By Sanjib Sabhapandit
The Satras have been socio- religious institutions in Assam for more than 500 years now. Although started mainly as a mechanism of propagation of the Vaishnavite school of thought by the two Mahapurushas, these transformed into social institutions very fast and became inseparable elements of Assam’s socio- cultural heritage.
The Satras and the Satradhikars , initially, faced persecution in the hands of the power that was, but could survive all onslaughts because of historical necessity resulting from yearning for change in those times and acceptance by the common people.
The Satras had and still has substantial land with each of them. Each had a substantial following. Most of them continue to have large number of following. On average a Satra has about 1000 following.
The Satras have an inner strength which enabled them to nurture, culture and preserve its unique classical based dance forms, music, performing arts and other traditions without any significant Royal or Government patronage for five centuries . The measure of this very significant contribution of the Satras towards Assam,s identity can be gauged from the recognition of the Satriya dance as one of the recognized classical dance forms of India. With debatable but avoidable conservatism, the Satras have carried the substance of Assam’s cultural identity this far.
But now is the time for giving a different look at the Satras.
A few high lights in this context-
1. Satra is a place for Guru ( Satradhikar) and Shishya (Bhakats ). The Guru – Shishya tradition has been kept alive quite effectively and 500 years is a good enough time to say that it is time tested.
2. The Satradhikars are religious leaders and regulars discourses and familial submissions when needed confirm this .
3. Satradhikars are recognized social leaders in the sense that generally their consent is sought for any decision in the areas of their jurisdiction.
e.g.-a) Advising on the future path for the children of the disciples taking into account the family and social needs.
b) Advising on cultivation programmes for villages depending on suitability of land etc.
c) Fixing and formulating yearly religious and cultural programmes.
d) Acting as judge, sort of , giving judgments on family and social disputes.
e) Enforcing a desirable social and moral code of conduct
f) Acting as reference points , they have standardized many notions, procedures, methods, grammars, codes and systems in the whole Xatra life, Art, performance etc.
The major systems in place-
1) A revenue collection system and a network.
2) A banking system for transaction of goods and services.
3) An hierarchical system of administration.
4) The Satradhikars and their representatives used to travel a lot for religious as well as other administrative purposes ; thereby acquiring first hand knowledge of the places and the people- a strength by any reckoning. Some Satras ( Auniati et al ) used to form Sahars out of a cluster of villages in distant places, came there periodically, met the people, interacted, held religious discourses, settled disputes, collected revenues, made new disciples and set organizational patterns
The major drawbacks –
1) Majority of the Satras are very strongly conservative in out look.
2) By choice, the Satras remained dependent on others for its economic existence.
3) The Satras expected contribution from its disciples but they never took any proactive steps to increase their productivity. Stimulus in this context was and is definitely missing.
4) Because of weak financial condition, most of the Satras could never inspire younger generations at any time resulting in dearth of quality inputs .A weak person cannot inspire anybody. So the Satras could never grow on any expected line. In fact, no religion-based education can do proper justice to a modern man.
5) Because of lack of interest & weak personality of the people at the helm and absence of creative & productive work, large chunk of land of a large number of Satras have been encroached. In many cases it is irretrievable. Illegal immigrants have also gobbled up many .
6) The Satras somehow could not adapt to the changing times and are now largely in existence out of inertia. Somewhere down the line, the Satras had lost relevance and like India it never realized its potential and remained cocooned .
This is not to ignore or nullify the very significant contributions of a few Satras and Satradhikars in the freedom struggle of India, in education and in ensuring social justice.
To alleviate this situation, some steps may be taken in the following lines-
1. Modification of the Satra concept – Keeping the religious authority and aspects intact , a separate body need to be formed within the domain of the Satras to undertake some management functions .e.g.
a) Undertaking economic projects like agriculture, sericulture, horticulture, floriculture, pisciculture etc.to utilize the Satra land and that of the disciples for higher productive gain in business lines .
b) Improving infrastructure to act as tourism destination points to project Xatra culture, Art etc . They can be Hubs of Eco- Tourism and Study Centres for Tradititional Wisdom as well.
c) PURA- Providing urban amenities in rural areas is a concept adopted by the Govt of India. The corporate sector like the ONGC ltd have started schemes under this in Tripura.For implementing PURA, the Satras will be very ideal. People still revere, respect and listen to them.
d) Xatra life is very strongly community oriented. It can be very effectively used for activities like Library movement , Sports movement , Cluster development for hand looms and handicrafts , food processing , herbal medicines, paramedical service etc.
e) Since the Satras have command over the people , propagation of government development schemes, social welfare schemes ( AIDS awareness , Two children norm etc ) can be smooth.
2. One of the curses of the modern age is unbridled consumption. The rich countries of the world have proved how the lust for consumption can lead to social, financial and environmental disaster. The Satras practise a life of necessity based consumption. This value can be propagated for a healthy living which ultimately is environment friendly. Modern gurus like Ramdev, Ravi Shankar have pervaded almost all spheres of our lives with similar values. Our Satras need to be outward looking to have wider acceptability in this context. They can definitely contribute towards rationalizing the rat race for material achievement that damages the family life, traditional culture, lead to stressful life that damages the body too.
3. Satras are scattered all over the state. If these can be made to bloom as envisaged, these will act as nuclei to orchestrate many changes( act as catalyst to social changes and activate a chain of economic parameters ). A good network of the Satras can be a very effective marketing tool for products, services and values.
4. Culture which has no economic strength is not culture. Only religious rituals, community feasts, dance and songs will not hold any promise for the future. The very fact that about 1000 Satras with 50 odd lakhs of followers are crying for mere survival speaks volumes about the necessity to inject modern management into the Satra concept.
Therefore a need of the hour is to make a model Satra with the mentioned ingredients for others to replicate in manageable form.
a) the mornings can start with programmes on health / yoga along with spiritual upliftment
b) The days can be full of economic ( production of artfacts, handloom, handicrafts, floriculture, horticulture, pisciculture, food processing, livestock management, research and educational activities. The list can be endless.
c) The evenings can be times of cultural programmes and other mentally recuperating activities.
d) The Satras will have to reach out. So it must make its presence felt in the surroundings by way of social work and other inputs
e) The Satras must have provisions to house persons of substance to receive inputs as well as to act as a bridge with the outside world.
f) It also has to have its own website.
This is not something entirely impossible. It does not involve unmanageable requirement of fund also.Only requirement is a willing mind.