Satsang is a combination of two words - sat and sanga. Satmeans absolute existence, it is the essential nature of Brahman, it is permanent among the ever-changing and it upholds the world of appearance. Sanga means company or union. To be established in Brahman is the literal meaning of the word satsang. As long as ignorance remains, direct realization of Brahman is impossible. When ignorance is replaced by wisdom, the real nature reveals itself. This is the highest satsang.
The other possible interpretation is when we feel such devotion for God that He has to come to us in a form according to our desire. The means to this realization is also called satsang. The company of the wise leads to the realization of Brahman and, therefore, is also termed satsang. In this sense, satsang means the company of those who have realized truth, as well as those who are aspirants after truth.
Satsang gives one spiritual illumination and is one of the fundamental means for attaining God-realization.
It is very difficult to come into contact with a saint, and even more so to recognize one. A worldly person wants to judge a sage by his own concepts. The company of a saint exerts an inevitable influence on the person concerned, which he will realize sooner or later.
Sage Narada says in his Bhakti Sutras, "The company of the great is very difficult, even inaccessible, but it is infallible." Association with saints is infallible in its operation.
Love of God is obtained principally and undoubtedly by the grace of saints, or in other words, from the touch of divine compassion. Companionship of saints is gained by the grace of God alone because there is no distinction between Him and the saint. Both are identical. A saint is God Himself. The Upanishads declare: "He who knows Brahman becomes Brahman." The glow of a sage is as infinite and eternal as that of Brahman. God reveals Himself in a saint in His full glory, infinite power, wisdom and bliss. A sage is the salt which preserves society from decay and degeneration.
The sage is very silent and speaks only a few words. These words produce a tremendous impression. They give new life and joy to all who understand him and his message. In his presence alone the doubts of the aspirants are cleared, though he remains mute. The company of saints generates love for God. One should remember the great saints and sages and be inspired. They are not dead but more alive today than ever before.
Lord Krishna declares in the Bhagavad Gita, "The same am I to all beings; to Me there is none hateful or dear; but those who worship Me with devotion are in Me and I am also in them." Though the rays of the sun fall equally on one and all, it is the face of the diamond that dazzles more than anything else. Although God is equal for one and all, He manifests more vividly in the heart of a sage, which is made transparent by purity.
Where contact with a sage is not possible, one should try to be in contact with sublime books like the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Vashishtha, the Ramayana or the Bhagavata. Meditation on the lives of saints and study of their teachings is equal to holy company. One should try to make a pilgrimage to holy places and there engage in hearing of the glory of God. This also is satsang. Whatever helps one towards the attainment of purity of heart should be considered as satsang.
The glow and power of satsang is indescribable. The spiritual vibration and the powerful currents of a developed adept produce a tremendous influence on the mind. Satsang elevates the mind to noble heights. The association with holy sages is quite enough to instill wisdom and love. Service to such a person purifies the mind rapidly. Knowledge originates in those whose faults have been washed away by the force of satsang. Satsang is the easiest and quickest way to change the mind of a worldly person towards the spiritual path and to thoroughly overhaul negative samskaras.
The saint is the way as well as the goal and is considered even greater than the Lord Himself. Though God is everywhere, without the grace of a guru, He is not attainable. The saint or guru alone is the way. There is no boat other than satsang in the company of a saint to take one across the ocean of samsara. Satsang is unfailing in its results.
The first step of satsang is keeping company with righteous and good people and serving them. From there, knowledge of the essential nature of our own Self, the divine or supreme Self dawns. Then comes vairagya, dispassion, towards the things of this world, and a yearning for God, bhakti. When bhakti becomes strong, then we become the beloved of the Lord. We are dear to Him and chosen by Him. Finally, the direct vision of the Lord will follow.
The practice of feeling God's presence in everything, seeing God in every face and every object is, in itself, a form of satsang. Often, our devotion is kindled by associating and talking with devotees. As a flame is lit by a flame, so our heart catches fire from another heart. Sri Krishna says, "The wise adore Me in rapt devotion. With their minds wholly in Me, with their life absorbed in Me, enlightening each other; ever conversing about Me, they are satisfied and delighted."
A spiritual aspirant should avoid every kind of negative company. The effects of bad company are disastrous. The mind becomes filled with negative ideas by contact with bad companions. Just as a nursery is well-fenced in the beginning to protect the plants, so you should protect yourself carefully from unwanted influences. You should avoid at all costs people who lie, steal, gossip and who seek out sensory pleasures.
The human mind is a very receptive instrument. If you place it in negative company, it will acquire negative tendencies. If you place it in holy company, it will acquire divine traits. When thinking of saints, the mind becomes molded into the shape of the qualities of which it thinks, and thereby it becomes pure.
Anything that brings impure thoughts to the mind is bad company. Even a sober person begins to drink in the company of a drunkard. Negative company leads to passion, anger, delusion, loss of memory and discrimination.
Satsang with sages is the best agent to inspire viveka, discrimination, and vairagya, non-attachment cannot be attained without satsang which removes ignorance and fills you with dispassion for worldly enjoyments. It forces you to lead a divine life and have a strong conviction in the existence of God.
There are few people in this world who can think correctly for themselves and who depend on their own intelligence in the pursuit of truth. These people are their own teachers and do not require any other guide. Their satsang consists of meditation on the highest intelligence or consciousness.
People who cannot think correctly and who are swayed by passion and delusion constitute the large majority. They require a good and wise guru in order to lead a disciplined life. Their satsang consists of the company of the guru, service to him and direct instructions from him. It is only the sincere and earnest sadhaka who knows the real value of satsang.
Real satsang gives the aspirant inner spiritual strength to face the struggles of life, overcome temptations, manage inner cravings and fill the mind with positive divine thoughts. The company of a saint can transform anyone. Faith in God, in the scriptures, attachment and devotion to God, slowly develop in those who have regular satsang. Satsang is the greatest of all the purifiers. Without satsang, the mind filled with impurities cannot be turned towards God.
From satsang one receives practical lessons in control of the mind, concentration and meditation. Satsang is, therefore, vital for householders who have to engage in worldly duties. It awakens their spirituality. Satsang inspires the spiritual aspirants who are treading the path of renunciation. There is nothing so inspiring, elevating, indispensable and delightful as satsang.