Sant Mat is a spiritual system historically centered in northern India, but which now has spread internationally, with initiates of various Sant Mat gurus scattered around the world.
It often is billed as a "science of the soul" that transcends religious boundaries and distinctions. For example, the branch of Sant Mat that I was a member of for thirty-five years, Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), has published books that show the purported connection between Sant Mat and Christianity, as well as Sant Mat and Judaism.
This requires considerable leaps of faith, though, and some creative reinterpreting of Bible verses.
The commonalities between Sikhism and Sant Mat are much more apparent, especially since both spiritual practices are centered in the Punjab region of India. (A central difference, however, is that Sikhs consider their holy scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, to be the final eternal guru, while Sant Mat groups are led by a human guru.)
When I was a member of RSSB I liked to think of this group's philosophy as unique. Meaning, Sant Mat was something special, over and beyond the tenets that it shared with other religious faiths. And for some reason I rarely thought of Sant Mat as rooted in Hinduism.
Reading the Hinduism chapter in Stephen Prothero's "God is Not One" helped disabuse me of both notions. As noted in a previous post, Prothero describes the major world religions in an appealingly straightforward manner that casts them in a fresh light for me.
Here's some of the connections between Hinduism and Sant Mat that struck me as I read through the chapter:
The goal of Sant Mat is to reunite the soul with its "God" in heaven (or Sach Khand), no longer being forced to reincarnate in various bodies under the dictates of karma. Ditto with Hinduism.
Although Hindus disagree on how to reach the religious goal, there is considerable consensus on both the human problem and its solution. The problem is samsara, which literally means wandering on or flowing by but in this context refers to the vicious cycle of life, death, and rebirth. We are born and die, and then we are born and die again.
To most people this doesn't sound like a bad thing. Isn't it better to be reborn than to be dead forever? But Hinduism, along with Sant Mat, seeks eternal bliss -- which is to be found neither on Earth nor in Heaven (a.k.a. astral planes) but beyond both.
Even heaven is subject to the flux and frustrations of the iron law of samsara. It, too, was created and will be destroyed, as will whatever gods reside there. The Hindu goal, therefore, is not to escape from this world to some heavenly paradise, but to escape from heaven and earth altogether.
So how is this to be accomplished? Traditionally, Hindu practice is broken into karma yoga (discipline of action), jnana yoga (discipline of wisdom), and bhakti yoga (discipline of devotion). Similarly, Sant Mat enjoins all three practices, but like Hinduism, emphasizes bhakti above the others.
The third, bhakti yoga, or the discipline of devotion, is now by far the most popular form of Hinduism. It affirms that neither priestly sacrifice nor philosophical knowledge is necessary for release from the bondage of samsara. All that is needed is love -- heartfelt devotion to the god of your choosing.
Hindus embrace a dizzying variety of gods. Sant Mat devotees, on the other hand, focus their love on the living guru of the time. But otherwise there is little difference between the way Hinduism and Sant Mat view bhakti yoga.
Philosophical Hinduism was functionally atheistic; while the gods existed, they were largely irrelevant to the task at hand. Moksha [spiritual liberation] was something you achieved by yourself, not something handed to you from on high.
Over time, however, moksha became a product not of self-effort but of other power. In devotional Hinduism, samsara remains the problem and moksha the solution, but now the path to spiritual liberation is quicker and easier. Instead of relying on yourself, as jnana yoga practitioners did, you can get moksha through the mercy and grace of your chosen god.
Again, in Sant Mat it is the guru who bestows mercy and grace, being a human embodiment of God. Aside from this, both Hinduism and Sant Mat are alike in their emphasis on fervent devotion to a being who is believed capable of bestowing liberation on a soul who would be trapped in samsara without this extra spiritual boost.
Hindu worship, however, is first and foremost about sight. Whereas Protestants go to church to hear the gospel reading and the sermon, Hindus go to temple to see and be seen -- to gaze at their beloved gods and to be gazed at lovingly in return. Worshippers build up to this key moment in puja [making a food offering] by circumambulating the temple itself and then their image of their god.
Only then do they take darshan by engaging their deity in an intimate, eye-to-eye encounter. "When Hindus go to a temple, they do not commonly say, 'I am going to worship,' but rather, 'I am going for darshan," writes Harvard professor Diana Eck inher book on this "religious seeing." Not without reason have Eck and others referred to darshan as "the central act of Hindu worship."
Same in Sant Mat. Westerners like me who became RSSB initiates weren't familiar with the Sant Mat version of darshan. The guru walks onto a dais before which hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of his disciples are sitting.
He takes his seat. Then he starts looking around while each disciple hopes the guru's gaze will fall on him or her, since this is believed to erase a whole bunch of bad karma. The guru's devotees will unblinkingly focus on the guru's face, viewing this as one of the highest spiritual practices.
That's darshan. No words are spoken. After a while the guru gets up and leaves. The disciples exit also, supposedly having had a marvelously uplifting spiritual experience.
Myself, I never got much out of darshan.
Having learned that this practice is based on a Hindu ritual, I can better understand why: I'm not a ritualistic guy. I'm more attracted to the jnana yoga meditative practices that have been largely supplanted in both Hinduism and Sant Mat by devotional bhakti yoga.
At any rate, I found it interesting to learn how closely Sant Mat is connected with Hinduism.
To me, this is more proof that Sant Mat is a blend of well-known Indian religious practices, not a unique "science of the soul" that has managed to disentangle itself from outmoded rituals and dogmas.