By Satish Kumar
Satish Kumar is the editor of Resurgence, a bi-monthly magazine that provides an international forum for ecological and spiritual thinking, and programme director of London-based Schumacher College, International Centre for Ecological Studies.
This 60-year-old former Jain monk, who now lives in England, is on a mission to help the world realize that there is more to life than being rich, fast, worldly and technologically advanced.
Julian Lines is the president of Lifepositive.com Inc. and Matagiri Sri Aurobindo Centre. He is also vice-president of Auroville International and a board member of the Nakashima Foundation for Peace.
In an exclusive interview, Satish Kumar tells Julian Lines how Gandhi opened his doors of perception and the growing need to resort to living a simple life.
Julian Lines (JL): As a monk, a writer, and ecologist, you have a unique perspective on the world. How did you first come in contact with Gandhi’s thoughts?
Satish Kumar (SK): I became a Jain monk at the age of nine. I came across Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography when I was eighteen. I understood that religion, spirituality and the world should not be placed in separate compartments. Sadhus or monks usually take abode in caves or mountains, giving the impression that spirituality is only for those at a higher plane.
Gandhi said that this kind of dualism is not right. We must incorporate spirituality in e veryday life. When I read that message, I felt I could no longer be a monk. So one night, I left the monastery and went to Vinoba Bhave, the only person, I feel, who was living up to the Gandhian ideal. It was 1954-55, Gandhi had been assassinated. I went to live in his ashram in Bihar and worked with him for seven years.
JL: His focus was on land reforms.
SK: Yes, Vinoba was traveling all over India on foot, for peace and bringing about land reforms. He calculated that if one-sixth of the land owned by the landlords was given to the landless, everyone in India would have a piece of land. He wanted a revolution of the heart, based on compassion and a change in attitude towards the poor.
JL: So this was a great living legacy of Gandhi.
SK: It was the greatest legacy of Gandhi. Gandhi created political liberation for Indian people through nonviolent means. Following the same principle, Vinoba created social and economic liberation from the practices of the landlords and the ruling class.
JL: During this time, you were literally ‘on the ground’ with the village people.
SK: Yes, we were walking village to village, trying to persuade landlords to donate land, not as charity, but as an act of sharing and belonging to a community. Vinoba wanted the landlords to see themselves as trustees rather than owners.
JL: So, these principles came from Jainism-respect for life, nonviolence-and manifested in a political and social context. With Gandhi and Vinoba you could make these spiritual principles relevant to people’s needs.
SK: As a monk I practised these principles to some extent in my personal life. With Gandhi and Vinoba, this compassion and reverence for life became a social and political force. So the scope of nonviolence got extended to the social and economic sphere.
JL: Would you say that E.F. Schumacher took that essence and made it global, across cultures and across continents?
SK: Yes. Schumacher had been sent to Burma by the British to help the Burmese people bring about economic development. After about six months, he realised that they had a pretty good economic system of their own-Buddhist economics. He wrote that economics without spirituality, nonviolence, compassion, trusteeship and values is like sex without love. It becomes prostitution.
JL: So, where is the divergence? You have a communal need, a trusteeship that you expressed so well before. So why do we have the corporate heading towards such terrible greed and pursuit of short-term goals?
SK: Yes, that is exactly the point Schumacher made through his ‘Buddhist Economics’. There are three principles: 1. Corporations should remain small. As soon as an economic system goes beyond a human scale, they lose the community spirit. 2. System should be simple. Schumacher said: ‘Any fool can make things complicated, it requires a genius to make things simple.’ 3. Industry, business, corporations should apply the principles of nonviolence.
JL: And you have lived to see a spreading of these principles in the ‘Voluntary Simplicity’ movements, where people are choosing, as the phrase goes ‘to live simply so that others may simply live…’ yet we also have this split towards communal violence and extremism. As a former monk, perhaps you have some insight into religious fundamentalism.
SK: Gandhi, Vinoba and Schumacher, all felt that there was enough in the world to provide for everybody’s need. But humans are greedy and arrogant! We do not think Nature is good enough!
JL: There is that lovely picture of the Earth as seen from space titled: ‘We don’t have to put it together, it is together.’
SK: Gandhi, Vinoba and Schumacher saw a beautiful, cohesive world. Human beings need to learn from Nature and live in harmony with Nature. The problem is not poverty, but affluence. We do not need to alleviate poverty, we need to alleviate affluence.
The word ‘poverty’ has been hijacked and corrupted. It originally meant ‘voluntary simplicity’. In Gandhian terminology, being poor is better than being rich. He lived simply in a hut made of mud, bamboo and grass.
Today, a successful economy means more. Whereas Gandhi, Vinoba and Schumacher say: ‘Enough! Where is sufficiency?” What we need to do is take less from the poor countries in Africa, the Middle-East, Asia.
JL: Yes, one would say it is an irony that our oil addiction has funded the schools of fanaticism in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
SK: Out of the 19 terrorists accused in the 9/11 attacks, 15 were from Saudi Arabia. It shows that all the wealth was used to train militants. Now the US wants a change of regime in Iraq to ensure a continuous flow of oil.
JL: As an Indian living in Great Britain, you must have observed the legacy of the colonial powers and the division of India.
SK: Gandhi never wanted Pakistan and India to be divided. He said that you cannot create a country based on religion. The British almost imposed the division. My idea and the Gandhian way of looking at it is if you start with Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, this zone, the subcontinent, should be a zone of peace.
I call it the ‘ABC of Peace’. A is for Afghanistan, B is Bangladesh, and C is Ceylon. These countries should have free borders, much more autonomy within the countries, and more self-government at local levels. If India and Pakistan can create friendship, the Kashmir problem would automatically be solved.
JL: Are contemporary Indians still receptive to Gandhian ideals?
SK: Yes. There are Vandana Shiva, Arundhati Roy and Medha Patkar. There are many Indian environmentalists who are struggling to create an alternative to the western style of life. If you search for grassroot movements in Rajasthan, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, you will find thousands of people involved in projects that are sustainable, ecologically sound and socially just.
JL: You are trying to educate the ‘worst offenders” in the US and UK through Schumacher College and Resurgence magazine. Can you explain?
SK: In Schumacher College, we are integrating spiritual values with economics. We are introducing the holistic science. Of Gaia, of complexity, of quantum and chaos theory, of emergence properties in science and the creativity of Nature and the science of quality.
Resurgence is a magazine that highlights the same principles. Resurgence focuses on trinity of soil, soul and society. I have written a new book, You Are, Therefore I Am, a declaration of dependence.
I am saying that we live in a web of relationships and exist only because others exist and because the Earth exists.
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