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.