A friend called, one distant New Year's Day. She was in Rajghat, at the Krishnamurti Foundation and Study Centre in Benares, India, at the very last ghat, or pier, on the Ganges. "You cannot imagine the beauty of this place," she said. "The light, the view of the river. I have a very simple bungalow—one day, you will come here, perhaps." She planted in me the desire to go, or rather, laid the trap. Little did I know that at the heart of the ashram experience is the hope that it will be soothing, though often it isn't, when demons come uninvited to picnic on the front lawn of one's brain.
I arrived in Rajghat in 2001, for the first of two visits, to find several small cement houses with porches, scattered along a looping path around the main building, a two-story Lutyens-style bungalow that looked like a private villa. I asked for the key to the room where the charismatic Indian guru—or "speaker," as J. Krishnamurti liked to call himself—had lived on his frequent visits to Benares. It was a very simple room, except that two windows looked out onto the river. I sat in a chair by the bed and wondered why it was so still and soothing in there—10 minutes went by as I tried to decide. Later I returned to try to recapture that sensation, and it was still there. Only long afterward, watching a video of a talk by Krishnamurti in the Study Centre next door—another simple room, with straw matting on the floor, where the images on the screen competed with the sky and the sunset outside the window—did anxiety rise up in me like black smoke. How silly to think I could be transported into a universe where all might become clear or easy.
I had first seen Mr. Krishnamurti speaking on a cable-television channel—it was a videotape of an informal talk he'd given—probably in the late 1970's—in Ojai, California. The public sat around him on the grass. There was a breeze, and a very long strand of his hair flew off his head like a plume of white smoke. He said in his measured, stately English, with the faintest Indian accent, "How can the mind be still when all the time it is " He paused, then continued deliberately, "chattering chattering chattering."
Krishnamurti had been greatly sustained by Annie Besant, a leading member of the Theosophical Society—an organization begun in the late 19th century, dedicated to the study of the esoteric and common roots of world religions—and it was she who, in 1928, discovered the 300-acre site in Benares and decided to raise enough money to acquire it for the Krishnamurti schools and centers. This was a very prescient thing to have done, because it is now the only remaining undeveloped piece of land on the western bank of the Ganges, the one considered to be sacred (the eastern bank is often flooded and remains largely rural). Not far away are Bodhgaya, where the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree and reached enlightenment, and Sarnath, where he first spoke of his experience.
Jiddu Krishnamurti was a scrawny young man strolling along the beach in Madras with his younger brother in 1909 when he was discovered by a British theosophist by the name of Charles Leadbeater, who decided just by looking at him and seeing his "aura" (Leadbeater was known for this ability), which he described as being practically egoless, that he had found the perfect candidate for the Theosophical Society's long-awaited World Teacher, a new messiah of sorts. J. Krishnamurti was taken in by the Theosophists, schooled in India and England in Eastern and Western disciplines, and initiated into the society's more secret doctrines. But after years of adhering diligently to the strict program of training mapped out for him by Besant and Leadbeater, he began to have serious doubts about the society's hierarchical fixations, especially when his younger brother died of tuberculosis, in 1925, after the Masters had predicted he would survive. Just as he was about to be anointed, in the course of a very public gathering, he withdrew, saying he would have nothing to do with leading any faith or group. So this is the amusing contradiction with Krishnamurti: he was a man whom thousands in America, Europe, and, of course, India flocked to hear. Study centers under his name sprouted up in various places and attracted a large following. For a non-guru, he was very much a guru, though he always told his public they were there to talk, together, about how to think about anger, love, dissatisfaction, desire, and fear.
My first trip to Rajghat was placid enough. I made friends with Hema, who was then running the Study Centre, sipping endless cups of chai with her on the landing outside her office. I admired, and later copied, the way she wore her unadorned shawl in a single layer, like a cocoon enveloping her from neck to knee. I had a large bungalow with a screened-in porch, and the weather was mild. A litter of puppies played on a thick carpet of fallen leaves outside my windows. On the day of the Makar Sankranti festival, celebrating the sun moving into the northern hemisphere, with the air suddenly warmer, I took a trip down the Ganges. Thousands of hexagonal colored-paper kites floated in the air like flocks of birds. Many fell into the river, and the boatman, Kuman Chaudhuri, whose name was written in red capital letters around the inside of his boat, stopped to lift them out of the water and deposit them at the bottom of the boat. Having been jostled by a galloping bull in the narrow covered alley of shops in town, I found it strange to see nothing on the opposite bank but narrow paths, ripples in sand, and a few docked boats—a soothing emptiness. When I left, Hema said to me, "I know you will come back, because you are so relaxed."