Satish Kumar is an experienced global neighbor. Born in India, he is currently the editor of Resurgence, a wonderful publication from England that I like to think of as an elder sister to IN CONTEXT. It was started in 1965 with the help of E. F. Schmacher and deals with all kinds of planetary alternatives. Subscriptions are available from Resurgence Limited, Ford House, Hartland, Bideford, Devon EX39 6YZ, ENGLAND, for $20/year (surface mail) or $27/year (airmail).
Satish (and his son Mukti) stayed with us this Spring and shared some chapters from his fascinating life.
– Robert Gilman
Robert: Satish, what is your personal background?
Satish: I was born in a very small village in Rajastan, which is in the northwestern part of India, on the border with Pakistan. My family was very religious, and my mother particularly had tremendous influence on my life. I was a restless child. I did not go to school. My mother used to go to the monks of the Jain religion, and I would go with her.
The Jains are particularly keen on nonviolence at all levels, nonviolence meaning not only not to harm any other individual person or society, which is of course included, but not to harm any animal, even a fly or an ant, not to harm any plants or trees or water. So it is a tremendously ecological religion. For the Jains, the world outside us is not for the convenience and benefit of human beings; the world exists in its own right, and our responsibility is to respect the whole existence as deeply as we possibly can and not to take anything more than we really, really need.
My mother, for example, made a list of 50 items which she could eat in her life, and she would not eat anything outside that list. Every day she would take 15 or 20 or 25 items from the list, and that day she would eat only those items, which would include water, salt, milk, vegetables, grains, whatever she was eating. And after she was 50, she would fast one day and eat one day, regularly. I’m giving you the example of extreme reduction of needs. She would make a decision about clothing, about space in the house – how much she needs – and reducing her need from the outside world and seeing that what we need is something inner. This gives us more time to attend the inner need. That’s why the world which we experience nowadays is so busy, because we have created such a vast external world of needs and necessities and possessions that we are busy just maintaining those possessions, and buying more possessions.
So, for my mother, that was the principle. I grew with it, and I used to go to see the monks, who had no possessions, even more extreme than my mother. They had left their homes; they had no abode anywhere. They could have only what they could carry on their back. A monk will have only one dress to wear, and for the night he will have another change. They have only handwritten manuscripts, because you can write very small and then you can carry the most basic manuscripts with you. Even the burden of books is very heavy.
Robert: Right. Sometimes very heavy!
Satish: Monks will have three begging bowls for their food: one for water, one for liquid food, one for dry food. Three begging bowls, and no shoes – they walked in bare feet. I was very impressed by this austere, ascetic way of life, which took them into their inner world. So, at the age of nine, I became a monk, and from then on I was there practicing that kind of nonviolence. In the night, if you are walking, you are not allowed to go out of the house where you are staying – you are staying in somebody’s house – and even within the house, if you are moving about, you sweep the floor with a little soft, warm broom before you put your foot down, so that you won’t step on an ant or insect or something on the floor – that extreme nonviolence. Tremendous respect for every living being on the earth, and every green life, and for the Jains everything has life – the rocks, the stream, the water. So I received a tremendously ecological training.
That was my childhood. I grew up with the monks, studying Sanskrit and meditating for hours in the morning and hours in the evening, and going once a day to beg for food. For nine years I lived that life. But in those nine years, however enlightening they were, I felt that life was lacking in balance. I was pursuing the inner path at the expense of the rest of my being and the rest of the world.
Robert: What brought you to leave?
Satish: There were two influences, similar in nature. One was a book I read by Mahatma Gandhi. In it was a passage where he said that religion, the pursuing of the inner journey, should not be separated from the pursuing of the outer and social journey, because we are not isolated beings. If we remove ourselves from the world, we are pretending that we can follow our own individual enlightenment and let the rest of the world go to hell, so to speak.
Robert: Which is a sort of spiritual egoism.
Satish: That’s right. So, although I was extremely grateful to have a period of undergoing such strict discipline, I felt that Gandhi’s suggestion was right, and I should find a way of life which combined spiritual and social, inner and outer – that kind of balance. I read that approach of Gandhi’s and saw his living example in the world. On the one hand he meditated, prayed, studied the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, and on the other hand he attended the National Congress party’s Executive Committee meetings and went to meet the Governer General of India and worked on economic development, rural development – there was no part which Gandhi left out of his life. So he not only thought about balance; he was living it. That example inspired me, and I felt that my monk life was a bit too narrow and even self-centered.
Robert: What year was it when you encountered Gandhi’s idea?
Satish: That was something like 1954, I would say about six or seven years after India’s independence and Gandhi’s death. So I did not meet Gandhi. But then there was the second influence, which was Vinoba Bhave, a follower of Mahatma Gandhi. Vinoba was following Gandhi’s path of combining social and political work with spiritual work.
Gandhi did a lot of work to bring about change in India itself; in the West that is very little understood. His follower Vinoba took up the issue of land ownership, and he went walking around the whole of India for 20 years – East, West, North, South, Center, everywhere. With slight risk of exaggeration you could say that he walked almost every mile of the Indian land. He walked with the message that just as air, sunshine, and water are nature’s gifts which you cannot own or possess, similarly the land, the earth, is our mother, and it’s the gift of the gods and the gift of nature and no one should claim ownership on it. However, since he was not the government and he could not change the law, he wanted people to at least change their consciousness, to understand that they must not possess land while there are millions of people totally landless. So he went to the landlords and said, "If you have five children, consider me, the representative of the poor, as the sixth child, and give me one-sixth of your land to distribute among the landless." And it was quite a miracle. He collected five million acres of land in gifts. That was quite impressive.
And he was a great scholar. He had studied Arabic and knew the Koran very well, and he had studied the Bible. He was a great scholar of Buddhism, and he had translated Buddhist scriptures and given discourses on religions like Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism.
So I left the Jain monk’s life and joined Vinoba and walked with him for three years. It was a tremendously exciting time, because thousands of people – doctors, lawyers, students, professors, businessmen left their work and joined Vinoba to support him in this land-gift movement. But for Vinoba, the land-gift movement was only one aspect of his work. The people who were walking with him were his students. He and we all together were a walking university!
Robert: About how many people would be walking with him?
Satish: Oh, anywhere from 50 to 100 people. And for a period of months or years! And people would change; I was with him for about three years. And so that’s where I learned much more. That was my real education in the world – I learned politics, the social and cultural life of India, Hindu tradition and religion, and Buddhism. That was a wonderful time when I walked with him. It showed that you can bring nonviolent ways of changing our society, changing our thinking, and changing our heart, even in issues like land distribution. In India, where land is so scarce, you might find one or two or ten persons to give some land, but millions of them giving him millions of acres was quite a tremendous achievement. And even government was tremendously influenced and changed laws and created a lot of land available for the distribution. So he created a change of climate.
Robert: After the three years of your second period of education – you must have been then 21 or so – what was your next step?
Satish: Then I lived in one of the Ashrams started by Vinoba, so my education with Vinoba and his movement continued, but I lived more in one place, and studied and worked on the land. I learned much. So from the age of 18 to 26 – that’s about 8 years – I was with Vinoba.
While I was walking with Vinoba, I had an inspiration to walk for peace outside of India, because at that time – ’61, ’62 – there were a lot of campaigns in England, the U.S. and Europe against nuclear weapons. Lord Bertrand Russell, one of the establishment figures of law-abiding Britain, committed civil disobedience and went to prison at the age 90! This was so moving and inspiring for me sitting in India that I said, "Here is a man who has got his passport for the next life and is concerned about our world, and here I am only 26, doing very little for the future of our planet. I must do something." I was absolutely inspired and moved by Berty’s action.
So I thought, "How do I do it? I go to Moscow, I go to Paris, I go to London, I go to Washington. And if I fly, no impact will be there, because there are thousands of people flying in the planes and you arrive in Moscow and stay in a hotel and who are you? But if I walk from India to Moscow, and then walk to Paris, and then walk to London, and then walk from New York to Washington D.C., then at least I have put my body on the line, so to speak. I have put my body where my mouth is and expressed my protest by walking." So, that was my idea that I would walk.
I and a friend of mine called Mannon talked together, and we both decided to walk this journey. So we went to see Vinoba again, to get his blessings, and he said, "You have my blessings. This is a tremendous idea to walk. For walking abroad with a message of peace I give you my full support, and this is a wonderful thing to do. But I want to give you two weapons for your protection. One, go without any money on you. And secondly, you are vegetarian; remain vegetarian. The reason I want you not to take any money is because if you have money you will arrive in a village or a town after walking all day, 20, 30 miles, and you will be exhausted, and you will look for a restaurant to eat in, you will look for a bed and breakfast to sleep in, and you will move on, and you won’t meet anybody. But if you have no money, you will be forced to find a hospitable, kind person somewhere who can offer you a bed for the night. And when they offer you a bed for the night they are bound to ask you, ‘Would you like something to eat?’ And then you say, ‘Yes, but we are vegetarians.’ Then they will ask you, ‘Why?’ You can communicate about peace, because peace is not only peace in the world and nuclear weapons, but peace with nature, peace with the animal world, for that is your Jain tradition. If you can kill animals, the same attitude can kill human beings. The mentality is the same which exploits nature and which creates wars. So you can talk about it." And he said, "You must talk peace, not only the peace of nuclear disarmament, but spiritual peace, peace within yourself. Unless everybody has inner security, there cannot be world security. So peace within yourself, peace within the world (between peoples, and nations, and races, and religions), and then peace with nature. These are the three kinds of peace that should be understood as comprehensive peace, total peace."
So with that message from Vinoba I started, because he was very convincing! We walked from Delhi, from the grave of Mahatma Gandhi, and took about a month to walk from Delhi to the border of Pakistan. It was easier to walk in India without money because we knew lots of people, and people organized and things like that …
Robert: And people in India were accustomed to taking in people?
Satish: Yes, that’s right. But when we came to the border of India and Pakistan, lots of our friends and relatives came to say goodbye. And one of our very, very good friends came with lots of food and said, "You are going into Pakistan, and there is no good relationship between India and Pakistan. Pakistan is enemy country and a Muslim country. And I fear for you. You are crazy to go without money. However, since you have decided, I have brought some food parcels for you." So I said, "I am very grateful to you for thinking about me and being concerned. But I cannot take food with me, for these are parcels of mistrust because they would mean that I don’t trust Pakistan or trust that they will feed me. If I have to die in two or three or ten days’ time, I will start dying today, but I do not want to take food with me." He was very upset and said, "You are absolutely mad. I fear for you." He was in tears, but he gave me his embrace, and then I left.
I came through the passport control, through the customs control, came out into Pakistan, and to my total amazement and surprise and disbelief, there was a young man standing with two garlands of marigold flowers waiting. And when we arrived he asked, "Are you Satish and Mannon who are walking for peace to Moscow?" "How did you know?" He said, "A few days ago a traveler passed by and came through Pakistan and he said to me, ‘There are two Indians walking to Moscow.’ He just mentioned it by the way. And also when you left Delhi a month ago I read a little news in a small corner of our newspaper that two Indians are going to Moscow through Pakistan, and these two news met together, so I have come. I came in search of you the day before yesterday, I came yesterday, and I did not find you. I have come today, and I am very happy to find you. Please come and stay with me in my house and be my guest. And I have come with a car and I want you to go with me to my house."
We were very, very moved. Five minutes ago, our friends were saying, "You will go hungry and starve because you are going without money," and my friend was in tears because I would not accept the parcels of food, and five minutes later I am in tears to see this example of welcome. However, we said to him, "We cannot come in your car, because we are walking. We must walk. But give us your address and we will come to your house in the evening." He said, "No. How can I be sure that you will not meet someone else on the way who wants you to be his guest? I might lose you! After three days, coming every day in search of you, I have found you. Now I cannot let you go." So, we said, "Well, we must walk. That is our vow. We cannot go by car." He said, "All right, one compromise. You don’t want to walk with heavy rucksacks on your back. I will take them in my car so that I will be assured that if, for nothing else, you will at least come to collect your rucksacks!" So we said, "That’s fine. You take our rucksacks." And then we walked and we came in the evening and stayed in his house.
So, Vinoba was absolutely right, that if you have money, that is a buttress for fear, because you don’t trust people. You think that you can buy anything you like. But when you have no money, then you cannot say, "I like this person and I don’t like that person, I’ll stay with this person, I won’t stay with that person. You accept everybody without any judgment, without any questioning, without any criticism, without any suspicion or mistrust. You trust everybody. You are in the lap of people, and in the lap of God. You have to have total trust and faith.
So we carried on. Every day was a wonderful day. Hundreds of stories, every day. I’ll tell you one more story, which is concerned with Americans. We came to Peshawar and then started to walk from Peshawar which is on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. You have to go through the Khyber Pass. It’s about 4 or 5,000 feet high, mountains on both sides, and a very narrow, winding pass and the Kabul River, which makes this pass, by the side of the road. So we’re walking on this road – it’s very wild and very beautiful, but very secluded, very lonely. In the middle of this Khyber Pass, a car passed by us, and it went ahead of us about a hundred yards and stopped, and then reversed. And somebody opened the window and said, "Do you want a lift?" We said, "No, thank you. We are walking." He said, "Where are you walking to?" As we realized the questioners were Americans, we said, "We are walking eventually to the United States of America." "What? Walking to the United States of America?" "Yes, we are." "Do you know where the United States of America is?" "Yes, it’s beyond many hills, and beyond many countries, and beyond the ocean, and everything. We have seen it on the map. But one day we’ll be there." They were amazed. One of them was a man named Dr. Scarf. He brought out his business card and said, "I don’t believe you will make it by walking. But if ever you do, I live in Philadelphia. I am on your route between New York and Washington, DC. Give me a call. I would like to see you in Philadelphia."
Robert: So you put his business card in your rucksack?
Satish: Yes, and after walking through Afghanistan, Persia, Iran, the Soviet Union for four months, and then Poland, Eastern Germany, Western Germany, Belgium, France, a little boat trip to Dover, then London, Southampton, a boat to New York and New Jersey, I came to Pennsylvania, to Philadelphia, and I remembered Dr. Scarf. I took his business card out, went to a restaurant and said to the manager, "I have no money, but could I make a local call to Dr. Scarf?" And the man was very kind. He allowed me to make this call, and I phoned Dr. Scarf and said, "Dr. Scarf, do you remember two Indians you met in the Khyber Pass?" He said, "Yes, I do! Where are they?" I said, "We are right in Philadelphia." And he said, "I cannot believe it. Come along to my house, immediately. Where are you?" He gave us the directions on how to get to his house. We arrived at his house, and he was most delighted. He invited many of his friends and it was a great celebration.
Robert: Along that trip you carried your message of peace to the people that you met each day. Did you also carry that message of peace to the governments?
Satish: Yes, of course! We were taking our ideas and our message and our conversation to the heads of government. For example, in Persia we met the Shah of Iran, and he was very hospitable, and we talked about peace and disarmament.
We then came to the Soviet Union. One day we were walking and carrying our banner and distributing a few leaflets in Russian to people, and we met two women on the road. When they read our leaflet and saw our banner, they started to talk to us and ask questions. And as we walked they said, "We work in the tea factory. Why don’t you come in and have a cup of tea?" So we said, "Yes, that would be fine. It is lunch time, and anyway, anytime is tea time."
So we went in and had a cup of tea and talked to various workers at their tea factory. Suddenly one of these women got up, quickly rushed out of the room, and came back in a few minutes with four small packets of tea. She said, "I know you must travel light, but these four packets are very, very important. You must carry them. And you mustn’t drink this tea." We said, "Why are we to carry them?" She said, "I would like you to carry one to our Premier, one to the President of France, one to the Prime Minister of England, and one to the President of the United States of America. And I want you to take our message from this factory that if ever they get a mad thought of pushing the nuclear button to please stop for one minute and have a fresh cup of tea from these packets. And then they will have a moment to think and contemplate, and they will realize that the people who are producing tea, working in the factories, working in the fields, working in normal life, leading an ordinary life, are not their enemies. We are ordinary people, and we have done nothing to deserve nuclear attack."
Now our journey took a special significance. It became extremely important that we go and see the four heads of the governments, and the message was delivered, with the tea packets, to all these heads. So we wrote to everybody in advance that we were coming and approximately when we would be there, and that we would like to be received and have an audience with the Presidents and Prime Ministers, and we had good response.
We were received in the Kremlin by the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet and received a personal letter from Nikita Kruschev, and he said, "I welcome you in the Soviet Union and I support your vision and your walk for peace, but I am very busy (because it was Cuban missile crisis at that time), so I cannot spare the time at this moment, but I have requested Tikonov, Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, to receive you in the Kremlin."
Similarly, we were also received in the White House in the United States by the Special Advisor on Disarmament to President Johnson at that time. Kennedy had been assassinated a month or so before. So we walked to the grave of John Kennedy and ended our walking symbolically at the Arlington National Cemetery.
Robert: So you went from Gandhi’s grave to Kennedy’s grave.
Satish: Gandhi’s grave to Kennedy’s grave. That’s right. Those were the two points.
The response we received from the heads of the governments and their representatives was very similar. In the Soviet Union we were told, "We have made many, many good, favorable proposals to the U.S. government, but we are always meeting with negative response. And therefore, your work is to go to the U.S. and the West and convince the governments and the people to accept our proposals of peace. We are not for nuclear weapons. If there was ever a General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union who was totally dedicated to peace, that is Kruschev, and therefore, even at the expense of annoying our colleagues in the Politburo, he is going all the way to get nuclear disarmament. Therefore, now the ball is in the court of the West."
When we came to the U.S. and were received by the officials in the White House we were given a very similar answer: "We are always suggesting ideas and proposals for nuclear disarmament, but we are met with negative response."
So our feeling in the end was that the governments are not going to declare peace; it is too much to hope that one day peace will emerge from the summit of two heads of government from America and the U.S.S.R. In order to achieve such a declaration of peace we have to change the mood and consciousness of people in the world. And when people really desire peace, the governments will have to do it.
So the force and the strength for peace will come from people. And that will happen when people start to realize that all the diversity and differences we see of nationalities, of religions, of cultures, of languages, are all beautiful diversities, for they are only on the surface. And deep down we share the same humanity, the global humanity.
That’s what I experienced, because I went through so many different cultures – Muslim religion, Jewish religion, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Russians, Americans, Europeans, Asians, Blacks, Whites, Browns, Socialists, Communists – you name them and I met them. And when you dig down, dig deep, and touch the humanity, they are the same everywhere. But before you can discover that unity, you have to be free of your own prejudices. Because if I went as an Indian waving the flag of India, I would meet a Pakistani. If I went as a Hindu, saying that Hinduism is the most supreme religion in the world, I would meet a Christian or a Muslim saying, "No, no, no! You’ve got it wrong. We have got the best religion." If I go as a Socialist I’ll meet a Capitalist. If I go as a brown man I’ll meet a black man or white man. But if I go as a human being I’ll meet only human beings.