Patron Saint of Spiritual Ecology
Satish Kumar, an Indian monk who walked around the world with a message of peace, is a savvy modern champion of social change
by Jay Walljasper
Published in the Idler
I am clambering up a hillside in the rain, green expanse of English countryside to my left and rugged coastline to my right, trying to keep up with Satish Kumar, a former Indian monk who once walked halfway around the world to promote disarmament, when a giant boom pierces the air. It sounds as though the worst thunderstorm imaginable is headed straight for us. I stop dead in my muddy tracks. So does Satish, ahead of me, and his wife, June Mitchell, right behind.
“What is that?” I yell, searching the gray skies for lightning. “The Concorde,” they say in unison. “It often enters England right here on its flight from New York to London,” June explains. I look up at Satish, who’s frowning in the direction of the plane. His lifelong mission has been to help the world realize that there is more to life than being rich, fast, worldly, and technologically advanced; so this must pose a sharp reminder of what he’s up against. I watch as he shifts his attention from the sky to the splashing sea and picks up the thread of our interrupted conversation. “Wandering and drifting in nature is one of the things that replenish me,” he says, striding again toward the peak of the hill. “It fills me with energy to keep doing the things I want to do.”
Satish, who is counted among Britain’s leading spiritual thinkers, needs a considerable amount of energy. He has set out to do nothing less than make the modern world more aware of the beauty, mystery, and connectedness of all things, and less fixated on hierarchy, competition, and bigness. For several decades he and June have edited Resurgence magazine, which England’s Guardian newspaper calls “the artistic and spiritual flagship of the Green movement,” out of a postcard-perfect stone farmhouse bedecked with ivy and surrounded by gardens.
And he helps direct a college devoted to holistic principles of learning, an alternative school in his local village, and a publishing house—all of which he founded. He lectures all over the world on assorted topics, and will be touring the United States in February and March to promote the new American edition of his autobiography, Path Without Destination (Eagle Brook/William Morrow). Among his fans is Prince Charles, whose Prince of Wales Institute for Architecture has invited him to lecture on spirituality and architecture four times.
Unlike many crusaders for worthy causes, Satish and June actually live the simple life they celebrate. She receives a modest salary from the magazine; he receives one from the college, and lectures for whatever someone is willing to offer above the price of a train or plane ticket. The mortgage on their house and two acres of land is held by a trust of Resurgence benefactors. By almost any economic standard of the modern world they are poor, yet it’s easy to envy their life. Meals usually come straight from the garden. The centuries-old cottage lacks central heat but is as comfortable as any home I’ve set foot in; it’s outfitted with furnishings, kitchenware, and art that embody the rustic elegance that Martha Stewart Living magazine and the Pottery Barn catalog strive for. The long table in the middle of the wood-beamed kitchen—where friends and family gather over Satish’s Indian dinners and June’s desserts, drinking local cider and talking for hours—feels like the center of the universe.
While most of the magazine’s work goes on in a converted stone barn a few steps from the front door, the cottage’s living room doubles as Satish’s office. He sits at the big wood desk while we talk. “My major idea is that we need to change consciousness,” Satish says. He is a small man, wiry and dapperly dressed, with a gray goatee and intense brown eyes. “We live under the power of modern consciousness, which means that we are obsessed with progress. Wherever you are is not good enough. We always want to achieve something, rather than experience something. The opposite of this is spiritual consciousness. By that I mean you find enchantment in every action you do, rather than just in the results of your action.
“Spiritual consciousness is not a particular religion,” he adds, “but a way of being.” Explaining its tenets in Path Without Destination, he translates a chant that Mahatma Gandhi composed for morning and evening meditation: Nonviolence, truth, nonstealing, / Sacred sex, nonconsumerism, / Physical work, avoidance of bad taste, / Fearlessness, respect for all religions / Local economy and respect for all beings. / These 11 principles / Should be followed with humility, care, and commitment.
“These principles are not do’s and don’ts,” Satish writes. “They are not vows; they are aspirations and inspirations. They are like resolutions which are made on the eve of a new year. . . . They could be used as resolutions for the new millennium.”
Although such thoughts seem quixotic, it’s a mistake to underestimate Satish, says his longtime friend Richard Boston. “His gentleness is accompanied by a will of steel,” Boston says. “His schemes are apparently absurd in their Utopianism, but turn out to be quite practical. He is a great deal more hardheaded, shrewder, more canny than he appears at first.”
I know what he means. A small but important part of the reason I’m in England trailing Satish through a soggy landscape is to understand how I came to write a column in Resurgence for absolutely no pay. My freelance writing income covers a sizable portion of my family’s budget, but when Satish, to whom I’d never spoken before, contacted me several years ago to write the magazine’s “Letter from America”, I immediately agreed without even thinking about money. To say no to Satish, who speaks in an elegant, melodious flow of Indian-accented English, would feel like turning down a prestigious, hard-won honor. No one published in Resurgence has ever seen a pence for their labors, and the list includes luminaries like Václav Havel, Gary Snyder, Ted Hughes, James Hillman, Winona LaDuke, Wendell Berry, Susan Griffin, Ivan Illich, and Noam Chomsky.
Some of these same people teach at Schumacher College,which Satish founded in 1991 with the Dartington Trust, an educational foundation. . Named after E.F. Schumacher, the visionary economist whose groundbreaking best-seller Small Is Beautiful was based in part on articles first published in Resurgence, the college offers adult students one- to- five-week courses on spiritual and ecological subjects. Housed in a 14th-century hall on the Dartington Estate in southwestern England, the academy allows students from around the world to immerse themselves in the process of learning as they discuss new ideas in classes, over dinner, while washing dishes, and out in the orchard by moonlight.
Satish’s remarkable success in enlisting people’s goodwill and financial help arises from highly developed skills honed throughout a life of intellecual rebellion, spiritual reflection, and political action. At age 9, against his family’s wishes, he joined an order of Jain monks (a religion with spiritual tenets akin to Hinduism and Buddhism) and spent years wandering across India, relying on the kindness of villagers for meals and a bed.
At 18, after reading a book by Gandhi (forbidden reading among the monks), he joined a campaign led by Vinoba Bhave, Gandhi’s successor as leader of India’s village movement. Satish helped organize strikes among farmworkers of the untouchable caste and later served as an editor at a Gandhian movement newspaper until he was sacked for criticizing some prominent Gandhians’ plans to build a fancy modern office complex—a stark rejection of Gandhi’s own program of simple living.
Later, as he recounts in Path with No Destination, Satish was sitting with a friend at a café looking over the newspaper when he noted that British philosopher Bertrand Russell had been jailed at a ban-the-bomb protest in London. It was 1962, and people at breakfast tables around the planet were feeling uneasy as they learned of the latest round of nuclear saber-rattling between the United States and Soviet Union.
But rather than descend into despair or cynicism, Satish and his friend Prabhakar Menon decided to take action. Inspired by the 90-year-old Russell’s deep convictions, the two vowed that morning to take a message of peace to leaders of the world’s (then) four nuclear nations. A few months later, with no money in their pockets, they set out on their pilgrimage, walking most of the way from Delhi to Moscow to Paris to London to Washington. Among the many people who befriended them and offered food and shelter along the 8,000-mile journey were Martin Luther King and the shah of Iran, as well as hundreds of peasants and factory workers.
The two sneaked away from government hosts in Moscow and eluded Soviet police all the way to the Polish border. In Paris, they were held for four days in a filthy jail cell after attempting to see Charles de Gaulle. Deported to England, they met Bertrand Russell, who raised the money for their passage to New York aboard the luxurious ocean liner Queen Mary. In Albany, Georgia, the owner of a lunch counter held a gun to Satish’s chest as a way of emphasizing that he wouldn’t serve brown-skinned customers. Satish and Menon met with representatives of Nikita Khrushchev, Harold Wilson, and Lyndon Johnson—but not de Gaulle—and gave each of them a packet of tea from a woman they’d met in Armenia, who said that leaders should brew a pot a tea before making any decision to fire missiles.
Upon returning to India, Satish promoted land reform issues and joined efforts to help refugees fleeing a bloody civil war in Bengla Desh. His humanitarian work led to an invitation to London to exhibit his photographs of the war and speak. That’s where he met June Mitchell, a librarian who also had done relief work in Bengla Desh. Soon the two were living together in London with a baby son, making plans to move to India.
But one day while he was taking his daily walk, Satish bumped into John Papworth, an English social activist who had accompanied Satish on the United States leg of his peace pilgrimage and who later founded Resurgence magazine. Papworth was leaving to become an adviser to Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda, and he insisted right on the spot that Satish take over the magazine editorship. Although Satish had no formal schooling, a limited command of written English, and no means of support, he took the job, which paid nothing. “I didn’t like to . . . refuse something which was coming to me by fate,” he explains in his autobiography. “I decided to put off thoughts of returning to India. . . . I should have known that life does not operate on the basis of plans, no matter how rational. My nature is to let things happen rather than make them happen.”
It is this spirit of Taoist detachment, paired with undeniable determination, that makes Satish such a powerful personality. He is a man toward whom the universe seems to bend a bit, a figure from whom seemingly impossible ideas sound somehow possible.
“Fragmentation is at the heart of modern consciousness,” he says as we sit at the kitchen table eating fresh-baked tarts and sharing a pot of tea—equal parts Earl Gray and Assam. “You divide knowledge into subjects, you divide people into categories. But I think there is something more to the world than what you are able to measure, analyze, and quantify. In spiritual consciousness there is a dance between what you know and what you don’t know. The place of mystery is an essential ingredient.”
Seeing the universe flowing in cycles rather than following a path of linear progression, Satish believes that spiritual consciousness eventually will replace, or at least counterbalance, modern consciousness. “Modernity is very powerful,” he admits. “It has the media, the corporations. Yet there seems to be a discontentedness in many people today, despite all the glamour and achievement and technology and wealth. There is a sense of the loss of meaning.”
Satish freely acknowledges that he chooses to live in the modern world and knows it is not always easy to resist its pull. That’s why—no matter how urgent the duties of the day—he spends two hours every morning meditating, chanting, and reading, and takes a walk every day with June and sometimes with their daughter, Maya, 21, a college student studying philosophy, and son, Mukti, 25, a filmmaker and sailing crewman. (Both Maya and Mukti work on the magazine when they are at home.) It is also why Resurgence is published in Hartland, an out-of-the-way farming village on England’s Devon coast.
“Out of my office window I can look at black currants, red currants, plums, apples, greengays, quinces, and raspberries growing in the courtyard,” Satish says. “After a morning of editing we go to the garden and pick vegetables for lunch. When it’s a beautiful sunny day, we’ll say, ‘Let’s go outside. No editing today.’
“People tell us we are very inefficient and naïve,” he adds, a sly grin crossing his face. “I say yes, we are inefficient and naïve, but we are happy. You keep your efficiency and we’ll keep our happiness.”
I ask Satish if he ever gets discouraged about changing the world. Don’t things like regular rumbles from the supersonic Concorde show the invincible power of modern consciousness? “Spiritual consciousness holds that the world is sacred,” he answers firmly. “We must celebrate it rather than just try to improve it. Take joy in what’s here. Outcome is not the point, we must do what is right.”
Two years ago Satish turned 60, an age that many Indians mark by renouncing worldliness, giving away their possessions, and retreating to a mountaintop. Satish has no such plans. He says he’s content with his life exactly as it is, that he’s accomplished all he ever hoped for. But then, scratching his goatee and wiggling a bit in the kitchen chair, he admits that he has thought of writing a book about spiritual consciousness and ecology. Moments later, he adds that if he could ever find the time, he’d love to revive the 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement, which celebrated fine craftsmanship, humane working conditions, and simple, unadorned beauty in architecture and everyday objects.
Now he is sitting perfectly still, looking serene in his usual dignified manner, but I sense that his mind is rushing ahead with thoughts of more projects to tackle. He looks over at me with a warm gaze and says, “Let’s take another walk. The rain has stopped now. The coastline will look splendid in the afternoon light.”