Satish Kumar and His Life of Reverence

Hartland, a small village nestled in the South West of England, has become an internationally well-known mecca of the green movement. Resurgence, the famous bi-monthly magazine devoted to ecology has been edited in the village for more than thirty years. Hartland also has The Small School, a model school of the Human Scale Education movement and was the original home of the publishing house Green Books, which has produced many important titles concerning both the philosophical and practical dimensions of the green movement.

Across the county in South Devon is Dartington Hall where Schumacher College, the internationally-acclaimed adults’ institution, is located within a medieval historic building. The college offers two-three week programmes in which students participate in a communal life, and perspicacious intellectuals and activists are invited into the programme as lecturers. Among them are James Lovelock, an independent scientist widely known for his theory of Gaia, and Fritjof Capra, philosopher of ’new physics’ and others who are searching for a new intellectual, moral and spiritual foundation for an alternative culture.

What is striking is the fact that all these things are being put into practice mainly as a result of the efforts of a man from India. His name is Satish Kumar. He never had a formal education. He is neither a great scholar nor a charismatic leader of any spiritual sect. In every sense he might be called an ordinary man. In spite of that, he has excelled in his work in support of the global green movement for more than twenty years. He has been central to many projects that give hope and consolation to people dreaming of a sane, compassionate and sustainable culture beyond the despair of industrial civilization.

Satish kumar seems to be at home doing such extraordinary things without being in a hurry. He lives a life denied to the majority of intellectuals in the modern world: gardening, cooking, being part of a small village community, taking long walks, and sometimes setting out on a pilgrimage to remote countries.

It seems that his everyday social activities, such as editing the magazine, writing, and acting as Programme Director of Schumacher College, are all meditative experiences for him. Probably here lies a source of energy that makes him perform numerous things indefatigably. It is clear that if everything you do in your daily life constitutes the moment of experiencing ‘nirvana beyond time’ each work must be a source of pleasure, far from burdensome duty.

In addition, Satish Kumar has a unique style of writing. Whenever I read his essays, lectures and books, I am amazed that there are hardly any rough and rigid expressions in his writing, and that there are no emotional signs of rancour, enmity or resentment. It seems to me that for him, language is not for criticizing and attacking, but for respecting and serving all creatures in the world.

Even when, in Kumar’s writings, occasions arise to criticize or deny something, they are enacted in humorous spirit without any malice. When Kumar talks about the world’s political leaders today irresponsibly driving the world into catastrophe, he expresses his wish that they have more time to sleep, in the footstep of an old Islamic sage who, according to a legendary story, in answering to the then king’s wish to have a good counsel how to govern the country, asked his king to have more sleep. There is no doubt that the longer the leaders sleep, the less the world will be damaged. When he says this, however, Kumar does not say it in a cynical or malicious tone. He is simply revealing his genuine wish that today’s political leaders should be spiritually reborn and become peaceful in their mind.

We can easily arrive at the conclusion that only a peaceful mind is generous enough to be open to him/herself and others. This is not merely true of human relations. The chief reason why the ecosystems - the natural basis of our existence - are increasingly damaged is that our inner life is in trouble and never free. Consequently, we are now all running headlong without knowing our destination. In so doing, we are getting out of breath, risking life itself.

What is revealed in Satish Kumar’s daily life is a healthy and respectable pattern of life, as rarely seen elsewhere. His life seems to be one of the best exemplars in the modern world suggesting what we need most to heal ourselves and to save the natural world from collapsing.

Kumar practiced life without money from his youth. In his twenties he realized the spiritual significance of ’walking’. When he was only nine years old, he became a member of travelling Jains who practice most radically the doctrine of ahimsa (‘Do no harm on living things.’). A decade later, he returned to the ’world’ at the age of 18 to follow Gandhi. Following Gandhi’s death he joined the social movement led by Vinoba Bhave, the eminent disciple of Gandhi. Vinoba Bhave, one of the most respectable teachers in India at those days, was devoting himself to the land gifting movement, persuading rich landowners to give parts of their land to poor landless peasants for nothing. The idea of land gifting was put into practice by Bhave and his followers. They walked across the Indian subcontinent for this purpose, and consequently about 4 million acres of land were given to landless people.

Inspired by his predecessors, Satish Kumar initiated ’pilgrimage for peace’, walking across continents with one of his friends late in the 1960’s when the nuclear threat reached its culmination. He was strongly impressed and touched by the news of Bertrand Russell, the grey-haired old philosopher taking the lead in the anti-nuclear peace movement. Kumar felt ashamed that he, a young man, remained an idle onlooker when the old philosopher was striving for peace. Thereupon, he decided to travel 8,000 miles from India through Russia and Europe to America, walking through snowstorms, deserts, mountains, and rivers.

Informed of the young men’s decision to walk for peace, Vinoba Bhave extolled them with vigorous and passionate words. At the time of farewell, he offered to them a gift: two weapons of non-violence: one was to travel penniless to the last; the other was to practice vegetarianism wherever they travelled.

That gift based on the philosophy of non-violence was an effective aid in their travels. As news of two young Indian men making a pilgrimage for peace on foot spread from mouth to mouth, village to village, city to city, land to land, local residents came to their stop-offs to welcome them. Even when they crossed into Pakistan, then in a sharpening conflict with India, Pakistan people were waiting for them to arrive concerned that they should have food and somewhere to sleep. All these things were made possible because they were travelling on foot without a single penny.

This story about Kumar’s walk for peace confirms a fundamental truth in human relationships. That is, people do not usually feel sympathetic to those rich in power or money, and generally not concerned about them. It is when we witness the adversary situations of the poor and weak that our compassion is stirred up to help them.

One of the puzzling mysteries of humanity is that once you offer a gift to others, you feel as if you are a generous and peaceful person, and you become instantly very happy. Kumar’s teacher must have known of this mysterious truth. Thus, the two Indian young men’s ’walk for peace’ without money helped expand the peace and generosity in the minds of people who provided them with food and sleeping places.

Moreover, whenever the young men talked about vegetarianism at a meal, many people could easily understand the meaning of vegetarianism. For them, the vegetarian diet is no longer a weird habit of cranks, but a noble act of expressing the reverence for life in the world. Suppose somebody is moralizing on the need of the vegetarian diet in high-pitched tone. The sermon would undoubtedly make the listeners sick and tired. But imagine those two young men in respect to people and the foods offered by them are talking about the significance of vegetarianism. People who listened to their story could easily accept their opinion. In this way, the sympathy and solidarity were increased among people, and consequently the way for peace was prepared.

Apart from the teacher’s ability to foresee what would happen, all these achievements were made possible, first and foremost, by Kumar’s decision to make a walking pilgrimage across continents. Walking is one of the most fundamental foundations on which we set up really peaceful relations between human beings, and between humanity and the natural world. It may be possible that we can drive a car or take an airplane to go far away to discuss peace, social justice, and the need to protect ecosystems. But it is clearly impossible to realise genuine peace in the world and at the same time to be permanently dependent on the ’modern’ transportation systems inherently violent to all the living things. It is certain that there is no peace, social justice, or healthy ecosystems without our deep reverence for life, and our reverence for life can be only expressed by our voluntary choice to live a frugal life.

If we are to get closer to the freedom and inner happiness, walking should be a first step. Walking is ’an obedient listening’ to a Being larger than ourselves, far from the culture of hubris endlessly promoting our selfhood.

Jong-Chul Kim is the Editor of Green Review, (South Korea). This is an edited version of an article which was first published in Green Review.
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