Sant Mat refers to a loosely associated group of teachers that became prominent in the Indian subcontinent from about the 13th century CE. Theologically, their teachings are distinguished by an inward, loving devotion to a divine principle, and socially by an egalitarianism separate from the qualitative distinctions of the Hindu caste system, and to those between Hindus and Muslims.
The sant lineage can be divided into two main groups: the northern group of sants from the provinces of the Punjab region, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, who expressed themselves mainly in vernacular Hindi, and the southern group, whose language is archaic Marathi, represented by Namdev and other sants of Maharashtra.
The expression "Sant Mat" literally means "Teachings of the Saints" – the "Path of Sants (Saints)", "Path of Truth", "Right or Positive Path". As "point of view of the Sants", the term Sant is pivotal. Derived from the Sanskrit sat (सत) and has overlapping usages (true, real, honest, right). Its root meaning is "one who knows(is) the truth" or "one who has experienced (merged into) Ultimate Reality." The term 'sant' has taken on the general meaning of "a good person" but is properly assigned to the poet-sants of medieval India.
The Sant Mat movement was not homogeneous, and consisted mostly of the Sants' own socio-religious attitudes, which were based on bhakti (devotion) as described in the Bhagavad Gita. Sharing as few conventions with each other as with the followers of the traditions they challenged, the Sants appear more as a diverse collection of spiritual personalities than a specific religious tradition, although they acknowledged a common spiritual root.
The boundaries of the movement were likely not sectarian and were devoid of Brahmin concepts of caste and liturgy. The poet-sants expressed their teaching in vernacular verse, addressing themselves to the common folk in oral style in Hindi and other dialects such as Marathi. They referred to the "Divine Name" as having saving power, and dismissed the religious rituals as having no value. They presented the idea that true religion was a matter of surrendering to God "who dwells in the heart".
The first generation of north Indian sants, (which included Kabir and Ravidas), appeared in the region of Benares in the mid 15th century. Preceding them were two notable 13th and 14th century figures, Namdev and Ramananda. The latter, according to Sant Mat tradition, was a Vaishnava ascetic who initiated Kabir, Ravidas, and other sants. Ramanand's story is told differently by his lineage of "Ramanandi" monks, by other Sants preceding him, and later by the Sikhs. What is known is that Ramananda accepted students of all castes, a practice that was contested by the orthodox Hindus of that time. Sant Mat practitioners accept that Ramananda's students formed the first generation of Sants.
Sants developed a culture of being close to marginalized humans in society including women, and the untouchables (Atishudras). Some of the more notable Sants include Namdev (d. 1350), Kabir (d. 1518), Nanak (d. 1539), Mira Bai (d. 1545), Surdas (d. 1573), Tulsidas (d. 1623), and Tukaram (d. 1650).
The tradition of the Sants (sant parampara) remained non-sectarian, though a number of Sant poets have been considered as the founders of sects. Some of these may bear the Sant's name, but were developed after them by later followers such as Kabir Panth, Dadu Panth, Dariya Panth, Advait Mat, Science of Spirituality and Radhasoami.
Only a small minority of religious Hindus have formally followed Sant Mat, but the tradition has considerably influenced Hindus across sects and castes. Bhajans (devotional songs) attributed to past Sants such as Mira Bai are widely listened to in India and in Hindu communities around the world. The Sant tradition is the only one in medieval and modern India that has successfully crossed some barriers between Hindu and Muslim blocks. Julius J. Lipner asserts that the lives of many Hindus have been leavened by the religious teachings of the Sants, which he describes as liberating.
The Sant Mat tradition refers to the necessity of a living human master, which is referred to with honorific titles such as Satguru, or perfect master.
The Radha Soami movement in North India regards itself as the main repository of the tradition of the Sants and their teachings, as well as their approach to religious endeavors, and presents itself as the living incarnation of the Sant tradition. The most notable being Radhasoami Satsang Beas, situated on the banks of the river Beas, whose current living master is Gurinder Singh. According to Mark Juergensmeyer, that claim is also made by the Kabir-panthis, the Sikhs and other movements that continue to find the insights from the Sant tradition valid today.
Prem Rawat and the Divine Light Mission (Elan Vital) are considered to be part of the Sant Mat tradition by J. Gordon Melton, Lucy DuPertuis, and Vishal Mangalwadi, but that characterization is disputed by Ron Geaves. The 20th century religious movement Eckankar is also considered by David C. Lane to be an offshoot of the Sant Mat tradition. James R. Lewis refers to these movements as "expressions of an older faith in a new context".