The Tribune - Spectrum

, March 3, 2002

All the world was his classroom

AS he grew older, members of his inner circle began to question him as to how he intended ‘the work’ to be continued after his death, and when that event might come about. He claimed at times to have a good idea about when he would die, but gave vague and contradictory indications to different people. What he resolutely maintained was that he was here to do a job, and that job was to talk. As soon as ‘the body’ was no longer able to continue with the work, for whatever reason, the source of his life and motivation would recede, and death would follow soon after. But as he reached the mid-1980s there did not appear to be any such recession on the horizon and he continued his work with ever greater vigour, more and more convinced of his unique role in history. Despite his resilience, however, during the course of 1985 he at last began to show signs of exhaustion.

Krishnamurti began what was to be his final year in India, where he made many public appearances before proceeding to America for a glittering round of talks, including one at the United Nations, four in Ojai, and two in Washington, together with several dialogues and public question sessions. He then travelled to Europe for the summer, making eight appearances at Saanen, giving four talks at Brockwood Park, and holding a series of dialogues with staff and students there. He finally left for India again in October, where his schedule included talks at Varanasi (Benares), Rishi Valley and was to be concluded at Madras. It was here that his career as a public speaker came to an end, close to where it had begun, with a series of three talks, finishing on January 4, 1986.


Before embarking on the final trip to India, it was clear that his health was declining, and that he probably would not be able to fulfil all the scheduled engagements. This fear was reinforced by his dramatic loss of weight and strength during the course of November and December, together with his constant need of warm clothing and blankets, even in the heat of southern India. His voice began to weaken, he felt nauseous and suffered a recurrent fever. Everyone around him began to suspect the worst. He expressed a wish to return home to Ojai as soon as possible and began to give away his Indian clothes to friends in Madras. His last talks were followed by some uncomfortable meetings with Trustees of the Krishnamurti Foundation of India, at which thorny administrative matters were sorted out, before he finally flew out of the country of his birth in the very early morning of 11 January. Some hours prior to leaving for the airport, he took a final walk along the beach at Adyar, close to the spot where he had encountered Leadbeater. Before leaving, he paused and stared out to sea, observed by a group of friends from a distance, the strong wind blowing his hair wildly around his emaciated face.

He arrived at Ojai on the morning of 12 January and rested a day before visiting his trusted doctor, Gary M. Deutsch, at his Santa Paula surgery. A firm diagnosis could not be made until Krishnamurti was admitted to hospital on 22 January, where he received intravenous feeding and was subjected to various scans and tests. He stayed in hospital for a week, attended loyally by Mary Zimbalist and Scott Forbes, a member of staff from Brockwood Park. Krishnamurti was evidently unhappy with the ambience and discomfort of hospital and longed to return to Pine Cottage, a wish that was granted as soon as it became clear that nothing more could be done for him other than relieving the pain. The condition was diagnosed as cancer of the pancreas that had spread to a secondary tumour in the liver.

Krishnamurti, now wasted and shrunken, was delivered back to Ojai, in the sheeting rain on 30 January, and lodged in the same room where he had experienced the extraordinary spiritual awakening more than six decades earlier, in the company of his brother. Dr Deutsch came regularly to his bedside to check on him, give him food supplements, morphine and sleeping pills. When it became clear that the last weeks might be slow and agonising, Deutsch ‘specifically asked him about taking own life and he stated that he [did] not want to die "artificially" but qualified this by stating that he [did] not want to suffer’. Doctor and patient struck up a close friendship in these last days, and Deutsch claims to have been Krishnamurti’s last student.

Inevitably, many friends and associates came from around the world when news of the great man’s imminent death began to spread. They were torn between wanting to pay their last respects at the same time as not yet giving up hope of a miraculous recovery. Nothing was impossible in such a man, they believed, and when Deutsch intimated on 4 February that there were signs of a possible remission, hopes began to soar. Meanwhile, Krishnamurti prepared himself for the end. He sent enquiries to Brahmin pandits in India to find out the appropriate funeral arrangements for a holy man, only to reject them later out of hand as ridiculous and full of superstition. He went on to make some final recordings and cleared up a few administrative and publishing loose ends. Close to his heart were plans for a new adult study centre at Brockwood, the foundation stone for which, funds permitting, would be laid the following summer. He was also particularly keen to see the younger people involved in his work, those who had long lives ahead but little experience of him personally, in order to ensure that their commitment was grounded in his principles and would not be corrupted.

His mind remained lucid during these discussions, despite the drugs he was intermittently receiving, and he felt the need to reiterate that he was still in control of his affairs. Visitors, choking back their tears, were struck by his continued inner authority, and what appeared to be a radiance shining from him. He was holding on to life by a thread, in the shadow of a drip feed, dependent on undignified tubes attached to his body, and barely able to move, they report, but his fabulous energy still filled the room as much as ever in the past. And as he lay in this pathetic state he astonished one and all by stating firmly that while he was alive he was still ‘the World Teacher’.

It was felt by some, unfairly, that it was inappropriate for one such as Krishnamurti to succumb to a disease like cancer. He himself expressed this sentiment on one occasion, intimating that the condition may have been caused by something he had done wrong, some constitutional or psychological impurity. However, the suggestion that an alternative diagnosis by publicly announced was wisely rejected, and his disciples were left with the perhaps unpalatable truth that even saints can develop fatal tumours.

On 3 February, Krishnamurti was lifted down from the verandah of Pine Cottage, in his wheelchair, and placed under the pepper tree, no longer the sapling of 1922, but which now provided an ample and spreading shade. It was to be his final excursion out of doors, and he sat in quiet thought at this scene of past adventures. Behind him, attentive and alert, stood a group of devoted acolytes, just as in former days, their predecessors, equally enamoured and self-sacrificing, having departed decades earlier. Two members of that generation had survived, of course, and both had been major players in those remarkable formative experiences. Rosalind and Rajagopal remained resident not far away, but by this time were so completely estranged from Krishnamurti, they may not even have known the seriousness of his condition. No effort was made on either side to reach a reconciliation or bid farewell. Rajagopal was to live on until April 1993, still a member of the Theosophical Society and as old as the century. Rosalind survived until January 1996, also nearly ninety-three, her secret at last revealed to the world through her daughter’s book.

When it became clear that the precise day of Krishnamurti’s final parting would be hard to predict, and that it would be in no one’s interests for a large group of mourners to wait at Ojai for the dreaded event, Krishnamurti tactfully asked most of them to leave, and they reluctantly respected his wishes. As he drifted into the second half of February, he remained conscious but became increasingly dependent on medication to relieve the pain. On his last evening, having taken a sleeping dose, he gently bid Scott Forbes and Mary Zimbalist goodnight. They held a hand each, convinced that they had heard his final words. His heart stopped beating at 12.10 a.m. local time on March 17 February.

His body was washed and wrapped in unused silk. A few hours later he was taken in a cardboard coffin to the crematorium at Ventura, accompanied in the hearse by Mary Zimbalist, who was fulfilling an earlier promise that she would attend him right to the very end. In order to ensure that his ashes were kept pure, Krishnamurti had personally given instructions in advance that the furnace should be thoroughly cleaned out and then inspected by a member of his own staff. Once this had been accomplished, with a minimum of ceremony and in the presence of a few local friends, Krishnamurti’s body was committed to the fire. In accordance with his wishes, the ashes were split into three, one part to remain at Ojai, one to be scattered at Brockwood, and the other in the River Ganges. He had specifically instructed that no particular ritual was to accompany these tasks, and that no memorial was to be set up in his honour, then or thereafter.

Extracted from: Star in the East Krishnamurti the invention of a Messiah by Roland Vernon pages 306, Rs 295.