certain features of the sadhu and sannyasi are quite consistent with concepts of sainthood in various religious traditions. But individuals called sants add still another dimension to the Hindu tradition’s complex understanding of the human embodiment of holiness. Sadhus and sannyasis may seem at first to be socially liminal characters, but they are actually very much a part of the classical socio-religious system. The term “sant” is a vernacular version of the Sanskrit sat, meaning “real, authentic.” Ironically perhaps, the sants are genuine because they stand apart from the system and have taken up the cause of the truly marginalized, the outcastes and untouchables. Associated with bhakti movements both Shaivite and Vaishnavite, sants have often spread their message as troubadours, gathering crowds by singing at important holy places. One of the most influential of them was Kabir (c. 1440-1518), whose songs were a major influence in Guru Nanak’s (1469-1538) founding of the Sikh movement. Other important Hindu sants were Jñaneshwara (1275-96), Ekanatha (1533-98) and Tukaram (1608-49).


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