it takes a genius to be simple
a profile of Satish Kumar by lesley marian neilson
Outside the window a light snow is falling. It catches on the cedar and pine trees and settles on the hard ground. I have just put a call through to England, to the home of Satish Kumar. He and his wife June edit Resurgence, a magazine of spiritual and ecological thought, out of the same kitchen in which they eat, entertain, drink a cup of tea. Satish’s voice comes crackly over the phone line. As we talk, I watch the snowfall and at the same time try to picture what might be outside his window.
Occasionally I hear other voices in the background, the people he works with to put out the magazine. He has just returned from spending December in India and no doubt there is a lot of work to catch up on.
I first came across Satish Kumar in a profile written by Jay Walljasper, published in Utne Reader. Walljasper is a contributor to Resurgence, and in the profile he is in part searching for the reason he agrees to write a column for Resurgence for no pay. He explains that “to say no to Satish, who speaks in an elegant, melodious flow of Indian-accented English, would feel like turning down a prestigious, hard-won honour. No one published in Resurgence has ever seen a pence for their labours, and the list includes luminaries like Václav Havel, Gary Snyder, Ted Hughes, James Hillman, Winona LaDuke, Wendell Berry, Susan Griffin, Ivan Illich, and Noam Chomsky.”
I was struck by the description of how Satish integrates work, relaxation, community, beauty and appreciation of nature into a self-described “simple” lifestyle. Nothing is more inspiring than people who live actively by their ideals, who strive for and attain balance and peace. Painting a picture of Satish’s home, Walljasper writes: By almost any economic standard of the modern world they are poor, yet it’s almost impossible not to envy their life. Meals usually come straight from the garden. The centuries-old cottage lacks central heat but is as comfortable as any home I’ve set foot in; it’s outfitted with furnishings, kitchenware, and art that embody the rustic elegance that Martha Stewart Living magazine and the Pottery Barn strive for. The long table in the middle of the wood-beamed kitchen, where friends and family gather over Satish’s Indian dinners and June’s desserts, drinking local cider and talking for hours, feels like the centre of the universe.
When I was a kid and imagined my life as an adult, I dreamt of living on a farm, surrounded by nature and animals, and having a classical mansion for my house. It seemed the perfect compromise between my love of the natural world and my desire for material comfort. As I’ve grown older, the dream has remained remarkably constant, with only one significant change: the mansion has been razed and replaced with a more modest dwelling, ideally one that I have built myself.
I call this dream a pursuit of self-sufficiency—an idea that is constantly being formed and reformed by my understanding of what sustains me, my family, my community, the planet. It’s an idea that Satish has spent his life exploring, and about which he has much to say.
“Self-sufficiency begins with self-satisfaction and contentment within, rather than looking for contentment from outside stimulation and gratification. So self-sufficiency is, first of all, to be contented within oneself.
“The second part [of self-sufficiency] is to be satisfied with what you have already. We are always looking for something new, something different, something more, and do not value what is already there.
“The third part of self-sufficiency is to be able to use one’s own skills and one’s own resources to make things—being able to cook your own food, rather than always depending on somebody else to cook for you or going out to restaurants. The basic skills of living are very important.
“When we are talking about food, it’s not only cooking, but also a little bit of growing, a little garden where food, vegetable and herbs and that sort of thing can be grown. Then you are appreciating what is around you, have a sense of place and have some connection with the natural world. That way you are using and developing your own skills, your own hands, and you are also not being dependent on your entertainment, your knowledge, your ideas on faraway things, but appreciating what is local. So local is important for a simple self-sufficient life.
“And then [self-sufficiency means] finding ways of living that have means of good health—for example, yoga and meditation and going for a walk in your area. If your health is good, you are not dependent on medicine and hospitals and doctors and other sorts of treatments. So these are the basic elements of self-sufficiency that support and enhance and nourish your simple life.”
Many people I have talked to have the idea that self-sufficiency requires being completely independent from everyone else, perhaps living in a cabin in a forest, gathering roots and berries and hunting animals. This vision is not only extreme, it misses one of the basic points of self-sufficiency: to live in sustainable harmony with the Earth, the community and oneself. Strong human relationships and physical work are the basis of self-sufficiency.
“First of all,” says Satish, “you need to develop a relationship with your own being. Sometimes we don’t appreciate ourselves, and we don’t know who we are, so we are dissatisfied within ourselves and are always looking for outside [approval]. Once you are able to relate to yourself, then you start relating through your skills with your surrounding. You relate with your land, you relate with trees, you relate with flowers, you relate with the stream at the bottom of your garden, you relate to the natural world. And then you are able to relate to your community. No human being is an island by himself or herself. We exist in a web of relationships, not in isolation.
“The idea of Descartes was that I think, therefore I am, which means I am just an isolated individual and not connected. Whereas my thinking is that self-sufficiency exists within community, within relationship. It’s not I think, therefore I am, but you are, therefore I am; trees are, therefore I am; the community is, therefore I am. Simplicity and self-sufficiency are embedded in relationship.”
Satish is one of the foremost advocates of the ideas of E.F. Schumacher, the ecological economist most widely known for his 1973 book, Small is Beautiful. Schumacher’s ideas hinge on the principles of appropriate technologies and human-scale economies. In his lifetime, Schumacher wrote numerous articles for Resurgence, practised his ideas through small-scale living, by which he grew his own food and used technology only as a way to enhance his own work, rather than to make his labour obsolete. His example was pivotal in focussing Satish’s lifelong activism on the furthering of ecological and spiritual values through education and lifestyle choice; their meeting was, as Satish writes in his autobiography Path Without Destination, “instantly a meeting of minds, and the beginning of a friendship that was to last beyond his death.”
Satish first met Schumacher in 1968, shortly after the economist published an essay entitled “Buddhist Economics.” Schumacher had put these two seemingly disparate systems of thought together while in Burma on assignment for the British government. Not only did he see that the Burmese had an economic system that harmonized their cultural beliefs with their material needs, but that traditional economics could in fact learn significant lessons from Buddhist principles. “The Buddhist point of view,” Schumacher writes, “takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.”
Throughout Small is Beautiful, Schumacher links the increasing social atmosphere of depression, disempowerment and disability to the decrease in imaginative and physical work. “The type of work that modern technology is most successful in reducing or even eliminating,” he writes, “is skillful, productive work of human hands, in touch with real materials of one kind or another. In an advanced industrial society, such work has become exceedingly rare, and to make a decent living by doing such work has become virtually impossible. A great part of the modern neurosis may be due to this very fact; for the human being, defined by Thomas Aquinas as a being with brains and hands, enjoys nothing more than to be creatively, usefully, productively engaged with both his hand and his brains.”
These words resonate with particular power for me. Recently I quit my job and moved away from Toronto, where I had worked for a year in offices, doing nothing much at all. In the rare occasions I was given the chance to use my mind and creativity I jumped at it, but those moments could not counteract the increasing resentment I felt and the growing sense that my intelligence was draining away. When Satish says over the phone, “If you don’t work, then your imagination is not nurtured; and when you don’t do anything, then your imagination goes dry, gets hungry and goes under,” I know exactly what he is talking about. There were times when I felt as if I was drowning.
“The thing about self-sufficiency and simplicity,” says Satish, “is that both these ideas are only possible when we begin to appreciate the sacred quality and fulfilling quality of work. A human body is naturally in need of work, so if we stop doing productive work, creative work, then we begin to do unnecessary and unproductive and uncreative work. So working on the garden and making things by hand and seeing it as sacred work is vital—not as work just to earn money or just to keep your body and soul together, but work that is an expression of beauty, an expression of service, an expression of gift.
“When you are a craftsperson and take a lump of clay, you discover that that lump of clay has a pot in it. Or you take a piece of wood and uncover a beautiful chair in it. Or you take a lump of stone and you uncover a beautiful image, a statue in it. So only through work you can uncover and discover and unfold the beauty and the sacred. You make something which is beautiful, which is useful, which is dutiful, which is a gift and which is something that can last.”
“But how do we start to uncover the sacred,” I ask, “if we are already caught up in the material, modern, technological world?”
“You begin small. If you are living in the city, then you begin with having a few plants in your window, on your balcony and on your rooftop. That way you are connecting with the natural world. Then you begin to use what you have grown—a few herbs, a few vegetables—and you cook them. And when you are cooking you are starting to work. Then you say, can I, even in the city, can I do some tapestry, can I do some weaving, can I do some knitting? Can I do something that expresses my deep core of feelings and imagination?”
Beauty is a quality neither Schumacher nor Satish underestimates. Bring art, poetry and imagination into your home, Satish says. It is inhuman to simply go to work, spend long hours commuting, and then sit in front of the television. “That is not the idea of simple life, which has self-sufficiency and creativity and sacred enshrined in it.”
Satish has spent his whole life as an activist, learning what is worth fighting for, and how to merge his spiritual and political beliefs. Born in India in 1936, he grew up in an intensely spiritual culture in the midst of a century of unprecedented change. He has witnessed the world spin steadily faster, become smaller through improved communications and also become more and more threatened by the life choices of the affluent societies. Since he was a small boy his feet have been in intimate contact with the earth, and so, rooted by his spiritual beliefs, he fights for the preservation of the planet on which his feet walk.
As a nine-year-old boy in his native India, Satish took vows of renunciation and became a Jain monk. For eight years he wandered through India with a begging bowl and little else, until he was introduced to Gandhi’s philosophy. “What Gandhi was saying,” Satish writes, “was that religion is not religion if it does not help to solve the problems of this world, here and now.” Leaving his Jain brotherhood, Satish spent two years walking with Vinoba, Gandhi’s foremost disciple, convincing landowners to donate land to the landless.
By now Satish’s feet were hard, his legs strong; he had spent most of his life walking. And he was learning about political action.
A few years after leaving Vinoba, Satish set off on his most ambitious walk ever. It was 1962 and antinuclear demonstrations were heating up around the world. In England, Bertrand Russell had been arrested for protesting, inspiring Satish to think once again of nonviolent political action. He had read the news of Russell’s protest in an English paper, brought to him by his friend Prabhakar Menon, and over coffee the two decided on an action of their own: to walk from India to Washington on a Peace Pilgrimage. They would visit the nuclear capitals and impress upon Khrushchev, de Gaulle, Wilson and Johnson a message of peace. On June 1, they stood at Gandhi’s gravesite and began their journey. Over the next 18 months, the two friends walked through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, the Soviet Union, northern Europe to England, crossed the Atlantic by boat and ended their pilgrimage at John F. Kennedy’s grave in Washington.
Over the next seven years, Satish walked in Italy and in India again. He wrote and edited magazines and lived in the forest. He consulted a sadhu who said, “Very soon you are going on a long journey over the ocean. Once you are in the far land, you are going to meet someone in that land who will completely change your life.”
Having just returned from Europe, Satish was certain he was not heading off on another journey, but soon after the sadhu’s predictions, he was invited to England to put on an exhibition about the war in Bangladesh and the mass exodus of refugees into India. While putting on the exhibit, Satish met June. After touring Europe he returned to England to find her, and they are together still, with their two children. England became Satish’s adopted home and there he was able to settle in a way never before possible for him.
Satish and June have been editing Resurgence for 25 years. At first they lived in London, with a small garden, but eventually decided to move away from the moneyed lifestyle of the city. By this point, they were already dedicated to the ideals of community, self-sufficiency and local economies. After an initial experiment in communal living fell apart, Satish, June and their two children, Mukti and Maya, moved onto a few acres of property in Hartland in rural north Devon.
“We planted a couple of hundred trees of all kinds. Some trees for wood, some trees for herbs, some trees for fruit, some trees for furniture—all kinds of trees, like ash and oak and willows and apple and pear and so on. Also we have a garden, so we can live and work and garden from our home.”
From there, Satish became involved in a successful experiment in education, starting a Small School in Hartland, a community which he describes in Path Without Destination as being “almost self-sufficient as a village.” Until the Small School, the only option for children over the age of 11 was to commute long distances to go to school in larger towns. Not only were the classrooms in the larger schools crowded and impersonal, the arrangement “also gave the children the idea that the village was not good enough for them, as it could not provide the necessary education, and when they finished their education it would not provide them with work.”
The school that Satish and a group of interested parents started combined the traditional academic subjects with creative and practical skills. The children help build, cook and garden, and emerge from their education with both intellectual and physical skills that can carry them solidly into their adult life.
In the late 1980s Satish became involved in another project in education, this time the development of a college of holistic science. Schumacher College opened in 1991, and is dedicated to teaching and advancing the ideas of spiritual ecology that have been explored in the pages of Resurgence for decades. Satish became the director of the college, while continuing to edit the magazine. In his autobiography he writes: “Schumacher College is the culmination of my life’s work. Here it is possible to bring together the spiritual foundation of the monk’s life, the social concerns of the Bhoodan movement, the ideals of peace that I pursued during my walk around the world, and the ecological concerns of Resurgence. This is a convergence of the values and aspirations by which I have been guided throughout my life.”
Looking back, I can mark my path by the revolutionary ideas that made me rise a little in consciousness. Through the down-to-earth, practical application of his spiritual and ecological beliefs, Satish Kumar represents a revolution in my own thinking and living. “What,” I ask him, “have been the most influential ideas you have encountered in the past 30 years?”
“Small is beautiful is the first idea that I encountered, and E.F. Schumacher started that. It is still not yet quite popular enough, although the book has been read and ‘small is beautiful’ has become part of our language, but still people are hell-bent on growing growing growing. Big hospitals, big schools, big government, big buildings, high-rise, big companies, multinationals, transnationals, globalization—all that is a trend towards bigness. Whereas the most pertinent and most exciting and revolutionary idea is small is beautiful.
“Then the idea that Gregory Bateson and various other people developed that everything is a system. We are all part of systems. We are all connected. Systems thinking to me was a very important idea in which everything is connected, everything is mutually dependent on each other. When you look at something, you have to see it in relationship with everything else. We are dependent on the earth; we are dependent on the air, water, fire.
“And from systems thinking emerges the Gaia Theory, which is James Lovelock’s idea, in which the whole Earth is one living organism and we are part of the web of life and human beings are not superior.
“That leads to Deep Ecology—accepting the intrinsic value of all life. The trees have intrinsic value. Animals have intrinsic value. The forests have intrinsic value. The Earth as a living system comes from Gaia, and then the intrinsic value of all life comes from Deep Ecology.
“And that leads of course to the idea of permaculture. How every way we live, our energy system, our food system, our work system should all be such that it’s dutiful, permanent and sustainable. So from systems thinking to Gaia to Deep Ecology to permaculture to sustainability—these are some of the seminal ideas that have inspired me and Resurgence.”
When I lived in Toronto, I had to take a step back from my convictions as an environmentalist, otherwise it was too frustrating living in a city where pollution hangs so thickly in the air I can taste it, where cars are noisy, indispensable ornaments that make biking a health hazard, where each day the garbage piles up on the curb and city council thinks it’s a good idea to ship the garbage to a defunct mine in a small northern community. As a city dweller, I depended on the outlying agricultural areas to provide my food, faraway hydroelectric projects to provide my energy, and a vast governmental infrastructure to maintain my roads, water, social services and economy. Giant billboard ads for the downtown shopping centre read: “People say Torontonians think they are the centre of the universe. They are!”
“I think,” says Satish, “that there is at the moment in the world a battle going on between those who are pursuing materialistic paths—globalizers of economic growth and those hell-bent on this ‘big is better’ idea—on the one hand, and on the other hand those who are dedicated to spiritual renewal, more small-scale development, more human scale, more sustainability, more crafts and arts. Where human beings are not just sold to companies and money and those kinds of things. Where human beings have a sacred path.
“These two forces are in a way like the battlefield in the Bhagavad-Gita, where Arjuna and Krishna were fighting the Kauravas. This battlefield is still with us, it’s in every generation, in every situation that is going on, but at this moment it is the materialism on the one hand and the spiritual values and more ecological lifestyle on the other. At the moment, media, money, advertising and governments are all behind the materialistic globalization, but the people are not feeling very happy. There’s a kind of a depression going on, and people are unhealthy, and people are realizing it’s stressful, this treadmill, this strenuous lifestyle, and we are being forced to earn earn earn and not live and enjoy and celebrate life. So people are standing up like in the Seattle and Washington protests against the World Bank and IMF [International Monetary Fund] and WTO [World Trade Organization], and the Prague demonstration and protest, and the protest against the world debt system. This battle is almost a worldwide civil war and in the next 10 years I think the forces of more spiritual and ecological and sustainable and small- scale and simple and self-sufficient lifestyle should get a bit stronger. That I can say with more hope than I can predict anything, I don’t know what is going to happen. But I am dedicating my life to support that alternative.”
The snow is still falling outside the window, but I am smiling at the speakerphone, out of which Satish’s voice rises. His words are energizing, gentle, wise. He is not an angry man, despite the Goliath forces we are up against.
“What do you hope for?” I ask.
“I hope that the human spirit will rise. I hope that human beings are not going to allow themselves to be swallowed by the forces of economic growth and the materialistic paradigm, because the human life is much more than high-rise buildings and motorcars and highways and airports and cyberspace. Human life needs relationships, love, compassion, caring friendships, generosity, time to read, time to study, time to meditate, time to go for walks, explore mountains and forests and rivers—to be rather than have and do. The human spirit needs to be fed as much as the human body needs to be fed. So my hope is the tide will turn and darkness will be extinguished by lighting many many candles around the world. That is my hope.”
Lesley Marian Nelson is a freelance writer and editor and organic gardener on a green island facing the Pacific ocean. She is very happy there.