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Jiddu Krishnamurti: The Guru Who Wasn’t

Getty Images / Sydney Morning Herald

Jiddu Krishnamurti: The Guru Who Wasn’t

Spiritual leader Jiddu Krishnamurti died 25 years ago today at the age of 90. Though he refused to consider himself any kind of authority, he became one of the 20th century’s leading religious philosophers.

Born into a Brahmin family in the small town of Madanapalle, India, Jiddu Krishnamurti was the eighth child of eleven (though only six would survive into adulthood). His father was an official with the colonial British authorities; his mother would die when Krishnamurti was 10 years old. As a young child, Krishnamurti was malnourished and also contracted malaria, a disease he would suffer from during much of his young life. Given to daydreaming, Krishnamurti was taken by some to be mentally retarded and was at times beaten by school teachers and his father for his daydreaming.

In 1909, the family relocated to Adyar, where Krishnamurti’s father found work as a clerk for the Theosophical Society, a non-sectarian organization founded in New York in 1875 that merged elements of Western mysticism with traditional Eastern spiritual beliefs. Among their stated objectives were to encourage the study of comparative religion and “investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man.”

The organization also believed in the preparation of humanity for the coming of a World Teacher – an advanced spiritual entity named Lord Maitreya that periodically manifests itself in earthly form in order to direct the evolutionary progress of mankind.

Only months after moving to Adyar, Krishnamurti was discovered by influential Theosophist Charles Webster Leadbeater, a self-proclaimed clairvoyant impressed by Krishnamurti’s aura of unselfishness. He was convinced the boy – dismissed as a simpleton by so many others – would grow up to be a great orator and teacher. In 1911, he founded The Order of the Star in the East to prepare the world for the coming of the next World Teacher.

But first, he had to prepare the World Teacher himself. At the age of 14, Krishnamurti was taken to the Theosophist temple in Madras and groomed as the manifestation of Lord Maitreya. Living in relative opulence, he undertook formal academic and athletic education, and toured Europe and the Americas. During this period, he grew very close to Annie Besant, a British Theosophist who would act as a kind of surrogate mother (and later legal guardian) for Krishnamurti and his brother Nitya.

After World War I, Krishnamurti resumed his travels, giving a series of lectures meant to prepare the world for what Theosophists termed “The Coming.” But early on, there were signs he was uncomfortable with the messianic role that had been thrust upon him. He was at times distressed by the level of attention he received, disapproved of the more extraordinary spiritual advancements Theosophists claimed would soon be coming, and expressed doubts about his future as the World Teacher.

These doubts intensified after the devastating loss of his brother. Nitya and Krishnamurti had been living in Ojai, California, where Nitya was being treated for the tuberculosis that eventually claimed him in November 1925, at the age of 27.

Following Nitya’s death, Krishnamurti in his talks began to diverge from the Theosophist doctrine. Still, few were prepared when he dissolved the Order of the Star during a speech in The Netherlands in 1929, saying:

“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.”

Before a packed auditorium of 3,000 people – and with thousands more listening to a live radio broadcast – he went on to say, “I do not want followers, and I mean this. The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth…you have the idea that only certain people hold the key to the Kingdom of Happiness. No one holds it. No one has the authority to hold that key. That key is your own self.”

Krishnamurti’s abnegation of the World Teacher throne caused a schism in the organization – some arguing, with a kind of Life of Brian logic, that such a proclamation only proved that he really was the World Teacher. Krishnamurti left the Theosophists altogether, returning all the money and property they had given him in order to embark on a lifelong quest for spiritual enlightenment through meditation, discussion, speaking and writing – the latter greatly encouraged by his friendship with British author Aldous Huxley. When he was not travelling, he spent most of his time at his home in California, where for a time he was under surveillance by the FBI for his anti-war stance leading up to World War II.

His popularity and influence increased in the 1960s, when young people in America and Western Europe were questioning organized religion and other traditional values. With quotes that seem tailor-made for the hippie counterculture (“It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society” or “Tradition becomes our security, and when the mind is secure it is in decay”) he would help inspire the New Age movement. But unlike other popular Eastern religious figures like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi or the homegrown cult leaders sprouting all over the West Coast in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Krishnamurti never sought adherents. He believed the guru-disciple relationship to foster dependence and exploitation.

America’s young and disaffected weren’t the only ones listening to his message. During the 1970s, he met several times with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The Theosophist Society, spurned nearly 50 years previously, invited him to speak in 1980. In the mid-1980s, he twice addressed the United Nations.

Before dying, he stipulated that his house in Ojai must not be made a place of pilgrimage and that no cult be built around him. But 25 years after his death, people are still studying his life, reading his works, watching his lectures on YouTube, and trying to find their own way to the pathless land of Truth.