Interview with Satish Kumar: the progressive and spiritual educator from the UK gives an interview on education and spirituality
by Prem Sagar Rose and Dada Subuddhyananda
Satish Kumar has been one of the leading lights of the UK’s spirituality and ecology movements for more than three decades. He is the editor of Resurgence magazine, which has been called ‘the flagship of the green movement’, and co-founder of the Schumacher College, where his vision of a new kind of holistic and spiritual education is brought to life. He spent 9 years as a Jain monk in India, before deciding—at the age of 18—that Jain philosophy was too isolated and self-oriented; he then became a follower of Gandhi’s teachings. In 1962 he undertook his famous walk from Delhi to Washington, via Moscow, Paris and London, in a bid to bring a message of peace to a world seemingly on the brink of nuclear disaster.
In May, 2005 Satish was in Manchester, England to give a lecture as a part of the Schumacher lecture series [which he helped to establish in the early 1970s]. After the lecture he spoke to New Renaissance about his view of spirituality, love and education.
NR: How have the religious and spiritual traditions of India inspired you?
The most important inspiration from the Indian religions for me comes from two sources. The first one is the way the Bhavagad-Gita sees the whole of life as yajina [editor’s note: pronounced: ‘jagya’]. Although there is a ritual of yajina, such as offering rice and ghee into the fire, that is only symbolic. Everything in every day life, such as cooking, cleaning the room, washing clothes, cultivating the garden—every activity is done in the spirit of yajina, as a kind of sacrifice. And the word sacrifice I connect to sacred. Sacrifice is not something that you do reluctantly; it comes out of love. Yajina is a product of love, of compassion, of caring. When you are making something, cultivating your garden, spinning your wheel, you are doing it with love, offering it to gods, to Krishna or to friends and family. That to me is very inspiring. The meaning of sacrifice in the West is a kind of reluctant act. Love is missing. Compassion is missing.
NR: What does love mean to you?
Love means to accept the gifts of the universe as they are given, and not look into the mouth of a gift horse. In our modern rational scientific way of thinking we analyse; we should accept the gifts of the universe as they come, and see it as a blessing. Love is when you suspend your judgement. Even when you are in love with somebody, you suspend your judgement. You don’t say I love you because you are young, because you are wealthy and educated, because you have high status—you love unconditionally. The moment your mind interferes, and decides judgmentally and dualistically between good and bad or unacceptable and acceptable, love is lost.
NR: You have some interesting ideas about education. How can we try to inculcate the spirit of self-sacrifice and unconditional love in children?
Children are not empty vessels in which you pour information and knowledge. The word educare means to bring out, rather than put in. So all the knowledge, all the wisdom and all the insights which are required are already in every child, because every child is divine. The presence of the divine is there. It is like the acorn—an oak tree is already in that acorn. The work of a gardener is to find fertile soil where that acorn can be planted. The work of a forestor or gardener is to build a little fence to protect that little seedling so that cows or pigs don’t destroy it, and perhaps to give it a bit of water in dry weather. But otherwise the acorn has the capacity to become an oak tree. In the same way every child is a potential Buddha or enlightened being—and the work of a guru, a master, a teacher or parent is to provide that fertile soil, to provide support and protection, so that the child can become who it is. The work of education is to help the child become self-realised—not to become a doctor, a lawyer or an accountant, someone that they are not, just to earn money. Education is a spiritual activity.
There are also some practical ways. In order to bring out the child’s potential, you need to have a good relationship with them. And you can’t have a good relationship with 30 or 40 children in a class. 12 is the ideal number for a class, and the school itself should only have 100 or 200 children, so that every child is known to every teacher. Children should also be involved in practical activities, using their hands, baking bread, preparing lunch, doing the washing up. All these activities should be considered as education, not as chores. Children should use their hands to grow some food. These should be seen as a learning process. Pottery, building a house, making clothes, weaving—our educational system does not teach us these things.
We must learn not only from books but from the direct experience of the natural world. So you can spend four days in the classroom, and the fifth day in the open, going to forest, to the river, and learn from the trees and from watching birds, and so forth. This should be part of the curriculum.
NR: What is the role of the teacher?
When a woman gives birth, the midwife is very important. In the same way the teacher should be a nurturing presence for the child. The teacher should be there with tremendous presence, tremendous love, tremendous caring and attention. In the Indian tradition the teacher is also the guru—someone who the child can trust and have faith in. The job of the guru is not to be egotistical and tell you, “I know and I will tell you what is true”. The true guru is there to inspire you, to bring out what is already inside you—to help you find your own true self. The guru is not someone who imposes knowledge or fills you with information.
NR: If you gained any political power—for example, if you became prime minister—what kind of changes would you make?
The first thing I would do is to liberate education from chains of economics and money. Secondly, I would instigate more local autonomy in politics, in economics, in food and other trades. At the moment our communities are destroyed because our economics and community have disintegrated.
Thirdly, I would ensure that every local community has sustainablity. We live in relation to our land, to our water system, to our forests and trees, and we must have a sustainable durable and caring relationship with the natural world. At the moment we believe that the natural world has been put there especially for our own uses—and this anthropocentric view can only be changed through education, and through changing the local economy and community. Those are the basic building blocks of sustainability.
NR: What about foreign policy?
My foreign policy would be more like Scandinavian countries, very neutral rather than being part of American or European policy. Foreign policy should respect other nations and their systems and allow them to find their own way of ruling themselves without dictating to them what is right. There would be more international conversation rather than the imposition of rule by military force. At the moment our foreign policy is too interfering.
NR: What are your own spiritual practices? Are there certain spiritual practices which you would recommend to others?
If young people want to develop a spiritual and ecological consciousness they need to bring it into simple ordinary activity rather than being in their mind and head and thinking and feeling. Spirituality has to be manifested in practical activities. One activity I recommend is for young people to learn the importance of making things by hand. One particular thing I suggest is baking bread as a spiritual practice, as a meditation. You give yourself time, you knead the dough, see the bread rising, put it in the oven, bring it out with the mystery of surprise. Then you share it with your guests, and you celebrate the beauty and mystery of the natural world, and see how the whole process of the universe is represented in that one simple act of baking bread.
The simple acts of life should be performed as meditation. Spirituality is not just thinking that I go to the temple or that for 20 minutes in the morning and evening I sit cross-legged and chant mantra. This is important, but it should be the seed from which our whole life grows. Start with the small and simple things—baking bread, cooking, cleaning the toilet, doing the garden. Transform them into the highest quality and the most enlightening activities. The ordinary becomes extraordinary.
Prem Sagar Rose is a musician and community organizer in Manchester, England, working with Renaissance Artists and Writers Association. He can be reached at ps.rose at gmx.net. Dada Subuddhyananda is a yogic monk and European Public Relations Secretary for Ananda Marga.