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High Profile

Talking the walk

Brian Draper

Few people have gone as many extra miles for global peace and harmony as Satish Kumar, for over 40 years the editor of Resurgence.1 Third Way fell in with him at the October Gallery in London.

Satish Kumar

In your autobiography, No Destination,2 you wrote that you 'have met many people - gurus, teachers, poets, philosophers, and celebrities - but none could compare with my mother in her simple wisdom. She was illiterate, she could not even sign her name, but she was pure and truthful.' Where did she get such wisdom from?

I would say, from her own childhood. You know, in India when you grow up in a small village your mind is not cluttered with information. In my mother's time, there was no television, no radio, no newspaper; and so she learnt from her parents, from our Jain teachers, but also from nature, from being on the farm, milking the cows - and also from traditional stories. So, there was a very limited amount of information but the quality was very good, because it came refined and refined again and refined again, by generation after generation.

She also learnt from her own experience, because when you go through difficult times you mature and become more resilient. So, struggles and hardships are not a bad thing in that sense - but in modern times we live such comfortable, easy lives, and that doesn't make people wise or strong.

 

You also wrote that the Jain monks detected in you some wisdom linked to a past life. Can you expand on that?

In modern terminology, we would say: 'There is something in your genes.' In Sanskrit we call it sanskara, or we say that someone is an 'old soul'. What does it mean? It means that there is something continuing from previous lives, there is not a complete break.

So, at the age of nine I decided to leave my mother, leave the safety and comfort of my childhood home and take on the life of a monk, where you have to pull out your hair3 and walk barefoot and beg for your food and sleep on a thin blanket - all that hardship I was ready to accept to find a way of the spirit. That can't just come into your head at age nine, and so I would say that there must have been something in me from a previous life.

 

Your mother was appalled that you wanted to become a monk at that age. Given that you ended up running away from the monastery when you were 18, do you think with hindsight that she was right?

My mother was a very religious person and I broke my vow and to her that was not acceptable.

But from my point of view it's like John Maynard Keynes saying: 'When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?' When I was nine years old, I believed that by giving up the world and practising spirituality exclusively you can bring an end to the cyc- le of birth and death; but at the age of 18 I had a new consciousness, that you cannot separate the life of the spirit from your life in the world and the moment you try to you are creating a dualism. Only a few can live in a monastery, and I had come to believe that spirituality should be available and accessible to everybody. So, to be true to myself I gave up the monastic order.

But then, after some years, when I had walked ar- ound the world4 and worked for peace and non-violence and spiritual values, my mother realised that although I gave up the robe I did not give up the spirit, and so we had a reconciliation and she blessed me before she died.

 

You seem to be profoundly open to what is unfolding in the universe, almost to the point of fatalism. You say: 'My nature is to let things happen rather than make them happen.' How does that sense of acceptance square with being an activist who wants to change the world?

My activism is not contrived, not planned; it comes as naturally to me as breathing, and I think I am going to serve the world, and the earth, as an activist until the last breath of my life, because it has become part of me. And I am not looking for any achievement, any outcome: what I am doing has its own, intrinsic rightness. I do what I feel is right for me. And that is all it is.

So, I would not call myself a fatalist. I would say that I work on two levels: I act with thought, but I cannot say that whatever I think should happen is going to. Modern science talks of 'emergence'. Something will emerge, and I will allow it to emerge without trying to contrive it. So, I am a participant in the process rather than the controller of the outcome, because I trust that if the process is right, something good will emerge.

 

Isn't that a rather relaxed attitude to have if the various ecological crises that confront us are so serious? Is there a place for urgency in your sense of emergence?

There is urgency in it. If you're in a theatre and there is a fire, it's urgent to get everyone out; but still you have to have patience and order - if there is a stampede, it will kill more people than the fire will. So, what I am trying to say is that, yes, we have many urgent problems - climate change, population explosion, the pollution of water and air, the destruction of rainforests - and so I am working every day, day and night - even in my dreams! - and yet the result of my actions is not in my hands, it is in the hands of other people, of politicians, the media… So, urgency also requires patience and humility, and so I am not frustrated or pessimistic. Having faith in emergence is as important as being active.

 

What bearing does the idea of karma have on all this? If there is a sense that what must be must be…

Karma is like clay. You cannot change clay into wood, and yet it has great potential: you can make from it a big pot, a small pot, a beautiful pot, an ugly pot, a pot for water, a pot for food, a pot for flowers - you can do ten thousand things with it. And you are a participant in the shaping of your life. For example, you were born in England, so your karma made you an Englishman; but you can shape and change and develop and evolve in ten thousand different ways. Karma is given, but what you do with it is still emergent and free.

 

You have said that the world is not a battleground, which is quite a challenge to the way most of us in the West were brought up to think. Can you say more?

I would say the universe is benevolent. A battleground is an aberration. For me, there is nothing in the world that is bad. The challenge for humanity is to find a balance between what we call 'bad' and what we call 'good' - and when you find it, all is just right, appropriate.

There is no evil - evil is only in ignorance. We have the potential within us to be in a place of harmony. Harmony is the basic principle of the universe: the sun and the rain are in harmony with the soil, and the soil with the seed. The mother is in harmony with the baby, so she produces milk the moment the baby is born. And so I would say: Focus on the natural state of the universe.

A little bit of anger, a little bit of fear, a little bit of doubt - these things are really a protection mechanism and they have a place. Don't discard them but see what is their place. We need water but we don't want water everywhere. In the same way, it is a matter of finding how much anger, how much fear, how much trust and how much love you should have in your life - you need everything, and so there is no battle, no fight. But when you think, 'That is bad and that is good,' then you create war, you create poverty, you create injustice, you create domination. All these are burdens we create for ourselves, and we don't need to create them.

 

And yet many of us who want to become part of the solution, not part of the problem, think: I've got to take up arms in the fight for the planet, for social justice or whatever. Are you saying that actually what we most need is a spiritual awakening to the idea of harmony?

Yes, yes, absolutely - because without the spirit everybody's activism leads to disharmony. Tony Blair was an activist. Saddam Hussein was an activist, Hitler was an activist. Even the Nazis thought they were going to put the world right. Even the Communists. So, what is the difference between those activists and the activist who is trying to put the right things in the right place? That difference is the spirit. The moment you are inspired by your spirituality, you act from that strength of the spirit and so you will not engage in that kind of battle.

The people who campaign for HS2 or a third runway at Heathrow, they are activists: they want to put the world right - 'It'll be good for the British economy.' But they are materialistic, they have no spiritual values, and so their actions lead to tears. In the same way, the actions of environmentalists will lead to tears if they don't come from the place of the spirit. Their activism can end up in nuclear power or genetic engineering or the whole countryside covered with windmills or solar panels and no trees left anywhere. That is mind without spirit. The moment you have spirit, you know balance, harmony, frugality, simplicity, minimalism - all of these are qualities of the spirit.

 

If it is no accident that you, Satish Kumar, were put on this earth at this time, what do you see as your primary purpose? Is it to help other people to awaken to spirit?

Yes, yes. And to be a reminder. I remind people of what they already know in the heart of their heart but they forget in the rush of things. Through my books and my talks, through Resurgence and now the Ecologist, I am constantly reminding people to think holistically, think in a bigger way, a spiritual way, rather than get stuck in this one idea that climate change is the problem, or this or that is the problem. Our problems are interrelated.

Buddha was an activist. Jesus Christ was an activist. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Dalai Lama, Wangari Maathai5 - their actions had a very spiritual foundation and that's why they have not led to war or catastrophe.

 

You talk a lot in your books about Cartesian dualism, which owes much of its origin to the Christian notion of a fallen world. To what extent, to your mind, is Christianity part of the problem rather than the solution?

You know, religion is always evolving. Everything in nature is always evolving. The problem comes when Christianity becomes rigid and inflexible and says: This is the truth, this is the reality, and nothing can change. That is not Christianity, truly speaking. Francis of As- sisi was a Christian and he was different. Aquinas was different, and Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart… Even in our own time, Rowan Williams is a different kind of Christian. There are many, many streams within Christianity, and there are streams that are mystical, holistic, non-dualistic - and we have forgotten that. We think that only Paul and Augustine are Christian.

 

It's often the people who have the most fixed ideas, isn't it, who end up with the power.

I think Christianity has to liberate itself from the state. I would say that its role is to serve people, not to uphold institutions. If you free Christianity from that, there are gems of teaching in the tradition in which you will find ecological wisdom, non-dualism, harmony, simplicity - all the good things we are talking about now.

I mean, Pope Francis is good news, and he's trying; but still the Catholic Church is very institutionalised. He is tweaking a little bit here and there, but it's not fundamental change. When I became a monk, I took a vow of poverty. Where is this poverty in the Vatican?

Poverty is a very important principle of Christianity. Poverty does not mean hunger or misery; it means self-control, restraint, accepting that if I have a table, two chairs, a few clothes and a little food, that is enough. I don't need all this property, I don't need all these investments. That is poverty. That is Christianity.

 

It takes great courage to challenge the powers-that-be - and it feels very naive to think that we can oppose them with something as powerless as simplicity -

No, it's not naive, it's not, because the power of nonviolence, and of simplicity and the spirit, is greater than the power of Monsanto, of McDonald's, of Coca-Cola, of BP and Shell, and all the power of government, the Pentagon - all those powers are lesser than the power of the spirit. The British Empire seemed very powerful when Gandhi said: We have to win India independence. People laughed at him and said, 'And how will you do that? By spinning a spinning wheel?' But now, after 60, 70 years, the British Empire is nowhere. So, the power of the spirit is much more potent, much more effective, than all these powers. Do not underestimate the power of one individual and, emerging out of that individual, the power of the spirit, which can transform the world.

 

Why is it that there are so few individuals we talk about, though? It's usually Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Mandela…

No, no, these names are a shorthand we use mainly because they are in the news and everybody knows them. The Berlin Wall was brought down and all the satellite states of the Soviet empire were liberated not by one great individual but by thousands upon thousands of unsung heroes. No bullets were fired. Indian independence was won by thousands upon thousands of people filling the jails. 'Gandhi' is only a shorthand.

 

Do you look back now and admire your own courage in setting out on your first 'pilgrimage for peace' at the age of 26? It must have been terrifying, walking through the Khyber Pass and heading off to Moscow.

I mean, there were moments of fear - as I said, a little bit of fear is a good thing. How am I going to survive? Is somebody going to give me food and shelter? But there are two voices within you, and the other voice is saying that the moment I was born, the universe put milk in my mother's breast, so if the universe was prepared to do that, it will do the same thing when I am in the deserts of Iran or the mountains of Russia. And so these two voices contend; and somehow the voice of trust and faith - and courage - won and inspired me to go on.

 

Did you notice a difference in people as you moved from East to West? Or are people everywhere just people?

People are people and yet they are conditioned, by their philosophy, culture, civilisation, climate, religion, up- bringing… I experienced some cultural shocks on my journey; but when you take all that conditioning away and reach a deeper level, you realise that before someone is white or black, or English or American or Russian, or communist or capitalist or whatever, they are a human being, and all these identities we call 'nationality', 'religion', 'race', 'colour' or whatever are a kind of mental construct. So, in the end I found that people were people and everywhere they were prepared to listen to me and give me food and shelter - and even the benefit of the doubt.

 

You took with you two 'weapons': carrying no money and vegetarianism. Is that how you reached a 'deeper level'?

Yes. When you have no money you become vulnerable, and that vulnerability brings out other people's compassion and generosity. Unless people look after you, you have no food, no tea, no shelter, no clothes, no shoes, no haircut, nothing. When you have all your credit cards in your wallet, there's no vulnerability.

And then, as vegetarians, people realise that in spite of our vulnerability we have some convictions, some commitments, and we are not going to compromise just because we are hungry. Even if you have prepared a meal of meat with great love, still we are not going to eat it. We are prepared to suffer hardship, but we will stick to our ideals because we don't want to harm animals - and therefore how can we harm humans?

 

Have you encountered much antipathy from Christians towards your vegetarianism? I'm a vegetarian and I find that other Christians look at me as if there's something slightly wrong with my theology…

That I find. Christianity is a religion of love but that love does not extend to the animal kingdom and the rest of nature. I find it quite surprising, because I would say that everybody is your neighbour and therefore you minimise harm to plants, trees, animals, other people and yourself. You cannot prevent it altogether, but you always minimise it. And maximise love.

 

There is a lovely saying that is attributed to Augustine: Solvitur ambulando, 'It's solved by walking.'

Yeah! Nietzsche said: 'All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.'

Walking for me, literally, is wonderful - it has been my second nature - and also, as a metaphor for experiencing, engaging in action, living, walking is essential.

 

What do you feel you have solved by walking?

First of all, I have solved the riddle of why I'm here. The purpose of my life is walking, metaphorically as well as literally. If everybody can find the purpose of their life, that is a great achievement. Walking, physical and literal walking, has made me realise that living in itself is its own fulfilment.

Then, I have solved the problem of understanding my relationship with nature. By walking I realise that I am related to the earth that holds me and without the earth - and the air I am breathing and the sunshine that is giving me energy - I would not be able to walk.

And then I have solved the problem of disconnection. Wherever I'm walking, I'm reconnecting - with people, with places. And I have solved the problem of loneliness and transformed my loneliness into solitude. Walking can be enjoyable in solitude. When I am alone, I just go out and walk, by the sea or along the river or in the forest or wherever - problem solved!

I also depend on people who receive me; and therefore I have solved the problem of arrogance that says, 'I am self-sustaining, I don't depend on anybody else.' I have solved the problem of arrogance and transformed it into humility.

So, who did you say said that? Aquinas?

 

No, Augustine. Funnily enough.

Augustine! He's a bit too rational for me - I'm closer to Aquinas. But here at least we meet!

 

On the path. Fantastic! When you set out on that first 'pilgrimage', you left behind your wife and your newborn daughter. I wonder about the price one has to pay in pursuing one's ideals - but also whether there is a kind of selfishness in it.

You are making a sacrifice at the altar of your activism. The same thing happened with Nelson Mandela - in the end, his marriage to Winnie came to an end because of their separation. Even Gandhi had the same problem, not so much with his wife but with his sons.

I would say that from a commitment to your wife and children your attention has gone to a larger family, larger picture, larger purpose, whether that is the independence of India, the end of apartheid or, in my case, making peace in the world. You take on the suffering of the loss of your marriage and your children. I suffered, psychologically and emotionally with the loss of a family and also physically, from walking, walking, without money, sometimes hungry, sometimes thirsty, sometimes without shelter and all that.

So, would you call that 'selfish'? I would not call it 'selfish'.

 

Certainly, Jesus said that anyone who 'does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters [and] even their own life' cannot be his disciple,6 which presents a disturbing challenge to the notion that charity - and justice - begins at home.

But the thing is that, from a spiritual perspective, the idea that this is mine - my family, my wife, my children, my house, my body, my responsibility - there's a kind of ego there. Jesus Christ said: Let the dead bury the dead, otherwise you cannot follow me - meaning 'follow the bigger purpose of life', which is a liberation from ego, a liberation from all this possessiveness.

 

Let's move on to your latest book, Soil, Soul, Society.7

So, most great movements have three words. In Christianity, it's 'Father, Son and Holy Spirit'. Now, I say: What about the mother? What about the daughter? And what about holy matter? The balance between masculine and feminine, material and spiritual, needs to be there. And so the Trinity is wonderful but it's not quite what I would call 'holistic'.

In the same way, the French Revolution had Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Basically, they meant the liberty and equality and fraternity of humans, and nothing to do with spirituality, soul, compassion and so on. And in the New Age, 'mind, body, spirit' is the same: my mind, my body, my spirit. What about our relations with the natural world? What about social justice?

And so I thought that we need a new three words, which encapsulate a more holistic worldview for the age of spiritual awakening. I thought we need something that says that we are related to the natural world: we come from the soil, we return to the soil, we are made of the soil, we are made of each other, we are all connected, all related. How do you show that? By saying: Take care of the soil - without soil, you cannot exist!

And then your soul. Soil has soul and you are soulful and therefore don't forget your soul. You cannot love your neighbour unless you also love yourself. Take care of yourself, be fully yourself and true to yourself!

And then you are part of the human community. Beyond all our differences and divisions, we are a human society. So, we are members of the earth community, we are members of human society and we are also ourselves, individual beings, related to the earth, related to society and yet we have something special in us, something unique, which is the soul.

So, putting these three words together - 'soil, soul, society' - you are expanding your consciousness to include the universe; and the moment you do that, for me that is touching the mind of God, because you are part of this cosmic unity in which everything has a place.

 

You have been editing Resurgence since 1973. Does it depress you sometimes that the green agenda is still an irrelevance to most people in Britain?

No, that doesn't depress me. It only tells me that I have a great challenge in front of me and I have a great work to do - and I'll do it! Our job is to work hard, without feeling burdened - that's important. And when people are aware, things may change.

 

You walked around the holy places of Britain to mark your 50th year and have probably seen more of this country than most of us who were born here -

Walking is the best way to see the country, as well!

 

If a country, too, has a soul, how is the soul of Britain?

Everything is soulful - wherever there is matter, there is soul. A country has soul, and that soulfulness is manifested in three ways. One is its natural beauty. When you see the apple blossom, when you see a beautiful oak or ash tree in full leaf, you see the soul of Britain.

Then, for me the soul of Britain is in its art. I would like to see not economic growth but growth in the arts. And third is its people. People say the British are not so hospitable; I say that is not my experience. I walked for four months and everywhere I met with hospitality. People were walking with me, coming to receive me, coming to send me off. I stayed with rich people, poor people, in council houses, bishops' palaces, everywhere.

And so there is a kind of spiritual wealth still there - it's not gone. The soul of Britain is not in the supermarkets and shopping centres; it is in its people and in its poetry and art and it's in the natural world.

 

An astrologer told your mother that you would journey all your life and never reach your destination. Was he wrong? You seem more rooted now, in Hartland on the remote north-west coast of Devon, than most of us who have lived in Britain all our lives.

I am rooted in Hartland - I have a small school there, I have a garden there, I have an office there, I started Schumacher College there. But in my consciousness I am a traveller, a pilgrim, and a pilgrim is always on the move. I don't have a fixed ideology, I don't have a fixed anything - I even say to my wife that in the house I feel like a guest: I don't feel that I own the house or the land. I don't feel as if it belongs to me and I possess it. I just live there as a guest and when I die, I die.

The attitude of a pilgrim is that you are always in a process, you are not stuck with a product. A product is fixed, it's done, whereas a process is always emerging, always new, always fresh. A tree is rooted, but it's still flexible and every year it sheds its leaves and every new year it has its blossom and leaves and fruit. And so that freshness is the quality of the pilgrim.

 

What can our readers do as individuals to take one step closer to being the change, as Gandhi put it?

The thing is to follow your inner voice. Ask yourself: What is the most important thing I need to do in this world, and just do that. Don't be afraid to take risks!

 

BIOGRAPHY

Satish Kumar was born in 1936 in a small village in north-west India, the youngest of eight children.

In 1945, he left his family to become a mendicant Jain monk, but nine years later, after reading a book by Gandhi, he ran away from the order to study for six years under Gandhi's 'spiritual successor', Vinoba Bhave.

In 1962, he embarked on a 'pilgrimage for peace', without money or a passport, to the capitals of the then four nuclear-armed states, Moscow, Paris, London and Washington.

Returning to India, he founded a short-lived magazine in Delhi, but was soon back in Europe, travelling, writing and teaching non-violence.

In 1973, he settled in Britain and took over from the Rev John Papworth as editor of the bi-monthly magazine Resurgence (which the Guardian has called 'the artistic and spiritual flagship of the green movement'). In 2012, it merged with the Ecologist under the new title Resurgence & Ecologist.

He founded the Small School in Hartland in 1982 and co-founded Schumacher College (where he is today a visiting fellow) in Dartington in 1990.

In his 50th year, he undertook another pilgrimage, walking 2,000 miles around the holy places of Britain, again carrying no money.

He is the author of Non-Violence or Non-Existence (1969), No Destination (1978; 1992; 2000), You Are Therefore I Am (2002), The Buddha and the Terrorist (2006), Spiritual Compass (2008), Earth Pilgrim (2009) and Soil, Soul, Society (2013).

In 2008, he presented a 50-minute documentary, Earth Pilgrim, in BBC2's series 'Natural World'. He has also 'thought for the day' on BBC Radio 4's Today.

He sits on the advisory board of Our Future Planet, and is a vice-president of the RSPCA.

He holds honorary doctorates from Lancaster and Plymouth Universities. In 2001, he was awarded the Jamnalal Bajaj International Award 'for promoting Gandhian values outside India'.

He lives in Hartland with his partner of 42 years.

This interview was conducted on September 30, 2013.

 

NOTES

1 Since 2012, Resurgence & Ecologist. See resurgence.org.

2 No Destination: An autobiography, first published by Black Pig Press in 1978, revised and reissued most recently by Green Books in 2009

3 Jain monks who take the lifelong vow are required to pull out all their hair, a practice known as kaya klesh.

4 In 1962, inspired by the example of Bertrand Russell, who had gone to prison at the age of 90 after a ban-the-Bomb protest, he and his friend EP Menon embarked on a 'pilgrimage for peace' of over 8,000 miles from Bangalore to Moscow, Paris, London and (via a boat to New York) Washington.

5 The Kenyan environmental and political activist who was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The Green Belt Movement she founded in 1977 has to date planted more than 50 million trees.

6 Luke 14.26, NIV

7 Soil, Soul, Society: A new trinity for our time (Leaping Hare Press, 2013)