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My life: Satish Kumar

The peace activist, walker, educator and former monk talks to Fionnuala McHugh about nature and nurture


DEATH PANGS My first memory is of my father, lying dead, and everyone crying. I was four years old, number eight in the family, the baby. I was so puzzled; I was asking mother why father is not speaking, not moving, and mother said, "All of us who are born, who live, will all die." Later, she took me to see some Jain monks and I asked them, "Could you tell me, is there any way of stopping death?" They said the only way was to renounce the world and become a monk. I wanted to do anything to stop death for everyone: it was a young child's fantasy. So when I was nine, I became a monk. My mother gave her blessing; she was very religious. She had a kind of rooted, peasant wisdom, and a spiritual belief in the soil - in the earth.


GROUNDWORK The Jain monks of my order had no monastery - they were always on the move, barefoot, with a begging bowl. I was happy until the last year. By then, I'd wandered hundreds of miles from my home in Rajasthan, and I became more curious about the world, including sexuality. When you're 18 and see young women … so when everyone was asleep one night, I ran away. This was quite a shock to my mother and she said, "You cannot come home." I was rejected by the family. So I went to work with Vinoba Bhave, who was the spiritual heir of Mahatma Gandhi. He was the great example of walking: he walked 100,000 miles, all over India, asking people to give him land. In that way, he collected four million acres and distributed it among the landless poor. I enjoyed life, made lots of friends, girlfriends, saw India. No, I did not see the world as full of pain and suffering; the world is as you see it and I saw it as beautiful.


MOVING ON The turning point came when I was 25, in a café in Bangalore, with a friend called E.P. Menon. In the newspaper was a story about Bertrand Russell, the great philosopher of England, being arrested for protesting against nuclear weapons. It was a tremendous shock. I said, "Here is a man of 90 going to jail for peace, what are we young men doing here, drinking coffee?" We came up with this idea of walking to four nuclear capitals - Moscow, Paris, London, Washington - and within an hour, we were so excited. Yes, very impulsive. We went to see Vinoba, and he was most encouraging. He said we must do it with no money. I asked, "Without any money? But sometimes we might need a cup of tea; how will we survive?" Vinoba said not to worry, all will be well. He said, "War begins in fear but peace begins in trust, so if you go in peace, you must trust." He was our guru and we couldn't be dilettante followers, so we said, "All right: no food, no money, for peace."


TEA AND SYMPATHY We started at Gandhi's grave. The evening before, I was most fearful. But at that moment, at the grave, some courage came to me - I felt unburdened, so light; there was no need of crutches, the universe would support us. It continues even now - I'm in Hong Kong without a single Hong Kong dollar! People were so kind to us. At the Black Sea, we met two women standing in front of a tea factory, and one of them had a brain wave: she gave us four packets of tea and told us to deliver them to the leaders in the four capitals with the message: "If you ever get the mad thought of pressing the nuclear button, please stop and make a cup of tea." By the time we reached Washington, John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, and so we delivered our tea to the White House and went to his grave at Arlington Cemetery. Later, we met Martin Luther King. I have met many great men and women, including Mother Teresa, but I have not met a man of that presence and radiance and steely determination. After I came back to India, my mother came to bless me because the Jain monk who'd been my guru when I ran away said to her, when he heard about the walk, "Your son is still a monk." I loved my mother. Being rejected, I'd felt denuded, so I really cried.


BACK TO THE SOIL I live on two acres of land in Devon, England. My wife is English - she's the gardener, I'm the assistant gardener. My luxury is to go and pick vegetables 10 minutes before lunch; the taste is amazing. I work three days a week editing Resurgence & Ecologist - the leading environmental publication in England. And I teach four days a month at Schumacher College [which he co-founded in 1990]. We need a new trinity: not the three Rs but Soil, Soul, Society.

This is my third visit to Hong Kong. I have tremendous hosts at Kadoorie Farm; I get treated like a prince! I've promised to come every year. I'm very excited that Kadoorie Farm will take on the police station in Tai Po and transform it into a green hub. My advice to Hong Kong people is: touch the earth and heal yourself. When people lose contact with nature, their minds and bodies decay. And have a nap. Every day, even at home. I say I'm not available for meetings, phone calls, nothing, between one o'clock and three o'clock. I'm 76 and I'm all energy and fresh! I live in the present, I have no fear of death now. Death is liberating.



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My life: Satish Kumar

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