Satish Kumar

Worcester Magazine (1999)

At the age of nine, he took vows as a Jain monk. At 18, he began preaching Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent social involvement. A decade later, he set off from India to walk to the major world capitals without a penny in his pocket, campaigning against nuclear weapons.

Today, Satish Kumar is one of the leading figures in Europe’s spiritual and environmental movements. The founder of England’s Schumacher College -- named for economist E.F. Schumacher, known for his "small is beautiful" philosophy -- and editor of Resurgence magazine, bible of what he calls the "reverential ecology" movement, Kumar continues to campaign for the West to abandon its "culture of selfishness" and recognize the need for balance -- between the individual and society, between people and the planet.

"In the United States, you have this Declaration of Independence. I would like to see a new Declaration of Dependence; recognition that we depend on each other, not this individualistic capitalistic idea that I just take care of myself materially or spiritually," he said in a recent interview at the Schumacher Society’s center in the Berkshires.

A slight, charismatic man with a ready smile, who exudes enthusiasm and energy, Kumar tars Western conglomerates, Eastern monastics and global New Agers with the same brush.

"Materialism by itself is a burden and damaging. Spirituality by itself is self-seeking," he explained, seated in a pool of sunlight on a recent early spring day. "Spirituality and ecology, spirituality and social relationships go hand-in-hand. Without ecology, spirituality is lame. We need to create a marriage of matter and spirit; when you bring them together you create a more Gandhian approach, a more holistic approach, a more interconnected approach where mutuality works."

As outlined in his new biography, Path Without Destination (Eagle Books, 1999), Kumar has lived a life of simplicity, from his great pilgrimage to the world’s capitals during which he depended solely on the kindness of those who met along the way, to the present day, when he and his wife June edit <I>Resurgence<P> from their cottage in the English countryside. He argues for a return to that "small is beautiful" lifestyle, claiming that Western society has become so caught up in the scramble for a bigger house and a bigger car that it is losing its soul, and destroying the earth in the process.

"We have become slaves to this big machine," he says of capitalism. "Our individualistic and consumeristic way of life is producing so much ugliness … there’s a famine of time in the United States; all the time work, work, work, and whatever you achieve is gone, spent, there’s never satisfaction."

Kumar calls for a "revolution in our consciousness" so that the 21st century will be a time of "ecological balance, trust, and relationship-based thinking."

A worthy notion, but is it a practical one for Americans struggling to pay a big mortgage and feed and cloth 2.5 kids?

"What I’m saying is start to ask questions. Be aware of your life and ask yourself ‘How can I replenish my soul? How can I replenish the earth? How can I replenish society? How can I contribute more without damaging?’"

The destruction of the earth, Kumar believes, is intimately connected to the destruction of our soul.

"You have a two-minute drink of tea in polystyrene: first you deplete the resources and then you create waste," he says, shaking his head. "And what you’re holding is ugly in your hand, there’s no aesthetic experience. If instead you create something which is durable, beautiful and resource-frugal, then you have an aesthetic experience. You use it, you wash it and you put it on the shelf and it looks beautiful."

"It’s a question of seeing the value and reducing your demands on material goods and increasing your capacity of celebration and joy in things which are not of material nature but of artistic, imaginative, [things like] spiritual love, compassion, friendship, those are the areas in which you develop," he explains, gesturing toward the unspoiled woods outside.

"How did I walk from India to America? How do you do that without money?" he continues. "I did not do it in one day. The moment you worry about it, you cannot do it. The ecological lifestyle is not a product, it’s a process, a step-by-step way of living a more alert and aware and mindful life."

The 20th Century, he says, has been dominated by the notion that "I have capital, therefore I am." The next hundred years, he insists, must be "an ecological century, a century of satisfaction."

Improbable? The man who walked half-way around the world without money thinks not.

"Twenty years ago apartheid looked invincible, communism looked invincible, but it changed. I believe in the end, human spirit will triumph."

Related Articles

In 2001, I asked: “Why are there so few Buddhists of color?”

In 2001, I asked: “Why are there so few Buddhists of color?”

"Something has to change." Shambhala Sun (now Lion's Roar). Sept. 2002. Click here to read story.

Translating Spirituality Into Real Life: An interview with the late Sufi master, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan

Translating Spirituality Into Real Life: An interview with the late Sufi master, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan

Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan died on June 17th [2004] at the age of 87 (see our online memorial). Lawrence Pintak…

Gene Smith’s Mission (vol. 1, No. 1, Fall 2002)

Gene Smith’s Mission (vol. 1, No. 1, Fall 2002)

Vol. 1, No. 1 2002 Lawrence Pintak profiles Gene Smith, the man from Ogden, Utah who single-handedly spearheaded the…