Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
These lines are from J. Krishnamurti’s favourite poet John Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn. The poem weaves together several ideas deriving from the classical Greek philosopher Plato: that beauty and truth are the highest values human beings can aspire to; that beauty and truth satisfy basic human needs; and that truth and beauty form a unity. Plato’s themes emerged in the context of a debate with the Sophists, the most prominent among whom proclaimed that there was no absolute truth: ‘Of all things the measure is man: of existing things, that they exist; of nonexistent things, that they do not exist.’ Under this view, the human mind imposes standards of truth and falsity, and these standards are relative. In challenging the Sophists, Plato extended the debate regarding truth to areas of knowledge, justice, education and virtue. How should a man live, what should he know and what are his responsibilities to the state? These connected questions entered the ancient debate in the philosopher’s writing.
The quotation from Keats helps to illumine Krishnamurti’s philosophical position and identify themes that run through this article on the teaching of history in Krishnamurti Schools. Lest it be felt that the nineteenth century Keats and his classical background described above have no bearing on our present concerns, I would bring to your attention the fact that we find Keats’ identity between beauty and truth repeated endlessly, sometimes verbatim, in Krishnamurti’s talks. In addition, Krishnamurti often in his writings argues against Protagorus’ famous dictum that man is the measure of all things. Krishnamurti asserts that ‘truth’ is independent of the human imagination. His idea of the good human being flows into the larger issues of the place of beauty in a life well lived, and into the arena of political concepts such as nationalism and the state. An echo of Keats rings through several of his most striking talks.
While Krishnamurti drew upon the modernist spirit of Europe and revolted against several major aspects of traditional Indian thought, he held fast to the idea of liberation. This ideal, which constitutes the central core of Indian philosophical thought, also holds that truth and beauty are facets of the same reality. The aim of this essay is to examine how this transcendental idea of truth is to be related to the everyday world of education, both in terms of our lives and the curriculum of study in the humanities. Several of the Krishnamurti schools are located in India; our students and teachers have been shaped by India’s diverse cultures as well as our colonial past. We need to take critical cognisance of our current humanities curriculum, which continues to bear the stamp of our colonial past, being the outcome of an educational system introduced in the nineteenth century by Englishmen. English is the medium of instruction in our schools, and English literature continues to play a prominent role in our curricula. A first set of questions we need to pose for the humanities in general and history in particular are the following: What kind of role do we intend for our specifically Indian heritage? And what is this country’s heritage, divided as we are by a plethora of castes, by religion and by our colonial experience? Do Indian languages, storehouses of our ancestors’ experience—of nature, of values and of education—have an illuminating presence in our classrooms? Or, are they to be studied simply as part of the examination requirements? And the broader question underlying these remains: what is the role of language in promoting culture? One must recognize that we generally fail to list the Indian languages in our enumeration of the humanities.
Having indicated some of the broader concerns of a humanities curriculum, I will focus in this essay on the question of the nature of historical truth and the related issue, how history ought to be taught in Krishnamurti schools. These questions draw us into the thicket of current academic debates about history and the role of memory in the formation of identities. Political scientists and historians acknowledge that nations use the past selectively to construct identities; that nationalism is based on partial interpretations of the past. These perennial questions for historians and history teachers everywhere lie within the range of issues addressed by Krishnamurti.
Ironically, the problems raised here are related to issues debated in the nineteenth century between the Anglicists—who called for the setting aside of oriental languages in favour of English as the medium of instruction in India and the Orientalists—who eventually lost the battle in favour of India’s languages. Their argument, as summed up by Gauri Viswanathan, runs as follows. Because Indian classical literature does not distinguish between myth and history—its great texts such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Shakuntalam are not only excessively fanciful but also mediated by caste and Brahmanical interventions—the literary traditions of India are founded in illusion rather than truth. As a consequence of this disregard for truth, Indians were seen as emotional people, and prey to the priestly order; it was believed that they lacked proper critical judgement. These Brahminised texts could therefore serve neither as a source of moral edification nor of scientific thought. On the other hand, English literature, with its access to traditions of rationality, its foundations in empiricist thought, its healthy respect for scepticism, was necessary if Indians, sunk in a state of illusion, were to be lifted out of their exaggerated sentimentalism and nurtured in critical thinking.
The virtues of European education are vividly drawn in a report of the Bombay Education Committee of 1853: ‘Our own belief is known to you; we are ready to give a reason for the faith that is in us; and we will place you in a situation by which you may judge whether those reasons are convincing or not. We will teach you History by the light of its two eyes, Chronology and Geography; you will therein discover the history and system of every religion. We will expand your intellectual powers to distinguish truth from falsehood by the aid of Logic, and Mathematics; and we will, in the sciences of Astronomy, Geology, Chemistry and Botany, lay open to you all we know of the firmament above, of the nature of the earth on which we live and the organization of the flowers which enamel its surface; and with your perceptions of the power and wisdom of God and ours, thus cleared and enlarged, we may safely leave you to distinguish truth for yourselves...’
Ancient philosophical discussion between the Buddhists and the Naiyyayikas, (as any nineteenth century scholar from Varanasi, for instance, would have informed the writers of the Bombay Report) consisted of hot debates about the nature of truth, anticipating arguments by modern European thinkers by almost fifteen hundred years. Indeed, Sanskrit intellectual traditions were at their most creative and exhibited significant characteristics of ‘early modernity’ (among other things this term includes a periodization of history) in the century just preceding the colonial presence, according to the wide-ranging sources analyzed by the Sanskritist, Sheldon Pollock. Unfortunately, in the face of late European modernity, this native intellectual tradition, ‘simply vanished as a significant force in Indian history’.
Part of the reason for this defeat as Pollock suggests, was because these seventeenth-century intellectuals did not extend their analytic minds into the realm of sociopolitical reality. He cites Anantadeva’s treatise on polity, Rajadharmakaustubha, for its failure to even acknowledge that his patron was a vassal of a Moghul king. With some delicacy Pollock hints that the tradition lost its force because it ceased to take account of its own socio-political situation. Neither could the Indian intellectuals of the period, however subtle and novel their arguments, confront the British presence in the public sphere. The diplomatically worded conclusion is clear, ‘All these phenomena—the remarkable new subtlety of argument and exposition, but directed toward the analysis of ancient categories and the establishment of archaic principles—suggests to me a curious tension in a newness that could not achieve innovation: a newness of the intellectual constrained by the oldness of the will.’ In effect, the Indian intellectual tradition had reached the ‘end of its possibilities’ because of its failure to take in the wider everyday reality.
It may be argued that the charge does not hold today, for our will is no longer old and, in the hundred-and-fifty odd years since the Bombay Report, the Indian educational system has more or less accommodated itself to the new methodologies of science and of history as public inquiry. India has proficient geologists, chemists and botanists as well as historians adept at rational reconstructions of the past. We have achieved nationhood and are ready to take on the world as equals. And yet, if we examine the emotional frenzy that led to the destruction of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya we are looking at myth and history interwoven skilfully to serve political purposes: the consolidation of Hindu identity; nationhood stamping out differences; an old myth supporting a new one.
When this way of thinking begins to infect our own students, the challenge is right there in our own classrooms. What should be our response, when this reading of history spills into an anti-Gandhi stance—that Gandhi was indirectly responsible for sending Bhagat Singh to the gallows, that he was responsible for partitioning the country? Now that history has become a contested field, when students are taught that Ashoka weakened the country by preaching ahimsa, what do we do? And do we in the Krishnamurti schools remain indifferent when we are offered formulations such as: ‘Truth is what the people believe, or that ‘What is included in history texts should not hurt the sentiments of a particular community?’ Can we refuse to participate in what is essentially a politicized debate? Or, should our response be a systematic one, woven into the fabric of our culture, our curriculum and our textbooks?
An attitude that informs some of our present thinking is that Krishnamurti was not a social reformer, that he abhorred the political sphere; therefore a separation between the worldly and the transcendental is fundamental to his thinking. Contrary to this view, which entails ignoring the political currents of our time and unwittingly endorsing textbook versions of, among other things, the freedom struggle, I believe that history teachers in the Krishnamurti schools ought to join issue with the current debate. They need to draw out and defend the values inherent in Krishnamurti—truthfulness, and a rejection of violence, of all forms of bigotry. Students ought to leave our schools with a sane attitude to the inherited past and a responsibility to the present state of affairs in their country.
I seek justification for drawing such a lesson from Krishnamurti on the following counts. Consider that in his talks and his writings through the years Krishnamurti not only referred to the contemporary situation, Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, the arms race, the appalling poverty in India, the destruction of nature and the imminent extinction of whales, but also charged his audience with responsibility for these atrocities and with remedying them. Consider too the following letter he wrote in 1975, during the State of Emergency in India:
‘From the various reports in the American, English and French papers it appears that India has become a “totalitarian state, ” thousands are being put in prison, freedom of speech and freedom of the press is almost gagged... I want to ask you what is K’s position if and when he comes to India, knowing that he will talk about freedom at all levels, which K has been doing in all the talks here, freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of expression. ...He feels he cannot modify what he says for any reason whatsoever, to suit any government or any group of people. He cannot allow himself to be put in prison or be prevented from leaving the country once he comes. I would also like to point out that K will not accept special favours or have an exemption made in his case... this is a sacred matter and the responsibility must be equally sacred.’
In refusing to draw a boundary here, between the transcendental and the worldly, I believe that Krishnamurti takes a position of uncompromising engagement with the realities of our current sociopolitical situation.
If it is essential, as Krishnamurti maintained, to live in the truth of our daily lives, if it is necessary to face the fact of what one actually is, and to have the right relationship with ideas, and property, then I would hold that the right relationship to the Indian present and to India’s past ought to be of paramount concern in our schools. Our idea of India is a product of our educational culture; what we teach in turn helps to define that culture.
I alluded earlier to Krishnamurti’s commitment to liberation as a central factor in an individual’s life. I also mentioned that he shared with traditional Indian philosophy the idea of enlightenment. We need to note here that his formulation was not based on previous expositions of the idea. Indeed Krishnamurti chose an entirely new vocabulary, eschewing the entire range of traditional terms, such as vasana, karma, sadhana and moksha. Moreover, the notion of enlightenment, as it evolved in Krishnamurti’s thought, does not in fact divide the transcendent and the worldly into separate spheres. Nor is liberation an ideal for that time of life when decrepitude sets in. Indeed, he established schools so that teachers and students could together learn what liberation is—the starting point for him was freedom from anger, ambition, jealousy, greed, all those basic emotions that fuel prejudice and lead to violence.
‘Eventually we may safely leave you to distinguish truth for yourselves.’ This was the promise of the Bombay Report: to base educational processes on rational and universal ground, thereby setting Indians free to create their own informed opinions about not only their past but about other cultures as well. The Report, despite its lofty tone, and its hidden premise that Indian thought lacks any inkling of empirical or mathematical truths, does not however deny that with sufficient knowledge (of Western thought), Indians are capable of distinguishing truth from falsity; that human nature in some essential respects is the same; that human nature is everywhere the same and equally capable of discovering what is true is a fundamental datum of Krishnamurti’s philosophy: ‘You are the world. You are not a Russian or an American, you are not Hindu or Muslim. You are apart from these labels. You are the rest of mankind.’ And because human nature is the same—subject to anger, jealousy, hatred—it is possible for human beings, anywhere, to become liberated from these emotions.
The question whether general truths are really partial points of view elevated to universals takes us into the area of historiography, and the challenges posed by postmodernist thinkers regarding the nature of historical truths. That a historian’s first principles are beyond the reach of rationality is a prevalent view in the Humanities departments across the world. It is the belief that critical thinking and rules of evidence will not by themselves lead to a common point of truth, not because there is anything wrong with the methods they use but because the basic premises of various schools of historians differ. Their separate premises dictate the manner in which evidence is interpreted, and even what is acceptable as evidence.
The position put forward by Edward Said in his critique of nineteenth century Orientalist scholars—who studied the past of subjugated peoples and attempted to resurrect their erstwhile greatness—is opposed by the historian Irfan Habib in the following: ‘Like any branch of knowledge, the essential requirement of History is the pursuit of truth. This requires one to collect and sift evidence critically. Bias, whether religious, racial, regional or national, or any other, if allowed free rein over facts, can subvert its very purpose.’
Habib elaborates the point against Said in more detail: ‘Edward Said concedes in his Afterword that he did not wish to deny the “technical” achievements of the “Orientalists”. He should, however, have paused to examine what these technical aspects amount to. In essence, these flow from the assumption that non-European peoples can be studied by the same methods and criteria as the European. The concept of the “other”, the initial point of colonial discourse, was thus continuously undermined by the universality of the scientific method that the Orientalist needed to be committed to. That is often why the prejudices and aberrations of one generation of Orientalists were exposed and rejected by the next.’
Essentially, Irfan Habib’s position is close to the Bombay Education Report, which held that truth is anonymous and universal. However there is one important difference. Habib’s statement above implies that truths of history, and those of science, are not absolute, while no such implication need follow from the Bombay Report. Just as Einstein’s theories replaced Newton’s so also the nineteenth century views of the Indian past have today been supplanted; no conclusion of either science or history is ever final. Fresh evidence and new paradigms of investigation will overturn the most persuasive hypothesis. Religious beliefs claim a foundation in eternal truths, whereas science and history are based on falsifiable propositions.
I suggest that Krishnamurti schools join hands with the historian who says that the essential requirement of historical inquiry is truth. I seek support for this view on both an interpretation of Krishnamurti’s text as well as on more pragmatic grounds. Krishnamurti’s central concern is to set human beings (as he put it in 1929) ‘unconditionally free’. In his mature philosophy he talked of liberating inquiry from the shackles of memory, that is, from attachment to the past, both the shared past and the private, emotional past. And he talked against all those constructions, such as nationalism, tribalism, religious tradition, family tradition, that are offshoots of attachments nourished by pride.
‘Something, some psychological vitamin, is lacking in modern civilization, and as a result we are all more or less subject tothis lunacy of believing whole races or nations are mysteriously good or mysteriously evil.’ This is from George Orwell’s essay on Anti-Semitism; the observations in the essay are based on a premise similar to Habib’s, that truth is universal and adherence to it essential if we are to study any subject scientifically. Orwell, however, doubts whether the scientific attitude, which Habib describes as ‘sifting evidence’, can easily be extended in that area where emotions and self-interest are involved. Krishnamurti also shared the universalist claim, that truth is universal and prejudice has no place in the search for truth. And because his conception of truth went beyond the truths of history and the truths of science and encompassed the truths of life, he made a greater effort to find the ‘vitamin’ that would allow a human being, in Orwell’s words, to ‘start his investigation in the one place where he could get hold of some reliable evidence—that is, in his own mind’. Removing prejudice requires a far more dedicated effort, Krishnamurti has explained, than sifting evidence, partly because it is a disease that infects the living tissue of the mind, nerves, emotions and intellect. To learn to look at reality, past these emotionally charged thought-feelings, is at the heart of Krishnamurti’s educational philosophy.
To understand and withstand the pressure of tradition you must have, not strength, but confidence—the tremendous confidence which comes when you know how to think things out for yourself. But you see, your education does not teach you how to think; it tells you what to think. You are told that you are a Muslim, a Hindu, a Christian, this or that. But it is the function of right education to help you to think for yourself, so that out of your own thinking you feel immense confidence. Then you are a creative human being and not a slavish machine.
In his talks with students, he wanted students to observe the deeply-rooted prejudices that cling to words: ‘Watch your own responses and you will see that words like “lawyer”, “businessman”, “governor”, “servant”, “love”, “God”, have a strange effect on your nerves as well as on your mind. It is very important to be aware that certain words cause in you a nervous, emotional, or intellectual response of approval or condemnation.’
To liberate students and teachers from deeply embedded sources of prejudice, according to Krishnamurti, requires honest self-questioning, followed by a detached observation of the mind’s response to these challenges. Silent and non-judgemental observation of the mind’s reactions, its tendency to approve, identify with, disapprove and disavow, open avenues to freedom and compassion. ‘Look, ’ he told his student audiences, ‘not with your mind but with your eyes.’
The kinds of questions Krishnamurti posed to students to make them critically aware of their responses are instructive. Pointing to their social conditioning, he asked middle-class students in Varanasi, the heartland of Hindu orthodoxy, questions such as: ‘Why do you treat women contemptuously? Why do you go to the temple, why do you perform rituals, why do you follow a guru?’ Krishnamurti listed out for male students the kinds of things they might fear, for instance: ‘Suppose you wanted to marry a person not of your own caste or class; would you not be afraid of what people might say?’ And to the girls: ‘If your future husband did not make the right amount of money, or if he did not have position or prestige, would you not feel ashamed?’ The questions were meant to free them from conforming to emotions instilled by social forces.
Two basic premises, that the self is constructed out of multiple influences and that it is possible to step beyond the perspectives it imposes, govern the idea of liberation in Krishnamurti’s thought. Krishnamurti claimed these premises were not to be taken on faith, but could and should be observed as they operate.
It is not possible to do justice to the Keatsian identification of truth with beauty that I quoted at the beginning of my introduction. Let me just say that beauty has hardly any role in the Indian educational system today, and remind you in passing that Krishnamurti made a very clear distinction between art and beauty. For him the place of beauty was nature and the silent mind—not manmade artefacts. As he told the students in his schools: ‘Just look at the stars, the clear sky, the birds, the shape of the leaves. Watch the shadow. Watch the bird across the sky. By being with yourself, sitting quietly under a tree, you begin to understand the workings of your own mind and that is as important as going to class.’
A glorification of the past and pride in the nation are replacing truth in the world we are creating for our children. Krishnamurti tried to show instead that true freedom lies in a return to the demands that truth and beauty place on humanity.
To orient students in a broader historical context informed by present realities, to free them from a false view of the past, to help them understand that pride has nothing to do with truth, is not to strip students of their culture. Detachment is an ancient virtue and, in the context of education, plays the important role of freeing human beings from narrowly defining themselves in terms of a mythologized past. Freedom and compassion, according to Krishnamurti, go hand in hand. Therin lies an important lesson for all of us.
- Habib, Irfan. ‘In Bad Faith’. The Little Magazine, Vol. III. No. 2, July, 2002.
- Jayakar, Pupul. Krishnamurti: A Biography. New Delhi: Penguin India, 1987. Krishnamurti, J. Life Ahead. London: Victor Golancz, 1963 (KFI Reprint).
- Krishnamurti, J. On Education. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1974 (KFI Reprint).
- Orwell, George. ‘Anti-Semitism in Britain’ in George Orwell: Essays. London: Penguin Books.
- Pollock, Sheldon. ‘New Intellectuals in Seventeenth Century India’.‘The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 38.1. New Delhi: Sage Publications’, 2001.
- Viswanathan, Gauri. Masks of Conquest. New Delhi: Oxford, 1998.
The value of history is, indeed, not scientific but moral:
by liberalizing the mind, by deepening the sympathies,
by fortifying the will, it enables us to control, not society,
but ourselves — a much more important thing; it prepares
us to live more humanely in the present and to meet
rather than to foretell the future.