Satish Kumar is a tremendous figure in the global peace movement. He became a Jain monk at the age of 9, and ran away from the order at the age of 18 to become a student of one of Mahatma Gandhi’s foremost disciples, Vinoba Bhave. To protest the nuclear arms race, Satish and his closest friend E.P. Menon decided to embark on a peace walk, traveling 8,000 miles by foot from New Delhi to Washington DC. Vinoba Bhave instructed them: “Walk penniless, eat only a vegetarian diet,” which they did. Both of those things ended up opening doors everywhere they walked, and they amazingly were able to meet the leaders of every nation with nuclear powers. The year was 1962. Satish was 26 years old.
In 1986, after having settled in England, he repeated his journey, walking 2,000 miles through England without a penny in his pocket, accepting the hospitality of strangers as he walked again for peace. WITH sat down with him for a conversation at an Inner Peace Conference fireside chat.
WITH: Tell us about what was happening in the world when you and E.P. Menon decided to walk from India to Moscow, Paris, and Washington DC.
Satish Kumar: It was the height of the Cold War, 1961, ’62. And here was a world with nuclear weapons that can destroy the whole planet not once, not twice, but 50 times over. I talked to my friend E.P. Menon and said, “What can we do? We are Gandhian. We believe in peace. But we are ordinary young men. We don’t have any influence or any power or any position.”
So we said, “It doesn’t matter what we are. Mahatma Gandhi walked. Vinoba Bhave walked. Let’s walk for peace. Let’s walk to Moscow, Paris, London, Washington, to protest against the nuclear weapons.”
We were not only walking to Moscow, Paris and Washington, but also walking to people. Walking to all the countries on the way, talking to people, building the peace movement from the grassroots. Peace will come when people have dropped fear.
W: What is the best way to drop fear?
S: When people have trust in each other. When people have dropped this division that, “I am Indian, you are Pakistani. I’m Russian, you are American. I am white, you are Black. I am this, you are that.” So we decided to walk to people in Muslim countries, Christian countries, Communist countries, capitalist countries, poor people, rich people, and talk to everybody about peace, inner peace and outer peace together.
W: I can’t imagine this was an easy task.
S: No, but we had a purpose and that made it all ok. I had lots of difficulties of course, ups and downs, sometimes hungry, sometimes pain in my knee and pain in my ankles, sometimes snow, sometimes in the desert, sometimes hungry, sometimes cold. All those problems came. But having the determination to walk for peace, we made it. We made it to Moscow, we made it to Paris, we made it to London, and to Washington. And in the end, we met Martin Luther King and we were celebrated. We were celebrated by everybody we met. And we celebrated them, and we celebrated peace, and unity of humanity.
W: Along your journeys, you were a Jain monk, you followed Gandhi, and then you came across Rabindranath Tagore, and started following his teachings. Would you like to share a little bit about Tagore with us?
S: Yes. He was my great inspiration. In Jain tradition and Gandhian tradition, we worked on spirituality in a traditional way. But Rabindranath Tagore’s spirituality came with the imagination, and with the poetry, and with songs. He was one of India’s greatest songwriters. He wrote 2,000 songs. And all his songs are deeply spiritual, and they represent the unity of life, that nature and humans are one. That is the inspiration I got from Tagore.
Nature is not “out there.” The mountains, the forests, the rivers, the animals, the birds, the insects, they are “nature,” and humans are “not nature. That division he bridged, and he said, “Humans are as much nature as mountains and forests and animals and birds and insects and water.”
W: I’d like to highlight one beautiful thing that you said about how your walking from India across the world to America was an act of the practice of resilience, of dealing with hardship, and a way that your mind was allowed to continually return to a center point.
S: That’s absolutely right. For me, the purpose and the meaning of life is ananda, which is being in a state of blissfulness. And that bliss comes from within, in your heart, in your soul, in your spirit, in your consciousness. But also without. There’s no gap. There’s no dualism.
And that’s love, in a way. We are born here to love, and do everything with love and for love and in love. Tagore wrote poetry out of love. Gandhi went to prison to free India out of love. The Buddha taught compassion. All the great teachers have shown us the way. And love brings an end to dualism. Love unites. You go through marriage, difficulties are there. But you go through those difficulties because of your love. You stay with your children through their difficulties because of your love. Your parents give you difficulty, but you love. You make yourself strong in order that your love can endure.
W: At what point in your journey did you feel that you were living aligned with your purpose and with that love of your heart?
S: So it was a practice. It was not something that I was given and I was fine. There were problems, but I managed to take the healing from these mantras and these teachings. How Jesus Christ went to the cross. How Mahatma Gandhi was shot. When you think of that, you see that your problems are very minor and very insignificant.
Sometimes I was hungry for 24 hours or two days, but then I got some food. I was fed by ordinary strangers in countries where I did not speak their language, I was not of their religion, I did not have any connection. And yet, people gave me everything, without expecting that I would give them something back. That kind of experience gave me strength.
W: You said that essentially, ownership doesn’t exist. We don’t own anything. Yet in large parts of the world, we live in capitalist economies, of which ownership is cornerstone. How do you see those economies?
S: Those economies which are based on the idea of ownership create social injustice and ecological unbalance, because we are seeking more and more things to own, even when we don’t use them. But nature is finite. In this finite planet, we cannot have infinite goods. Therefore the economy of the world today is suffering. And people are suffering.
This is why we have social injustice, we have climate change, we have environmental pollution, the oceans are polluted, the soil is eroding, biodiversity diminishing, the rainforests are being destroyed. And that has resulted into the COVID-19 crisis and coronavirus. All that is the result of this endless seeking of economic growth.
Take what you need, and no more. Have your food, have your clothes, have your house. But do not want anything more to own. Just take it as a gift, and then give it as a gift to others.
W: I’m very curious what your view and your advice is for people that suffer from depression and anxiety, and also loneliness?
S: Anxiety, loneliness, depression, mental problems, they come out of disconnection from relationship. Out of a thousand people, maybe five people have a mental problem. But there are 995 people to look after them. At the moment, we don’t have that. So we send them into institutions where some professionals will just give them professional help, but no love, no care.
We have to shift from the idea of curing to caring. There will always be some people with anxiety and mental problems and psychological issues and depression. We cannot have a total, complete health for every single person. But what we can have is a caring and loving culture, so that if anybody is suffering from anxiety and loneliness and depression, there are people to care for them.
Love is the missing ingredient in our culture. If we can love those who are suffering from anxiety and depression and mental illness and so on, then through love we can heal. No other medicine can replace the healing and transformative power of love.
W: You mentioned celebrating every moment. Considering life with all its disturbances and the impacts, the influences, insecurities that often come from the outside affecting my peacefulness, how do you keep calm with all the disturbances outside of yourself?
S: Disturbances are part of life. I welcome disturbances. Disturbances present some great opportunities for me to transcend and to rise and to face the challenge.
If everybody loved me, then I’d have no opportunity to practice forgiveness and generosity. When somebody doesn’t love me, that is my opportunity to practice loving unconditionally, and accepting the other as the other is. If somebody disturbs me, upsets me, does things I don’t like, that is the opportunity for me to practice my love for that person. Practice my forgiveness for that person. Practice my compassion for that person.
So I take the adverse situation, the negative situation, the times of darkness, as an opportunity to light a candle. To bring my positive qualities and nourish them, nurture them, evolve them, grow out of that difficult time, and forgive those who have been causing disturbance and difficulties in my life.
If you feel that you are the macrocosm as well as the microcosm, then you include everything in your life, and you don’t curse and deny and try to run away. The cosmos cannot run away from itself. You are the cosmos, and everything that is happening in your life is cosmic scale. Just embrace it.