#agoodcommunity chats to effervescent peace and climate activist Sitesh Kumar to get the inside scope on 66 years of activism and the secrets to his energy.
Photo Cred: Andrew Firth
#agoodcommunity chats to Indian-British climate and peace activist, Satish Kumar. Satish left home at the tender age of 9 to become a Jain monk, before re-entering the world at 18 and becoming an activist for peace. In his late twenties, he and a friend walked 30,000 miles across the globe, without any money, to deliver a message of peace to world leaders who had just gained the troublesome power of nuclear weapons. Since then, he’s turned his attention to environmental activism, which he views as a different kind of war between humans and nature.
Now 84 years young, he’s still working and as animated and full of vigour as ever. Keep reading for some insights into how he keeps so energetic, as well as how he completed his amazing trip.
AGC: Hi Satish, welcome to A Good Community. It seems you’ve lived more life than most people. You left home at 9 years old?
SK: Yes I left my home as a nine-year-old to become a Jain monk.
AGC: That's a big decision for a nine-year-old to make. What was the reasoning behind that?
SK: My father died when I was age four. He died young of a heart attack and I did not know what was happening. My mother was crying, my brothers, sisters, my whole family were very sad looking. I was puzzled why my father is not talking to me, and why he's not moving, why he's lying down like this. And why mother is crying. So I asked my mother, “why are you crying and why is father not talking to me?” And she said “your father is dead. He will never speak to you again. This is the last that he has spoken to you and he will not walk with you. He is now gone forever.” So I was puzzling, what is death? And I asked my mother, “will you die one day?” She said “yes, I will die one day, everybody will die one day, you will die one day.” So that unsettled me and I went to my guru, my mother's guru, actually, and I asked him “is there any way to stop death so people don't get sad, people don't cry, and people don't go away?” So my guru, in Jain tradition, said that there is a way to end the cycle of birth and death, and that way is to become a monk and renounce the world and live a peaceful, very spiritual, and very unworldly life, basically. And so that attracted me very much. By the time I was nine I decided that I want to live a life so that I don't have to die again, so that was the reason that I became a Jain monk.
AGC: But then when you were 18 years old, you had a change of direction?
SK: Yes, by the time I was 18, two things happened. Number one, the worry and fear and anxiety about death subsided and was no longer as strong as when I was young. Then I also read a book by Mahatma Gandhi, and Gandhi said that spirituality should be accessible to every human being, not only for the monks. How many people can become monks? Spirituality should not be exclusively for those few privileged monks in the monastic order. Spirituality should be for everybody, every day in the world, and therefore you don't have to forsake the world. You don't have to escape from the world. You have to bring spirituality into the world and you bring spirituality in the world by changing your motivation. Why you do things, why you do business, why you do farming, why you do teaching, why you become a doctor, why you become a politician. Because you want to serve humanity, you want to feed humanity, you want to do good things for other people. If the motivation is spiritual, and by that I mean a service and love, then everything you do is spiritual. Everything becomes an act of service, an act of love. And so I thought that that is a very good message and that was a great transformation in my consciousness, and I decided to depart from the monastic order and join the world of activism.
"War comes out of fear. Peace comes out of trust."
AGC: And you were inspired by Bertrand Russell and one of your mentors at the time to go on a journey across the world?
SK: Yeah, I was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and I was also inspired by this great philosopher from Britain. He was not only a philosopher, but he was also a peace activist and he was protesting against nuclear weapons. He was in front of the Defense Ministry of the British government, and he said he will not move from there until the British government bans the bomb and pursues the path of disarmament and peace. And he refused to move and therefore he was arrested and he was fined in the court, and he refused to pay his fine so he was put in jail for one week. And I was 26 years old, a young man in a cafe drinking coffee with my friend and reading this news. When I read this news, I said to my friend, “look, here's a man of 90 going to jail for peace in the world. At age 90, Bertrand Russell is young. At age 26/27, we young men are really old because we are not doing anything.” So that was the inspiration. And we talked and talked and talked for hours. And in the end, we said, “what can we do?”, and we decided to go to Moscow, Paris, London and Washington, these four nuclear capitals of that time. Then we said, “how should we go?” If we go by aeroplane, nobody will take any notice. We are only ordinary, unknown young men. And therefore we should do something more dramatic, something more impressive, something more a story. And so we decided to walk to Moscow, and to Paris, and to London and to Washington. And then we said, but even if we go walking we have money, we eat in a restaurant. If we have money we'll sleep in a hotel, or a guest house, and we don't meet anybody. War comes out of fear. Peace comes out of trust. So we should show that we trust ourselves. We trust people, we trust the world. Therefore we decided to not only walk to Moscow, Paris, London, Washington, but we will also go without any money in our pockets, so that we are a living example of trust, the embodiment of trust and peace.
"We went through Muslim countries, Christian countries, communist countries, capitalist countries, rich countries, poor countries but everywhere, people were hospitable."
AGC: Which route did you take?
SK: We left the grave of Mahatma Gandhi and we walked through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and went to Moscow. And we were received at the Kremlin. And we delivered the message of peace in the Kremlin. And then we walked on through Belorussia and Poland, and from Germany, and through Belgium, and then Paris and then Dover to London. There we met Bertrand Russell and he helped us to get two tickets in the boat from Southampton and we sailed across the Atlantic to New York, and we walked from New York to Washington, where we were received at the White House and then we met Martin Luther King Jr. Then we went to Japan and we paid homage to the victims of the first H bomb in Hiroshima.
AGC: That’s quite the trip! How long did it take you?
SK: Two and a half years. We walked 30,000 kilometers (8000 miles) without money. It that proved to us that you can trust the world. We went through Muslim countries, Christian countries, communist countries, capitalist countries, rich countries, poor countries but everywhere, people were hospitable. So you can trust people. And there is no need for conflict between Muslims and Christians, and Hindus and Buddhists. And there's no need for any conflict between Russians, Europeans and Americans or any other country. So that was the conviction we gained through this journey of peace for two and a half years.
AGC: And this was before the digital age so you didn't have smartphones, how did you plan your routes?
SK: No telephone, no smartphone, no email, and no iPad. No, nothing. Just trust in our heart, and humanity, and the word of mouth. We asked people the routes. I mean, we had a rough idea to go to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Moscow, but we did not know the routes. So all the time we were asking local people, and sometimes they’d say that they would with us to the next village, or that they’d walk with us for two or three days, or they'll go with us in the mountains, and through deserts, particularly in the desert, because there are sandstorms, and we were stuck in a sandstorm and the local people guided us through sandstorms in the deserts of Afghanistan and Iran. Wherever we stayed we told the stories, we communicated about peace, and about India, and about the philosophy of spirituality, and a philosophy of peace. People became very inspired.
"The idea that you need lots of meat protein to have energy, this is not true because I've been a vegetarian all my life and I lack no energy. "
AGC: Were you tempted to take a lift?
SK: People offered us a lift. We said no, no, no, no, we cannot go by car, we will always walk. People offered us money. We said no, no, we cannot have any money. They’d ask “so what can we do for you?” and we’d say “maybe you can give us some shoes, or a haircut?” But we never accepted any money and never accepted a lift.
AGC: How about food?
SK: They always gave us food. And we had a leaflet and we would distribute to explain why we are walking, why we have no money, and about our route and the purpose, what we wanted to achieve. We translated that leaflet in every country by asking local people, and we also went to newspaper offices. Sometimes a newspaper office would print the leaflet for us and give us stories without photographs, so we'd keep that cutting and show it to people. We improvised everything, and improvisation was the key. There was no plan. Every day we did not know where we were going to stay the night, we did not know whether we would get food or not. There was no plan, just improvising every day. And just being open-hearted and open-minded. So when you have an open heart and open mind, and you are ready to improvise, you welcome any opportunity and we welcome difficulties. Storms, snow, wind, sand, mountains, deserts, whatever comes, you welcome.
"Although there are less wars between people, we are at war with nature."
AGC: Wow. An edifying experience! People like you and activists throughout history, you speak yourself about Jesus as an activist, for example, it's actually worked because, over human history, we have gotten less violent, there are less conflicts, there are less people being killed by other people. If you look at the stats worldwide, it is a more peaceful world. And so you moved through to environmental activism?
SK: You are absolutely right and not only wars have subsided, but also, if you can see that the colonialism has gone, the imperialism has gone, the apartheid in South Africa has gone, there's much less racism the United States than there was a time of Martin Luther King Jr. when I met him. I was thrown out of a restaurant, because I was not a white man, at gunpoint, I could have been killed. After meeting Dr. King, I could have been killed by white gunmen, but I was just saved. So lots of things have improved at a social level but, unfortunately, at the environmental level, things have become worse. Our business world has become irresponsible in how we treat the environment, and we are cutting the branch upon which we are sitting because economy depends on ecology. Without nature, there is no economic growth, but we are taking nature for granted. We are using nature as a resource for the economy and nature as a resource for making profit, nature as a resource for upward economic growth and money making and this is a great problem of our time.
"Being an activist is an opportunity. The work of activists is to always enforce the positive, enforce the love and compassion and kindness and a sense of service."
AGC: So it’s like a new war, almost?
SK: Although there are less wars between people, we are at war with nature. The way we are destroying rainforests is an act of war, the way we are polluting our oceans with plastic is an act of war. The way we are treating animals in factory farms where they never see the light of the day for all their life. If you put all these things, then these are a new kind of war, and acts of war against nature. Unless we make peace with Planet Earth, there cannot be peace amongst humans. So although there is more peace among humans, there's a more lack of peace with nature. And therefore, I am an environmental activist because I want to remind people that we depend on nature.
AGC: And the environmental crisis that we're facing threatens to undermine all the good work that you and your peers have done fighting for peace. Because if resources get more scarce, then people start fighting more because there's a lack of resources. We've already seen examples of this in places like Afghanistan and the Middle East, where water scarcity has already increased the likelihood or has led to conflicts in certain countries.
SK: Exactly. Endless economic growth is going to eventually lead to a war economy, because people are going to grab natural resources. This mad rush for economic growth needs to be constrained and restrained. We are losing arts and crafts and music, it is becoming just a profession for the few. So I would like to see a new joy and happy society, joyful society, not a successful society. I want to shift our focus from being successful to being joyful.
"I walk two to four miles every day, or five or six kilometres. And then I also have a siesta in the afternoon."
AGC: You said you were up doing a call at 07:30 this morning, so still you're still working quite a lot, then?
SK: I am now 84. I became an activist at age 18 and I'm still an activist, but my activism is out of love and with a sense of service and, therefore, it is not exhausting, it is not tiring, because I do it with love. And then I can always go for a walk. I walk two to four miles every day, or five or six kilometers. And then I also have a siesta in the afternoon. So I work in the morning, but in the afternoon, I take it easy and rest. At 84 I need to take that rest, but I am an activist and I want to be an activist until the last breath of my life.
AGC: People like you help push humanity forward and make steps in a positive direction. But sometimes bad things just happen. And I guess that's where it all started for you with your father dying. So would you say the key to being an activist is always carrying this torch of positivity?
SK: Yes, being an activist is an opportunity. The work of activists is to always enforce the positive, enforce the love and compassion and kindness and a sense of service, so that the negativity is always checked and kept under control and not allowing it to become overwhelming. And this is why we have people, activists like the Buddha, and Jesus Christ and Saint Francis, and many hundreds and thousands of activists around the world, men and women, throughout history to keep that balance, always promote the light and positivity and compassion and kindness to reduce the darkness, negativity, anger, fear, war and destruction.
"I would say Bhutan is a good model for even big countries to follow. Pursue gross national happiness, not gross national product."
AGC: We’ve probably never seen anything quite like what's happened this year with the whole COVID-19 situation. What have we got to be positive about that you see in 2020?
SK: We bought Coronavirus upon ourselves by our own negative behaviour, by imposing our industrial system on nature and destroying wildlife. After 2-300 years of industrial growth and economic growth and materialism and consumerism, now the time has come to take a new direction and young people are becoming the leaders. The next generation, like Greta Thunberg and the Fridays For The Future movement, they are not going to be part of this industrial juggernaut and part of this exploitative system. They would like to have a new way of life which is more benign to nature and treat nature with respect.
AGC: And you've been a vegetarian for pretty much your whole life?
SK: I've been vegetarian for the last sixteen hundred years because my ancestors have been. Before that, my family was part of the Rajput caste, which is the caste of the warriors, and they hunted and they ate meat. But then,1600 years ago, some Jain teachers came to our village and converted my family ancestors to become vegetarians, and they give up hunting and eating meat. My mother, my father, my grandfather, grandmother and grandfathers were all vegetarians so I am born vegetarian. The idea that you need lots of meat protein to have energy, this is not true because I've been a vegetarian all my life and I lack no energy.
AGC: Do you have any favourite dishes?
SK: I like a lot of Italian dishes and make a lot of pizza and pasta, but food from all around the world.
AGC: You’ve been to a lot of different places and you’ve met a lot of different people. Who do you think culturally is the most advanced in the way they treat the environment and the way they live their lives?
SK: I would say Bhutan. In Bhutan, they don’t pursue economic growth or GDP, they have something called gross national happiness or GNH. I’ve been there two or three times and they’re a good example of a small country of sustainability. Satisfied, contended, joyful, artistic, good families, good culture, good spirituality and content. I would say Bhutan is a good model for even big countries to follow. Pursue gross national happiness, not gross national product.
AGC: And after all your years of activism, what do you want to see happen in the world in the near future?
SK: I would like to see every business looking at itself. Businesses are only focusing on profitably, but profitability without sustainability is short-term thinking.
AGC: We hear that! And lastly, what are you up to next?
SK: Writing a whole story of my walk called “Pilgrimage for Peace” that’s coming out in January and I’m working on another book, so I’m doing a lot of writing.
AGC: Amazing! Thanks Satish, all the best and looking forward to reading your book.