Krishnamurti’s educational philosophy forms a complex but coherent whole. I attempt in this article to disaggregate salient aspects of this wholeness. In the process, I challenge the basis of the division, so vividly captured in Professor Meenakshi Thapan’s book Life at School, a sociological portrayal of Rishi Valley School in the 1980s, that characterizes Rishi Valley in that period as a school divided between ‘ideologues’, those who teach Krishnamurti, and ‘pedagogues’, those who teach academic subjects, such as history, biology and so on. I argue that the divide between ideologues and pedagogues is artificial. It is bridged if the values drawn from Krishnamurti’s teachings are reflected in the subjects taught at school. I believe that a close study of his work reveals a coherent set of values that can be embedded into the teaching of subjects. This requires not only a close study of his work but also a cooperative effort. A Krishnamurti school should be a work of art whose parts when fitted into a coherent whole and imbued with a living spirit of inquiry, create an afterglow—what Krishnamurti, using a French word, referred to as éclat, implying both clarity and brilliance.
This article is divided into three parts. Part one outlines several broad features of the values Krishnamurti espoused. I argue, firstly, that these values and principles drawn from his thought are not unique to him but shared with a number of philosophers, poets and ecologists. Secondly, in Krishnamurti’s talks to students and teachers we observe a vivid awareness of the reality that surrounds his educational institutions. This awareness is overlaid with a pained sense of the injustice, violence and degradation reflected in what he sees. I take this to mean that relevance to the immediate environment is an important principle in framing curricula in the schools.
Part two is a brief overview of Rishi Valley School’s history curriculum, fleshed out on the basis of selected values rooted in Krishnamurti’s teachings and exemplified in the writings of other poets, philosophers, scientists and historians as well.
Part three sketches Krishnamurti’s critique of an educational philosophy based exclusively on values and principles. It explores Krishnamurti’s concept of ‘negative thinking’, a phrase he uses interchangeably with ‘right thinking’. Negative thinking distinguishes his educational thought from liberal thought. It draws attention to what may be described as ‘educating the emotions’, but is better captured by his idea of ‘educating the whole person’.
In the winter of 1982, Krishnamurti handed me a copy of Chief Seattle’s famous speech made in 1854, addressed to the President of the United States. The Chief ’s letter contrasts the values by which the Red Man lives with those of the recently arrived white immigrants, and contains a warning. Because “all things are connected” the chief argues, “even the white man cannot escape the common destiny” of man and beast, “Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth.”
The following year, Krishnamurti gave me a book about whales. Mind in the Water is a plea to conserve the oceans and the large mammals that inhabit it. It is an anthology containing essays by leading scientists in whale brain studies, neurology and societal habits. The collection however extends beyond science to include the poets DH Lawrence, Pablo Neruda, Michael McClure as well as scholars of whale myths in world literatures. Handing me the book, Krishnamurti said,“Create a school the like of which there is no other.” It was an impossible challenge. The unspoken identification with these increasingly threatened creatures of the sea was evident from the tone of his voice.
I took these two texts as pointers to what he felt should be taught at school. I asked myself a few broader questions: Did these documents contain values that could be embedded in a larger vision for the school? Did Krishnamurti share the values of the poets and philosophers embedded in these works?
The following poem by Pablo Neruda, from Mind in the Water, does illustrate several of the values Krishnamurti’s educational philosophy has in common. The values of silence, of non-action, of solitude, of non-violence, of self-knowledge, for instance, are prized in the writings of both.
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
This one time upon the earth,
Let’s not speak any language,
Let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be a delicious moment,
without hurry, without locomotives,
all of us would be together
in a sudden uneasiness.
The fishermen in the cold sea
would do no harm to the whales
and the peasant gathering salt
would look at his torn hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars of gas, wars of fire,
victories without survivors,
would put on clean clothing
and would walk alongside their brothers
in the shade, without doing a thing.
If we could do nothing for once,
perhaps a great silence would
interrupt this sadness,
this never understanding ourselves
and threatening ourselves with death,
perhaps the earth is teaching us
when everything seems to be dead
and then everything is alive.
Now I will count to twelve
and you keep quiet and I'll go.
—Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon, tr. Stephen Mitchell
We live at a time when there are few remaining commons on the planet, and the oceans and the polar regions, for instance, are under threat. The texts that Krishnamurti gave me pointed to a realm where both the abstractions of scientists and the lyricism of poets meet in the service of conserving nature. It was an important lesson as I undertook to begin crafting study materials for the middle school students.
Another of Krishnamurti’s concern is that students and teachers cultivate the art of looking. At his school in Banaras, he asks,“You see those poor women go by, day after day, and you do not even know that they wear torn clothes and carry so much weight. You do not even notice them because you are used to them. Getting used to something is to grow insensitive to it. This process is destructive, as such a mind is a dull mind, a stupid mind.” (Fifth Talk to Students at Rajghat School, Banaras, 1954)
Krishnamurti’s exhortation drew my attention to a second, much larger area of concern. It suggested that direct perception be integrated with intellectual analysis in what we teach. Since learning cannot be merely abstract, the curriculum should be relevant to the school’s immediate surroundings. While it may be relevant in the context of creating a global outlook to study the great fires that are now ravaging the rain forest in Indonesia, it is equally important to study the fires in the surrounding hills and the reason why local shepherds are reduced to starting these fires. This draws educators into a more complex understanding of problems of poverty and degradation of landscapes. Such relevance was a second principle that I hoped to incorporate into the materials for the classroom.
In order to grasp the reach of Krishnamurti's philosophy, it is moreover necessary to step beyond curricular values to the more comprehensive area of moral responsibility and action born of responsibility. Krishnamurti held that not only individual students but schools too should be responsible for their immediate surroundings— for instance, in the case of Rishi Valley, for the barren hills, the depleting virgin forests on Rishi Konda, as well as the stone cutting, shepherding and farming communities that live here. Over a period of time, we created outreach programmes in the areas of reforestation, rural education and health. We also realized that taking responsibility was a lifelong commitment.
Based on the discussion so far, I conclude that curriculum in a Krishnamurti school should reflect both global and local contexts; and it should be coherent and value-based.
This section is meant to outline in broad brush strokes the manner in which Rishi Valley School’s history curriculum has been framed within intellectual, moral and aesthetic values embedded in the philosophy of the founder. These values include the unity of humankind, a concern for species that share the Earth with humans and a global world view. Against the backdrop of contemporary realities, these values are brought together to create a rational relationship to the past. This is based on the understanding that the past is reconstructed on the basis of evidence and that fresh evidence can overturn our understanding of the past.
This runs counter to the contemporary trends in the teaching of history, which seek to glorify the past of a nation at the expense of truth. It is clearly a disservice to students to present history in distorted ways, that is, in the face of available evidence. When students lack the ability to test beliefs against available evidence, they are unable to debate contending ideas and think independently. Debate and dialogue have ancient roots in India and remained in the public sphere as a way of settling disputes between schools of philosophy—the Jainas engaged the Bauddhas, who in turn debated with the Lokayatas, and the Nyaya philosophers in the presence of kings. Teachers too should invoke this spirit inside and outside the classroom.
From common human origins to simple and complex societies
The social studies curriculum in the Middle School, that is, in classes 7 and 8, begins with an account of Charles Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos Islands. At the end of his voyage Darwin concludes that all life forms have a common origin, that human beings have common ancestors, and so are related to each other and also to other living beings. His theory destroys old prejudices about race and caste while affirming the universality of human nature. A humanist strain in scientific thought is thus brought into the classroom.
The livelihoods of stone cutters, shepherds and cattle farmers in the isolated valley where the school is located can be traced back to prehistoric times. The diverse social formations here resonate with the observations of the great historian D.D. Kosambi. He noted that the telescoping of time, in other words, the contemporaneous existence of many stages of human development, is a general but unique feature of India’s history. According to Kosambi, India is a country of “long survivals”. His observation, in addition, helps frame the sequential development of human cultures from Stone Age societies onwards. It also clarifies an important conceptual distinction between simple societies, such as those found in the Andamans, and complex societies that emerged during Neolithic times, leading during the third millennium BCE to the cities on the Indus. Students come to understand that concepts such as‘surplus’, ‘division of labour’ and a‘hierarchical organization’ characterize complex societies.
Poems, painting and stories are used to illustrate this pre-historic period of cultural development. Wall paintings from Bhimbetka and Alta Mira, a Psalm from the Old Testament, a poem by Jalaluddin Rumi and a hymn from the Atharva Veda to the Mother Goddess round out students’ understanding of food-gathering, pastoral and farming communities. Three case studies of ancient formations surviving into modern times provide occasions for highlighting a variety of issues that are relevant to the present. One is the study of life among the food gathering tribal populations in the Andaman Islands, which focuses on the place of ritual in settling conflict between clans. This encourages pupils to examine the level of violence endemic in modern societies, in contrast with the comparatively more peaceful life of the island’s tribal population. Second, we look at the place of myth in deciphering the past, as featured in a case study of pastoralists of the Deccan. These myths explain the success of nomadic shepherding communities and their symbiotic relationship with settled farmers that emerged in the semi-arid regions of the Deccan. The aim is to provide students with a framework through which they may view the subsistence practices of the local rural population. A third culture we study is Bali, whose terraced rice fields and water-sharing rituals provide a striking example of a culture that distributes water rights in accordance with the needs of rice cultivation rather than property rights. The complex civilization that developed in Bali, without the benefit of any significant urbanization, is intended to offset the Eurocentric view that civilization is identical with city life.
The course that begins with Charles Darwin’s theory of common human origins ends with a chapter on the nature of prejudice and how prejudice afflicts our lives. Students are expected to write about their prejudices and how they overcame them. This is an exercise in ethical thinking.
Ancient Indian history is a fanatically contested field today. European racial theories of the nineteenth century cast a shadow over this period. To counter these theories, students are taught that speakers who share a language do not necessarily belong to the same race; in fact, the very notion of an Indian race characterized by a unique set of genes has never been established. The chapter reinforces the lesson that evidence drawn from very different sources, such as archaeology and linguistics, supports our understanding of the past and helps to draw the scientific spirit into the study of history. A chapter on the Indo-Europeans traces the transition from early worship of nature gods, to the growing importance of rituals and mantrams to win the gods’ favour. This eventually leads to the idea that doubt and persistent questioning of reality alone paves the path to truth. This sense of progression and change in unlikely areas, such as religion, is communicated to students. The Mahabharata is an important focus of study at this stage. The stories of Ekalavya and Karna are occasions for students to reflect on ideas of injustice in a hierarchical society.
World Religions and European History
European History, in particular, the Bill of Rights and the French Revolution, form a prelude to a study of the Indian Constitution. The constitutional protection of religious freedom is highlighted as students get acquainted with two major religious faiths, namely, Islam and Christianity (the Vedas, Upanishads, Jainism and Buddhism having been covered in earlier years). The unit provides an occasion for demonstrating that art, architecture, literature, mathematics and science flourished around each of these world religions. The interplay between the rights of the community articulated in one of Ashoka’s Edicts, which form such a distinct aspect of traditional thought, is contrasted with the modern idea of the individual as the repository of rights. The tension between the two is foregrounded today in the context of community patents, and the larger conflict over the commons.
Colonial History, the Freedom Struggle and Nationalism
Students are introduced to the great diversity of cultures found in India with a view to contrasting this with the relative homogeneity of countries in Europe, where the idea of the nation originated. Two passages detail the difference between cultural formations and military styles in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century India and Europe. The first reading consists of an extract from Vikram Chandra’s Red Earth and Pouring Rain, which describes the diversity of Indian cultures, with tribal societies existing contemporaneously with feudal ones and contrasts the slower styles of military engagements in India with the agility and superior tactics of European adventurers. The second passage is from A Voyage to Surat in which a chaplain in the employ of the East India Company urges the then Government in Britain to subsidize the Company’s commercial venture. It presupposes that the ‘general good’ is congruent with what benefits England’s commercial interests. The passage sets the stage for the study of nationalism.
The idea of nationalism is communicated to students in terms of its two salient features—territorial sovereignty and the cultural homogeneity of the people within the territory. The homogeneity is captured in the romantic ideal of the nation having ‘a soul’. Rabindranath Tagore, the great poet and Nobel Laureate from Bengal, was the first to point to the dangers of adopting nationalism as a unifying principle for a country of diverse cultures such as India. In his novel Ghare Baire—a story tracing the consequences of the swadeshi movement following the partition of Bengal—he warned against the price nationalism would extract, namely a division between the Muslim and Hindu communities. Nikhil, the tragic hero of the novel speaks for Tagore when he says, “I am willing to serve my country; but my worship I reserve for Right which is far greater than my country. To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it.” At a time when the planet is in peril and nation states spend several trillion dollars arming themselves, it is important to point out to students that divisiveness is inherent in nationalist ideologies and that it is in the interest of humanity to look at groups other than your own with sympathetic eyes.
A word of caution is however necessary at this point because nations do have a liberal side, which upholds justice and intends to transcend internal divisions. The Indian Constitution with its list of fundamental rights and guarantees of equality before the law is a commitment to justice. Students should be taught that India is founded on a secular constitution that guarantees equal rights for all its citizens. The Indian Constitution is a commitment made by men and women, among them the Dalit leader Baba Saheb Ambedkar, who struggled to win freedom with justice for all of India’s future citizens.
To orient students in a broader historical context informed by present realities, to free them from a false view of the past, to point out that pride takes second place to truth, is not to strip them of love of the country’s culture. A love of the mountains, forests and rivers is part of human consciousness; it does not have to be reinforced with military parades. “Our mind”, said Rabindranath Tagore, referring to people of this land, “has faculties which are universal, but its habits are insular”. The main thrust of Krishnamurti’s philosophy too was to break down this insularity of the individual. Freedom and truth, according to Krishnamurti, go hand in hand. Therein lies an important lesson for teaching history at school.
A rational, value-based curriculum, though important, is however only one feature of Krishnamurti schools. Krishnamurti was acutely aware of the limitations inherent in such an approach. Based on his perception that thinking and feeling are unitary, Krishnamurti critiques all institutions that treat values merely as inspirational goals, while ignoring the underlying emotions attached to the ideals they promote. He points out that values cut off from self-knowledge create the platform for the divided self. “Right thinking,” he says, “is not the outcome of mere cultivation of the intellect, nor is it conformity to pattern, however worthy and noble. Right thinking comes with self-knowledge. Without understanding yourself, you have no basis for thought; without self-knowledge, what you think is not true.” Untruth has the undertone of inauthentic emotions—patting yourself on the back narcissistically or kicking yourself masochistically. It is ‘false consciousnesses’. In its implications for education, Krishnamurti’s idea of untruth is worthy of notice:
...the discarding, the tearing through of false things, breaking down the things that man has put together for his own security, for his own inward safety, all the various defences and the mechanism of thought which builds these defences. I feel one must shatter them, go through them rapidly, swiftly, and see if there is anything beyond. (London, 11th Public Talk, 25 May 1961)
This challenge addressed to individuals, teachers, students and the population at large is intended to make persons turn their gaze inward, to face the darker sides of their nature, to cast aside their inauthentic social selves, and learn to live a life of virtue. In other words, to examine their lives not only critically but in transformative ways.“You can”, he tells students:
...observe a cloud or a tree or the movement of a river with a fairly quiet mind because they are not very important to you, but to watch yourself is much more difficult because there the demands are so practical, the reactions so quick. So when you are directly in contact with fear or despair, loneliness or jealousy, or any other ugly state of mind, can you look at it so completely that your mind is quiet enough to see it? (Freedom from the Known)
It is typical of Krishnamurti’s style of communication that the last quotation ends with a question. It is a point where the art of observing and of questioning merge. For questions spark the art of observation, and persistent questioning creates an actively observing mind. When he urges students and teachers to observe their inner lives, he is teaching them to carry over minute observation of details in the natural world into the inner landscape. The inward turning reveals a wilderness, to be observed with the eyes of a naturalist and not those of a gardener intent on pulling out weeds and manicuring the landscape.
Finally, Krishnamurti held that the ability to ‘see’ the real, however ugly, is liberating. It liberates the mind frozen in ideologies and opinions. The art of seeing things as they are releases the hidden streams of compassion:
If you can see all these things and have great sympathy and understanding— understanding for the rich who go in big cars blowing dust everywhere, and understanding for the poor beggar and the poor ekka horse which is almost a walking skeleton. Knowing all that, having the feeling of it not merely in words but inwardly. The feeling that this world is ours, yours and mine, not the rich man’s nor the communist’s, to be made beautiful—if you feel all this, then behind it there is something much deeper. But to understand that which is much deeper and beyond the mind, the mind has to be free, quiet, and the mind cannot be quiet without understanding all this. (Fifth Talk to Students at Rajghat School, Banaras, 1954)
The outstanding question is whether teachers are positioned to communicate this dimension of his educational philosophy. The responsibility of the educator to work with a free and quiet mind and help students to “to give right value to property, to relationship, to ideas”, is indeed a strenuous challenge. It is, in Krishnamurti’s words, an “arduous” task. (Madras 11th Talk, 28 December 1947)
I began by drawing on a study of the values implicit in Krishnamurti’s philosophy. I unravelled some elements of Krishnamurti’s complex educational philosophy and documented a possible application of these values to the history curriculum. I end now by locating Krishnamurti’s educational challenge in contemporary times.
Krishnamurti was a radical thinker who called for a new kind of education to bring about a good human being for a good society. He saw traditional education as a servant of national or economic interests, designed to produce chauvinistic citizens and efficient workers. In contrast, the kind of education he favoured was designed to help people to keep alive ‘a flame of discontent’. He was ever a stern critic of social conditions and the ways of living that support those conditions. He often began his talks with comments on the state of the world, followed closely by a call for change. He was acutely aware of the lack of moral progress in human history. In his long life he had witnessed two devastating wars, social revolutions and the creation of weapons of mass destruction. He saw repeated failures of disarmament campaigns, social reform, peace movements and attempts at world government.
However, Krishnamurti tempered this awareness of human deficiencies with a radiant sense of human possibilities. He offered a vision of a good society, free from all kinds of violence, aggression and brutality. He insisted that this vision was not utopian, but an actual human possibility. The agents of this kind of change would be good human beings with a robust sense of responsibility. The right kind of education would produce ‘a new generation of people’ who in turn would create a new society. I feel it is essential that teachers in these schools study his writings in much greater depth so that they are better positioned to fulfil the founder’s moral vision.
I end with a quotation that states the aims of education and the need for creating ‘the right climate and environment’, in other words culture, in his schools.
The purpose, the aim and drive of these schools, is to equip the child with the most excellent technological proficiency so that the student may function with clarity and efficiency in the modern world. A far more important purpose than this is to create the right climate and environment so that the child may develop fully as a complete human being. This means giving the child the opportunity to flower in goodness so that he or she is rightly related to people, things and ideas, to the whole of life. To live is to be related. (On Education)