Saturday 10 June 2023

A Trip in South India

 In early January 1985 I left Yercaud where I was living in South India to travel around 200 miles to Madras, now called Chennai, for a bit of rest and recreation. While there I was going to hear a talk by the philosopher/mystic (I'm not sure if he would accept that description but it suffices) J. Krishnamurti. He was now in his late 80s but still intellectually sharp. I had seen him a few years before as described in my book Meeting the Masters but thought I would like to see him once more before he died which, as it turned out, was not long afterwards. Krishnamurti was one of the very few guru type figures at the time, Indian or otherwise, who impressed me. What he taught was basically a form of Advaita but he spoke from the position of one who had encountered the non-dualistic state at first hand and was not, like many of his imitators, on the outside looking in. I feel he really had merged his mind with the Great Silence and his soul with the spiritual core of life. Not just experienced this as a fleeting state which would then remain an experience and a memory but actually become it or as much as anyone still in a physical body could. I think his position is limited because it misses out on the extra something brought by Christ which you might call the offer of the sanctification of the self rather than its transcendence, but if anyone could be called a second Buddha then I would say Krishnamurti comes closest, certainly in my lifetime. His only rival (unfortunate word - it's not a competition!) in the 20th century would be Ramana Maharishi.

I saw Krishnamurti over two nights. I was with some American friends, Tom and Doris Rostas, who had also ended up in Yercaud on their Indian travels and who had rented a bungalow a couple of miles from the one Michael Lord and I were living in. They had arrived a few months before this trip and we had become friendly in the way people do when those from similar cultural backgrounds meet up in a foreign country. But I liked them apart from that and they were big Krishnamurti enthusiasts. In fact, he was the inspiration behind their spiritual searching. Michael stayed at home. He admired Krishnamurti as a person and spiritual influence but had no interest in his teachings. In those days he was more fully a Christian than me and besides he found K's approach too intellectual. It wasn't intellectual at all really but it can seem like that to a more devotional religious sensibility which Michael had. I was more of a universalist and I still am in a sense though in the overall framework of Christ who stands above and beyond everything else. He is the sun to which all other spiritual approaches are but planets. Planets exist and are good but they are not the sun.

I seem to remember that on the night of the first talk it rained quite heavily which seems unlikely in January in Madras so I may be wrong in that. But anyway the talk had to take place in a large wedding hall rather than in the garden of the bungalow in the Adyar district that K's talks normally were held in when he came to South India, which he did most years in the so-called cold weather. The venue really didn't chime with the talk and at the end of it Krishnamurti, who obviously felt the whole atmosphere was wrong, said that the next night's talk would be cancelled if it couldn't take place outside in the garden. Luckily the weather was good and so the next evening a large crowd assembled in the bungalow's compound. The talks were all free, anyone could come and there was a roughly 50/50 mix of Indians and Westerners there, making several hundred people in all I would say. As Krishnamurti walked slowly out from the house to the slightly raised dais there really did seem to be an atmosphere of peace and serious spiritual enquiry which had been lacking the evening before in the tacky modern wedding venue. He was dressed in traditional Indian clothes with the ochre colouring of the sanyasi, and there was a beauty and dignity about him that reinforced his message of spiritual freedom. Sometimes when he spoke one sensed a slight impatience but when he sat still and said nothing he really did convey the feeling of a man attuned to a sacred inner presence. It was like being taken back to the days of ancient India when the rishis taught in their forest hermitages and the Upanishads were first composed.

This is a link to one of the talks in the garden he give in January 1985. I don't know if it's the one I attended but it may be.

Public talk no 3 Madras 1985

Here is a link to a Q&A session which I also went to a day or two beforehand.

Q&A session

I have to say I can't watch these all the way through now because I do feel a limited one-sidedness to them. This is by no means the whole story. However, Krishnamurti remains someone who cut through so much of the deception and self-delusion that surrounded 20th century spirituality. He was a genuine force for good and enlightenment using that word in its conventional sense.

When I left the second talk I went straight to the railway station to catch a train further south to Thanjavur. Michael, with whom I ran a small guest-house in Yercaud, had no interest in Indian temples so if I wanted to visit any of them I had to go alone. He did come to the Meenakshi temple in Madurai with me on one occasion but was more engaged by the temple elephant than he was by the temple itself with its elaborate rituals and exuberant architecture representing the whole of life in all its multitudinous expression.

A Gopuram or Temple Tower

A Magnificent Hall in the Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

I reached Thanjavur very early in the morning, probably around 5 AM. I said goodbye and thank you to some Indian fellow travellers who had kindly insisted on sharing their breakfast with me at 4.30, not a time I normally eat, and set off into the town, assuming it would be several hours before the temple I wanted to visit was open. As I walked into town I noticed in the still dark sky there stood the Southern Cross which I had never seen before. I didn't know much about astronomy in those days but this was obviously that constellation. For some reason it gave me quite a thrill. It was almost like being in a different world or breaking open a completely new dimension of this one. In my mind the four compass points have great spiritual significance and represent archetypal states of consciousness. Seeing the Southern Cross like this felt as though I was entering into real "southness".

When I arrived at the temple I found I could go right in. There were a few people about but not many so I could explore it without the great crowds that would turn up later. I was there as the sun rose at about 6 AM and shortly after that I was offered (lucky me) a second breakfast of idlis which are a kind of steamed rice and black lentil cake usually eaten with coconut chutney and accompanied by sweet milky South Indian coffee. I'm not normally one for spicy food in the morning but I am fond of idlis.

The Thanjavur temple is 1,000 years old and was called by its builder Rajarajeshvaram which roughly means the temple of the god of the king of kings. No false modesty here. It is dedicated to Siva and is now known as the Brihadisvara or temple of the great lord. It is a very elaborate and beautiful temple in the South Indian style. There are some splendid carvings and a Nandi bull representing Siva's mount.

Whenever I visited a Hindu temple I felt a strange ambivalence. There is definitely something powerful there, even a sense of the sacred, certainly of the mysterious. However, I do not get the atmosphere of holiness you might get in a cathedral. This is a pre-Christian approach to God and I would say that other elements have been mixed in over the centuries. The South Indian temples are architectural marvels that can stand beside almost anything human beings have created but I am not convinced of their actual spiritual value in this day and age. Perhaps if one is born a Hindu one can respond at a deeper level but to me they are a mixture of darkness and light that combine elements of the sacred and sometimes a bit of the demonic too. That makes them fascinating from the supernatural perspective but something to be cautious of from the spiritual.

Krishnamurti and the temples of the south are two extremes of Indian spirituality. One, austere, pure, wise, world rejecting in some ways, the other bursting with life in every way and on every level from the sublime to the occasionally gross though all enveloped in a sense of cosmic oneness and with an embrace of the whole of creation. Krishnamurti may have been brought up and educated in a Western milieu but in essence he was the product of thousands of years of Indian spiritual consciousness going right back to those Upanishadic sages. He represents the search for the Absolute in itself while the temples stand as testimony to the expression of the absolute in the phenomenal world.


Bruce Charlton said...

Fascinating memoir! Thanks very much.

William Wildblood said...

Thanks Bruce.

cae said...

I really enjoy these entries about your time in India! They read like travelogues...but with a spiritual component (not meaning subject matter) which in some way pervades the writing altogether.

It's difficult to explain exactly, but for example, where you describe your response to the Hindu temples, your writing seems so evocative that I feel as if I know much more of what you're saying than merely the words express.

Anyway, this was lovely reading, thank you!

William Wildblood said...

That's a very kind comment which I much appreciate. Thanks Carol.