A Brief Biographical-Character Sketch of Jiddu Krishnamurti

 

Alan Gullette

Spring 1980

 

Jiddu Krishnamurti was born a Brahmin on May 11, 1895 in the town of Madanapalle, near Madras in the south of India. His father, Jiddu Narianiah, was educated at Madras University and worked as an official in the Revenue Department of the British Administration eventually becoming District Magistrate. Krishnamurti's mother was Jiddu Sanjeevamma, second cousin to Narianiah, whom she bore eleven children. Of these Krishnamurti (hereafter, "K.") was the seventh, and in keeping with tradition was named after Sri Krishna. Although not poor by Indian standards, the life of the Jiddu family was nevertheless wretched; K. -- one of the only six to survive childhood -- himself nearly died of malaria at the age of two, and when he was ten his mother did die of it.

As a boy, K. was "vague and dreamy"1 and did poorly in school, both because of disinterest and because classes were taught in Tamil and English, whereas K. spoke only Telugu. He longed to be out-of-doors, was considered to be mentally retarded, and was beaten at school as well as at home. Nevertheless, he was very sensitive to nature, standing for long stretches to look at trees and clouds or squatting to gaze at plants and insects. This characteristic he retained: he has mentioned having once watched two squirrels chase each other for two hours; and once a friend with whom he was staying on an island was worried by his four-hour absence, when K. returned to explain that he had been watching ants. He also showed a mechanical aptitude, taking his father's clock apart and reassembling it; and in later years he repaired his own motorcycle and once took apart and reassembled the engine of an expensive sport scar he had been given.

By 1909 Narianiah had retired and was working as Secretary to the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society in Adyar, Madras. It was here that K., with his brother Nityananda (Nitya), was "discovered" by Charles W. Leadbeater, an important Theosophist, who noticed the boys playing along a nearby beach. Leadbeater, who professed clairvoyance and other supernatural powers, was struck by K's aura -- "the most wonderful aura he had ever seen, without a particle of selfishness in it."2 The President of the Theosophical Society, Annie Besant, confirmed this observation and both agreed that K. was to become not only a great teacher but the "vehicle" or incarnation of the Lord Maitreya. Maitreya, in Hindu mythology, was a divine spirit that incarnated on earth every two thousand years or so to found a new, up-to-date religion. (In Buddhism, Maitreya is to be the next Buddha.) According to the Theosophical extenuation of this myth, both the Buddha and the Christ had been manifestations or avatars of Maitreya; and now the body of K. was to be prepared for divine occupation. To facilitate this process, the boy was adopted along with Nitya by Annie Besant, and thereafter they remained in the comfortable care of the Theosophists.

K. was educated privately in Europe, having failed to gain admission to Oxford, Cambridge, and London University, although he attended lectures at the latter and at Sorbonne. He learned English, eventually losing his native Telugu, and he now speaks French, Italian, and Spanish, to some extent, and perhaps other languages as well. Although he claims never to have read the Vedas, the Gospels, or any other religious or philosophical writings, he was fond of the Old Testament (especially "The Song of Solomon," then parts of Ecclesiastes, and Ecclesiasticus of the Apocrypha). Other literature he is known to have read with some interest are: Keats, Whitman, Voltaire, O. Henry, Kipling, Shakespeare, Turgenev (whom he found difficult), Sinclair Lewis, and Edgar Wallace; he once said he took delight in Shaw and Anatoly France and considered Shelley to be "as sacred as the Bible."3 Of the books he read in 1920, those which impressed him most were Dostoevsky's The Idiot and Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra. He found P. G. Wodehouse and Stephen Peacock to be hilarious. And once he said that he reads "everything that seems interesting," naming Huxley, Lawrence, Joyce, and Gide.4 But on plane trips at least, he seems to prefer dime mysteries! He enjoys theatre and watches films and television. (Students at Brockwood Park told me in 1977 that he liked to watch "Starsky and Hutch.") He appreciates art ("you go away from everything") and in music he seems to prefer classical, though he once admitted to liking jazz ("a little bit of it, but not for an hour").5

His physical training involved hygiene, yogic postures (asanas) and breathing exercises (pranayama), and sports. He is said to have had "considerable natural aptitude as an athlete."6 His favorite sports (at which he said he was "proficient")7 were tennis and golf (he was said to be a scratch player), and he also liked horseback riding, biking, and such games as volley-ball and rounders (a sort of English baseball). Once he expressed "a strong desire" to watch a World Series game.8 He takes daily walks, practices yoga for two hours a day, and used to drive -- appreciating powerful sport scars. (He was almost killed in an accident in 1929.)

Of Krishnamurti's "spiritual" training it is more difficult to speak. The Theosophists claimed to be in contact with Mahatmas or Masters who lived in the Himalayas and in the invisible city of Shambala in the Gobi Desert.9 These advanced spiritual beings overlooked all human activity, operating to lead men to Truth. Discipleship consisted of a preliminary stage of preparation and five succeeding Initiations, after which one was an Arhat or perfected one (a term borrowed from Hinduism and Buddhism). Now that a suitable vehicle had been found for the Lord Maitreya to occupy as the World Teacher, the Order of the Star in the East (OSE) was founded -- nominally separate from the Theosophical Society -- to prepare the world for the Coming (also called "the Second Coming"), and Krishnamurti was named President. For eighteen years Krishnamurti was prepared as the Vehicle and was encouraged to address Theosophical Society and OSE meetings and to write editorials for their respective publications, also writing or co-writing some very Theosophical-sounding books, with at least some aid from others.10

Leadbeater, especially, oversaw Krishnamurti's "steps on the Path," traveling with him in astral form to be presented to and to receive instruction from the Masters. Krishnamurti evidently had dreams or experiences of some mode conforming to Leadbeater's own descriptions of such astral incidents. All of these Krishnamurti later explained away as products of superficial conditioning.11 In the 1920s, when Krishnamurti began "to think for himself" he expressed doubts in the existence of the Masters and begin to speak from his own experience. Despite his respect for the aging Annie Besant, he announced to a section of the Theosophical Society that he had never been able to read through a Theosophical book, could not understand its "jargon," and was not convinced that any of the Theosophical Society lecturers had any real "knowledge of Truth."12 Finally, on December 28, 1929 he gave a famous speech dissolving the Order of the Star, proclaiming "Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect."13 The moneys and properties which had been given to Krishnamurti and to the OSE were either returned or put into trusts. The trusts Krishnamurti apparently continued to use for travel expenses, as he continued to address large audiences; but he has claimed not to really own anything apart from a few changes of clothes, being taken care of largely by rather wealthy friends. Some lands were retained to serve as talk sites, and over the years eight schools have been built on properties in four countries. Legal and other arrangements are handled by Krishnamurti Foundations in several countries.

As for Krishnamurti's "spiritual development," a peculiar paradox arises that may be of central importance to his "teaching." The first volume (of four) of his authorized biography by Mary Lutyens is subtitled The Years of Awakening and indeed the story seems to indicate a sort of progression in maturity and awareness. But Krishnamurti claims never to have had a "self" or "center" to wipe away (as he claims we do), though he does say that he "woke up rather late -- about age 33"(ca. 1928).14 This "awakening" would refer to the physical-mental process of becoming aware of precisely what was going on about him in the world from a holistic sort of perspective. Likewise, Krishnamurti claims never to have felt jealousy, envy, hatred, personal (i.e., conditional) love, etc.; but his biography clearly indicates attachment (to his brother Nitya and to a number of girls); depression and despondency (even talking about suicide); doubt in his prescribed role in world history and the wish to escape to the sylvan simplicity of a sannyasi (renunciate), sarcasm and anger, etc. Again, all of these can be explained, as Krishnamurti explains some of them, as being "superficial" in nature, pertaining to the merely physical life of the body (as when, during the worst spells of his painful kundalini-like "process" he called deliriously for his mother). He has explained that the unexpected death in 1925 of his beloved brother Nitya caused him great suffering which played an important role in his awakening;15 it seems to be the event that cleared away most of his Theosophical conditioning -- at least to the extent that his belief in the Masters was apparently destroyed. Three years before, while in Ojai, California, Krishnamurti had experienced a "spiritual awakening" that he said changed his whole outlook and which started the odd "process" with its intense pains in the nape of the neck and in the head which continued throughout his life. A month after Nitya's death, when speaking publicly of the coming of the World Teacher, Krishnamurti shifted abruptly and dramatically from the third to the first person, which was taken to be the first real manifestation of Maitreya through His new vehicle. During the next year a number of such manifestations took place, and in 1927 Annie Besant issued a statement to the Associated Press declaring "The World Teacher is here." The next year he himself claimed to be united with "the Beloved" (as he preferred to call Maitreya), saying "I am that full flame which is the glory of life" and thus explaining that for him the Beloved was not transcendental (altogether) but was "the open skies, the flower, every human being."16 Though he no longer speaks in such terms, Krishnamurti recently said in private that the Maitreya phenomenon -- taken as the manifestation of Goodness in troubled times -- seems to be "happening" with Krishnamurti. Krishnamurti thus thinks of himself as "an unconditioned one that had to come to become the hub of a world transformation."17 He does not, however, accept the "vehicle theory" and insists that any normally healthy human being can instantaneously transform himself or herself into the state that for Krishnamurti is "natural."

Krishnamurti's central themes have always been (at least since he began to speak for himself): that there is no authority in spiritual matters; that one must learn for oneself the nature of the conditioning which binds and fragments human consciousness; and that out of this learning comes a new "quality" or "dimension" of awareness which is itself "religious" -- so that one both realizes and reifies the true sacredness of Life itself.

The possibility exists, of course, that Krishnamurti is either mad or a charlatan. Arthur Nethercot, biographer of Annie Besant, holds the theory that Krishnamurti is "a sort of schizophrenic, or at least a man of a now permanently divided dual personality."18 Krishnamurti claims, for instance, not to remember the events of his life up to 1929 when he broke with the Theosophical Society, though Nethercot claims to have tripped up on this matter.19 But Mary Lutyens, on conferring with Krishnamurti, wrote in his defense: "There is no question of amnesia; he is just not interested in the past and cannot bring his mind to it and cannot see its importance... He wouldn't be able to tell you what happened a fortnight ago... He is very fully alive in the present and excited about what goes on inside himself from day to day."20 Having no interest in the memorable past or imaginary future -- and thus, having no "movement of the past as the observer" or "center" or "self" -- Krishnamurti claims to live without fear or sorrow in the non-dual life-death of the timeless present (for the present, he says, "is not of time,"21 insofar as it is only memory active as thought that gives a sense of continuity through time).

Obviously, a lot of questions remain to be answered about Krishnamurti. But, as he points out, what is really important is whether what he says is true -- and this can only be ascertained by each one individually, through direct experience.

 

 

Footnotes

 

1 Mary Lutyens, Krishnamurti: The Years of Awakening (New York: Avon, 1975), p. 4. This is the best biography, covering the period 1895-1934.

2 Lutyens, p. 22.

3 Arthur H. Nethercot The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant (University of Chicago Press, 1963), p 392n.

4 Rom Landau, God Is My Adventure: A Book On Modern Mystics, Masters, and Teachers (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936) p. 346.

5 Chicago Tribune. August 29, 1926, p 5.

6 Nethercot, p. 165.

7 Ibid., p. 229.

8 According to an article in Time, vol. 97, no. 63, June 7, 1971, p. 63, entitled "The Durable Avatar."

9 Lutyens, p. 35n.

10 These books included At the Feet of the Master, Education as Service , and The Path. The authorship of the first is the most disputed, and the work bears the style of Leadbeater; unfortunately, Krishnamurti claims not to remember the details of the matter. The second is less disputed, though the style has been likened to that of George Arundale, for a time a private tutor to Krishnamurti and later President of the Theosophical Society .

11 Krishnamurti-Bohm Dialog #6. Number six in a series of twelve dialogs which took place between April and October 1975 at Brockwood Park, near Bramdean, Hampshire, England, and at Gstaad, near Saanen, Switzerland. Although the tapes of these dialogs are not publicly available, I was allowed to listen to them, taking notes, during my visit to Brockwood in the fall of 1977. Four of the dialogs were edited and appeared as three chapters in Truth and Actuality.

12 Reported by Peter Freedman, cited in Lutyens, pp. 269-70.

13 The speech is quoted in large part in Lutyens, 293-7.

14 Krishnamurti-Bohm Dialog #6.

15 Ibid.

16 Lutyens, p. 268.

17 Krishnamurti-Bohm Dialog #10.

18 Nethercot, p. 451.

19 Ibid., p. 449.

20 Quoted in Nethercot, p. 450n.

21 J. Krishnamurti, The Impossible Question (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 42

 

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Notes

 

Mary Lutyens's mother, Lady Emily Lutyens, was also close to Krishnamurti and her very interesting memoir, Candles in the Sun (New York: Lippincott, 1957), reveals a lot about Krishnamurti's personal life, as does Mary's biography.

 

Krishnamurti died in 1986 following a battle with prostate cancer.

 

For more information, visit:

 

Krishnamurti Foundation of America

http://kfa.org/

 

 

Alan Gullette > Essays