Swans Commentary » swans.com January 13, 2014  



Green Guru
Part I of II


by Michael Barker



(Swans - January 13, 2014)   Satish Kumar is a Gandhian-styled guru for spiritually-minded environmentalists all over the world. Born in India, and raised as a Jain monk, at the age of eighteen Satish left the monkhood and dedicated his life to peace activism, working initially alongside Gandhi's successor, Vinoba Bhave (in the late 1950s), and then, inspired by Bertrand Russell's committed antiwar activism, traversing the world on foot spreading the gentle word of peace and global goodwill. In the 1970s Satish settled down from his life on the road, and from 1973 to the present day he been an industrious propagator of eco-spirituality through his work as the editor of Resurgence magazine, which in later years was complemented by his key role in founding Green Books and the holistically-orientated Schumacher College. The adamantly anti-materialistic ideas promoted by Satish's New Age triumvirate have proved especially popular among the petty bourgeoisie, with many of Satish's spiritual disciples clearly preferring his prescriptions to daydream their way to an organic, harmonious future, than alternatives that might get their green fingers dirty promoting class war against humanities enemy, capitalism. Drawing upon Satish's own life story, as recounted in No Destination: An Autobiography (Green Books, 1992), this essay sheds some much needed critical (materialistic) analysis on Satish's divine life.

Born in August 1936 in the town of Sri Dungargarh, India, Satish arrived in the world "at four in the morning: the time of Brahma, the god of creation, a time of complete stillness, calm and peace." Tragically, his father died when he was just four years old, but Satish still had a large extended family, and his three brothers, four sisters, uncle, great uncle, and their sons, wives, and grandchildren all lived together along with Satish and his mother. As a result of his father's death, his mother began spending "more and more time with the wandering Jain monks," often taking Satish traveling with them for weeks at a time as they walked from village to village. Soon, apparently because he had a lotus line on his foot, the monks asked Satish's mother if she would allow him to join them as the line suggested that Satish was a reincarnation of a spiritual soul. Evidently the chance to reach nirvana played on Satish's young mind, and when he was just eight years old he informed his mother that he wanted to become a monk, and so by the time he was nine he had been initiated into the monkhood. (1)

Satish remained with the Jain monks for the next nine years; however, towards the end of his spiritual service his guru decided to embrace modernization to help spread Jain teachings, a decision which did not sit comfortably with Satish's conscience. (2) Such changes in his guru's spiritual praxis thus unsettled Satish, and so it was "fortuitous" that around this time he met Gandhi's determinedly anti-modern spiritual heir, Vinoba Bhave. For the time being though Satish remained with the Jain monks, but his spiritual turmoil was reinvigorated when one of his disciples gave him a copy of Gandhi's autobiography. Reading religious books was strictly forbidden, but Satish read it nevertheless, and now at the age of eighteen Gandhi's book "raised a thousand and one questions" in his head. Satish recalled: "Gandhi's ideas were in contradiction with my guru's teaching that as monks we should keep our backs to society and our faces towards God." Shortly thereafter, Satish left -- or rather escaped from -- the monkhood to join the Gandhians, eventually settling at Vinoba's Bodh Gaya ashram, a place where political action was positively encouraged through engagement with the bhoodan ("land gift") program. (3)

Now at the age of twenty-one Satish had found his place in Indian society, and it was at this time that his new guru, Vinoba Bhave, spoke (in 1957) at what was to be the annual Sarvodaya conference: an occasion where Vinoba ostensibly acknowledged that the bhoodan land reform movement should no longer be funded by their wealthy backers at the Gandhi Memorial Trust Fund -- as they had been for the previous six years. "We must cut all ties with centralized financial aid and any bureaucratic organizational set-up," Vinoba said. According to Satish, this decision marked a "turning point for the Land Gift Movement," with activists from then on only relying upon support from the grass roots. This statement, however, is a little disingenuous, as will be explored shortly. Either way, it was after this conference that Satish was accepted as a member of Vinoba's marching party, a group with which Satish spent the next three years touring India promoting land redistribution for the poor. (4)

So who was Vinoba Bhave and what did his bhoodan movement achieve? For a start, Vinoba was widely considered to be Gandhi's principal spiritual heir. But more importantly, a good case can be made that it was the moderate tactics adopted by Vinoba's bhoodan movement that helped enable the Nehru government to hijack Gandhi's utopian praxis of social change. This is because after independence Vinoba had delineated a strict dualism between two forms of satyagraha (insistence on truth), a harsh form (as exemplified by Gandhi's own activism), and a mild satyagraha which Vinoba actively propagated as a reformist alternative to the former. In opposition to Gandhi's determined focus on the necessity of resistance, Vinoba's diluted version of satyagraha "consisted on communicating a message -- hardly even a warning, only 'assistance in right thinking' -- to opponents, in order to change their hearts." These mild experiments in Gandhism could thus be best described as "unintentional forms of escapism, not of revolution." (5)

In many ways Vinoba's emphasis on moderation and class conciliation was formulated in response to the activism of more radical adherents of Gandhism. The best example here are the activities of Rammanohar Lohia (1910-67) who promoted the need for a harsh (or negative) satyagraha, and had, as a leader of the Socialist party, "launched what he thought of as a 'permanent' satyagraha from the middle 1950s through the middle 1960s." Lohia was of the opinion that the class struggle had to be nonviolent, but he also knew that it needed to move beyond a naive politics of peace and love. Instead, he believed that any resistance had to be both militant and confrontational in asserting the needs of the majority against the wealthy and powerful. However, it was ultimately Vinoba's disempowering vision of Gandhian politics that gained mass support: a process that was aided and abetted by the "strong institutional support, including financial support," that his ideas received from the Congress party and the Nehru government. This aid was helped along by the fact that Vinoba "had inherited the strongest base for Gandhian authority, control over Gandhi's ashram and over the many Gandhian voluntary workers." (6)

As mentioned earlier, for many years funding for Vinoba's "constructive" and severely constrained (mis)interpretation of Gandhism was nourished by the immense resources of the Gandhi National Memorial Trust, a Trust that had been set up with a founding endowment of more than one hundred million rupees by Congressional leaders the year after Gandhi's assassination. "The Memorial Trust thereafter became a major source of funds to a multitude of Gandhian voluntary organizations, including the Sarva Seva Sangh, and to many of Vinoba's special projects, such as voluntary land reform." So it is ironic that Vinoba's mild, "small is beautiful" version of Gandhism became heavily reliant upon its very antithesis, big business. (7) Vinoba's Gandhian activists, one might add, also obtained direct subsidies from the government, (8) however, Nehru's government certainly did not adopt Gandhian ideology, and only sought to use it "in the most transparent and superficial way" to justify their own commitment to industrial growth and the expansion of the state-run public sector. (9)

Returning now to Satish's guru, Vinoba Bhave: Vinoba had launched his experiment with bhoodan in 1951 in a part of southern India (Telengana) where communists had, since 1948, been successfully agitating for class warfare. The reformist and ultimately delusional idea behind the bhoodan program was that landowners could be persuaded to help others in their villages, in the name of love. They could do this by donating their land to the voluntary workers of Sarva Seva Sangh -- the main institution through which Vinoba organized his Gandhian activism -- who would then see to it that the poor benefited from their charity. Considering the rising popularity of socialist alternatives, the bhoodan program proved a big hit with the wealthy, such that by 1970 Vinoba could boast that his gramdan movement had obtained around 4 million acres in donations -- most of which had been gifted before 1956. (10) Yet this was not the whole story, and while Satish himself chooses not to draw his readers' attention to the bankruptcy of the bhoodan movement:

By the early 1970s, large subsidies and aggregate statistics could no longer hide the failure of Vinoba's appeal to revolutionize agrarian relations in accord with the Gandhian vision of welfare for all. More than 40 percent of acreage given in bhoodan donations proved uncultivatable, and only about 30 percent of the total land had been redistributed by July 1975. Even when land was redistributed, it often did no go the poor and landless. An impressive number of villages were committed to gramdan -- more than 168,000 in the early 1970s -- but they existed only as pledges, "paper commitments," and in most places a village council did not exercise legal proprietorship. (p.187)

As the critical Gandhian historian, Richard Fox, continues:

Vinoba himself had helped empty gramdan of any true revolutionary character. Responding to opposition from wealthy peasants, Vinoba redefined gramdan in the middle 1960s to make it "simpler." Sulabh gramdan, as it was called, permitted landowners to "surrender" their entire holdings to the village community, but allowed them to retain effective possession of all but 5 percent of them; that parcel of their lands would be the only acreage actually redistributed to the poor -- that is, if it could in fact be cultivated. This "simplification" was consistent with Vinoba's ideas that difficult matters must be met by ever gentler methods. Even within the Sarva Seva Sangh, many workers thought Vinoba was too soft on the landowners. (pp.187-8)

Having spent three years on the road with Vinoba, in around 1960 Satish settled down in the city of Benares, where he soon became the deputy editor for the weekly newspaper of the bhoodan movement. (11) It was during his time working for the bhoodan paper that he became embroiled in a controversy that concerned the construction of an expensive Gandhian complex of buildings to house his newspaper, amongst other things, at a cost of half a million rupees. Despite the overall pro-capitalist nature of Vinoba's program, it was only then that Satish realized that such a project was not "an example of simple living of the Gandhian kind"; so he took the opportunity to criticize this venture through his newspaper. Satish also questioned the creation of another new organization, the Gandhian Institute of Studies, which was founded in 1960 to exploit university graduates to give "Gandhian philosophy an academic face." (By way of an example, E.F. Schumacher completed the foundational work for his seminal text Small is Beautiful while based at the Gandhian Institute during the 1960s.) (12) Satish at the time, however, only considered the Institute to be a waste of money, arguing that: "If our movement is a people's movement it must speak the people's language, not the language of academics." His outspokenness on this sensitive issue brought Satish into direct conflict with the Institute's deputy director and he was soon sacked. (13) As a poignant afternote, Satish recalls that it was during his brief time at the paper that he married his first wife, Lata, whom he proceeded to rape (with regret) during their first night together. (14)

Moving swiftly on, with little reflection on the causes of his failing marriage, Satish now in his mid 20s -- divorced from the bhoodan newspaper (but not the movement) and alienated from his wife -- notes how his close friend Prabhakar Menon came up with the plan to emulate Bertrand Russell's principled stance against nuclear weapons and start a Peace March to Moscow, Paris, London, and Washington (the four nuclear capitals). Satish was much taken by the idea and immediately agreed to join his friend on such a pilgrimage, although he recalls: "I was reluctant to tell Lata of my scheme." Thus after a month of preparations he wrote a letter to his pregnant wife (who was temporarily living with her parents) telling her that he would only make the final decision to leave on his expedition when he had her consent. As luck would have it Lata was fully supportive of Satish's proposal, and so in June 1962, shortly after the birth of their first child, Satish and his good friend Menon set out on their epic peace pilgrimage. (As a point of principle Satish did not take any money with him on his travels, but the Vishwaneedam ashram -- which was run by one of Vinoba's disciples and was where he had been living after his split with the paper -- kindly paid him a bursary which was used to support his family in his absence.)(15)


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1.  Satish Kumar, No Destination: An Autobiography (Green Books, 1992), p.7, p.9, p.11, p.15. (This book was first published in 1978.)  (back)

2.  Kumar, No Destination, p.30. After spending seven years as a monk living with his guru, Satish recalls: "Ever since his decision to modernize the order, I felt he was trying to travel in two boats at the same time -- denouncing the world and also seeking its recognition." In addition, a fellow monk further helped undermine Satish's commitment to his guru (Acharya Tulsi) by interfering with his celibacy. (p.32)  (back)

3.  Satish Kumar, You Are, Therefore I Am: A Declaration of Dependence (Green Books, 2002), p.62; Kumar, No Destination, p.34. Satish like any good liberal intellectual totally misrepresents Marxist politics and writes that: "Marx's solution [to class conflict] is armed revolution." Kumar, You Are, Therefore I Am, p.180.

Satish notes that Gandhi had "revived the ashram life in the early part of this century. ... He combined political and social work with spiritual and religious practices; self-reliance and consumption of only home-grown and locally-made produce became the key concept of the ashram way of life." Kumar, No Destination, p.46.  (back)

4.  Kumar, No Destination, p.59, p.60. Satish writes: "While I was walking with Vinoba I learnt about Gandhi. Most of the people with Vinoba had either seen or lived with Gandhi." (p.60) For more on Vinoba's life, see R.R. Diwakar and Mahendra (eds.), Vinoba: The Spiritual Revolutionary (Gandhi Peace Foundation, 1984).  (back)

5.  Richard Fox, Gandhian Utopia: Experiments with Culture (Beacon Press, 1989), p.173, p.171. "By this means, India, now having achieved Gandhi's goal of swaraj, could proceed to the next point of evolution, the attainment of sarvodaya, or welfare for all. Vinoba and his followers often used the term 'sarvodaya' to distinguish the Gandhian program after independence from what it had been before." (p.173) As Fox explains: "Nehru and Vinoba jointly resisted an interpretation of satyagraha that would have conserved it as a means of revolutionary experiment in India after independence. In reaction to this interpretation and as reputed spiritual heir to the Mahatma, Vinoba pursued experiments so 'mild' -- unworldly, in fact -- that they did not confront reality. Lacking any element of confrontation, of struggle -- lacking, in other words, any way to experiment on existing society with utopian intentions -- Vinoba's Gandhian utopia thus became a daydream." (p.171)  (back)

6.  Fox, Gandhian Utopia, p.174, p.175.  (back)

7.  Fox, Gandhian Utopia, p.177. Although the Trust was supposed to have been spent out by 1969, by the middle 1970s "it still had a balance of nearly 50 million rupees" -- a large part of which was invested in the shares of Indian companies. (p.177) Here one should note that while Satish implies that Vinoba cut his ties with the Gandhi Memorial Trust in 1957, in later years it was Vinoba who persuaded Devendra Kumar (the man who invented the concept "Appropriate Technology") to become the Secretary of the Trust. Likewise Vinoba remained a favored activist of the international capitalist community as in 1958 he received the inaugural Ramon Magsaysay Award: a prize "named after Ramon Magsaysay, president of the Philippines, a crucial ally in the US campaign against Communism in Southeast Asia." As this award had been established by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, it is appropriate that, in March 1959, John D. Rockefeller III created the India International Centre (with an initial grant of $834,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation). Note: Indira Gandhi served on the Centre's founding board of trustees, while Chester Bowles, the former US Ambassador to India (1951-3 and 1963-9), served as a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation when they made their initial grant to establish the Centre. The founding chairman of the India International Centre, C.D. Deshmukh, received the 1959 Ramon Magsaysay Award, and in the 1970s was counted among the founding endorsers of Planetary Citizens.  (back)

8.  Fox, Gandhian Utopia, p.178. For instance, "the First Five-Year Plan, proposed in 1952" by the government "committed 150 million rupees to village industries" ("such as hand-loom weaving, oil pressing, manual paper making, leather working, and country sugar making"). By way of another "example, the Gandhi Peace Foundation received a grant of 1.5 million rupees from the central government between 1974 and 1976, and state governments subsidized it with 225,000 rupees from 1977 to 1979." (p.178)  (back)

9.  Fox, Gandhian Utopia, p.183. "Rather than affirming the village as the basis of Indian society, Gandhi-style, the [government's community development program] panchayati raj program in effect made the village the lowest tier of centralized state administration and gave it responsibility for implementing development goals that mainly originated at higher levels." (p.184) "Although panchayati raj had many positive benefits for state centralization and national politics, such as forging links between the Congress and village-level leaders, it did not create an organic, democratic rural community. Almost all the case studies reveal that the rich and the powerful monopolized village government and resources, and even a government report declared that the 'weaker sections' of the village 'community' were being misused. Panchayati raji turned the oceanic circle of Gandhian utopia into a quagmire of the venal and the well-connected." (pp.185-6)  (back)

10.  Fox, Gandhian Utopia, p.187. By 1971 nearly a third of India's villages had pledged to gramdan, the gift of the village.  (back)

11.  Kumar, No Destination, p.67. The editor at the time was Siddaraj Dhadda.  (back)

12.  Thomas Weber in his book Gandhi As Disciple and Mentor (Cambridge University Press, 2004) observed that: "Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Jayaprakash Narayan was one of the early supporters of Schumacher. He also gave the alternatives-seeking economist practical guidance in shaping his ever more radical vision." (p.222) "JP informed Indian Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru of Schumacher's work and in January 1961 Schumacher was invited to be a key speaker at an international seminar on 'Paths to Economic Growth' held in Poona. ...George McRobie, Schumacher's assistant, notes that with a paper titled 'Levels of Technology', written for the Gandhian Institute of Studies in July [1961], within six months 'he had virtually arrived' at the now lauded concept of intermediate technology." (pp.222-3) Also see, Thomas Weber, "Gandhi, Deep Ecology, Peace Research and Buddhist Economics," (pdf) Journal of Peace Research, 36 (3), 1999, pp. 349-61.  (back)

13.  Kumar, No Destination, p.73. "For me," Satish wrote, these developments "represented that wing of the Gandhian establishment which was career-conscious, western-suited, city orientated, intellectual, salary seeking -- those who felt it necessary to do a public relations job on the movement to fit it to the urban, industrial, twentieth century." (p.73)

One should note that Gandhi himself often relied upon rich friends to support his activism. Fox notes when Gandhi's "authority began to be challenged after 1909 [while based in South Africa] and support for him declined among his merchant backers, Gandhi could fall back on funds from an Indian industrialist, Sir Ratanji Tata, to maintain his newspaper and his rural commune. These funds came from a successful fund-raising trip to India by Polak, one of his most loyal fellow communitatians. Another committed follower, Herbert Kallenback, donated the land for Tolstoy Farm in 1910." Likewise, during the 1930s with the increasing threat posed by militant leftists in the Indian National Congress, "the Gandhians courted big business as an ally in their fight to keep control over the movement and to maintain dominance of the Gandhian program." Fox, Gandhian Utopia, p.140, p.166.  (back)

14.  Kumar, No Destination, p.76. She said, "I don't want it." He then thought about how to persuade her otherwise, but instead in the dark he simply found his "way inside her." Satish's description of her response to this rape: "She gasped, then turned aside to sleep." "It had been just a physical act without any love. It was an encounter between an unwilling wife and an impatient husband. I felt guilty and disappointed." Other than her gasp Satish does not explore Lata's response to being raped on her honeymoon, although he does add: "For her it proved to be almost 'hate at first sight'" and although she gave birth to their child, and Satish writes that "there was no sublime union and the passion I was so eagerly anticipating never came into bloom." (p.76)  (back)

15.  Kumar, No Destination, p.79, p.80. Peace News reported on their entire journey, and when they arrived in London he says: "The Guardian wrote a feature article about us and BBC and ITV put us on their screens." (p.107)  (back)


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Published January 13, 2014