Family background and childhood
Jiddu Krishnamurti was born on May 12, 1895 (May 11 according to the Brahminical calendar), in the small town of Madanapalle in Chittoor District in Andhra Pradesh about 150 miles (250 km) west of Madras (nowadays Chennai). His family was of Telugu-speaking Brahmins. His father, Jiddu Narianiah, was employed as an official of the then colonial British administration. His parents were second cousins, having a total of eleven children, only six of whom survived childhood.
In 1903, the family settled in Cudappah, where Krishnamurti, during a previous stay, had contracted malaria, a disease with which he would suffer recurrent bouts over many years. He was a sensitive, dreamy and sickly child and was often taken to be mentally retarded. He was beaten regularly at school by his teachers and at home by his father. In memoirs he wrote when he was eighteen he describes psychic experiences he had during that time, having seen his sister after her death in 1904, and his mother who had died in 1905 when he was ten.
Even though an observant orthodox Brahmin, Krishnamurti’s father Narianiah had been a member of the Theosophical Society since 1882. Narianiah retired from work at the end of 1907, and, being of limited means, wrote to Annie Besant, then president of the Theosophical Society, seeking employment at the Theosophical headquarters estate at Adyar. He was eventually hired by the Society as a clerk, and he moved with his family to there in January, 1909. Narianiah and his four dependent sons were at first assigned to live in a small cottage that lacked adequate sanitation and which was located just outside of the Theosophical compound. As a result of poor living conditions, Krishnamurti and his brothers were soon undernourished and infested with lice.
It was in April of 1909 when Krishnamurti was encountered by a prominent occultist and high-ranking theosophist C.W. Leadbeater, who claimed clairvoyance. During his forays to the Theosophical estate’s beach at the near Adyar river, Leadbeater had noticed Krishnamurti (who also frequented the beach with others), and was amazed by the “most wonderful aura he had ever seen, without a particle of selfishness in it”. This strong impression was notwithstanding Krishnamurti’s outward appearance, which, according to eyewitnesses, was pretty common, unimpressive, and unkempt. The boy was also considered “particularly dim witted”, he often had a “vacant expression” that “gave him an almost moronic look”. Leadbeater remained unshaken that the boy would become a great teacher.
Pupul Jayakar, in her biography of Krishnamurti, quotes him speaking of that period in his life some 75 years later:
The boy had always said, ‘I will do whatever you want’. There was an element of subservience, obedience. The boy was vague, uncertain, woolly, he didn’t seem to care what was happening. He was like a vessel, with a large hole in it, whatever was put in, went through, nothing remained
Writing about his childhood in his journal, Krishnamurti wrote:
“No thought entered his mind. He was watching and listening and nothing else. Thought with its associations never arose. There was no image-making. He often attempted to think but no thought would come.
Following the discovery, Krishnamurti was taken under the wing of the leadership of the Theosophical Society in Adyar and their inner circle. Leadbeater and a small number of trusted associates undertook the task of educating, protecting, and in general preparing Krishnamurti as the “vehicle” of the expected “World Teacher”. Krishnamurti and his younger brother Nitya were privately tutored at the Theosophical compound in Madras, and later exposed to a relatively opulent life among a segment of European high society in England in order to complete their education. In spite of his history of problems with school work and concerns about his mental abilities and physical condition, the fourteen year old Krishnamurti was within six months able to speak and write competently in English.
During this time, Krishnamurti developed a strong bond with Annie Besant, and came to view her as a surrogate mother. His father, being pushed into the background by the swirl of interest around Krishnamurti, sued the Theosophical Society in 1912 to protect his parental interests. After a protracted legal battle, Besant took legal custody of Krishnamurti and his brother Nitya. As a result of this separation from his family and home, Krishnamurti and his brother became extremely close to each other, and in the following years they often traveled together.
The Theosophical Leadership in 1911 established a new organization called the Order of the Star in the East in order to prepare the world for the aforementioned coming of the World Teacher. Krishnamurti was named as its head, with senior Theosophists in various positions. Membership was open to anybody who accepted the doctrine of the coming of the World Teacher. Controversy erupted soon after, both within the Theosophical Society and without, in Hindu circles and the Indian press.
Mary Lutyens, in her biography of Krishnamurti, states that there was a time when he fully believed that he was to become the “World Teacher”, after correct spiritual and secular guidance and education. Another biographer describes the daily program imposed on him by Leadbeater and his associates, which among other things included rigorous exercise and sports, tutoring in a variety of school subjects, theosophical and religious lessons, yoga and meditation, as well as instruction in proper hygiene and the ways of British society and culture.
Unlike sports, where he showed a natural aptitude, Krishnamurti always had problems with formal schooling and was not academically inclined. He eventually gave up university education after several attempts at admission. He did take to foreign languages, eventually speaking several languages (French and Italian among them) with some fluency. In this period, he apparently enjoyed reading parts of the Old Testament, and was impressed by some of the Western classics, especially Shelley, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. He had also, since childhood, considerable observational and mechanical skills, being able to correctly disassemble and reassemble complicated machinery.
His public image, as originally cultivated by the theosophists, “…was to be characterized by a well-polished exterior, a sobriety of purpose, a cosmopolitan outlook and an otherworldly, almost beatific detachment in his demeanor.” And in fact, “…All of these can be said to have characterized Krishnamurti’s public image to the end of his life.” It was apparently clear early on that he “…possessed an innate personal magnetism, not of a warm physical variety, but nonetheless emotive in its austerity, and inclined to inspire veneration.” However, as Krishnamurti was growing up, he showed signs of adolescent rebellion and emotional instability, chafing at the regimen imposed on him, and occasionally having doubts about the future prescribed him.
Krishnamurti and Nitya were taken to England for the first time in April of 1911. It was on this trip that Krishnamurti and his brother first encountered Lady Emily Lutyens, wife of the prominent architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. Lady Emily, then 36 years old and active in the Theosophical Society, had five children including daughter Mary Lutyens, who was to become Krishnamurti’s principal biographer and lifelong friend. The adolescent Krishnamurti and Lady Emily formed a strong emotional attachment, which was at times frowned upon by the highest ranking members of the intensely insular Theosophical Society as well as by a frustrated and skeptical Edwin Lutyens.
In 1922, Krishnamurti and Nitya travelled from Sydney to California on their way to Switzerland. It was thought that the mountain climate of Ojai in California would be beneficial to Nitya, who had been diagnosed with Tuberculosis. While in California, they lodged in a cottage in a secluded valley, offered to them for the occasion by an American member of the Order of the Star. For the first time, the brothers were freed from the immediate supervision of the Theosophists. They used the time constructively by engaging in spiritual contemplation and planning their futures within the World Teacher Project. It was also at this time that the brothers first met Rosalind Williams, the sister of a local Theosophist, who eventually became close to them both. Krishnamurti and Nitya found the Ojai Valley to be very agreeable, and eventually a trust, formed by supporters, purchased for them the cottage and surrounding property, which henceforth became Krishnamurti’s official place of residence.
Spiritual Awakening – the Process
It was there, in August 1922, that Krishnamurti went through an intense, “life-changing” experience. It has been simultaneously, and invariably, characterized as a spiritual awakening, a psychological transformation, and a physical “conditioning”. Krishnamurti and those around him would refer to it as “the process”, and it continued, at very frequent intervals and varying forms of intensity, until his death. Witnesses recount that it started on the 17th, with extraordinary pain at the nape of Krishnamurti’s neck, and a hard, ball-like swelling. The next couple of days, the symptoms worsened, with increasing pain, extreme physical discomfort and sensitivity, total loss of appetite and occasional delirious ramblings. Then, he seemed to lapse into unconsciousness; actually, he recounted that he was very much aware of his surroundings and while in that state, he had an experience of “mystical union”. The following day the symptoms, and the experience, intensified, climaxing with a sense of “immense peace”.
He later recounted
…I was supremely happy, for I had seen. Nothing could ever be the same. I have drunk at the clear and pure waters and my thirst was appeased. …I have seen the Light. I have touched compassion which heals all sorrow and suffering; it is not for myself, but for the world. …Love in all its glory has intoxicated my heart; my heart can never be closed. I have drunk at the fountain of Joy and eternal Beauty. I am God-intoxicated.
Similar incidents continued with short intermissions until October, and later eventually resumed regularly, always involving varying degrees of physical pain to mark the start of the “process”, accompanied by what is variably described as “presence”, “benediction”, “immensity”, and “sacredness”, which was often reportedly “felt” by others present.
Several explanations have been proposed for the events of 1922, and “the process” in general. Leadbeater and other theosophists, although they expected the “vehicle” to have certain paranormal experiences, were mystified by the developments, and were at a loss to explain the whole thing. The “process”, and the inability of Leadbeater to explain it satisfactorily, if at all, had other consequences according to biographer R. Vernon:
The process at Ojai, whatever its cause or validity, was a cataclysmic milestone for Krishnamurti. Up until this time his spiritual progress had been planned with solemn deliberation by Theosophy’s grandees. …Something new had now occurred for which Krishna’s training had not entirely prepared him. …A burden was lifted from his conscience and he took his first step towards becoming an individual. …In terms of his future role as a teacher, the process was his bedrock. …It had come to him alone and had not been planted in him by his mentors…It provided Krishna with the soil in which his newfound spirit of confidence and independence could take root.
The messianic status of Krishnamurti reached fever pitch as a visit to Sydney, Australia was planned. Leadbeater had been based there since 1914, and the movement was strong enough to own a local radio station. The Star Amphitheater was built in 1923–24 at Balmoral Beach on Sydney harbor, as a platform for the coming “world teacher”. According to sensational media reportage, Krishnamurti was to make a triumphant arrival, walking on water through Sydney Heads. Paralleling this increasing adulation was Krishnamurti’s growing discomfort with it.
On November 11 1925, Krishnamurti’s beloved brother and closest person, Nitya, died unexpectedly at the age of 27 from tuberculosis after a long history with the disease.
Nitya’s death fundamentally shook Krishnamurti’s belief and faith in Theosophy and in the leaders of the Theosophical Society. According to eyewitness accounts, the news “broke him down completely”. He struggled for days to overcome his sorrow, eventually “…going through an inner revolution, finding new strength”.
The experience of his brother’s death shattered any remaining illusions, and things would never be the same again.
Krishnamurti recounted on this event:
…An old dream is dead and a new one is being born, as a flower that pushes through the solid earth. A new vision is coming into being and a greater consciousness is being unfolded. …A new strength, born of suffering, is pulsating in the veins and a new sympathy and understanding is being born of past suffering – a greater desire to see others suffer less, and, if they must suffer, to see that they bear it nobly and come out of it without too many scars. I have wept, but I do not want others to weep; but if they do, I know what it means.
A New Independent Road
Krishnamurti’s new vision and consciousness continued to develop and reached a climax in 1929, when he rebuffed attempts by Leadbeater and Besant to continue with The Order of the Star. Krishnamurti dissolved the Order at the annual Star Camp at Ommen, the Netherlands, on August 3rd, 1929 where, in front of Annie Besant and several thousand members, he gave a speech saying among other things:
You may remember the story of how the devil and a friend of his were walking down the street, when they saw ahead of them a man stoop down and pick up something from the ground, look at it, and put it away in his pocket. The friend said to the devil, ‘What did that man pick up?’ ‘He picked up a piece of the truth,’ said the devil. ‘That is a very bad business for you, then,’ said his friend. ‘Oh, not at all,’ the devil replied, ‘I am going to help him organize it.’ I maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or coerce people along a particular path.
he also said then:
This is no magnificent deed, because I do not want followers, and I mean this. The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth. I am not concerned whether you pay attention to what I say or not. I want to do a certain thing in the world and I am going to do it with unwavering concentration. I am concerning myself with only one essential thing: to set man free. I desire to free him from all cages, from all fears, and not to found religions, new sects, nor to establish new theories and new philosophies.
Following the dissolution, Leadbeater and other Theosophists turned against Krishnamurti and publicly wondered whether “the Coming had gone wrong”. Mary Lutyens states that
…After all the years of proclaiming the Coming, of stressing over and over again the danger of rejecting the World Teacher when he came because he was bound to say something wholly new and unexpected, something contrary to most people’s preconceived ideas and hopes, the leaders of Theosophy, one after the other, fell into the trap against which they had so unremittingly warned others.
Krishnamurti had denounced all organized belief, the notion of “gurus”, and the whole teacher-follower relationship, vowing instead to work in setting man absolutely, totally free. From that time, he began to disassociate himself from the Society and its teachings and practices, despite being on cordial terms with some members and ex-members throughout his life. As his biographer Lutyens notes, he was never to deny being the World Teacher, telling Lady Emily
You know mum I have never denied it [being the World Teacher], I have only said it does not matter who or what I am but that they should examine what I say, which does not mean that I have denied being the World Teacher.
When a reporter asked him if he was the Christ, he answered “Yes, in the pure sense but not in the traditional accepted sense of the word.”
Krishnamurti would only refer to his teachings as “the” teachings and not as “my” teachings. His concern was always about “the” teachings: the teacher had no importance, and spiritual authority was denounced.
All authority of any kind, especially in the field of thought and understanding, is the most destructive, evil thing. Leaders destroy the followers and followers destroy the leaders. You have to be your own teacher and your own disciple. You have to question everything that man has accepted as valuable, as necessary.
Krishnamurti returned all money and properties donated to the Order of the Star – including a castle in Holland and around 5,000 acres (20 km²) of land – to their donors.
He subsequently spent the rest of his life holding dialogues and giving public talks across the world on the nature of belief, truth, sorrow, freedom, death, the apparently eternal quest for a spiritually-fulfilled life, and related subjects. Following on from the “pathless land” notion, he accepted neither followers nor worshippers, seeing the relationship between disciple and guru as encouraging the antithesis of spiritual emancipation – dependency and exploitation. He constantly urged people to think independently and clearly and to explore and discuss specific topics together with him, to “walk as two friends”. He accepted gifts and financial support freely offered to him by people inspired by his work, and relentlessly continued with lecture tours and the publication of books and talk transcripts for more than half a century.
From 1930 through 1944, Krishnamurti engaged in speaking tours and issued publications under the auspice of the “Star Publishing Trust” (SPT) which he had founded with his close associate and friend from the Order of the Star, D. Rajagopal. The base of operations for the new enterprise was in Ojai, where Krishnamurti, Rajagopal, and Rosalind Williams (now the wife of Rajagopal), resided in the house known as “Arya Vihara”. The business and organizational aspects of the SPT were administered chiefly by D. Rajagopal as Krishnamurti devoted his time to speaking and meditation. Throughout the 1930s, Krishnamurti spoke in Europe, Latin America, India, Australia and the United States.
In 1938, Krishnamurti made the acquaintance of Aldous Huxley, who had arrived from Europe during 1937. The two began a long friendship which endured for many years. They held common concerns about the imminent conflict in Europe which they viewed as the outcome of the pernicious influence of nationalism. Krishnamurti’s stance on World War II was often construed as pacifism and even subversion during a time of patriotic fervor in the United States and for a time he came under the surveillance of the FBI. He did not speak publicly for a period of about four years between 1940 and 1944. During this time he lived and worked quietly at Arya Vihara, which during the war operated as a largely self-sustaining farm, its surplus goods donated for relief efforts in Europe.
Krishnamurti broke the hiatus from public speaking in May 1944 with a series of talks in Ojai. These talks, and subsequent material, was published by “Krishnamurti Writings Inc” (KWINC), the successor organization to the “Star Publishing Trust”. This was to be the new central Krishnamurti-related entity worldwide, whose sole purpose was the dissemination of the teaching.
Meeting with Jawaharlal Nehru
When in India after World War II, many prominent personalities came to meet with him, including Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. In his meetings with Nehru, Krishnamurti elaborated at length on the teachings, saying in one instance:
Understanding of the self only arises in relationship, in watching yourself in relationship to people, ideas, and things; to trees, the earth, and the world around you and within you. Relationship is the mirror in which the self is revealed. Without self-knowledge there is no basis for right thought and action.
Nehru asked: “How does one start?” to which Krishnamurti replied:
Begin where you are. Read every word, every phrase, every paragraph of the mind, as it operates through thought.
Krishnamurti continued speaking around the world, in public lectures, group discussions and with concerned individuals. In late 1980, he reaffirmed the basic elements of his message in a written statement that came to be known as the “Core of the Teaching”.
In April 1985 he spoke to an invited audience at the United Nations in New York, where he was awarded the United Nations 1984 Peace medal.
Last Visit to India
In November 1985 he visited India for the last time, holding a number of what came to be known as “farewell” talks and discussions between then and January 1986. These last talks included the fundamental questions he had been asking through the years, as well as newer concerns related to recent advances in science, technology, and the way they affected humankind. Krishnamurti had commented to friends that he did not wish to invite death, but was not sure how long his body would last (he had already lost considerable weight), and once he could no longer talk, he would have “no further purpose”. In his final talk, on January 4, 1986, in Madras, he again invited the audience to examine with him the nature of inquiry, the effect of technology, the nature of life and meditation, and the nature of creation:
Krishnamurti was concerned about his legacy, about being unwittingly turned into some personage whose teachings had been “handed down” to special individuals, rather than the world at large. He wanted nobody to pose as an “interpreter” of the teaching. He warned his associates on several occasions that they were not to present themselves as spokesmen on his behalf, or as his successors after his death.
A few days before his death, in a final statement, he emphatically declared that “nobody” among his associates, or the general public, had understood what had happened to him (as the conduit of the teaching), nor had they understood the teaching itself. He added that the “immense energy” operating in his lifetime would be gone with his death, again implying the impossibility of successors. However, he offered hope by stating that people could approach that energy and gain a measure of understanding “…if they live the teachings”. In prior discussions he had compared himself with Thomas Edison, implying that he did the hard work, and now all was needed by others was a flick of the switch. In another instance he talked of Columbus going through an arduous journey to discover the New World, whereas now, it could easily be reached by jet, the ultimate implication being that even if Krishnamurti was in some way “special”, in order to arrive at his level of understanding, others didn’t need to be.
Krishnamurti died on February 17, 1986, at the age of 90, from pancreatic cancer. His remains were cremated and scattered by friends and former associates in the three countries where he had spent most of his life; India, England and United States of America.
In late 1980, Krishnamurti reaffirmed the basic elements of his message in a written statement that came to be known as the “Core of the Teaching”.
The core of Krishnamurti’s teaching is contained in the statement he made in 1929 when he said: ‘Truth is a pathless land’. Man cannot come to it through any organization, through any creed, through any dogma, priest or ritual, nor through any philosophical knowledge or psychological technique. He has to find it through the mirror of relationship, through the understanding of the contents of his own mind, through observation, and not through intellectual analysis or introspective dissection. Man has built in himself images as a sense of security—religious, political, personal. These manifest as symbols, ideas, beliefs. The burden of these dominates man’s thinking, relationships and his daily life. These are the causes of our problems for they divide man from man in every relationship.’
In his final talk, on January 4, 1986, in Madras, he invited the audience to examine with him the nature of inquiry, the effect of technology, the nature of life and meditation, and the nature of creation. His words then epitomize his general message and approach:
…So, we are enquiring into what makes a bird. What is creation behind all this? Are you waiting for me to describe it, go into it? You want me to go into it? …No description can ever describe the origin. The origin is nameless; the origin is absolutely quiet, it’s not whirring about making noise. Creation is something that is most holy, that’s the most sacred thing in life, and if you have made a mess of your life, change it. Change it today, not tomorrow. If you are uncertain, find out why and be certain. If your thinking is not straight, think straight, logically. Unless all that is prepared, all that is settled, you can’t enter into this world, into the world of creation.