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May 20, 1999


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The Spiritual Walker

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A P Kamath

Kumar Satish Kumar does not understand why some people are surprised that he uses the Internet and e-mail. People who have heard him speak against the misuse of technology, rile against the global economy, and damn mass production at times miss the point, Kumar says with a chuckle.

A former monk and now a widely traveled speaker on ecology and 'Small Is Beautiful' philosophy espoused by E F Schumacher in his 1973 book bearing the same title, Kumar says just the way he flies between the continents, he also uses gadgets -- but he does so sparingly.

"I have always said that machinery should not enslave people," he says with a sigh, his accent a beautiful blend of British English -- England being his home for over two and half decades -- and traces of Hindi. "Unfortunately, technology is ruling us, and I am afraid things are not going to be easy in the new millennium."

But he is also robustly optimistic. America, in particular, he believes is ripe for a spiritual revolution.

The evidence, he said in a New York Times interview, is 'the kind of discontentment you see around' -- the alienation, crime, loneliness and breakdown of families and communities. 'People are deeply unhappy,' he had said.

'We are realizing, after 200 years of industrial revolution, that we have gone too far in one direction,' he had continued. 'We need to bring some kind of balance between the spiritual and material.'

"Going the right way is more important than speed," says Satish Kumar, a hero to thousands of American students, peace activists and residents of communes. He visits America nearly every summer, giving talks at such prestigious universities as Harvard and Columbia -- and meets hundreds of people leading alternative lifestyles and exchanges inspirational ideas with them.

Apart from academics such as David Ehrenfeld, a biologist at Rutgers University, and Hazel Henderson, the futurist and economist, Kumar also draws people who set up local currencies in their communes and those who are trying to promote worker management and ownership of corporations, or are developing natural systems for purifying waste water

Of late many second generation Indian Americans have been attending his talks.

"He is telling us many things our parents have not been able to tell us," says Mellissa Rao, a student activist. "Our parents got caught in the rat race, and many of us are caught in that race too. We need Satish's wisdom."

The New York Times, in a long article on Kumar two years ago, called him 'a kind of international catalyst for unorthodox thinking.'

His talks are often sponsored by environmental organizations like the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, by professors and New Age thinkers, and by the Utne Reader, the Minneapolis-based magazine described as the alternative press's Reader's Digest.

Kumar is a great story-teller. One of the stories he tells his audiences involves his mother and a dream.

He recalls how his mother dreamt, before he was born, of riding an elephant with a wise man, never arriving at the destination. "She was not an educated person in the traditional sense," he says recalling his childhood days in Rajasthan, "But she has centuries of wisdom. She taught me the journey was as important, if not more important, than the destination."

Path Without Destination Sixtythree-old Kumar recently published in America, Path Without Destination, the updated version of his biography published in England several years ago.

"Satish Kumar is among the most important educators of the 20th century," says Theodore Roszak, author of the influential, The Making of a Counter Culture.

"His lifelong odyssey adds a compelling flesh and blood reality to the wisdom of the East."

Kumar's public life began when he left home at the age of nine to join a group of monks. How could he decided at that young age what he wanted to do?

"In India, don't we believe in rebirth?," he asks. "Physically I was nine but I must have centuries of experience."

But he gave up being a monk when he was challenged by the Karma Yoga vision of the Mahatma first, and then of Vinoba Bhave. He went to jail several times during the freedom struggle.

The padyatra tradition of Bhave spurred Kumar to walk across Europe and North America in the 1960s advocating peace and joining groups opposing, among other things, the Vietnam war. He left behind his wife and a baby daughter.

It was during the 8,000-mile long walk -- spread over more than two years -- did he begin to draw a number of influential thinkers including Schumacher. The two men became close friends, and soon Kumar began to preach about Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful movement. By then his marriage in India had collapsed -- and Kumar, who would later marry a British activist and have a son and a daughter from the marriage, began getting donations from activists and philanthropists to establish in rural England, the Schumacher College dedicated to ecological studies.

In between running the college, lecturing and editing the Resurgence magazine, he makes time for marathon walks.

"I still find the need to walk," Kumar says, referring to his travels across England, Wales and Scotland 14 years ago to visit the sacred sites and alternative communities. Two years ago, he had a stirring hike through the heights of Tibet, circling Mount Kailas and learning the secrets of Tibetan monks living under the thumb of Chinese occupiers.

"I marvel at how the human spirit can conquer despite oppression," he says.

In going on long walks, Kumar says, he continues the Indian tradition of pilgrimage. The joy and experience gained from focussed walking cannot be achieved by other modes of travel, he says.

"Travelling by train or plane is not the right way to go on a pilgrimage," he continues. "Holy places should be walked to."

"When you walk, you slowly become ready for the spiritual experience. The walking and waiting creates deep longing -- you are thinking of Jesus or St Francis or the Indian rishis -- and thousands of people who have walked in their footsteps. There is a tremendous sense of mystery and longing -- and even pleasure."

His admirers say what makes him stand apart from many others who espouse alternative lifestyles is that Kumar, along with his wife June, practices what he preaches. They live in a simple but elegant house without many gadgets. The food they consume is mostly grown in their backyard. And they take a modest salary for editing Resurgence.

Kumar, a small-made man, is always impressively draped and is easy to engage in a conversation, but his friends warn that his gentleness is accompanied by a will of steel.

He is now getting ready for a pilgrimage across Rajasthan and Gujarat.

"Living a 9 to 5 life, raising family and running a household is very one-dimensional," he says. "You don't have time to go deeper. You go on a pilgrimage to find a different dimension."

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