Sant or Sadh can be loosely translated as saint though this is not very exact, for the English term, when used in the adjectival sense ‘saintly’ refers to a person of great holiness, virtue or benevolence and has a formal connotation in the Western culture. This is not what the Punjabi word "Sant" conveys to the average person in Punjab. The word is a modified form of the word "Sat" which can simply mean "True" but can also be translated as meaning lasting, real, wise and venerable.
Sat or Satya has commonly been used since the Vedic times for the Ever-existent, Unchanging Reality or the Self-existent, Universal Spirit, Brahman or God. The word "Sant" which can be linked to "Sat" is not generally used in a formal sense and is a subjective word which refers to a person who is considered an able and wise human being. So the common translation of the word "Sant" is a wise, considerate, judicious and knowledgeable person who has a good understanding of Dharam or religion. They incorporate Dharam into their life meaning that they live by religion and the Guru’s Teachings.
Within the Bhakti movement there is a distinct Sant tradition clearly distinguishable from South Indian Saiva bhakti and the Vaisnava 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 Vaisnava names, is the Absolute Reality, Unborn, Formless, All-pervading, Self-existent, nirguna (without attributes) God, who makes Himself manifest the Name (naam) which may be uttered or meditated upon. Nirguni bhaktas refute avatarvada or incarnation, but they believe that the sant, through living a life of piety and practising nam, can attain final release.
Through Bhakti the term passed into the Sikh tradition. In the Guru Granth Sahib 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.
The Sant is thus identified as the pious devotee, he who is consort with others of like mind and commitment gathers in a satsang to sing the praises of the FSM and seek the guidance of the eternal Guru within. Join them, Nanak repeatedly insists, for in their company salvation is attained. The same understanding is sustained by Nanak's successors and in most strongly asserted by the fifth Guru, Arjun.
“jina sasi girasi na visrai Harinama mani mantu<br.>dhanu si sei Nanaka puranu soi santu
They who treasure the mantra of the Divine Name in their hearts and minds, remembering it with every breath and with every morsel, Blessed are they, Nanak, For they are the true Sants.” (WMOM p 319)
Guru Arjan in another hymn:
“All the twenty-four hours of day and night,
He knows the FSM 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 kirtan 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 maya is by them beguiled.
The gods themselves long for their company;
To have a sight of them is fulfilling in the extreme,
To be able to serve them a blessing.
Nanak does with folded hands supplicate:
Grant me this favour, O Treasure of Merit,
that to the service of the sants do I
dedicate myself.” (WMOM p 392)
- Gauri ki Var 8:1, AG p. 319. For another arresting definition see Guru Arjun's Asa 88, AG p. 392. This latter Sabad expounds the Sant RAhit, or 'Way of like of a Sant'.