You may be tall, you may have a different name … but psychologically, inwardly we are the same, similar to all other human beings … This is a fact. Therefore, you are not an individual. Now that will take a lot of investigation because we have been … programmed to believe that each one of us is an individual, separate, with his own particular soul … and this has been throughout history emphasised … by religion, through education, to maintain an illusion that you are a separate human being … But if you examine … carefully the psychological state of man, which is the inward process: the ambition, the envy, the cruelty, the self-centred activity, the suffering, … [you will see] the common ground of all human beings.
J Krishnamurti, 1st talk in Bombay, 24 January 1981
At the outset, we must be clear what the phrase ‘common ground of all humanity’ signifies. It could refer to many things—our relationship with nature, which goes back to our distant past; rationality (recall a statement made by David Bohm, “… in the past somebody like Aristotle might have said rationality is the common factor of man”, but Krishnamurti disagreed with this!); to human ingenuity and curiosity; or to self-centred activity, exploitation and suffering, a tradition that has been with us for long (and this must be what Krishnamurti referred to in the above quote).
Rather than dwell on these, I will pick up another thread which runs through the whole of human history—the problem-solving mind-set which dates to the very dawn of consciousness. Thought is the common ground on which humanity stands, and the problem-solving mind-set is central to thought. The essence of this mind-set is the ability to ruthlessly strip away inessential features, to go to the heart of a problem, to measure and compare as appropriate, and then to make use of the entire body of scientific and technological knowledge accumulated over time.
A crucial part of the problem-solving ability is the ability to compute backward and forward in time—the ability to project forward and anticipate consequences, and the ability to project backwards and work out causes for an effect seen in the present. The ability to create symbols and use them with precision in such computations is part of this ability. It lies at the root of the advances in science and technology made over the centuries. Lying alongside the technological world is the world of art, which too has had such an enormous outpouring of creative energy—architecture, sculpture, music, poetry, drama, literature…. It is a tradition stretching far back in time. And there is language itself, with its extraordinary subtlety and nuance and reach. We note here a feature common to science and art—the ability to represent an object symbolically.
Lying alongside these is the world of commerce. Money—again a symbol—is another astonishing product of thought. Looking at the superstructure of industry which underpins modern society and seeing how it can be traced to the invention of capitalism and ultimately to the invention of money, we see another example of the power of thought.
To this list we may add another—the intricate world of public governance.
Yet another area where thought reveals its nature is the world of competitive games. Play is not an invention of human beings; anyone who has kept pets will know this. But what we have done is to codify and formalise the processes—the criteria for deciding who wins and who loses and what is permitted and what is not permitted; in short, the rules of the game.
Another creation of thought—the notions of self and identity. Thought has created complex symbols and shown us ways of identifying with these symbols.
Thought has also invented a vital component of social life—gossip!
This lengthy list serves to highlight the versatility and power of thought. It shows the absolute centrality of thought in our past and present. By ‘thought’ we mean the action of the bundle of programs within us that have accumulated over the course of human history. These programs are part of the shared memory of all mankind. It is these programs which shape our world—our ideas, our words, our actions, our emotions and our relationships; in short, our way of living—not just those of individuals but of entire communities.
Much as we learn to speak with the same accent as our parents, so also for beliefs and prejudices; they seep into us. These programs do not belong to any individual; they are part of the shared consciousness of mankind. The way we internalize them reveals their tenacity, their ability to survive intact, century after century; for they reside in the myths and legends passed down from generation to generation; they reside in our language itself. We begin to realise that the common ground of humanity is also time as memory. And we begin to appreciate the absurdity of thinking of ourselves as separate individuals.
It is one of the paradoxes of life that in our actions, we repeatedly end up with results that were not ‘part of the package’. It is almost as though there is a demon within us which overpowers our good intentions. Examples are, unfortunately, easy to give. Recent examples would include Facebook and WhatsApp; both are now routinely used for purposes that were never intended—spreading fake news. Or consider nuclear or biological weapons; their origins lie in open-ended experimentation, driven by intense curiosity, not malice. How did such a phenomenon come about—curiosity being weaponised in such a deadly way? Is this an accident? It does not seem so. It seems, rather, that such phenomena are intrinsic to thought.
What is the nature of this strange entity, this bundle of programs which is the common ground of humanity, which has such immense power and fluidity, and at the same time the capacity to ‘go rogue’, namely, the capacity to create divisions and illusions and, alongside, the mind-set to assure us that the divisions and illusions are real? What sense are we to make of such behaviour?
In On Dialogue, David Bohm describes such behaviour as ‘incoherent’; he writes, “Incoherence means that your intentions and your results do not agree. Your action is not in agreement with what you expect.” This description matches what we see before us. It begins to appear, then, that incoherence is fundamentally part of the natural expression of thought.
One may rebel on hearing something so outrageous; and yet, it is not hard to see its truth. Observe, say, the phenomenon of greed; our desire to acquire more and still more. Now place this against the fact that our greed is destroying ecosystems across the Earth. Extreme examples of this are the happenings in the rainforests of Brazil and Indonesia. We know this, yet our acquisitiveness remains undimmed. We are destroying the Earth and ourselves, yet we persist… Is this not incoherence?
Is mankind aware of this incoherence—not merely of the effects and symptoms, but of the fact that there is incoherence deep within us? He may be, but only dimly so. The awareness may have found occasional expression in art and literature, but it appears not to have had any significant impact on the course of history.
Over the past four centuries, science and commerce have replaced religion as our worldview. It is worth taking a closer look at this situation. There was a time, centuries back, when the world was essentially viewed in religious terms. It was a worldview which permitted man to give meaning to his life. The meaning may have been, at bottom, artificial; but still, it was there, and it brought a stability to life. But with the onset of the Scientific Revolution and the rising dominance of a paradigm in which evidence and reason are supreme, the older worldview has steadily lost force and credibility. Matthew Arnold captures this in ‘Dover Beach’ (and the lines are movingly quoted in Don Cupitt’s BBC documentary ‘The Sea of Faith’):
...The Sea of Faith
Was once full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar...
In the worldview that science gives rise to, analysis is supreme, and since analysis essentially consists of breaking up the whole and applying reason to the parts, it is the parts in turn that become supreme. Therefore, we may as well focus on the parts and forget about the whole. This is where the strength of this approach lies—apply the sophisticated methods of analysis to the parts, then create a composite picture. It is essentially this principle at work when we plan a mission to place a probe on some distant comet; or when we design an MRI machine. And there are a million more such applications. This worldview has an extremely impressive CV!
But such a shift of worldview comes at a price. For it is inherently fragmentary in its approach; it cannot not be so. Therefore, its consequences too are fragmented and incoherent. We see this incoherence playing out before our eyes. One of the most serious consequences of this is the mayhem going on across the Earth—destruction of our natural habitat, mindless consumption… All this comes from viewing the Earth as a collection of bits and pieces and viewing ourselves as separate individuals; we take the part more seriously than the whole. (I recall hearing an interview with a lawyer who had represented a corporate entity against a representation [in a US court] by parents who had challenged the use of marketing aimed at young children. The lawyer was highly competent at his work and successfully held off the challenge. When the interviewer asked the lawyer why he had not been sympathetic to the parents, when they so obviously were in the right, he smiled and said, “Oh, but that wasn’t my job, Congress should have seen to that!”)
The same fragmentation lies underneath the world of commerce. One component of this fragmented worldview is that natural resources such as land and water bodies can be owned by individuals. Another component is time as the future—the notion that wealth can be made to grow in a deliberate manner. The idea seems simple, but its power can be seen in the industries that now cover the Earth.
But this worldview too comes with its price. In it, money is supreme. Anything and everything has its price—one only needs sufficiently deep pockets; everything is reduced to the language of the transaction. The notion of the sacred cannot exist in such a world; it is lost forever. In this cynical world, the loss would be put down as collateral damage or an incidental expense.
Here, then, are two worldviews of immense power which have replaced older worldviews. They form a deadly concoction, for they are inherently incoherent. And we see this incoherence playing out before our eyes.
When incoherence starts to threaten, a common response is fundamentalism; we shut ourselves within hard beliefs. Or we establish draconian laws and govern by force and the threat of severe punishment—exile, incarceration, torture, death. Or we turn to totalitarianism. All these effects are actually taking place at the present time.
Or we respond by going deeper into the world of entertainment—the world of glamour and speed and dazzle; anything that takes us away from the reality of our lives, from our inner poverty. We see this happening too. It is no coincidence that entertainment in its multiple forms now forms one of the major industries of the world.
It would appear that at some point in our past, thought created in us the feeling that there exists nothing else of any worth. Thought, which was once a tool, became the whole of us. It is difficult to say ‘why’ this happened. Perhaps its multipurpose capabilities created in us the impression that thought has the capacity to see the truth in all circumstances. (I am reminded of a line from a song in Fiddler on the Roof, “When you’re rich, they think you really know!”) In passing, one may note that this worshipful attitude is much evident in society today—in our worship of success, of power, of talent. This is another instance of how thought replicates its essential quality in all that it does.
Thought being so ubiquitous, we are led to ask—is there any activity which is not the result of that embedded program?
There is, surely. If one is listening to someone with the fullest extent of our faculties—which would mean listening without comparison, without judgement or condemnation, listening so that we are taking in fully what the person is trying to communicate—then, in such listening, the embedded programs are not active. And such listening is something we are all capable of; it is not a gift.
But it is also possible when we ask that question that we go off in another direction altogether. We may say to ourselves, there ‘must’ exist such a realm, logically speaking, and we then imagine for ourselves such a realm, in which action is totally different; we invent such a realm. Seeing the perishable and corruptible nature of all that lies around us, we hypothesise a state of being that is imperishable and incorruptible. (Recall that line from the beautiful hymn Abide with Me: “… Change and decay in all around I see / O thou who changest not, abide with me…”) This may actually have happened. One can say this with some confidence because there is one phenomenon with which thought is unable to make any headway whatever—namely, death. There is evidence in archaeological records to indicate man’s fascination with death even in very ancient times. For example, we find burials where flowers have clearly been placed with the body. The evidence indicates man’s struggle with the phenomenon of death, his vague inkling that death cannot be the end, that there must be something which preserves. It seems likely that religion arose in some such manner, in a primitive form. But see the irony here—deep within, there lie the underpinnings of dissonance, a sense that our success as a species is masking a truer reality, a sense that we may be in the wrong lane. Now, having sensed this dissonance, thought tries to ‘solve’ it the way that has worked so well in all other contexts—through symbolism, through imagination, through projection.
The wheel has turned full circle. We are again confronted by an emptiness within, reinforced by the discoveries of cosmology and biology, which seem to tell us that man does not count for much, that man is an accident both of chemistry and biology. (A well-known cosmologist once remarked, the more you study the universe, the more pointless it seems.) This emptiness is worse than any encountered earlier, for now we have discarded religion as well; it too is seen as empty. We are in a truly nihilistic situation.
I am reminded of a quote from Krishnamurti’s The Only Revolution, “The sadness of Life is this—the emptiness that we try to fill with every conceivable trick of the mind. But that emptiness remains. Its sadness is the vain effort to possess” (this is part of a conversation with a visitor). “[You] could see from the books in the library that he had all the latest authors … He was a rich, successful man, and behind him was emptiness and the shallowness that can never be filled by books, by pictures.…” Perhaps this line could serve as a metaphor for mankind.
Over the centuries, we have lived with the belief that knowledge can solve our problems—the more rational and reasonable we are, the fewer problems we will create. But unless we understand ourselves, we lack even the basis for such rationality; the forces operating within are too strong, and they overpower our attempts at reasonableness.
Is it possible for us to see at depth that our problems arise from the very program itself?
We have the capacity to be extraordinarily reasonable within boundaries. Incredible advances have taken place because of this logical and imaginative capacity. Similarly, we have the capacity to be tremendously creative within the boundaries of art. The same theme repeats in the world of commerce and governance. We come across astonishing stories of entrepreneurship and organisational leadership; our ingenuity seems limitless. But this understanding of truth and beauty gets expressed only within a fragment; it never seems to spill over into the larger arena of life. Somehow, the chaos within gets in the way. It seems to be a law of life that the incoherence of the inner invariably overcomes the limited coherence of the outer.
How do we get to know the nature of this program within us, which has so strong an effect on the world and which leads to such disorder? When we explore the outer world, we have our senses to aid us. We see the world, hear it, touch it, and taste it. With what sense, then, do we apprehend the program inside us? There is perhaps just one way we can do so—by the actions and reactions and thoughts and feelings it gives rise to. By way of analogy, we cannot see sound waves, but we can sense their existence by their effect. They move the eardrums, so we ‘hear’ the sound. Just so, it is our reactions which can reveal the details of this program. This, surely, is what Krishnamurti meant when he talked about looking into the mirror of relationship.
Earlier we asked—is there an activity which is not the result of that embedded program? But there is a possibility of our finding the answers only if we stop constantly calling upon the problem-solving mode.
It is said that it is only truth that can set us free, and not our attempts to free ourselves; for these attempts are in the problem-solving mode and perpetuate the fragmentation from which we are trying to free ourselves.
So, what will break the iron grip that thought has on us? Does the answer lie in seeing the fundamental truth that thought is only a tool for dealing with our environment and has no greater significance? In Think on These Things, a child asks Krishnamurti, “What is the work of man?” He replies:
… What do you think it is? Is it … to pass examinations, get a job and do it for the rest of your life? Is it to go to the temple, to join groups, to launch various reforms? Is it man’s work to kill animals for his own food? Is it man’s work to build a bridge for the train to cross, to dig wells in a dry land, to find oil, to climb mountains, to conquer the earth and the air, to write poems, to paint, to love, to hate? Is all this the work of man? Building civilizations that come toppling down in a few centuries, bringing about wars, creating God in one’s own image, killing people in the name of religion or the State, talking of peace and brotherhood while usurping power and being ruthless to others …? … And is this the true work of man? You can see that all this work leads to destruction and misery, to chaos and despair. Great luxuries exist side by side with extreme poverty, disease and starvation, with refrigerators and jet planes. All this is the work of man; and when you see it don’t you ask yourself, ‘Is that all? Is there not something else which is the true work of man?’ If we can find out what is the true work of man, then jet planes, washing machines, bridges, hostels will all have an entirely different meaning; but without finding out what is the true work of man, merely to indulge in reforms, in reshaping what man has already done, will lead nowhere. So, what is the true work of man? Surely, the true work of man is to discover truth, God; it is to love and not to be caught in his own self-enclosing activities. In the very discovery of what is true there is love, and that love in man’s relationship with man will create a different civilization, a new world.
Does the answer, then, lie in comprehending our true destiny? Surely, our destiny does not lie in the worship of thought. Surely, our responsibility is to see that thought is inherently limited and incoherent, to see that life is infinitely vaster than thought. Perhaps coming into contact with that vastness is what religion is all about, and perhaps that is our Dharma.
*Article based on a talk given at KFI Public Gathering 2017.