The paradox of soil

Satish Kumar in conversation with Sadhguru about the importance of soil to our economies and our cultures.

We are soil, we are made of soil. Our food, our clothes, our houses, everything comes from the soil.

It was a great privilege to have had this intimate conversation with Sadhguru, named one of India’s 50 most influential people, who is leading the movement Save Soil. Sadhguru is the author of many books, including Karma: A Yogi’s Guide to Crafting your Destiny.

I met him on the eve of a great journey of 30,000 kilometres from London to New Delhi and finally to Coimbatore in South India, on a motorcycle. He travelled through Europe and the Middle East highlighting the paramount importance of soil.

Satish Kumar: The Latin word for humans comes from humus, which means soil. So, human beings are literally soil beings. Now, the urgent question is, how have humans separated themselves from the soil?

We are soil, we are made of soil. Our food, our clothes, our houses, everything comes from the soil, yet we feel separated from the soil. We think that soil is dirty. We don't want to touch it.

Sadhguru: If soil is dirt, then all of us are dirtbags! Of course, we are Soil. We are Nature. But sadly, most people are not aware of this fact. How did we place ourselves above nature? We're just a small outcrop of this planet.

We need to understand that this very body of ours is soil. This is the truth. One day people have to realise this truth in order to save themselves. But that one day may be too late! If we can realise it now, we can make a difference.

Many people don't live on this planet. They live in their head! They need to come down to the Earth. I can't think of a better place for us to live than on this beautiful Planet Earth. Some people are seeking heaven.

The moment you tell yourself that there is a better place somewhere else then you are committing a great crime. The idea that there is another place which is better than this precious planet Earth is an illusion.

We need to understand that from what we know of this universe, there is no other place like this planet which is suitable for life. Now either we can make a heaven out of it or hell out of it. Unfortunately, we've been working hard to make a hell out of it.

Satish Kumar: Human-kind is supposed to be intelligent, educated and clever. Why then have we brought this misunderstanding upon ourselves? Why are we turning this beautiful Earth into a hell?

Sadguru: The great paradox is that we have been doing it with good intentions, we have been doing it in pursuit of happiness and development.

We have been doing it not because of evil intentions but in pursuit of human well-being. But are we any closer to human well-being than a thousand years ago? No, in fact people are becoming more and more miserable. The World Health Organisation is predicting a mental health pandemic in the near future.

In Japan, more people committed suicide in 2021 than died of the pandemic and other so called developed countries are also in the same predicament.

We are soil, we are made of soil. Our food, our clothes, our houses, everything comes from the soil.

This is simply because mistakenly, humanity is seeking happiness from outside. People think that happiness and wellbeing will come from having more money, more economic growth or more material possessions. This mistaken belief is the cause of the misery we face today.

Satish Kumar: Human well-being and the well-being of the planet Earth cannot be separated, and people are becoming miserable because they're disconnected from Planet Earth, from Nature and from soil. We cannot have healthy people on a sick planet.

And those who do the farming or gardening or work on the land are considered undeveloped, uneducated, not very smartand not clever. There is a lack of dignity in being a farmer. Smart and clever people work in a bank or they are lawyers or accountants, they sit behind a desk and work on a computer rather than work with soil.

How do we change this culture? How can we bring dignity and respect to manual work, to working on land and working with soil? In our contemporary culture we've turned food into a commodity, something to buy and sell, farmers farm to make money.

In my view food should be considered sacred. Growing food should be an act of love, love of land, love of nature, love of soil and love for people. In the Christian religion bread is the symbol of spiritual communion. That means bread is sacred, food is sacred.

Sadhguru: This has happened because we've chosen the market economy as our way of life. Even the communist or socialist economies have gone the same way.

Human beings have come to believe that happiness will come from material wealth, high living standards and increased production and consumption. Consumerism has become compulsive. This compulsive way of living is destroying Nature. In order to take care of Nature and save soil we have to choose different set of values.

Satish Kumar: But in our system there is no choice. Everyone is educated to think that the end goal of life is economic growth.

Our minds are conditioned to think that soil is not so important, Nature is not important, it's money which is important, and everything is dependent on money. So, the purpose of life is to find the job which pays you the most. Success in life is measured in terms of money.

Sadhguru: When the quality of your life is determined by what you have and what you possess, rather than who you are then naturally money becomes important because without that agency of money, you cannot have a house or clothing or a car or whatever else. We need to change our thinking. We need to value people for who they are rather than what they have.

In the present mode of thinking we are not inclusive. We are desperately trying to be exclusive in the name of the nation, or religion, or caste, or creed, or family.

We disconnect and exclude ourselves from others and from Nature. But when you think about soil being a part of yourself, you're thinking about an inclusive way of life because that is the way of existence. There is nothing in existence which is not inclusive.

The idea of exclusivity is essentially a psychological problem. Existentially, we are always inclusive. If you don't understand this then close your mouth and hold your nose for two minutes without breathing, then you will understand that without air you cannot live.

If you don't drink water for three days, you cannot live; if you don't eat for five days, you cannot live. So, inclusion is a reality in the form of ingestion, respiration, copulation. This inclusiveness is fundamental to life but we are not fully conscious of it.

Satish Kumar: Yes, that is absolutely true. And by working with soil, by working on the land and by being in Nature we can become conscious of our inclusiveness, our interdependence.

I go back to my initial question, which is, how can we bring this sense that working on the land and producing food is a sacred activity, a spiritual practice? We engage in agriculture because we love land, we love soil, and we love people.

Sadhguru: Sir, you're very romantic. Very romantic!

Satish Kumar: I'm romantic, that is true. I accept it as a compliment from you. My ideal poets and artists are from the romantic age. I love William Blake, Wordsworth, Kathleen Raine and Ravindranath Tagore. They were all Romantics.

Sadhguru: I'll give you my poetry books. In my heart, I'm also romantic, but in my mind, I'm pragmatic, because without pragmatism we will not make it happen.

We will just talk about it. I'm not here doing whatever I'm doing in my life just for my satisfaction. I only take up a problem if I see that there is a possibility of bringing a solution. So, the solution has to be pragmatic. I have taken the cause of soil as a pragmatist.

Satish Kumar: I agree that there has to be a combination of romanticism and pragmatism. At the moment much of the world is only thinking in pragmatic ways. Pragmatism and realism have been overrated. The world is ruled by so called realists.

But what have they achieved? We have big problems like climate change, global warming, poverty, conflicts, wars and above all soil erosion in spite of all the realism and pragmatism. So, we need a dose of love as well as laws.

Sadhguru: Your heart is romantic, I appreciate that. But please don’t let the romance get into your head because then we'll do nice things which will only satisfy us, which will make us feel wonderful, but there won't be a solution on the ground.

If people are seeking their spiritual well-being, I would like to teach them something which is more effective. There are simpler spiritual things to do than agriculture.

Because if you do agriculture in a romantic and spiritual way, and if the yield doesn't come for some reason, then you will get frustrated and disappointed in your spiritual process. So, I can teach you a spiritual process which is the inner agriculture. So, you do outer agriculture in a pragmatic way and you do inner agriculture in a spiritual way.

People are seeking inner happiness in the outer world. They think that if everything out there happened exactly as they want they will be happy. But the very nature of the world is such that things will never happen one hundred percent the way you want them to happen.

Because you are not in control of the external situation. So seek spiritual happiness within you. You have full control of your inner world. But be pragmatic with the outer world. What is within me must happen my way, but with the outside world I have to compromise.

The world is like this, it goes a little bit my way, a little bit your way, a little bit somebody elses way – this is how the world works.

So, when it comes to agriculture, we have to be pragmatic. I've spoken to millions of farmers – never once have I said, "This is a spiritual activity. This is the most wonderful thing you can do."

No, because I know that farming is the most backbreaking activity you can do. So, we have to talk about economics and how to enhance farmer’s income. 

If you want the next generation of young people to go into agriculture then this is the only solution. They must make more money than a lawyer or a doctor or IT professional or a banker or an accountant!

We have done a survey in India. We found that not even two percent of farmers want their children to go into farming. So, in another ten or twenty year’s time, what the hell is going to happen to our food security? And farming is not some joke.

You try to do it and see yourself, it is not easy to get something out of the land, it needs meticulous attention and hard work as well as a lot of experience. And sixty-five percent of India's population is right now in farming. They have thousands of years of experience.

It may seem to you that growing food is simple and effortless. But try doing it. With all your education and cleverness you will make a mess. So, it is very important that the skills of growing food are retained in a given society.

That will be lost in the next twenty-five years if we don't make it highly remunerated. The only way to keep people in farming is to pay them properly.

Satish Kumar: I agree with you. Of course, farmers must be paid properly and they should be given the respect they deserve. India has a greater chance to do it as India still has a culture of agriculture.

But India is also moving away from that culture and embracing more and more industrial farming, chemical farming and factory farming. Will India be able to keep and maintain her old tradition, the tradition of working on the land and honouring the land, and keeping the land in good heart?

How are we going to make farming more respectable and more profitable and at the same time protect the soil? In Britain no more than two or three percent of people are engaged in agriculture. Whereas in India as you said, sixty-five percent of people are still engaged in agriculture.

But even in India increasing numbers of people are moving away from farming. They see Western agriculture as the ideal model of farming, which is highly mechanised, industrialised and less human.

SadhguruTwenty-five years ago we started a new movement, it is called “tree based agriculture.” We encourage farmers to make ten percent of their land available for trees, trees which are beneficial to the crops that they're growing.

So that a huge amount of humus is produced on their land. To make farming sustainable and regenerative it is of paramount importance to generate humus on your own farm.

You can never put too much humus on your land. Buying compost from a faraway place and bringing it in a truck and putting it on your land is not a practical solution for a farm.

A farm should be self-sufficient in their own compost. So, ten percent of land goes into trees and farm animals. What I can tell you is that in five to seven years, many farmers have multiplied their income anywhere between 300 to 800 percent.

Every twelve years, they're getting the income from the tree yield which is just about the same income as if they were to sell the land.

So, every twelve years they can sell the land and still keep the land. So, if you farm like this people will stay on the land because it gives them a reliable income and a very good income too, and farmers are living in nice conditions, surrounded by beautiful trees, cool and comfortable. That is one way to make farming profitable, sustainable and enjoyable.

Satish Kumar: I think it is a wonderful movement, it is a kind of agro-ecology. Trees and other food crops can be good companions. In the U.K. we also have a new movement for tree planting, reforesting and re-wilding.

Sadhguru: In India we changed the name, initially we used to call it agroforestry. Then we found that we were under the forest ministry, which is full of restrictions and regulations. Now we simply call it tree based agriculture, and so, we are under the Ministry of Agriculture, which is much better for us.

The most important point of all is that we must make farmers prosperous. In India, over 300,000 farmers have committed suicide in the last twenty years. That is not only tragic, which it is, but it is also a total failure of our system. And it's not just in India.

In the USA the suicide rate among farmers is the highest among all professions. In the last twelve years fifty percent of the US farmers have not seen a dollar of profit. A lot of them have shot themselves. So, in order to save farmers we have to save the soil.

And in order to save soil we must practice “tree based agriculture”.  That is the only way to increase organic content in the soil. Recently I spent a month in California. No matter who you talk to, they'll say, "Sadhguru, my friend has got an app, it will do everything."

But I said to them that your apps and your technology cannot produce organic matter. Technology is no substitute for trees. Maybe some technology could be there to enhance the usage of organic matter but to get actual organic matter you need trees, without them you cannot put back organic content in the soil.

There are billions and trillions of organisms which need food, for them the food is organic matter – the leaf, the twigs, the grass and the animal dung. This is all there is to create and build soil.

When we grow wheat or paddy or maize we are eating only small part of that crop, the large part of the crop is not eaten by humans, that should be eaten by animals or should go back into the soil. But unfortunately, we are burning much of it, or we are throwing it away.

There is substantial organic material produced by nature, but the practices of transforming that into food for the soil has gone out of vogue. Because everything is done by machine which just wraps up everything, piles it up and throws it somewhere.

A machine doesn't understand what's happening with the soil, machine just does a few activities more efficiently than human beings, of course. But machine doesn’t produce organic matter. Therefore, you need to have organic content growing on your own land. That is why “tree-based agriculture” is so important.

Satish Kumar: Where do we start this process? How do we begin to transform our thinking?

Sadhguru: I believe that children need to learn agricultural skills from an early age. Governments around the world have made education compulsory. But compulsory schooling means that until children are seventeen or eighteen years old, they are prevented from working on their farmland because they are at school full-time.

So after eighteen these children are not going to go into farming. Once you've worn fancy pants and shirts you are not going to get dirty!

Therefore, I have suggested alternative forms of education which the Indian government in principle has agreed to implement. I am proposing that there should be proper academic schools of high quality for those students who wish to pursue intellectual education.

But these schools are not for every child. Other children can go to schools which are more practical. In these schools there should be about three to four hours of academic learning.

The rest of the time they can choose horticulture, agriculture, carpentry, or any other practical, technical or vocational skills. These skills are in great demand. Today in India, you can pick up a phone and call and get a nuclear scientist to work for you but you can't get a carpenter.

Satish Kumar: I started The Small School and then Schumacher College in Devon. We say to all our students that they should have education of head, education of heart and education of hands. In my view even academic schools should have gardens so that young children can be in contact with the soil, with seeds and with plants.

So, every school and every university should be associated with farms and gardens. There are farms already owned by some great universities, but they are given to tenant farmers, students and teachers don't go there, professors don't go there. How can anyone learn to look after the soil if they don’t come in contact with it?

Sadhguru: These days young people don’t have hands, they have only two thumbs to use on the keyboard of their smartphones!

Satish Kumar: All of us have two sides of brain, the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere. The right hemisphere of the brain contains intuition, imagination and spirituality. The left hemisphere of the brain contains reason, logic and sciences, it is practical and technical side of the brain.

Our schools and universities are spending their billions and billions of pounds and dollars and euros to train just the half brain and nothing else. If we want future generations to be responsible citizens and look after the soil and Nature then their education needs to be of the whole body and the whole person.

Sadhguru: Above all, young people need to learn to respect those people who work with their hands. Right now, a whole lot of people don't respect those who work with their hands. They think that they are just manual jobs. There needs to be some kind of rapport between intellectuals and manual workers.

But we don’t want to be anti-intellectual either. In fact, I don’t want to be anti anyone. I want to work with everyone, with business, with governments, with corporations. I do not fight with anybody. We need to work to bring about transformation.

We are all responsible for the problems we face today. We all drive cars, most of us shop in supermarkets and most of us buy things which have caused pollution. There are no enemies out there. We are all in it together. Transformation will come about by the change of hearts in all of us and through the participation of all of us.

If transformation has to happen, we are not going to achieve it through fighting. We are going to achieve it through cooperation and working together. Let us all work together and save soil. I am setting off on this journey across many countries. For the next 100 days let us make “Save Soil” our greatest mantra.

Satish Kumar: Let us work towards bringing soil awareness to everybody – to eight billion people. Let us talk about soil, soil and soil all the time. Thank you Sadhguru for your time and sharing your wisdom.

This Author

Satish Kumar is the author of Soil, Soul, Society and the founder of the Resurgence Trust, owner and publisher of The Ecologist.

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