Swans Commentary » swans.com January 27, 2014  



Green Guru
Part II of II


by Michael Barker



(Swans - January 27, 2014)   Satish Kumar and Prabhakar Menon's epic pilgrimage from India was well supported by the international peace community, and when they arrived in England they were able to meet the guiding inspiration for their walk, Bertrand Russell, who then helped launch an Atlantic Fund to raise money to pay for their passage to Washington. Likewise, while stateside, the equally well-known pacifist A.J. Muste lent a much-needed hand to the adventurous duo. Sadly, when Satish and Prabhakar finally arrived in Washington on09 January 1964, President Kennedy, the man they had come to speak to, had already been murdered, thus their long walk ended at his grave -- just as it had started in India at Gandhi's own grave. Ending their momentous journey on a high they visited Martin Luther King, and then moved on to Albany "to see the Civil Rights Movement in action." It was here that Satish, while trying to eat out with his English friend, John Papworth, first came face-to-face with American racism and nearly lost his life when trying to order tea and sandwiches in a white cafe. (1) As he recalls:

Never before had I focused on the fact that the colour of my skin had any significance. My interest in the Civil Rights Movement had been rather academic until then; I then realized what black people in America were going through, what a great battle Martin Luther King was fighting, and how much courage it needs to fight with non-violent means. (p.116)

With the official pilgrimage now over, Satish and Prabhakar extended their tour to Hiroshima, Japan, and eventually returned to India after being away for nearly two and a half years. Not being one to rest in one place for too long, soon Satish had set off on the road again, this time with his wife, Lata, and child in tow. Lata, however, was not so happy with Satish's itinerant lifestyle, and so to accommodate his wife Satish soon settled down to write his first Hindi book, Journey Around the World Without a Penny. Then after writing this book, Satish set about translating Martin Luther King's own text Stride Towards Freedom into Hindi. Now that he was finally living with his wife again, she soon became pregnant with their second child, and Satish came to the inconvenient realization that he had grown apart from her; "the separation had made us strangers," he recalled. Lata evidently wanted a conventional life free from fear of poverty, while Satish wanted to live the life of a penniless pacifist revolutionary. This was not a match made in heaven, and so it did not take long for his wife to leave him to live with her family, while he moved to New Delhi to start work on a new magazine, Vigraha (Dialectics). But again it did not take long before Satish got itchy feet. So when in 1968 (after completing nine issues of the magazine) he was invited by Danilo Dolci ("the Gandhi of Italy") to join a peace march in Italy, Satish made another abrupt decision, and without letting anyone know of his plans, he set off on another adventure. "No one knew I was going. I just walked out, leaving everything -- magazine, office, papers, flat, furniture -- to die without me." (2)

After his rendezvous in Italy, Satish satisfied his seemingly insatiable wanderlust by traveling throughout Europe. In Brussels he soon launched into a passionate affair with a married women named Marie Clay -- a counter-culture artist, who to her husband's apparent rage, wanted to have an "Indian experience." Despite her husband's opposition to this turn of events, Satish obliged her passion for the orient, recalling how he "was amazed at the passion of her decision" (that is, to ignore her husband's protests to sleep with Satish). Thereafter Satish describes how he sucked her nipples (etc.); there "was complete trust and communication between our two bodies." (3)

Satish maintained this illicit, but open, affair whenever he returned to Brussels during his travels throughout Europe. One night in Belgium, however, he received a call from Michael Randel of War Resisters International in London, who invited him to join a small contingent of peace activists in Budapest, Hungary, to protest the Warsaw pact's invasion of Czechoslovakia. Satish agreed to participate in this Hungarian peace mission, and on 24 September 1968 their ensuing protest was broken up and Satish and his friends were arrested, interrogated for three days, and then released at the Austrian border. Subsequently, Satish recalls how when in Prague, Czechoslovakia, he bumped into well-known liberal African rights activist -- and his former acquaintance from London -- Canon John Collins, who was attending another peace conference. Bizarrely, Satish interprets this meeting as some sort of fluke event: "What a surprise it was to meet him so unexpectedly in a Prague hotel!" But given their shared interests in attending international peace conferences, it was hardly an unlikely accident. Either way they spent the next three days talking at the conference, and John invited Satish to come to London to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Gandhi -- which was to take place in 1969 -- by helping him set up a school of non-violence along with Colin Hodgetts, the Director of Christian Action. (4)

To establish the London School of Non-Violence Satish relocated to England. He then taught at the new school, but, as ever, Satish soon became restless and wanted to return to India. So in August 1969 he set off on an eighty-day car journey to India -- accompanied by Canon Collins's son, Mark, who had just finished at Eton and was taking a year off before going to Oxford. Arriving in Delhi on 02 October to the vibrant celebrations marking the centenary of Gandhi's birth, Satish soon made contact with his old friend Dhani, who was involved in the armed struggle with the Naxalite movement (which "had become strong in Bihar and Bengal, especially in Calcutta..."). (5) Disturbed by Dhani's disavowal of non-violence, Satish rejoined one of Vinoba's "closest disciples," Krishna Raj Bhai, who was working in "one of the poorest parts of Bihar" (the Saharsa region) in an attempt to undermine the spread of the Naxalite movement's ideas within the impoverished working class communities. Satish however was fighting an uphill battle, as: "Landlords in Bihar, where the [bhoodan] movement was strongest, supported gramdan superficially and in bad faith." Thus the bhoodan movement's unrealistic appeals to the ruling class to help the poor fell on deaf ears (all round), and so it is perhaps appropriate that, in 1969, the ideas of violent class warfare actually took a firm hold in Bihar, the very region "where Vinoba ostensibly had had his greatest success." (6)

Times were changing, and by 1974 Vinoba "advised that the [bhoodan] movement be officially halted" owing to the massive problems that had plagued their work over the previous five years, with the Sarva Seva Sangh "having recognized the difficulty of converting the bhoodan pledges into reality without some means of confrontation..." This failure in turn had massive consequences for future interpretations of Gandhi's political legacy, most particularly when in 1974 Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) called for "total revolution" after the collapse of Vinoba's pacifying movement. (7) Satish's active re-engagement with the bhoodan movement turned out to be quite short lived, as another of his friends (Anant) had persuaded him to live in the forest with him and his wife on his father's land in the Jumudi village in the Vindhaya mountains. Here they built their own house and grew their own food, and separated from the harsh poverty and difficult political work facing the gramdan workers. Satish tilled the land and meditated on the meaning of life. (8)

Everything became meditation. I felt a sense of divinity. This newness brought a surrender, a surrender where nothing mattered, where everything was accepted. It was beyond happiness, beyond pleasure. I experienced the zero level of existence, the void, the beauty of the void and the beauty of nothingness: shunyata. (p.137)

After living with Anant and his wife for a year, Satish met a sadhu astrologer, who for just five rupees made a vague prediction about him engaging in more overseas travel and meeting someone who would completely change his life. Satish was amazed at such "an astonishing prediction," which apparently "came true." This was because a few days later the war began in Bangladesh, and Canon Collins had written to Satish to ask him to report on the war and come to England "to put on an exhibition about Bangladesh which Christian Action would sponsor." In July 1971 Satish thus organized said exhibition and it was here that he met his second wife, June, who had been working for Operation Omega -- a group "formed to get peace workers across the borders into Bangladesh..." Although other events intervened to prevent them getting together immediately, the couple were blissfully in love, and spent two weeks in "a peaceful flat" in Stockholm while at the first UN conference on the environment. "There, in the complete acceptance of each other," Satish writes, "feeling a sense of warmth, touch and belonging, we conceived a child." (9) Then after living on a peace workers' commune in Germany, the couple returned to London in March 1973, whereupon fate would have it, he soon bumped into John Papworth -- whom Satish had previously assumed would have still have been in Zambia working as an advisor for President Kaunda.

Almost the first thing he said was that Resurgence magazine, which he had founded, was about to be closed down for the want of an editor, an editor who would work for love rather than money. 'So Satish, God sent me to find you here and I dare say that you will be the editor and let us speak no more of it.' (p.143)

Although Satish admits that he couldn't spell a word of English, he accepted the "offer" as he "didn't like to deny the request of an old friend or to refuse something which was coming to me by fate." (10) Satish thereby started work on what would turn out to be a lifetime commitment to Papworth's magazine, which steadfastly expounded the principles of decentralization and eco-spirituality. At the same time Satish continued his work at the London School of Non-Violence, and in June 1975 the School organized an emergency meeting on Mrs. Indira Gandhi's declaration of a State of Emergency in India. The meeting focused on the arrest of Satish's friend J.P. Narayan, and building upon the momentum derived from this initial event the Free J.P. Campaign was consequently launched with the prestigious Philip Noel-Baker presiding over its activities. Satish then set about producing a fortnightly news sheet to publicize what was happening in India, and as a direct result of this activism Satish organized the first European Sarvodaya conference "to introduce the true nature of J.P.'s Movement, as well as to show the relevance of Gandhi's ideas to Western industrial societies." Noteworthy speakers at this conference included Lanza de Vasto, E.F. Schumacher, John Seymour, Leopold Kohr, Edward "Teddy" Goldsmith, and Thich Nhat Hanh. (11)

During the Sarvodaya conference Satish met many of his old friends, and fortuitously for him, he re-established contact with one of his better-endowed friends, an Oxford economist named Peggy Hemming. Peggy then offered to help Satish buy some property in the countryside so they could leave the city and return to the land. This was something that self-sufficiency guru John Seymour had been encouraging Satish to do for some time, as Seymour emphasized that Britain's industrial economy was unsustainable. "The only way to save the earth," he said, was "for people to learn the practical skills of self-sufficiency." It was in this light that in July 1976 Peggy brought a 96-acre farm that was walking distance from Seymour's smallholdings in Pembrokeshire, west Wales, and Satish, his wife June, and Peggy (joined by three others young people -- Tony, Vivian, and Ian) set about creating a new organic life in the countryside. With their new purchase, the spiritually-minded back-to-landers had the additional bonus of "a view from the kitchen window of the ancient cromlech -- a sacred site of standing stones some thousands of years old." (12)

Now lodged up on such a large farm, Peggy and Tony suggested that they buy a tractor to make life easier, a solution that was anathema to Satish. This led to serious ruptures in the budding commune, and within months Tony and Vivian had packed their bags and left, as did Peggy, who in early 1977 unilaterally terminated the commune and handed the farm over to Urdd Gobaith Cymru, the Welsh youth organization. With June pregnant with their second child (Maya), Satish was feeling under pressure, and after trying to resolve the dispute through mutual friends he decided to take the matter to the courts. Ever one to take solace in mumbo jumbo, Satish turned to an "astrologer friend" who confirmed that 1977 would be difficult ("Saturn was overshadowing the entire year"), which apparently gave him "some consolation" that things would eventually improve if he just kept going. Indeed, by 29 October, 1977, when Maya was born, Satish began to feel optimistic about life because "Saturn was becoming weak and his influence was waning." Despite these good omens, Peggy did not back down, and it was only because of the goodwill of Urdd that a satisfactory agreement was reached. This meant that at the end of 1978 Urdd offered Satish the sum of £9,000 to buy a new house elsewhere, and even allowed him another year before he had to move. With an additional £12,000 raised from various friends, Satish lamented that he still did not have enough money to obtain a suitable house. So it was lucky that his wealthy friends at Dartington House Trust stumped up another £15,000, which allowed him to buy a property in North Devon for the princely sum of £35,000. (13)

Satish moved into his new farm based in Hartland (Devon) in July 1979 and, with time, developed strong connections with his friends at Dartington, eventually founding Schumacher College in Dartington's grounds in 1991. However, in 1978, prior to all this, Satish had played a key role in founding the E.F. Schumacher Society, a group he went on to chair, but whose founding chairman had been Maurice Ash -- a well-connected individual who at the same time served as both the chairman of Dartington House Trust, the Town and Country Planning Association, and of the Green Alliance.

In late 1986, Satish, Diana Schumacher, and other members of the Schumacher Society's council then set up Green Books "to publish books on ecological and spiritual matters which would help to create the consciousness needed to replenish soil, soul, and society, (yagna, tapas, and dana)." (14)

Jonathon Porritt was the first to support this venture, giving us £1,000 on behalf of Friends of the Earth, with The Council for the Protection of Rural England following soon afterwards. As momentum gathered, many readers of Resurgence, Maurice Ash among them, came forward with money, manuscripts and ideas. (p.265)

Satish's friend and Dartington House Trustee, John Lane, who had already been working as Resurgence's art editor, was an obvious choice to become one of the founding board members of Green Books. Later it was with the help of John that Satish was able to organize the founding of Schumacher College, which they set up "to lay firm intellectual, philosophical and practical foundations for a new kind of society"; a college whose mission would be to investigate the "spiritual underpinnings of intellectual inquiry" otherwise excluded from mainstream education. The then chairman of Dartington House Trust, John Pontin, was fully supportive of Satish's latest venture, and in 1989 gave him £1,000 to write a proposal for what would soon become Schumacher College. In March 1990, the proposal got the go-ahead from Dartington Hall's trustees and Satish was promptly appointed as the Director of Schumacher College. (15)

Continuing as he started his life, Satish remains a busy man: serving as the editor of Resurgence magazine, the chairman of Green Books, the president of the Schumacher Society, and as the Director of Programmes at Schumacher College. Satish evidently feels driven to promote the gospel of Gandhian anti-materialism far and wide. But unfortunately for the rest of society, the small is beautiful activism fervently promoted by Satish and his eco-spiritualist friends (and gurus) all too often serves the interests of capitalism. This, of course, is perfectly understandable when one critically interrogates the historical role of Gandhism, and of the associated philosophy of deep ecology to which Satish and his ruling class friends are so enamored. It is now up to the rest of us to reject such ahistorical nonsense, to engage productively with science and the material world, and to revisit the feel-good capitalist-friendly mantras of certain limited parts of the global environmental movement.


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About the Author

Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  Kumar, No Destination, p.109, p.113, p.115.  (back)

2.  Kumar, No Destination, p.121, p.122, p.124.  (back)

3.  Kumar, No Destination, p.127, p.128. Satish recalls how she telephoned her husband to say she was going to spend the night with Satish. "Her husband sounded upset and angry. She said, 'I want to have an Indian experience.'" (p.127)  (back)

4.  Kumar, No Destination, p.129, p.130, p.131. In September 1982 Colin Hodgetts would become the head teacher of the Small School in Devon, a secondary school which was founded by Satish and his decentralizing friends to offer a holistic approach to education. Just prior to this Colin had been working with Save the Children Fund "in connection with Vietnamese Refugees and was a Director of Refugee Action..." (p.171) Other than recruiting Colin to run the school, Satish writes: "The second most important action of mine was to persuade Kim Taylor of The Gulbenkian Foundation and Hugh de Quetteville of Sainsbury's Family Trust to visit the School and agree to make major grants which assured the viability of the school for the initial years." (p.172)  (back)

5.  Kumar, No Destination, p.131, p.132.  (back)

6.  Fox, Gandhian Utopia, p.188.  (back)

7.  Fox, Gandhian Utopia, p.189, p.201. JP had taken charge of the bhoodan movement in 1970 when Vinoba had retreated to the safety of his ashram. For more on the tragic consequences of JP's neo-Gandhianism, see Michael Barker, "Postmodern Gandhians and Hindu Nationalism," Swans Commentary, September 24, 2012.  (back)

8.  Kumar, No Destination, p.135.  (back)

9.  Kumar, No Destination, p.139, p.140, p.142. Satish was named as one of the two environmentalists chosen to represent Britain at the first UN Environmental Conference, the other being Teddy Goldsmith. In 2012 Goldsmith's long running magazine, The Ecologist, was merged into Resurgence magazine. For a detailed critique of Goldsmith's highly problematic environmental legacy, see Michael Barker, "Gambling With Our Planet," Theory In Action, 7 (1), January 2014.  (back)

10.  Kumar, No Destination, p.143. In the first issue of the magazine that Satish worked on he published an article by Herbert Girardet, who had been his neighbour in London. Later when Satish bought a house in Devon he visited his old friend who now lived in Tintern. (p.160)  (back)

11.  Kumar, No Destination, p.144. Satish notes that he first met E.F. Schumacher in 1968. In the early 1970s they had "become very close" and Satish "often used to visit him at his home in Caterham, and join him in grinding the week's wheat flour in his Samap hand mill." Kumar, You Are, Therefore I Am, p.113, p.119.  (back)

12.  Kumar, No Destination, p.145, p.146.  (back)

13.  Kumar, No Destination, p.147, p.149, p.152, p.157. Although £9,000 was a considerable sum of money for the time, Satish apparently required more money to purchase a house that met his and his magazines needs. June's mother thus donated her entire savings (£4,000), Brian and Inger Johns promised to make an investment in their future property (£5,000), and a reader of Resurgence, Jon Wynne-Tyson, "made £2,000 available as an investment." This was still not enough and "only" amounted to £21,000. (p.152)

Gerald Morgan-Grenville, the founder and then chairman of the Centre for Alternative Technology (in North Wales) had been keen for Satish and Resurgence magazine to join forces with his Centre, and while Satish was impressed by their work he was worried by this proposition as he felt Resurgence might lose its editorial independence. (p.153)  (back)

14.  Kumar, No Destination, p.265. On the initiative of Satish, in 1980 the neo-Gandhian Theosophist couple, Bob Swann and Susan Witt, formed the US-based E.F. Schumacher Society, which is now known as the New Economics Institute.  (back)

15.  Kumar, No Destination, p.282, p.283, p.285. James Lovelock acted as Schumacher Colleges first Scholar-in-Residence in January 1991.  (back)


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Published January 27, 2014