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Satish Kumar: Walking the talk

By Naveen Vasudevan

Satish Kumar, editor of the alternative magazine Resurgence, talks about his 8,000-mile journey on foot to protest nuclear weapons, and the connections between peace, social justice and sustainability

Satish KumarSatish Kumar was born in 1936, in a small village in Rajasthan. Influenced by the austere lifestyle of his mother and the non-violence practised by the Jain monks she regularly took him to, he became a monk at the age of nine. However, he decided to quit the monastic order nine years later as he felt it was important to combine both social action and spiritual transformation in daily living. And that one divorced from the other was meaningless.

Kumar joined Vinoba Bhave in the Bhoodan Movement and worked for the redistribution of lands to the poor and the landless. At 26, inspired by the example of Bertrand Russell, he and a friend began a walk to the then four nuclear capitals of the world -- Moscow, Paris, London and Washington -- to raise awareness about peace and nuclear disarmament. They carried no money for the entire journey of 8,000 miles and two-and-a-half years (for those interested, Kumar's autobiography A Path Without Destination deals with the walk in greater detail).

In 1973, on E F Schumacher's invitation, Kumar took up editorship of the magazine Resurgence, which has been one of the main proponents of issues like 'deep ecology' and 'systems thinking'. He has also been instrumental in the opening of Schumacher College, a well-respected institution dedicated to inquiries into holistic science and environmental and social sustainability. Kumar is closely associated with The Small School in Hartland, Britain.

Kumar believes that endless hankering after material goods and economic growth is driving the world towards an ecological and social catastrophe, and that it is important to revive our connection with 'soil, soul and society' -- a connection that the industrial civilisation has mostly lost.

Eight thousand miles on foot in two-and-a-half years, and that too without money, sounds unbelievable. What was your motivation? And why walk?
While I was walking with Vinoba I had the inspiration to walk for peace outside India, because at that time (1961, 1962), there were a lot of campaigns in England, the US and Europe against nuclear weapons. One morning, I read that Bertrand Russell, at the age of 90, was sent to jail because he was protesting against the bomb. Here was a 90-year-old man going to jail for peace in the world, and I, then 25, was sitting in a cafe drinking tea! I was absolutely inspired and moved by Berty's action. So with a friend, E P Menon, I decided to walk for peace.

I thought: 'How do I do it? I go to Moscow; I go to Paris; I go to London; I go to Washington. If I fly, there will be no impact because thousands of people fly by plane. 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 DC, 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 why I decided to walk.

Still, how was walking going to help?
We decided to walk because, for us, the important thing was not to reach the destination but to arouse public awareness. Walking is a noble tradition: the Buddha walked to enlighten people; Gandhi walked to make salt to free India from British rule; Vinoba walked 100,000 miles to inspire landlords to give land to the poor; pilgrims all over India walk for hundreds of miles for self-realisation. Walking is the only way to be in touch with yourself, with fellow human beings, and with the earth.

Why did Vinoba tell you to go without money?
Once Menon and I had decided to walk, we went to Vinoba 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. 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.

Satish Kumar'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, that exploits nature and 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. 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.'

What does a wholistic approach to social change mean?
Social change is not one-dimensional. No single issue is enough by itself. Peace is related to social justice, social justice is related to sustainability of the earth, everything is connected and interdependent. Therefore a wholistic approach is a systemic approach, an approach that sees things in relationship to each other.

What do you think is the urgent need of our time, if we are to have a possible sustainable future for mankind?
The urgent need of our time is to develop a culture of non-violence. Our governments, businesses, industries and our media all promote violence. We spend billions and billions of pounds, dollars, euros and rupees on the instruments of violence. We are violent to ourselves, violent to other people, and violent towards nature. We talk about democracy, freedom, development, progress, and even peace, but actually promote and practise violence. So, in our schools, universities, media, businesses, in all walks of life, we need to promote non-violence. Non-violence is paramount.

What is the role/need for spirituality in today's activism? Why is it necessary?
Spirituality is about relationships. Spirituality and religion are not the same. Religious institutions or belief systems can make us think and behave in a dogmatic way and can even lead to disconnections and wars; spirituality, on the other hand, is about relationships, about compassion, about unity, about beauty, and about generosity. Without healthy relationships we cannot be happy, we need to develop the right relationships with other cultures, other religions, other philosophies, other people, and with the earth.

Ecology, non-violence, spirituality -- all these things are there to help us create the right relationships.

If spirituality is important, why did you leave the order of the monks and join Vinoba?
When I left the order of the monks I did not leave spirituality. Leaving the order was like leaving school for me; I learnt a great deal about non-violence and spirituality when I was a monk, but spirituality is not only for saints. Spirituality has to be practised in everyday life in the world -- in politics, in business, in agriculture, in ordinary everyday activities. I found that Vinoba was using the means of spirituality to bring about social justice, communal harmony and to promote love of the earth.

Many feel that all this discourse about wholism, interconnectedness, deep ecology, spirituality, etc, is unscientific and non-secular. Your response?
The scientific way of knowing is one good way, but not the only way. We need science and spirituality together. As Einstein said: 'Science without spirituality is blind, and spirituality without science is lame'. Science without spirituality leads to nuclear weapons, genetic engineering and other destructive technologies. Science needs spirituality to guide it into the sphere of right values. Similarly, spirituality needs science. Without science, spirituality can end up as destructive fundamentalism and dogmatism, so we need rational thinking. In the same way, secular and spiritual are also complementary. You need secularism to develop respect for all kinds of religious, cultural and philosophical diversity. But within that diversity we have to follow the particular path on which we are. We cannot walk on 10 different paths at the same time.

So while we have a particular spiritual practice we can also respect other spiritual traditions. There is no contradiction between secular and spiritual.

What is your opinion about violence for self-defence? Especially that practised by adivasis and peasants to hold on to their lands in the face of a government determined to evict them and hand land over to big corporations (Nandigram, Kalinganagar, etc)?
There is no justification for any violence -- the ends cannot justify the means. If one group can use violence for social justice, the other group can use violence for law-and-order. Non-violent means are more powerful, more effective and more appropriate for peasants, farmers, workers, oppressed peoples, tribal peoples and the underprivileged. If they fight with the weapons of their oppressors, then what is the difference between them and the oppressors? In my view the Gandhian technique of non-violent resistance is superior.

What trends do you find inspiring today?
I am very inspired to see the growing trend in fair trade, in local economy, in organic agriculture, in the use of renewable energy generated by wind, water and solar power. I am also inspired to see that many young people are becoming interested in ecology and sustainability. And that many people are following the path of meditation and yoga. These are trends that will help build a sustainable future.


  1. Wikipedia:
  2. In Context magazine:
  3. Ascent magazine:
  4. Resurgence:
  5. Schumacher College:
  6. Big Picture:

(Naveen Vasudevan is a freelancer based in Vellore. He is currently interested in exploring new forms and wholistic approaches to social change)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2008