Of the great Indian religious philosophers born in the nineteenth century, Krishnamurti was the youngest as well as the most radical. Unlike Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo and Ramana Maharishi, the three other nineteenth century religious teachers who achieved international status, Krishnamurti took a stand outside of tradition, and fashioned his own language to communicate his thought. In some very important sense then Krishnamurti was a religious modernist.
The phrase ‘religious modernist’ strikes an anomalous note, since religion is associated with tradition and with what is supposedly true eternally, while modernism challenges the verities of tradition in favour of the vagaries of the everyday. So one of my tasks here will be to unravel this anomaly.
I am going to set this exploration of Krishnamurti’s religious philosophy against the backdrop of his life and the historical context that shaped the world he grew up to address in his mature years. In particular, I will compare and contrast his view of life with the notion of modernity that has emerged in the past two or more centuries, a notion that comes in many garbs. Often in our country being modern is equated with adopting a‘Westernized’ outlook on life. I want to unravel here the original response of an Indian-born thinker who accepted modernitywithout clothing it in Western garb.
Let me begin by saying a few words about the idea of modernity and its relationship to freedom. Men and women have struggled long and hard to win modern freedoms. The movement began in the West, where people at one time used to see themselves as part of a larger order. This order was presided over by God and by rules that governed important aspects of life, rules which determined who you were, how you worked, how you related to the opposite gender, where you lived, what gods you worshipped and how you chose to worship Him. Modern freedoms emerged through long struggles led by philosophers and intellectuals, who questioned and ultimately discredited this traditional order. Under their scrutiny, God, religious heads, the Bible and the Church no longer remained ultimate authorities. Men and women, as a result of three hundred years of revolt, have won the freedom to choose who they are, how they want to work, how they will relate to the opposite gender, what gods they will choose or not choose to worship. In the most abstract sense, modernity is associated with the emergence of the individual. This is the view that you are the architect of your own life, that you believe what you want to; that you live in ways that are very different from your ancestors, who may have been carpenters, while you decide to be a professor.
Modern ideas have been with us for close to two hundred and fifty years. While we are passionately drawn to the ideas modernity represents, we are also now sharply aware of the dangers that it brings in its wake. The price we are paying for modern freedoms is everywhere visible. With each individual seeking to fulfil his or her own potential, with the death of joint families and the emergence of nuclear ones, we are giving up the sense of obligation to the larger clan and the group. We tend to live self-absorbed lives, ‘enclosed in our own hearts’. The average person has no wider commitments than staying at home watching videos and eating pizzas. Comfort is the great god here. So the idea of freedom, which in India we first inherited from our colonial rulers, has become a very small thing: whether to buy attar or cologne, whether to eat bhel puri or pizza, whether to go to Hindi films or Hollywood films. Busy with their own careers and relationships, pleasure and survival dictate the rules of conduct of most men and women. Nor are we as a people able to summon the will to solve the terrible problems that afflict our country: the communal violence which surrounds us, the enormous disparity between rich and poor, the injustice and inequity that result from diverting resources of the earth for industrial purposes, the environmental degradation that may eventually destroy the resource base— clean air, clean food and clean water—that is the basis of life on earth.
Modernity is a condition that is best defined negatively, through contrast with and a revolt against the status quo of tradition. So I will begin by examining those aspects of tradition that Krishnamurti freed himself from. Here we may keep in mind a crucial aspect of the concept of modernity, which is its association with freedom. However, modernity defines itself as much through what it renounces as by what it aims to achieve. Hence we will end by looking at the kind of freedom Krishnamurti’s embrace of modernity promises.
Krishnamurti was born sixteen kilometres from Rishi Valley, in what was then the small town of Madanapalle. His father’s house was one of two that stood on Raghavendra Street, commanding a view of the river and distant woods beyond which lay the Basanikonda hill. The two-storey houses on this secluded street proclaimed the orthodoxy of its Brahmin owners. The ground floor was his mother’s world, with the room where her children were born set at right angles to the main entrance with its own separate door to the outside world. The entrance opens 18 out onto a series of rooms and leads to an open courtyard at the end of the house. In the courtyard is the sacred shrine to the Tulsi plant. In the north-eastern corner is the pooja room. The sacred lamp once burned in a niche in the wall that separated the pooja room from the kitchen. This was the mother’s world.
The first floor was the father’s domain. One reaches it without entering the ground floor, via a stairway located at the entrance. Public and private spaces mingled on this floor. As revenue officer, the father worked here in the daytime, but it was also here that the family slept at night.
An entirely new perspective opens out on the terrace where the sky and the encircling horizon touch the surrounding hills. Krishnamurti renounced the world of his father and the world of his mother, and aspired to the freedom represented by the open skies.
Krishnamurti was heir to two traditions: the tradition of his birth, as a Telugu-speaking Brahmin, and the tradition in which he was educated as adopted son and heir of Annie Besant. From the former, which sanctifies daily life with its cycle of devotional rituals, he inherited a sense of the wholeness and sacredness of life. Krishnamurti describes the enchanted world that his mother, with her gift for music and her ‘melodious voice’ created for her children. “She used to talk to me about Sri Krishna, and hence created an image in my mind of Sri Krishna with the flute, with all the devotion, all the love, all the songs, all the delight. You have no idea what a tremendous thing that is for the boys and girls of India.” Krishnamurti was speaking to a Western audience in 1927, when the boys and girls of India were quite different from what they are today. For this generation the world of the home was presided over by gods, whose saga was evoked through songs written by great musicians. Strictly enforced rituals gave the family a sense of living in a continually sanctified world. But when Krishnamurti’s mother died in 1906, the wholeness of his world began tounravel.
In 1927, Krishnamurti looked back on this unravelling world without nostalgia. There is admiration without a hint of wanting to return to this enchanted world conjured up by devotion; instead there is an acknowledgement that other cultures and religions would certainly have had their own visions of beauty and wholeness in the past. “Had he been born into a Christian household he would have had visions of Christ.” There is no trace here of fundamentalism, which is nostalgia for a lost world of innocence and righteousness. What becomes evident is the sense that we all, Hindu and Christian alike, look at the world through our varied frameworks of subjectivity. Thus easily and without regret, Krishnamurti frees himself from his mother’s religiosity. In freeing himself thus he learns something universally true—that subjectivity has a crucial role in shaping religious experience.
Let us now turn to Krishnamurti’s paternal traditions. Our paternal traditions leave a more tenacious legacy, and so it was with Krishnamurti’s. The Brahmanical tradition had begun to unravel in the eighteenth century, when the British became the paramount power in the country. Three generations of Krishnamurti’s ancestors had worked with the English-speaking government of the day. His great-grandfather, as official Pandit to the East India Company interpreted Hindu law to rulers who upheld the ideals of equality before law. The foreigner’s principle that law is blind, and that all men are equal in the eyes of justice, had gradually undermined the Brahmanical view that particular groups of men are truth-tellers and other groups are not, that they are therefore to be accorded a specially privileged place by society. The reforms to the system of law brought in by the British, introduced Indians to a new way of looking at society, to relations between man and man, and eventually challenged the privileged position of the Brahmins. A partial unravelling ofthe paternal tradition was then a colonial legacy.
By the time Krishnamurti’s father came of age, privileged positions in society increasingly belonged to those who, irrespective of caste, acquired the new learning available at the three Presidencies of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. Bowing to the necessities of the time, Krishnamurti’s father, G. Narayaniah, turned away from his own tradition to study at the University of Madras and, later, found employment in the revenue department of the Presidency. Surprisingly, in 1882 Narayaniah joined a new religious society. The society was founded in New York by a Russian and an American and was called the Theosophical Society (TS). In the society’s tenets he found an echo of his own religious past, because the Theosophists were deeply influenced by Hindu and Buddhist ideas and considered India the Promised Land. The founders had moved to India and set up their headquarters at Adayar, a suburb of Madras, in the same year that Narayaniah joined the Society. Each year he attended its annual convention, and there he met Annie Besant. Thereafter, a photograph of Mrs Besant seated cross-legged on a deer skin hung in the pooja room of Narayaniah’s house, along with pictures of other Hindu divinities.
Narayaniah, like so many other Hindus of his time and station in life, probably joined the TS in order to restore the dignity and standing in society that had been lost. Had not the older Theosophists told their student audiences: ‘the need of the hour in India is to make it possible for every undergraduate and graduate to see for himself how much Aryan thought was in Harmony with modern scientific discovery, how his ancestors had traversed the whole field of knowledge and how proud and glad he ought to be that he was of their blood, the heir of their wisdom?’ (Old Diary Leaves, p. 129) And had not Annie Besant donned the sacred thread when she came to India?
After the death of his wife in 1905, and his own retirement, Narayaniah moved with his large family of children to the TS compound at Adayar, where Mrs Besant had arranged a clerical position for him. There was great excitement in the Society, for the Messiah, variously called Maitreya and World Teacher, had been discovered in the person of a Dutch boy, the Messiah who would usher in a new age, whose advent had been predicted by the founder of the TS.
Narayaniah was a clerk in the Esoteric Section of the TS, a small secret group whose members communed with the powers that govern the world and help mankind ascend the path of evolution—from the material world to the world of spirit. This path, as conceived by Annie Besant and her colleague Charles Leadbeater, was like an ascending ladder, each spiritual stage represented by a rung. The World Teacher would himself have to ascend this ladder, his journey supported by Besant and Leadbeater, as well as by spiritual Masters. Who were these spiritual masters? A true spiritual guide, according to her doctrine, was: “A man of profound knowledge, exoteric and esoteric, especially the latter, and one who has brought his carnal knowledge under the subjection of the will; who has developed in himself both the power (siddhi) to control the forces of Nature, and the capacity to probe her secrets by the help of the formerly latent but now active powers of his being.”
Narayaniah’s status in the TS changed dramatically when the Dutch boy’s claims were set aside and the Theosophists discovered the World Teacher in the person of his son, the 14year old Krishnamurti. Modifying the premises of her own educational work in India, Annie Besant decided to educate Krishnamurti in Europe, with the hope that he would join the great universities of England. Krishnamurti failed to gain entrance to these universities. Instead, in 1922 at the age of twenty-seven he retreated to the Ojai Valley in the United States to work out his own destiny.
At this point one must remember that Krishnamurti spent the early decades of the twentieth century in Europe. And even though he was hardly an exemplary student, he was an acute observer of the human condition. In France he read Dostoevsky, grew to admire Nietzsche and attended the Sorbonne lectures of Henri Bergson. As a young student in Europe, between 1909 and 1922, he witnessed the anguish that followed the First World War and the failures of a civilisation. The ground for the radical break with the past was gathering force all around him: in literature, poetry, political thought and philosophy. His own dissatisfaction with the role of World Teacher seemed to echo the dissatisfaction with established norms that he witnessed inEurope.
By 1927, Krishnamurti had reached the conclusion that the age in which he found himself was ‘an age of revolution and turmoil’. His dissatisfaction reflected the spirit of the time: not to take anything on faith but to affirm ‘the desire to know everything for oneself’. When he began to think for himself, he found himself in revolt, and this revolt became the precondition of wholeness and creative renewal. The modern spirit of doubt broke through the unity and continuity achieved by the traditions he was brought up in; the past, he now began to see as meaningless at best and imprisoning at worst. There was no longer any received moral or sacred order: individuals have to construct their own. They are free to choose what to believe, to create their own pattern of life and their own ‘way in the world’. In essence, modernity places the individual (who in tradition is organically linked to a community and to God) at the centre of the universe, alone. This found an affirming echo in Krishnamurti. In breaking away from his adopted faith, Krishnamurti reflected the spirit of his time.
Thus, instead of endorsing the doctrines of Theosophy, which maintain that truth has many facets, that it can be reached through ascending the ladder, or that great Masters guide the individual along this ascending path, Krishnamurti very simply declared that Truth was something each individual had to discover, without any outside help from Masters or Gurus.‘Truth is a pathless land, ’ he said, withdrawing the religious lifefrom the sphere of tradition. While emphatically asserting theexistence of truth, he placed truth beyond traditionalframeworks of the old, the known and practised religions. Henceforth he rejected all organised religions, denying thattradition could become a true guide to truth.
Renouncing traditional religion, Krishnamurti accepted one of the cardinal principles of modernity, the notion that individuals, as autonomous beings, are responsible for their own lives. Paradoxically, he used the Buddha’s words, “Be a lamp unto yourself, hold fast to the lamp of truth, ” to underline this embrace of modernity. But he borrowed the phrase without appropriating the traditions it had created. In Krishnamurti’s hands, the phrase became a maxim from which he continued, throughout his life, to draw out multiple meanings of his own: to criticise the hedonism of modern life as well as to set aside the idea of conscience as a guide to truth and action. Above all, he used the phrase to point out that individuals are not really individuals. A true individual is indivisible. Here Krishnamurti pointed to the underlying etymological meaning of the word, and pressed the demand implicit in this hidden meaning—that individuals become authentic and undivided.
In insisting that individuals are not really individuals, that the individual self is divided, Krishnamurti went beyond modernity. The whole thrust of his teaching is about freedom from conditioning, from the collective will encoded in memory. Freedom from your father’s voice and your mother’s voice which lies buried in you, and in which you sometimes speak, freedom from the forces of society that push you into a pattern. This, for Krishnamurti, was the new paradigm of freedom.
“One is not born oneself. One is born with a mass of expectations, a mass of other people’s ideas—and you have to work through it all.” The words of the novelist V. S. Naipaul help sum up Krishnamurti’s own notion of the incomplete and conflicted nature of individuals. To become a light unto yourself you have to ‘work through’ or silence these voices from the past. For it is conflict, between the idealised images of the self acquired from family and society and the reality of ‘what is’, that makes for the divided self. If in Krishnamurti’s teaching are interwoven two of the major ingredients of modernity, its rejection of tradition as authority and its emphasis on everyday life, these themes are transformed through the larger promise of ‘absolute freedom’. ‘Absolute freedom’ is won when the inner compulsions of individual lives—the envy, pettiness, ambition and hatred that afflict everyday lives and prevent individuals from being truly human—are silenced and neutralised. From that silent quenching of the composite self, the true individual emerges—free, undivided and authentic. The way to authenticity, Krishnamurti pointed out, is through relentless observation of daily life, through constant questioning and a deepening self-knowledge.
Krishnamurti was thirty-four years old when he declared truth to be a pathless land and freed himself from the long hand of his paternal legacy. The journey that had brought the young man to a new conception of freedom went beyond modernism and the nihilism that shadows it. So, Krishnamurti’s philosophy, while embracing some basic premises of modernity, went beyond its limiting features. In summation one might say that Krishnamurti’s thought is neither Eastern nor Western; it is nevertheless deeply relevant to each individual in our troubled times.
A talk given at the morning assembly at Rishi Valley School in the ‘Millennium’ series.