Pilgrimage for Peace: The Long Walk from India to Washington :

Some Personal Reflections

It was an ordinary 1961-afternoon in Bangalore when two friends decided to go for a cup of coffee that led them to a discussion on the most monumental challenge facing the world then – nuclear weapons. Ninety-year old Nobel Laureate Lord Bertrand Russell had been imprisoned for protesting against the bomb and refusing to pay the fine ‘for disturbing the peace!’

Deeply unsettled by the incident, E P Menon and Satish Kumar resolved to do the craziest thing in the world – walk from Delhi to Washington to urge the nuclear powers to undertake a complete ban on nuclear weapons and work for peace instead!

It was not a day-dream!

Pilgrimage for Peace: The Long Walk from India to Washington (2021), written by devout Gandhian, founder of the iconic Schumacher College in Devon, England, and the foremost holistic education global thought-leader today, Shri Satish Kumar, is an incredible account of the 8000-mile peace-mission that would be forbidding beyond words for ordinary mortals.

What is more? The pilgrims vowed not to touch money or carry any food with them throughout the entire journey. Acharya Vinobha Bhave had assured them that human goodwill and native generosity would see them through from end to end.

Sitting in the comfort of my little room at Ngabiphu in Thimphu, secured from covid-harm by the personal sacrifices of an extraordinary King, I am a virtual fellow-pilgrim of the passionate peace-missionaries who did the actual walk in calendar-time even as their journey seems like an unending chain of events unraveling in mythical time. 

With deep reverence for the pilgrims and their mission and a lump in my throat, I noted three moments of supreme poignancy that stand out in front of me as history comes alive in witness to a destination affirmed and a mission accomplished:

On 1st June 1962, my friend E P Menon and I stood at Mahatma Gandhi’s grave in New Delhi. We had decided to walk to Moscow, Paris, London and finally to Washington DC, hoping to meet the ‘peace president’, John F Kennedy.

And,

On 6th January [1964], we arrived in Washington and, instead of stopping at the White House, we walked on to Arlington Cemetery and concluded our long walk to Washington. It was a walk from Gandhi’s grave to Kennedy’s.

Snow covered our shoulders as we lit a candle in Kennedy’s honour.

And then,

Finally, on 2nd October 1964, we arrived in Delhi and went to Gandhi’s grave at Rajghat. Again, a big crowd of Delhites joined us to celebrate the final moment of our 28-month-long journey of ‘Jai Jagat’, long live the world. [All italics in this text are mine]

What happens between these vital signposts is an epic exploration of many lands of incredible beauty and grandeur, great awakenings and enlightenment, ancient cultures and civilisations, breath-taking achievements in science and technology, and indeed a celebration of basic human goodness and fellowship.

Pilgrimage for Peace defies all expectations of a regular chronology of episodes that occur in the long walk of two friends moved by events and motivated to make a difference. There is in this masterpiece of creative genius a celebration of what meets the eyes, the amazing spread of plains and the dizzying heights of mountain-passes, the din and bustle of the cities and the native serenity and simplicity of the countryside.

There is more. Beyond observing the obvious and the objective realities of the many lands of the pilgrims’ travels, there is a deep appreciation of the subtle and the subjective, an apprehension of the ideal and the sublime, a hymn to the eternal and the integral, that constitute the outer as well as the inner life of nations that the pilgrims traverse.

As the travellers enter Pakistan, they immediately come face to face with ‘the land of hope and hospitality’. In Afghanistan, they experience the ‘magic and mystery of the landscape’ just as Iran is a ‘place of passion and poetry’ and the Soviet Union is synonymous with ‘power and promises’, as indeed, America is a land of ‘prejudice and prosperity’.

As they pass through Poland, East Germany, West Germany, Belgium, France, and England before touching the shores of the United States, and as they pay their homage at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in ‘the home of humility’ on their way home, the pilgrims become part of the land as the land becomes part of them. To know is to become one.

A certain episode finds a permanent home in my mind. It was lunch-time at a tea factory in Georgia when two young women noticed the weary travellers passing by and invited them to their canteen and offered them tea and snacks. As their exchange obviously centred around the most urgent issue of the day, one of the curious women made a quick exit and reappeared as promptly with four packets of the quintessential Georgian Tea. Her plea was earnest.

 I want to give you these four packets of tea. But this is no ordinary tea, it is Peace Tea, and it is not for you…

I cannot go to Moscow and Washington, but you are going. I want you to be my messenger and deliver one packet of Peace Tea to our Premier in Kremlin, the second packet is for the president of France in the Palais de l’Elysee, the third packet is for the prime minister of Britain, and the fourth is for the president of the United States of America, in the White House.

And I have a message for them… My message is that if you ever get a mad thought of pressing the nuclear button, please stop for a moment and have a fresh cup of this Peace Tea! Then you will have a time to reflect that your nuclear bombs will not only kill combatant soldiers, but every man, woman and child who has done nothing to harm you. Not only that, your bombs will kill animals, burn forests, contaminate waters and obliterate all life. Therefore, think again, and don’t press the button.  

Equipped with the out-of-this-world plea of supreme significance from a deeply concerned fellow-human, and with renewed mission, the pilgrims are back on the road, greatly inspired and strongly validated to forge ahead.

Despite their earnest attempts, the peace-missionaries were not able to deliver the Peace Tea to the intended recipients personally but the packets were carefully handed over to the representatives of the respective heads, together with the sender’s fervent message for the nuclear-masters. As the pilgrims were on the exceptional voyage aboard Queen Mary, news came that President Kennedy was assassinated. The giant ship became a mourning vessel in the wink of an eye.  

As one turns one irresistible page after another, it is impossible to miss the author’s profound understanding of the iconic figures of art, music, literature, architecture, philosophy, culture, history, religion, science, statesmanship, reform movements and historical landmarks in each country on their route. The pilgrims attend countless events and speak at myriad venues. They meet heads of state and bureaucrats, thought leaders and opinion-makers, firebrands and quiet revolutionaries, welcoming hosts with open arms, racist men seething with prejudice and an angry housewife upset with unannounced guests.

Menon and Satish are confirmed teetotallers and uncompromising vegetarians but they are all praise and gratitude for every morsel of wholesome food and for each sip of nerve-soothing drink that their generous hosts serve to the special messengers of peace. The inner tension between the need to remain faithful to their vegetarian-vow and the imperative not to hurt the sentiments of gracious hosts often becomes palpable. But the guests negotiate their way wonderfully well.

As peace-marchers carrying eloquent banners and distributing leaflets urging a total ban on nuclear weapons and addressing animated crowds in all manner of venues, the pilgrims often countenance hostile reactions including two nights in a Paris prison. They often go to sleep on an empty stomach, under the blue dome of the sky, totally fagged out from long hours of walk in harsh conditions. However, encounter after encounter, their resolve to secure a ban on nuclear weapons and to advance the cause of peace remains undiminished.

And, through these all, the abiding spirit is one of faith and of hope. The incredible generosity of people’s warmth and hospitality and unconditional love in strange places heal all wounds and relieve all pain and reinforce their belief in the basic goodness of humanity. Even when their stay with the host-families extends way beyond their plan, they are never a ‘pest’!

Before leaving America, the peace-pilgrims visit the grave of Chief Seattle to pay their tribute to the son of the soil who deciphered the most sacred link between Man and Nature. The 13th US President, Millard Fillmore, had wanted to buy land from the natives. As they stand in solemn prayer, Chief Seattle’s letter of 1852 addressed to the President returns with unforgiving chastisement to human arrogance and greed: 

The idea to buy land is strange to us. How can you buy or sell the sky? Humans do not own the freshness of the air and sparkle of the water. The land does not belong to us, we belong to the land. All things are connected like the blood that unites the family. All things share the same breath – the beast, the tree, the humans. Human kind has not woven the web of life, we are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web of life, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the children of the Earth. We are part of the land and the land is part of us. The deer, the horse, the great eagle are our brothers and sisters. How can we sell them to you?

Unmitigated selfishness and indulgence, unconscionable abuse of Mother Nature and their inescapable consequences highlighted in the recent IPCC Report on Climate Change mark the grim distance that our specie has travelled from the Truth that Chief Seattle saw so clearly.

When E P Menon and Satish Kumar undertook their peace-walk, there were only four nuclear-armed nations in the world. Today, there are many. In a supreme irony of our time, some of the countries that the pilgrims adored in their travels have turned into killing fields of unimaginable chaos and suffering.

But, the impossible has been accomplished – by real men in flesh and blood, walking on their own feet! Pilgrimage for Peace is hitched to the highest order of human commitment to advance the cause of the most fundamental imperative for human flourishing and authentic progress in the world – peace.

The peace-pilgrims lived out in real time the eternal message of Martin Luther King Jr.:  It is not enough to say we must not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it.

Pilgrimage for Peace is a rare testament of human endurance, a sacred tribute to the most fundamental humanity of all men, women and children beyond local specificities and historical accidents, and indeed a celebration of the basic goodness of human beings across time and space. 

Here is an encyclopedia of the collective history of many lands treasured in haunting expressions of human creativity captured by an awakened mind that registers the most subtle impulses of the Earth even as it affirms the obvious and the workaday. The theme is all-embracing, the language is impeccable, and the call issues forth right from the soul.

That somebody should undertake an 8000-mile peace-walk, sans money, sans personal resources, equipped only with their unflinching resolve, and accomplish what clearly seems impossible writes an indelible chapter in the history of the world.

Thakur S Powdyel, former Minister of Education.

[P.S: Bhutan had the rare privilege of receiving precious light from Shri Satish Kumar when the Ministry of Education invited some 70 of the finest educators from around the world for a nine-day retreat with our own educators as we prepared the roadmap to launch the Educating for Gross National Happiness reform initiative in 2009. The revered messenger of peace was most gracious to accept my invitation to visit the Royal Thimphu College and address our privileged community. Shri Satish Kumar blessed the first translation of My Green School into Spanish and Catalan and released it in Mallorca, Spain, in 2015, hailing it as a unique model of holistic education that he had been looking for].