Saturday, March 23, 2013

Jiddu Krishnamurti: Truth is a Pathless Land

Jiddu Krishnamurti mostly said one thing. He always came back to it- Truth is a pathless land.

I like when a person succinctly summarizes his philosophical thoughts and ideas. No mystery, no verbose, serpentine by-lanes punctuated with vagueness, no mysticism. The clarity lends credibility.

Truth is a pathless land

I picked up the book Conversations with J. Krishnamurti very casually in a bookstore in my early 20’s because I have been curious about philosophical thought even as a girl of 7 or 8. But I could not follow the conversation. It became surreal within the first page. I forced myself to read about a quarter of the book and gave up. I was reading the words but they were not meaning anything.  Over the years I picked up the book a few more times to read but failed. Then the book got lost in the drum roll of time.

About three years ago I came across some of Krishnamurti’s quotes. I found them very interesting, maybe because of where I was in my life.  I read about his extraordinary childhood. A few months ago I came across his videos on YouTube. In particular, a series of conversations came into view. They were with Dr. Allan Anderson, a professor at San Diego State University (he is now Professor Emeritus). I listened to a few of these conversations, each of which was about an hour’s length. The drum roll of time had another effect, it made understanding the conversation much easier!

The videos were fascinating. Krishnamurti was serious as can be expected, but was also surprisingly animated, while still striving for clarity and brevity. He had a habit of genuine inquiry at key points- Sir, did you…? (did you understand?), which gave an impromptu personal touch to an otherwise austere conversation.

Truth is a pathless land.  He arrives at this from different angles, saying we can understand ourselves by observing how we relate and respond to others, to ideas and to things; to the earth, to the world around and within us. The process is intrinsic, no outside entities or systems are needed.  No need to understand the painstaking history of ideas and large theories of others past. I also like that he doesn't use annoying morals- like, The clay pot has emptiness, so do you! Or, When a seed takes root, the sprout only emerges right side up, so should you. He speaks in plain, unadorned language.

But why should we care about understanding ourselves? Interestingly, he seemed to have enough of an audience who wanted to find out. “This is not entertainment… Welcome to English weather”, he introduces himself with dry wit in one video where he is talking in what looks like a lawn tent with many students. He was aware that his audience was limited and had the self-control to not seek beyond that, for fame or fortune.

“.. If there are only five people who will listen, who will live, who have their faces turned towards eternity, it will be sufficient. Of what use is it to have thousands who do not understand, who are fully embalmed in prejudice, who do not want the new, but would rather translate the new to suit their own sterile, stagnant selves?..”

Though I haven’t listened to all of his talks or read all his books, I seem to prefer the conversations (18 or so, each an hour long) he had with Dr. Allan Anderson. Dr. Anderson came across as fascinating in his own right, with his genuine depth, wit and curiosity. As an interviewer he could hold the conversation, pause at key points of interest and take it in increasingly deeper directions. Krishnamurti’s solo lectures I do not prefer as much, I do not prefer the hint of an activist tone that seems to come in there.

Pleasure, Art of Listening, True Beauty, Meditation (I & II), are some of the videos I watched. With each, Krishnamurti starts with our everyday experience and goes into abstract interconnections, staying centered, always re-arriving at his core belief - you can only be in your own way, which can be the only way. Only you can find it for yourself.

“.. Man cannot come to Truth through any organization, through any creed, through any dogma, priest or ritual, not through any philosophical knowledge or psychological technique. He has to find it through the mirror of relationship, through the understanding of the contents of his own mind, through observation and not through intellectual analysis or introspective dissection..”

What’s special about this vista point?

For example, one of the topics of the conversations was about Meditation. It starts simple enough and he says why meditation performed as a practice for 5, 10 or whatever minutes a day, with or without a mantra, is a wholly meaningless activity disconnected with life. He speaks sharply of experts from the East who offer meditation as a technique and charge a fee. All this is in line with his iconoclastic views where he had maintained why he was against preset ways of formal thinking-in-a-cage even when unforced. The real beauty of the conversation comes out further along, where he describes meditation as how we live, as is, not something outside of our lives to learn as a technique. We start from wherever we are. In detailing the why, he slowly peels through layers of frozen assumptions, saunters into a rarefied space of thinking, which is free of the cause-effect tugs of entertainment, relationships, ambition, information, expertise, sentimentality, morality, art, beauty and ego. Yes, completely free of the traps of civilized life while being in civilization. And that was his specialty. Navigating this free space with clarity and care.

Knowingly or unknowingly we all crave that rarefied free space. This is where we feel alive, calm, yet alert without stimulation. It is a high state for all sentient beings capable of abstract thought. We usually experience a part of the spectrum of this high for variable lengths of time, say, while listening to a fine piece of music, for some in their faith, in beauty, in nature, in art, when holding our newborn, in kindness, in physical love, in the rings of success and power and such. We live our lives trying to access and experience more of this high state, albeit inefficiently, through our preferred routes.

Arriving at that part of conversation in the video, we may feel a little shocked- here is a person who seems to be in the vista where a mind is suspended free. If you find yourself drawn in 15, 20 minutes into the conversation, perhaps it is because of relating to this free nature of thinking. It is liberating. Somehow, understanding ourselves and discovering our Truth seem possible from here. We all must have visited this vista at some point or the other through different routes. Where enough balance-of-mind summoned itself to hope that we can live meaningfully in our way. Where the ways and means of this strange world seemed to somewhat sort themselves out. Where there was a feeling of contentment.

“.. As I said before, my purpose is to make men unconditionally free, for I maintain that the only spirituality is the incorruptibility of the self which is eternal, is the harmony between reason and love. This is the absolute, unconditioned Truth which is Life itself…”

“.. Freedom is not a reaction; freedom is not choice. It is man’s pretence that because he has choice he is free. Freedom is pure observation without direction, without fear of punishment and reward. Freedom is without motive; freedom is not at the end of the evolution of man but lies in the first step of his existence. In observation one begins to discover the lack of freedom. Freedom is found in the choiceless awareness of our daily existence and activity..”

Not a World Leader!

Jiddu Krishnamurti was born in 1895 in Madanapalle in Cuddapah in the then Madras Presidency. His father moved his family to Madras after the death of his wife. As a child, Krishnamurti had a vacant look about him. He did not do well in school. He later said that he was regularly beaten because he could not learn anything. I tried to think but no thoughts came – he said of that time period. His family lived in an outhouse of the Theosophical Society’s campus in Adyar.

One day, Charles Leadbeater from the Theosophical Society was taking a walk along the Adyar river and chanced upon the 14-year-old Krishnamurti playing on the banks with his brothers. Leadbeater saw something in Krishnamurti. Leadbeater was a person who claimed clairvoyance. He said he saw an aura in the teen, with utterly no trace of selfishness.

Krishnamurti was believed by the society to be a vehicle for a World Teacher. He and his younger brother Nityananda were taken in by the society and adopted by Annie Besant, the President. Within six months, Krishnamurti learned to read and write. He went to schools in India and Britain. But he generally did not do well in formal schooling and did not go to a University. He had a flair for languages and learned to speak a few.

The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 in England. The headquarters was moved to Adyar in Madras, perhaps because India was more hospitable for a different way of religious thinking. The doctrine of the Theosophical Society was to find the universal brotherhood within the triangle of religion, science and philosophy and try to explore the unexplained laws of nature. The society did extremely well in India. It set up centers with followers all over the country and the world. Anne Besant was also an ardent advocate for Women’s rights and a supporter of India’s freedom movement.  But what exactly Leadbetter saw in the ragged, expressively vacant, illiterate, famished, dusty boy on the banks of the Adyar river, if it was indeed a latent intellect, we do not really know.

In his late twenties, during a travel and stay at Ojai, CA, Krishnamurti reportedly had an experience. It was described as something of an acute physical pain in the head but having an effect of higher sensitivity afterwards (he apparently had these episodes many times in his lifetime). A few years later his brother died of tuberculosis. His brother was the only connection Krishnamurti had to his past. These incidents began to define him, give him an identity. He began to question the status-quo.

A few years later, at the annual camp of the Theosophical Society in Netherlands in 1929, before 3000 members, instead of stepping up as the World Leader, Krishnamurti dissolved the Order of the Star, which was the Society’s wing to promote the World Leader. He resigned from the Society and returned all the money and property donated to the Order of the Star. Instead he said-

“.. I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path. If you first understand that, then you will see how impossible it is to organize a belief..”

A Coming gone wrong! Leadbeater proclaimed. Leadbeater was already estranged with sections of the Society because of discomfort concerning his unconventional ways and was living in Australia. Krishnamurthy kept his ties with Anne Besant, his surrogate mother. She helped buy some land in the hills of Ojai, CA, where a cottage was built. He lived the rest of his life in Ojai. The cottage was in a farm and around nature- hills, birds and bees.

In the following decades he traveled even more far away from the doctrines of the Theosophical Society. He gave talks and wrote books. It is amazing how much his thinking prowess came about despite having no degree from a University (or was it because of it?). Owing no allegiance to a nationality or religion and seeking no followers, he stayed away from politics and events, as a boring philosopher is supposed to. Perhaps the lowest profile he had was during WWII when he apparently came under the surveillance of the FBI for his pacifist views. He referred to his works as The teachings and not as My teachings. He maintainedYou have to be your own teacher and your own disciple.
Jiddu Krishnamurti died in 1986. He was 91.

The Experience

The experience that Krishnamurti had is difficult to rationalize.

In the book/movie of Carl Sagan, Contact, Dr. Ellie Arroway, a dedicated and proud scientist, goes to space in a space module. She meets intelligent and compassionate aliens and comes back to earth. But we on earth only see her space module rotate, light up and fall back to earth, all within a space of 17 seconds. But she insists she went to space in the space module. A scientist suddenly finds herself in a position to defend something without proof.

Who is right? Do we believe our eyes and the conclusion our minds reached from what we saw or do we believe her version? Can both happen? She is summoned by a congressional committee and questioned. After giving her version all she could offer in her defense was something like- I had an experience. It was so beautiful. Later she is given funds for research, because a more complete analysis shows an inexplicable static recording for x hours in the space-module’s equivalent of the black box, the exact time it would have taken for her to make the alleged space trip, through worm holes and all. But that is science fiction.

In the real world, those who claim the privilege of an out-of-world experience mostly tend to use this for their own personal gain. Form a religious cult and make some small magic. Unfortunately, hungry followers, money and power accumulate while the cult-head assumes the role of a conduit for boons. But how do we figure out a pretender?

Irrespective of whether we believe a person has had or not had an experience, or in the relevance of any experience, the post-experience behavior is the most telling. The loss or benefit from an experience cannot be given to another. It is their experience. How it defines their life gives all the information.

3cents of disagreement

There is an inherent contradiction in not wanting followers but then choosing to give a talk or write a book. Isn't this acknowledging in some implicit way a followership, a desire for audience?

The other is the extent of Krishnamurti’s iconoclasm.  Yes, the state of many societal systems needs to change but just like people, doesn't any people-created system come at us as-is? Moreover we have no choice as to where and into which system we are born, be it religious or national or educational or cultural. A person lives out an entire life embedded in a set of imperfect systems. 
We have to find our freedom within that framework. Sure, a subsystem which has scarcity of food is different from another which has corruption. We can only begin to contemplate about freedom when the mind can and chooses to be, as a lifestyle choice, free of the thoughts and ripples of survival and entertainment on a regular basis.
There is this long range inconsistency that comes up - how can there be disdain for (some) systems while saying ".. Freedom is found in the choiceless awareness of our daily existence and activity.."? 

I also differed with him in some other idea expansions, perhaps because of my background- I am of and from the middle-class masses.

Overall all this is minor, just small details of disagreement. 

Relevance today

If you ever find yourself exploring the nature of free thinking, J. Krishnamurti’s conversations can give much food to chew. Or maybe even give an idea to linger on just enough to reconsider  your priorities from the core up (apparently that was his ability in real life, to give a solicited suggestion or two and the person connected with it enough to take off in life again). It is remarkable that there are these recordings where his beautiful thoughts can still spring up like fresh water to a thirsty traveler. The desired effect needn't necessarily be a lofty one- the conversations are worth listening even to feel and relax in the freedom. It is a wonderful way to spend a Friday or Saturday evening!

Of what use is this Truth, this philosophical musing in general, in daily life and in ever present conflicts, big and small, you are entitled to ask. I’ll say: It has everything to do with it! It is like problem solving from the center –> out, going outwards starting from our mind, rather than the usual way which is to become clamped in societal-systems’ viselike grip in-utero onwards.

But we also know that knowing is different from understanding which stands afar from doing. We muddle through these interrelations in our own way. Indeed, there is no paved path to Truth. Truth is still is a pathless land.


1.      More about Allan Anderson is here.
2.      J. Krishnamurti’s speech to the Members of the Order of the Star in 1929.
3.      Information and  quotes are from Wiki, other Internet sources and here.