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Thursday, June 26, 2014 12:01 am

Give peace a chance

Walking man stops in Springfield

Swami Sankarananda relaxes at the Hindu Temple of Greater Springfield.


In the world of Hinduism, orange is the color of renunciation. To dress like a pumpkin is to announce that you’ve spurned possessions, wealth, even family.

In the world of cops, orange is the color of jail. When you get a call that someone dressed in orange is walking solo along the road, you jump in your cruiser to check the guy out. Which is exactly what has happened more than once to Swami Sankarananda, who passed through Springfield last weekend on his way to the East Coast. On foot.

After the usual who-are-you-and-what-are-you-doing, police, satisfied that he isn’t an escaped inmate, have never given him any trouble, says Sankarananda, who declines to say what name he answered to and just what he did for a living before devoting his life to yoga and setting forth from Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 1. An orange t-shirt emblazoned with white letters proclaims his mission: “Coast 2 Coast Walk For Peace.”

“Clearly, if you read this, it doesn’t say ‘County of,’” Sankarananda told  an audience of a few dozen people who came to see him speak on Saturday at the Hindu Temple of Greater Springfield in Chatham.

Although three or four people have flipped him the bird as they whiz past in cars, no one has been rude to his face, Sankarananda says. Indeed, he relies on the kindness of strangers for survival, carrying only a liter of water, a rain poncho, a sleeping bag, a toothbrush, equipment to keep his head shaved, a camera and a few other personal items. It all fits inside a rucksack.

“I try not to take anything for tomorrow, just things for today,” Sankarananda said. “My days are walking down the road and smiling at people and waving. To be honest, walking is very simple. It’s just one step at a time, like everything else we do.”

Some steps, however, are bigger than others. Sankarananda recalled leaving a town for his first day in the desert, where 60 or so miles typically separated water supplies.

Later that day, a white pickup truck pulled up, and the driver gave him a bag filled with water, Gatorade, fruit, shelled walnuts and the same peppermint candies he loved as a child.

That sort of thing kept happening.

“The water bottle, through the whole desert, never stayed empty more than two hours,” Sankarananda said.

Sankarananda, 60, says that he has worn out four pairs of shoes during his journey, and his feet have swelled from size 12 to size 13. He says that he walks about 20 miles a day and sleeps many nights under the stars, although he gets the occasional motel room and also stays in some private homes. He has gone as long as a week without a shower.

With a goal of $850, he has raised $920 through FundRazr, an Internet fundraising website, and is no longer soliciting money online. Sankarananda says that his weekend spent in Springfield was his longest stretch off the road.

The closest he comes to revealing his past is a written biography in which he says that he was once head of a technology company and was offered a job as president of another. Instead, he says that he went to India, where he spent 18 months studying yoga before returning to the United States last fall. On Saturday, he said that he lost his possessions in 2008 but gave no details. It was, he said, the best thing that ever happened to him.

Sankarananda plans to end his journey in Egg Harbor, N.J., the birthplace of Mildred Lisette Norman, who is known as Peace Pilgrim. She began walking across the United States in 1953 with only the clothes on her back and crisscrossed the nation as many as 20 times over 28 years. She died in a 1981 automobile accident. She’d accepted a ride to a speaking engagement.

Noting that a Hindu peace chant repeats the word “peace” three times, Sankarananda told his audience that there are three kinds of peace: Peace from natural disturbances such as tornadoes, peace between nations and communities and peace within oneself. He appears to have realized the third kind.

“I’m perfectly fine living out of that small backpack,” Sankarananda said. “You won’t find anyone happier than me.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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