Star in the East: Krishnamurti, the Invention of a Messiah
By Roland Vernon
Reviewed by Daniel Hindes
I got this book off half.com for a dollar (plus shipping). I got it because I am generally interested in Krishnamurti and the early history of the Theosophical Society through my interest in Rudolf Steiner. Steiner got his start as the General Secretary of the German branch of the Theosophical Society, before he and his followers broke away in 1913. The reason for their break was Krishnamurti. Not Krishnamurti personally, but because of the claims that were made about him. I’d read Steiner side of the story in several different places, so I was curious to know how things looked from other perspectives. Otherwise, didn’t know much what to expect from this book, but must say I was pleasantly surprised. Vernon is an excellent writer, and the story flows seamlessly, in places almost like a novel. It gives an excellent overview of the early history of the Theosophical Society, with compelling biographical sketches of CW Leadbeater and Annie Besant. He also gives a description of HP Blavatsky, but this one is rather flat. Vernon can’t hide the fact that he believes Blavatsky made up many of her claims, especially those that involved teachings passed on to her by Masters from Tibet. But he does give the basic historical background, including Blavatsky’s founding of the Theosophical Society and her role in bringing both Leadbeater and Besant into the movement.
Upon Blavatsky’s death in 1891 the Theosophical Society entered a new phase, one which was to be dominated by Besant and Leadbeater. Each gravitated to their own strength. Besant became the great organizer, tirelessly campaigning for one cause after another. Leadbeater became the resident clairvoyant, expert in the supernatural, and in communication with Blavatsky’s Masters. For a while the Society thrived. Both sensed that the Theosophical movement needed a point of focus, a mission to bring it into the future. And so they resurrected an oral teaching of Blavatsky’s, that a great world teacher would come. Blavatsky had apparently indicated that this would happen in the second half of the 20th century, but this point was conveniently neglected. And so the focus of the Theosophical Society became the preparation for new world teacher. Leadbeater in particular took up the task of this search. He was hindered in this by the 1906 a sexual scandal involving his relationship to young adolescent boys. He rode it out by self-confidence, never appearing ashamed and never apologizing for anything. And Besant needed him, so by 1908 he was back in the Society. And shortly thereafter he discovered Jiddu Krishnamurti on the beach outside of the Theosophical Society compound in Adyar, India.
It is a question to me how much clairvoyant capacity Leadbeater possessed. There are plenty of reasons for seeing Leadbeater essentially as a fraud, making up every last item of his visions. And certainly the scope and breath of his claims were audacious. At the same time, I could also see possibility that he possessed a low-level type of clairvoyance, perhaps including the ability to see etheric bodies, at least dimly. In the case of young Krishnamurti, he was certainly on to something. For although the boy was unremarkable in almost every way, Leadbeater saw in him a certain charisma, something that was to manifest most definitely later in life. Swept up at age 9, the young Krishnamurti is declared the vehicle for the reincarnating Christ, among other lofty beings, and venerated from that point on. And sure enough, within a few years Krishnamurti’s charisma would start to manifest, at first occasionally and later with regularity. Was it inherent? Or can charisma be conditioned? Krishnamurti was brought up through his formative years half “instructed” and half venerated by his theosophical teachers. Thousands worshiped him even as a child. With that degree of external stimulus, who wouldn’t attempt to rise to the occasion? And through his early letters we do know how intensely he felt the pressure to be somebody great. His unusual childhood made him unusual in other ways. He was never able to grow up and find himself on his own terms. Everything he did as a child was guarded, and he was under constant academic pressure – something for which he had almost no aptitude. It was intended that he go to Oxford or Cambridge, but he could pass the entrance exam to neither, and so was never formally educated. Being brought up a celibate Messiah was also apparently difficult, for he was certainly capable falling in love. After his death it was revealed that, starting in his late 30s, he had known physical love for a period of decades with a woman who was close to him. But in his early 20s he would experience only frustration, despite being constantly surrounded by a flock of adoring young women.
But Krishnamurti did turn into an exceptional person. As he gradually matured, he came to reject the Messiah’s throne that was offered to him. An entire organization, The Order of the Star in the East, had been set up to prepare the world for his coming. (It was Rudolf Steiner’s unilateral declaration that nobody could belong both to this Order of the Star in the East and his German Section of the Theosophical Society that caused Besant to expel him.) Coming into his own, Krishnamurti rejected all formal creeds and doctrines, renounced his own special status, and disbanded the Order in 1929. He did this on the basis of his own mystical experience, an extended and extremely physically painful “process” which took place over several months, where his personality appeared to separate into a lower and higher self as his body was in great physical pain. After that he would claim to have experienced pure peace, bliss, oneness, and unity with the universe, and his teachings after that were all an attempt to convey this state to his followers. After these experiences and the disbanding of his Order of the Star, he would spend the remaining 50 years of his life teaching his spiritual doctrines.
In many ways, continually and for the rest of his life, Krishnamurti remained two people. One was a child-like and warm person who avoided conflict and was dependent on his friends to care for him. The other was a charismatic spiritual teacher with a dynamic presence and a harsh and stern path to transcending the self. The teacher could be exceedingly hard on his pupils, demanding they free themselves from many constraints, including personal ties and affiliations. Krishnamurti’s path, if one were to follow it, would be a path to absolute freedom for the individual self. As such it is an exceedingly hard path to walk, and the irony is that the charismatic and dynamic teacher Krishnamurti tended to attract weaker personalities looking for guidance. But his teaching was that there is no guidance there are no leaders and you have to figure everything out for yourself. This paradox was to dog him to the end.
From the anthroposophical perspective, Krishnamurti’s initiation was a strange one. It was a path through physical pain to transcendent bliss. But it was not an intellectual struggle, not a path through knowledge to higher knowledge, but instead a path through pain to a transcendent state of feeling. In that sense, it was rather a mystical experience in the tradition of mystics, rather than a modern initiation whereby thinking purifies feeling and willing. And the teaching, though quite radical, is also quite difficult to evaluate rationally. It has many similarities with Bodhidharma’s Zen Buddhism. Bodhidharma was an Indian monk who went to China in the sixth century A.D. to teach Buddhism. He maintained the enlightenment came suddenly; that you could prepare for it, but could not cause it. The similarities between Bodhidharma and Krishnamurti continue. Both were harsh teachers. Bodhidharma was known for walking with a cane amongst his pupils while they were meditating and smacking them with it to test their concentration. Krishnamurti was known for the emotional equivalent. Both sought to guide their pupils to a state of Nirvana, a mystical unity with the universe, something they had experienced and sought to convey.
Krishnamurti’s teachings, though in some ways radical, did contain inherent contradictions. One of his major messages was that there is no path, no way, no teaching that will take you to the truth. And yet he was supported by a multimillion dollar organization designed to spread his teachings. This was pointed out by another Krishnamurti, U. G. Krishnamurti, a South Indian about 20 years younger who came to similar though more radical conclusions and or more than one occasion challenged Krishnamurti to live by his own words. U. G. once confronted J. Krishnamurti on the issue of doctrine. On page 260 Vernon relates how J. Krishnamurti had just finished explaining that no teaching would bring about an individual’s realization of the truth. U. G. in his radical style, demanded that Krishnamurti “come clean for once” about what he was doing. J. Krishnamurti in his typical way tried to deflect the issue by saying, “you have no way of knowing it.” U. G. retorted, “If I have no way of knowing it and you have no way of communicating it, what the hell have we been doing! I have wasted seven years listening to you.” And this is the problem inherent in chasing mystical experience; it is mystical.
There are other issues around the life of Krishnamurti, including the question of whether or not he was the World Teacher as was claimed, and if he was, what to make of his teaching. These questions are addressed to a certain degree in the book, and more thoroughly elsewhere. But Vernon the attempts as much as possible to stick to the facts as they can be known, and has succeeded in writing and informative book that is a pleasure to read.