The Visionary Walker
Ever since he was a child, accompanying his mother to her small plot of farmland under the hot Indian sun, Satish Kumar has spent his life walking. At 9, he joined an order of wandering Jain monks and, for a decade, wore no shoes so that his footfall would be "softer and gentler" on ants and insects. Both his mother and his guru helped imprint in his heart Jain ideas of reverence for all forms of life. Kumar was taught to handle even the lowly mosquito with care – gently removing rather than swatting it away. Over the years, Kumar's pacifism coalesced around the discipline of walking as both a form of meditation and a means to change the world.
"Walking in the wild or in nature is my meditation and my spiritual practice," he said recently. "Meditation and spirituality are not separate activities, divorced from everyday life. Whatever I do, I try to do with mindfulness and with a sense of the sacred, then everything – whether it is cleaning, cooking, gardening, walking, editing, or even sleeping – becomes a sacred activity."
Walking, he adds, is also a great, noble tradition, one "that is part of both political and spiritual life. The Buddha walked away from his palace and walked for 12 years before he became enlightened. Martin Luther King walked from Alabama to Washington, D.C. Mahatma Gandhi's independence movement was based on walking. And on February 15th, 2003 millions of people in 27 different cities walked for peace."
Satish Kumar is a seasoned leader in the environmental and social change movement. A spiritual activist shaped by Gandhian principles of nonviolence, Kumar, at 68, remains a larger-than-life figure for his decades-long work championing peace, the rights of the oppressed and the natural world.
For many in the environmental movement, this former monk is both bold hero and wise sage, renowned for a life lived according to deeply held ecological principles and for a political activism that draws attention to some of the world's most intractable problems. He is best known for the 8,000-mile peace pilgrimage he undertook to persuade the nuclear powers to forego war and for his 30-year tenure as editor of Resurgence, an environmental publication that Kumar oversees from his farmhouse in rural England.
The destiny that compelled Kumar down such an unorthodox path revealed itself at an early age. Born in India in 1936, he was raised in a village in Rajasthan whose inhabitants adhered to the Jain tradition. Following ahimsa, the principle of not harming any living creature, Jains are strict vegetarians. The youngest of eight children, Kumar was 4 when his father died and his close bond to his mother grew even stronger. Though she was illiterate, Kumar regards her as his first teacher.
"My mother was very devout," recalls Kumar, and "taught me that all life is sacred – and that we cannot take life out of greed or carelessness."
His father's death deeply affected him. He felt so compelled to decode death's mystery that at age 9, he decided to leave his family and become a monk. "I became so despondent, that I wondered what could be done to stop people from dying," he said. "So my quest to become a Jain monk was a search for a solution to the problem of death."
Even within his tightly knit Jain family, Kumar's decision caused turmoil. But he persisted, and after an elaborate ceremony, Kumar renounced his ties to the world. With a cloth over his mouth to prevent his breath from inhaling any airborne creature, he spent the following nine years as a wandering, barefoot mendicant. In seeking a solution to death, says Kumar, his training also taught him "about life and philosophy and reincarnation, as well as principles of dharma, karma and non-violence."
A fellow monk loaned him a book by Gandhi, and Kumar's worldview shifted yet again. From Gandhi, he learned that "you cannot divide the world in two: a spiritual life in one compartment, and the everyday world of politics and family in another." Gandhi's message to integrate spirituality into everyday life was so powerful, says Kumar, that he realized "living apart from the world and practicing for my own personal salvation was an illusion – because there is no such thing as personal salvation. We are all connected. No person can be liberated without others. That idea brought me back into the world."
Inspired by Gandhi's vision of "social spirituality," Kumar next joined a campaign led by Vinoba Bhave, Gandhi's successor as leader of India's village movement. Marching alongside Bhave from village to village, Kumar witnessed thousands of people donating over four million acres of land for distribution among the poor. A noted Upanishads scholar, Bhave became an important teacher to Kumar, one who taught him more about the concept of Sarvodaya (the well being of all) and Jai Jagat (the unity of the universe). Around that time, Kumar entered into an arranged marriage and his wife became pregnant. As was the custom, she returned home to live with her family.
Kumar's most notable act of political protest took shape while sitting at a café. Browsing through the newspaper with his friend Prabhakar Menon, he was gripped by an article detailing British philosopher Bertrand Russell's imprisonment at a ban-the-bomb protest in London. The year was 1962, when the nuclear arms race between the United States and Soviet Union had dangerously escalated. Inspired by the 90-year-old Russell's courage, Kumar and Menon decided then and there to make a Peace Pilgrimage on foot to the leaders of the world's (then) four nuclear nations. By doing this, they reasoned, they would physically demonstrate their opposition to nuclear weapons.
After receiving his wife's and Vinoba Bhave's blessings, Kumar and Menon set out on their 8,000-mile journey. In Delhi, Lahore, Tashkent, Moscow, Paris, London, Washington and many other places, the two men, with no money in their pockets, were greeted by hundreds of ordinary people who opened their hearts and homes, offering food and shelter. In Armenia, they received four packets of "peace tea" from a woman whose advice to world leaders was to "brew a pot of tea" before making a decision to fire missiles. Among the many dignitaries they met were Martin Luther King and, in England, the man who had initially inspired them – Bertrand Russell.
Two and a half years later, Kumar rejoined his wife and daughter in India. They embarked on a tour around the country, as he addressed audiences about his peace pilgrimage. But Kumar's marriage was floundering. Pregnant with their second child, his wife's family pressured him to give up his social activism and start a drapery business. When he resisted, his wife and daughter returned home to live with her family. Understandably devastated, Kumar says now that the influences of the Jain tradition, coupled with Gandhi's example, had made such an impact on him that he was simply unable to pursue a conventional life.
"My life is not my life – it is connected with everybody else's life," he said. "So when my wife's family wanted me to buy a house and become rich – all those things [were] leading me toward a personal life. Although I was seen as irresponsible, I simply could not be comfortable with myself if I followed that path – it was a terrible dilemma."
Over the next several years, Kumar shuttled between Europe and India, joining forces with activists on both continents. An unexpected twist of fate would change the course of his life. Invited to London to speak about the plight of refugees in Bangladesh, he met June Mitchell, also a relief worker, who would become his life partner. Soon after, while taking his daily walk, Kumar encountered John Papworth, an English activist who had accompanied him on a segment of his peace march through the United States, and the founder of Resurgence magazine. Recently posted to Zambia, Papworth prevailed upon his old friend to take over as magazine editor.
Kumar accepted the offer. "I didn't like to...refuse something which was coming to me by fate," he wrote in his autobiography, "No Destination."
Kumar, Mitchell and their growing family settled in a centuries-old stone cottage in Hartland, a rural village on England's Devon coast. And there, for the past 30 years, he has combined the intellectual work of editing Resurgence with the manual work of growing food, milking cows, and walking in the countryside. With the mortgage on their house held by a trust of benefactors, he and his wife supported themselves on modest salaries from the magazine and occasional lectures. It remains a way of life, he wrote in "No Destination," where "there was no division between living and earning a livelihood...and no division between home and office."
There has also been little division between Kumar's nature-based lifestyle and marching forward with the revolution that had always been his life's labor. As a pacifist, Kumar was used to drawing on the power of ideas and the energy of intellectual exchange as a way to foment social change. Under his guidance, Resurgence became a focal point for articulating the ongoing dialogue within the burgeoning world ecology movement.
Kumar has always been a teacher, and in 1991, drawing on the nexus of thinkers and activists who had contributed to Resurgence over the years, Kumar founded Schumacher College. Grounded in the principles espoused by Kumar's friend, environmental pioneer, E.F. Shumacher, the residential center offers courses in James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis and Rupert Sheldrake's theory of morphogenetic fields (among others), ideas largely overlooked in mainstream universities.
Philosopher Jacob Needleman has written that the root of materialism is a poverty of ideas about the inner and outer worlds. In this sense, Kumar's life, while not rich by conventional standards, has been wealthy in spiritual depth, philosophical knowledge, and relational intimacy with loved ones and nature. The Sanskrit phrase So hum, or "You are, therefore I am," is the mantra that he credits with weaving the thread of his life into the greater tapestry of history.
The spiritual perspective that has sustained him throughout his work as an activist, he said, could likewise serve to inspire the environmental movement. Concerned that there is too much materialism in the environmental movement, Kumar says that it is "using the same formula as the rest of society, but trying to achieve something different – and that can't happen. The argument that we should protect the environment because it is good for our economy is still a utilitarian, scientific attitude." What is needed instead, says Kumar, "is a reverential ecology where we value nature for its own intrinsic quality," a view that honors and celebrates nature out of love.
Kumar also takes the environmental movement to task for relying too heavily on fear to promote change.
"Forty years of environmentalism has not brought about a true transformation," he insists, "because it has been mostly fear-based and [that] is hindering the movement. In order to release the power of the movement, we have to come to a more holistic and intuitive environmentalism."
Even phrases like "body, mind and spirit," he says, reflect "separational values" that impede genuine ecological awareness. "My body, my mind, and my spirit leave out the surrounding Earth community. How can my body be healthy if the water and air are polluted and the rainforests are destroyed?" he asks. "In the Age of Ecology we need to evolve and take the Earth and social community into account."
A phrase more suitable, says Kumar, would be "soil, soul, and society" – a trinity that joins nature, humanity, and spirituality.
Whether America will ever embrace the principles of the Age of Ecology remains uncertain. Borrowing a theme from vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, Kumar said that today there are "two Americas. One America is gripped by desire to control the markets and natural resources of the world and to become the most dominant and wealthy nation."
The other America, he said, is rooted in the values of its indigenous American Indian tradition, the wilderness movement sparked by naturalists like Aldo Leopold and John Muir, and by social visionaries like Amory Lovins and Hazel Henderson, who embody a holistic perspective.
It is this second America, Kumar said, that contains the seed of hope for the planet.
"If America could take the lead in protecting the human spirit and the earth spirit, then it could become a touchstone for the rest of the world. Then India, China, Africa and all the other countries would follow the Sierra Club and wilderness culture – instead of the Disney World and Hollywood culture."