Santana Nature of Hinduism and a Rural Saint Tradition in Bihar, by Veena Howard

Historical Background of Sant Mat

The Academic study of sant tradition primarily focuses on the medieval sant/devotional and select popular movements. The rural offshoots of this tradition with peculiar features have not received attention in the academic research. Sant Mat of Bihar, despite having hundreds of thousands of followers and a distinctive literature, has not been explored in the academy.

Sant Mat — literally meaning, “the Path of Sants” or “Point of View of the Sants” — of Bihar and rural areas of Nepal (now has spread in various states) is a unique synthesis of the elements of Hinduism, rural practices, devotion and esoteric thought of Sant Tradition. Drawing upon my field research in Bihar, I seek to explore the brief history, philosophy, and practices of this tradition and show how despite Sant Mat’s shared ideologies with Medieval Sant Traditions, this branch is unique in integrating the Hindu elements with the Sants’ teachings as well as creating a space where rural elements meet with the esoteric philosophy.

Historically, the Sant movement that spawned into many branches over the years, associates itself with the teachings of the prominent Sants of Northern India from about 13th-14th century. These Sants include, Namdev (1350) Kabir (1518), Dadu, Dariya, Ravidas, Mira Bai, Sahjo Bai, Surdas, Tulsidas, and Sufi and Sikh teachers who emphasized the inner path of union with the Divine. Many of these sants came from low castes, some of them were women and some were even untouchables. Evidently, Sant tradition is not “homogeneous” yet shares some common features. Julius Lipner outlines some of the features, namely, “a tendency to sit loosely to sectarian boundaries and iconic worship, and to Brahminic ideas of caste and precedence, to call upon God by non-exclusive names … to express core teaching verbally in pithy, vernacular verse… to regard the externals of birth and ritual as having nor religious value,” etc. Perhaps this is the reason that Lipner claims that “only a small fraction of religious Hindus have formally followed Sant Mat.”

However, in spite of the shared features there exists a great variety within Sant traditions. Various sects were developed by the followers of the sants emphasizing the ideology of the particular of Sants and bearing the Sant’s name. For example, Kabir Panth, Dadu Panth, and Dariya Panth. The followers of these sects often trace their lineage to their respective Sants, but some movements continue to function under the umbrella of Sant Mat with their own lineage of sants.

Many modern day movements under the nomenclature Sant Mat trace their lineage to Sant Tulsi Sahib of Hathras (Uttar Pradesh) and are primarily are esoteric in nature emphasizing the role of Guru for transmitting the knowledge of the path for the union with the Divine. Largely, the teachings of the prominent sants including Kabir, Nanak, Dadu, Ravidas, guide their discourse that focuses on the path of inner Light and Sound for transcending the various realms and reaching the ultimate realm of Sat (Truth; Nameless State). Although each movement embody unique features due to the leading Sant’s personal background and affiliation, most sant movements generally do not draw upon the wisdom found in the texts of Hindu dharma and other religious traditions. They advocate firm transmission of the meditation practices, reject rituals and a monastic way of life. However, the Sant Tradition of Bihar — which also traces its lineage to Sant Tulsi Sahab — is a unique synthesis of the elements of Hinduism, rural practices, and the esoteric thought of the Sant Tradition. It is not merely a devotional path, but its main focus is on the observance of ethical conduct, Satsang (gatherings for listening and reading the scriptures and discourses), and dhyana (meditation), all of which became essential to create a spiritual community for the rural people and gave a spiritual framework within the indigenous practices.

Tracing the Roots of the Principles of Sant Mat to the Upanishads

Theoretically, tracing its roots in the teachings of the Vedas and Upanishads this tradition sets up a stage so that the followers embrace it as a part of Vedic Dharma. Sant Mehi (1885-1986) was the prominent teacher of Sant Mat of Bihar. (Sant Mehi is known as Maharishi Mehi as he is viewed by his follower as one among the link of seers and sages of Hinduism). After taking the initiation from Baba Devi Sahab of Moradabad, Maharishi Mehi did intense sadhana in the remote caves of Kuppaghat, Bhagalpur, Bihar, the most impoverished state of India. The mystical experiences of the intense mediation found expression in his poetry and his realization of the knowledge in his prose.

Sant Mehi gave a unique interpretation of the definition of Sant and principles of Sant Mat creating a bridge between the spiritual teachings of ancient seers of Santana Dharma and the teachings of Sants. He outlined his principles and practices of Sant Mat in his treatise, Moksha Darshan or Philosophy of Liberation. In it, His fresh analysis of the eternal nature of the teachings of Sant Mat by tracing its foundations in the Upanishads helped create a new form of Sant Mat, which, came to be practiced as not as a new tradition but a path that expounded the Vedic wisdom. Maharishi Mehi outlines the basic principles of Sant Mat as follows:

“Stillness or steadiness is the essence of Shanti (Realization of Ultimate Peace).
He who has attained Shanti is a sant.
Sant Mat encompasses the thoughts and way of Sants.
In the Upanishads the formula for the attainment of Shanti is expounded by the seers of these ancient works… . The Upanishads uniquely and fully describe the methods of attaining Shanti and Wisdom. That’s why the Upanishads are considered the foundation of Sant Mat.”

After carefully examining e essence of the teachings of ancient scriptures (Vedas, Upanishads, the Mahabharata, the Ramahyana, Puranas etc.) and the works of ancient sages, medieval and modern Sants (Shri Shankaracharya, Kabir, Nanak, Dadu, Daria Sahib, Shri Ramakrishna, for example), he concluded that there is an “unbreakable unity” between the teachings found in the Upanishads and the teachings of Sants. These teachings describe the systematic path of meditation that leads the soul (atman) to ultimate realization of moksha.

To convey credence to this perspective, he authored various books: Veda Darshan Yoga (Philosophy of the Vedas) a commentary on select verses that are in agreement with the principles of Santmat and Shri Gita Yog Prakash, a commentary underscoring the esoteric teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita in Hindi for making it accessible to all people. He also wrote a commentary on the Rama Charit Manas composed by Goswami Tulasidas ji, the most popular book among villagers, and underlined the hidden metaphysical meanings of the text. At the same time, Sant Mehi emphasized the universal nature of the path of meditation and its goal by quoting the texts of other Dharma and other traditions creating a unique synthesis that was broad yet grounded in the Hindu Dharma.

Sant Mehi: Embodiment of the Synthesis of the Ancient Sages and Modern Sants

Practically, Maharishi Mehi chose the lifestyle of a monk, a yogi and became a catalyst for reform by combining the aspects of Sant Tradtion with the Vedic Wisdom. It is the renunciate in the Indian traditions who becomes the catalyst for social change, as noted by anthropologists. Sant Mehi combined the spiritual teachings with the practices reminiscent of Hindu practices and emphasized that for the initiation into the teachings of Sant Mat, it is not required to leave home and family dharma; rather he advised the followers to stay as householders. While taking care of family dharma, the practitioner should devote time to meditation and Satsang (study and listening of the teachings of Sants). Moreover, even though most of the teachers in this tradition are renunciates, Sant Mehi advised them to be self-supporters and live on the money of their own earnings as he has done for himself. He did farming before completely committing himself to the service of Sant Mat and lived on his money throughout his long life of 101 years. Moreover, he practiced and advocated the observance of ethical precepts — abstaining from untruth, alcohol, adultery, violence, and stealing. These five principles are initial requirements for initiation in the meditation method of Santmat. These moral guidelines mirrored the five precepts of the Buddha, Jain vratas, yamas of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and the various components of Dharma.

Maharishi Mehi also defined the Sant as who having realized the Ultimate State of Truth, becomes ceaselessly engaged in the welfare of all beings. He became the prime example of this principle. He was concerned about the poor, illiterate, people who were victim of the oppression of higher castes and fell prone to vices such as alcoholism. Many villagers did not have resources to travel to the Ashram in Bhagalpur. Since 1920, Mehi started his journey for propagation of Santmat. In those days communication system was very poor in India and still remains poor in Bihar. There were not roads and vehicles for the villages. He used bullock-carts to carry the message of Sant Mat to deep villages of Bihar. Sometimes He used to travel bare footed, carrying His luggage on His shoulder, without concerning the hardships caused by heavy rains, freezing winter and excruciating heat of summer where no transportation means available. He reached out to primarily illiterate, tribal, marginalized people, instructing them not only in the esoteric path of meditation but also in social etiquette, self-sustaining living, and ethical precepts (abstaining from alcohol, meat, adultery, violence, and stealing). During his teaching endeavors, Mehi found that many village women did not know how to dress (they only wrapped a sari, but did not wear a blouse), cook vegetarian meals, or clean properly. With spiritual instructions the training for a dignified living was combined. Mehi emphasized that “the practitioner should live on the earnings of his own sweat. The best for them is to cultivate a habit of keeping themselves content with a few things.”

A formal initiation tradition is the essential part of Sant Mat. During the initiation process, the technique for mantra, and dhyana (meditation) is given and the initiates take a vow to observe five ethical precepts and commit to daily meditation. The teachers do not condemn Hindu rituals, Murti worship, and other prescriptions of Hindu dharma; rather, they ask them to integrate the principles of Sant Mat in their life style emphasizing their consistency with the contemplative and moral teachings of Hinduism.

Santana Nature of Sant Mat Tradition

The effect of Sant Mehi’s teachings is immense: almost entire population of some villages received initiation into Sant Mat; there are hundreds of monks who continue the tradition of travelling to the villages. There are more that 600 ashram communities all over India, but most of them are primarily in Bihar and the tribal area of Nepal. In these ashrams people gather for satsang, meditation, and meals. The followers are advised in social, religious, and communal matters to create a harmonious society. Sant Mehi asserted that a society founded on spiritual and moral values will be prosperous in all aspects of life.

In praxis, the devotees follow parallel traditions — paths of inner meditation and native rituals according to their specific tribe, caste and stage of life. Meditation and devotion are considered to be two sides of one coin. In the Ashrams, Singing of bhajans (sacred songs) in the vernacular (most villagers do not even speak Hindi) supplemented by the literary analysis of Hindu texts, making them accessible to rural people. The walls of ashrama halls are decorated with the photos of medieval and modern sants evincing the true spirit of Sant Mat — the Way of sages and Sants. Often many monks and leaders of various sects and religions and also professors, politicians, and government officials visit the ashram and the teachers. Each afternoon there is held a reading of the Ramayana, which ends with an aarti. Aarti does not have puja paraphernalia but a sacred song in which the symbolic representation of the worship is sung.

“Getting the secrets from Guru, remove the wrappings of your inner body,
Entering the sphere of wordlessness inside your body,
Surrender your mind and body at Guru’s feet,
For waving Arati to the supreme consciousness,
Make the space between the two eyebrows, as if it were a dish,
Arrange to light the lamp of Brahma Jyoti and give yourself as the offering and sing the tune of the Divine sound,
And ring the bell and blow the conch shell to get the multiple sounds,
Thus waving Arati, merge yourself with the ultimate,
On attaining the Lord, sense of Jhiva and dualism get eliminated.”

Annual gatherings are held in massive tents — outside the villages, on riverbanks — where thousands congregate, meditate, and listen to spiritual discourses. At 3:30 A.M thousands of men and women — many of whom are extremely poor — sitting with erect backs meditate together in outside tents. According to Maharishi Mehi, “the time of death is uncertain, therefore, it is important to meditate every day.” Bhikshu Jagadish Kashyap, a Buddhist scholar and monk, was amazed to see the crowd of thousands of villagers meditating together in the early morning. He compared this phenomena to the Buddha’s community when he travelled in Bihar.

These gatherings are similar to that of native religious festivals, yet emphasize a structured routine of mediation, satsang, and bhajans. A massive decorated stage — evocative of a temple canopy — is created for the sages. A life size photo of the Guru is placed on the altar. Many temple rituals are incorporated into the spiritual path: for example, devotees bring flowers and sweets to offer to the Guru, who represents the living image of God; throngs of men, women, and children rush to touch the Guru’s feet and seek blessings when teachers arrive on the stage; and the sound of songs sung by women and tribal men in their vernacular reverberate throughout the pandal. Many villagers consider travelling to the annual event a pilgrimage. They save money whole year to travel to this event.

Most monks are also from lower castes and many devotees who belong to a wide spectrum of castes and social status, education and occupation, seek their guidance irrespective of their castes. Sant Mat’s emphasis that all people — irrespective of caste, religion, gender, education, and social status — can tread the path of mediation has attracted people from lower strata in large scores. The teachers advise the rural people — who seek to renounce their difficult family life for meditation — to realize the importance of the self-sustaining life and sanctity of householder state. The teachers encourage young men and women to pursue education for a better future.

In praxis, transcending insidious divisions of caste, religion, tribe, and gender, the followers participate in communal meditations, meals, singing and satsang. Sant Mat traces its root to the Upanishads, but is non-sectarian. The tradition claims to focus on the Santana spirit of Hinduism: “Truth is One; the Sages speak of it in various ways” and emphasizes the underlying unity in the esoteric teachings of all religions. This unique feature attracts the followers of other religions including Jainism, Islam, Christianity, and other traditions. The teachings and practices of Sat Mat provide insight into the diverse nature of the Saint Tradition of Hinduism, which draws upon the universal spirit of Santana Dharma, native religiosity, and the esoteric and reform elements of the Saint Movement. Sant Mat continue to proliferate in the rural areas and in the other areas of India. Its teachings has given hope to poverty and oppression stricken people of the rural areas of Bihar, which remained out of the reach of reformers and spiritual teachers. Sant Mat’s ideology and practices make it easy to incorporate its principles of meditation, morality, and all-embracing attitude into Hindu way of life. ////////

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