Dialgoues with J. Krishnamurti – Nurturing the River of Life.

(Easily the most exhausting but introspective assignment I have ever submitted at the Young India Fellowship{so far!}. For the Course – Listening, Thinking and Being by Prof. Lisbeth Lipari)

I live beside a river. A river that has great historical significance[1], for it is where Gandhiji built his ashram in Ahmedabad and named it after this river – Sabarmati.  Each morning we get to see a gorgeous sunrise as my ancestral home typically faces east[2], but having never been a morning person and more so because I rarely come home, those moments are rare unless I consciously choose to witness it.

Today I did. I decided that I am going to listen to the morning as it arrives – absorb the magnificent river view, following a suggestion made by Jiddu Krishnamurti in ‘The River of Life.’[3] He says -“Have you not noticed that if you sit quietly on the banks of the river you hear its song – the lapping of the water, the sound of the current going by? There is always a sense of movement, an extraordinary movement towards the wider and the deeper.[4] Of course, a tall view distant from the bank is not from where I hear the lapping water but the sunrise over the old city and the music of a city awakening, still gave me the feeling of ‘an extraordinary movement’ of the river gently ebbing by. It was also quite extraordinary that at the precise movement when the sun appeared on the horizon, the sudden, distinct, long and loud bellow of a train was heard, as if announcing the sun’s arrival.  My fleeting thoughts led me to a childhood memory having witnessed my first Durga Puja[5], where there are drums beats, bells and gongs clanging and a conch is blown repeatedly to alert the Goddess’s sacred hour.  And I think, “Yes, there is movement in our lives in every second, we simply need to listen to it more!”

‘The River of Life’ is one of my favourite essays of all time. From times when I needed to seek inspiration to some bed time reading; it is that kind of piece that imprinted in my memory the very first time I read it because I could relate to it.

Krishnamurti begins “I don’t know if on your walks you have noticed a long, narrow pool beside the river. Some fishermen must have dug it, and it is not connected with the river. The river is flowing steadily, deep and wide, but this pool is heavy with scum because it is not connected with the life of the river, and there are no fish in it. It is a stagnant pool, and the deep river, full of life and vitality, flows swiftly along. Now, don’t you think human beings are like that? They dig a little pool for themselves away from the swift current of life, and in that little pool they stagnate, die; and this stagnation, this decay we call existence. That is, we all want a state of permanency; we want certain desires to last for ever, we want pleasures to have no end.”[6] As a reader I was immediately engaged, being well – aware that in my nomadic existence, the only thing I have learned well is ‘Nothing is permanent.’   

I am the only child of a single parent and my family – my mother, grandmother (maternal) and I have never been rooted to a particular place for longer than three years. I am often heard saying that the city of Pune, where I studied Undergraduate Law is the longest I have been in a single city, which was five straight years, and there too I lived alone and moved residence twice!  My mother is a Civil servant – an IAS Officer, one of the most prestigious ranks to have in the Indian Government which has all the power, prestige and ills any bureaucracy can be associated with. Yet in her twenty years of service she remained an honest official which led to tremendous ‘instability’ in a position that otherwise guarantees some-kind-of – permanency in this turbulent social fabric that is India. Normally, one does not “get fired for simply doing your work honestly, as a bureaucrat, unlike in other corrupt organisations. Rather one gets transferred from one place to another, a position (in the same hierarchical structure more or less) may be altered or in my mother’s case (being a single, attractive woman with a girl-child) threats to her life or mine would be meted out for not ‘adjusting’ to a powerful party’s interest. So, in those twenty years of service – my mother and I shifted home thirty-six times, her posting would have been altered about twenty- four times, I moved nine schools from Grade 1 to 12 and I would find myself in “unfamiliar territory” be it the school, house or place or simply a scenario almost each year – by virtue of simply being the ‘odd’ one out!

I always sought permanency. As a child, I would simply want to belong somewhere, and refused to accept that I did not have ‘roots’ or something ‘native’ to my own identity. Without a name of my father,[7] and this ‘constant nomadic existence’ – my identity was in a flux, always in the state of crisis. Who was I? Why was my life so fluid? How do I find that sense of belonging?  . What could I do to achieve solidity? I would ask myself these questions each day. I was unhappy and dissatisfied and would be perpetually agitated that there was little I could do to change my own circumstances – so I would blame my mother, or her work or just anyone. Little did I realise as Jeff Volk aptly alludes – this was the ‘illusion’ of my own circumstance![8] For having listened to all those voices around me, other than my own – never having that glimpse to my own rhythms and resonance, it was convenient to blame my circumstances for the way I felt, and played “victim to my own adherence to the world of appearances.”[9] He appropriately says – “We tend to be creatures of habit not just in what we say and do each day and in how we like things to be but more so in the subtle vibrations of that complex of thoughts, feelings and unconscious tendencies – the self-concept that we entertain.”[10] It was quite paradoxical; the ‘self-concept’ in my case was far from being my own – it was others’ perceptions of me, but entertain them I did – without the awareness of the negativity it bred [11]within me.

Here, it is fitting to ask a disturbing question which comes to mind – How much importance can be placed on self? Is there a ‘quantifiable average’ of time, money or attention one can weigh for one’s needs? Will self-reflection lead to more selfishness or the greatest need for a human being i.e. self-actualisation[12]?

The Mandukya Upanishad probes the exploration of self – “it is the lord of all, it is the inner controller, this is the beginning and the end of beings.”[13] In essence, the verses in there illustrate of how intangible the self truly is.

Looking back at my own story, I wish I could just say that from the very day I read ‘the River of Life’ in the Speaking Tree section of the Times of India the first time, I fully understood[14] everything Krishnamurti meant in there. To be honest, I realise that there might never be any ‘point’ in life where one can claim to fully understand[15] his texts. Simple in language that this text may be, it is profound – quite like the river he speaks of, it grows wider and deeper for  realisation and with each experience, each ‘new’ emotion and every new year – the texts draws a new meaning to me. His speaking is the same, but my listening (here: reading) varies. It is Voloshinov[16] who recognises – “we have come to see that human speech is a two-sided phenomenon; any utterance pre-supposes, for its realization, the presence not only of a speaker, but also of a listener… any linguistic expression is always oriented towards another, a listener, even if, in reality, the other person is not present.[17]

This holds true, if I place this as a conversation between Krishnamurti and myself. I was eleven when I first came across this piece, then a fifteen year old about to face an exam that is supposed to be an indication for one’s merit worthiness in India, then a twenty-one year old attending a workshop at the Krishnamurti Foundation of India and now as a twenty-four year old who is on a threshold point of some big decisions to make. Each time, his speech met a different me – another listener, in the same person.  After all, speech, more so language is not something static, it is in constant flux, its development following that of social life… the true essence of language is the social event of speech interaction, manifest by one or several utterances.”[18] Moreover, Charles Husband reveals “understanding is not, and cannot be, a fixed cognitive entity… a morally weighted product of listening.”[19]

Even as I “understood” that he was referring to a heavy issue of larger political, socio-cultural even legal dimensions – I choose to give Husband’s utterances a new meaning here![20] Relating him to Krishnamurti’s river of a vital and flowing life and my own period of ‘inaction’ while ceaselessly remaining dissatisfied with my own – I found it both ironic and relevant to quote Husband here when he says – “We actively contribute to social entropy – to a decay in vitality – because we are the ‘experts’ on the lives of others – but not enter into the world (here: my cloud of negativity) as change agents ourselves. Of course the bitter irony is that inaction is profoundly political.[21]

A parallel thought I must share here is that in our reading material, I particularly enjoyed the essay by Rodolfo Lino titled ‘The Art of Listening.’[22]

Firstly, because it resonated with the ideals and spirit of an education this discourse could give us.

Secondly, because his simplicity in style helped me understand my own ‘structure vs. agency’ dimension in a refreshingly easy manner with the analogy of the MP3 player.

And thirdly, but most importantly, because I believed it could corroborate what Krishnamurti emphasises in ‘the River of Life.’ As I had already begun contemplating using the essay in my paper, I was in the mode of reading into and looking (or listening) out for conjectures and correlations.

Lino writes – “The question of engaging in education is ultimately a question related to human beings and what people want to become in life; because of this the learner must be central to the development of any new educational process. Teachers who can develop a deep comprehension of human beings can face modern educational challenges more successfully. In this context, the ability to listen effectively plays a key role in the process.”[23]

Alongside, Krishnamurti says “A mind which is seeking permanency soon stagnates; like that pool along the river, it is soon full of corruption, decay. Only the mind which has no walls, no foothold, no barrier, no resting place, which is moving completely with life, timelessly pushing on, exploring, exploding – only such a mind can be happy, eternally new, because it is creative in itself.[24]

Do you understand what I am talking about? You should, because all this is part of real education and, when you understand it, your whole life will be transformed, your relationship with the world, with your neighbour, with your wife or husband, will have a totally different meaning. Then you won’t try to fulfil yourself through anything, seeing that the pursuit of fulfilment only invites sorrow and misery. That is why you should ask your teachers about all this and discuss it among yourselves. If you understand it, you will have begun to understand the extraordinary truth of what life is, and in that understanding there is great beauty and love, the flowering of goodness.”[25]

I believe both these educators – Lino who reaches out to the Hispanic community in educating them about different cultures, and Krishnamurti who called himself a teacher rather than a philosopher, both seek to educate us about ‘the art of listening, and how significant it is for humanity to think and be in what is the continuously pushing and exploding reality that we live in. There is a definite poetic lyric to Krishnamurti’s writing, one could make it into a song or eloquent speech as compared to Lino’s matter-of-fact suggestion that those who teach must listen too.  But in essence I felt they both reinforced the other’s thoughts, and I as a reader tried to examine their suggestions closely to many of my personal experiences.

Somewhere in the period of moving from being a troubled teen to a more accepting adolescent, my notions of self, and seeking that permanency changed. The awkward teen with braces, acne and a clumsy gait had morphed into a shapely and composed adult who was suddenly aware that she is a woman who could command the attention of the opposite sex and derive a whole new attitude to get exactly what she wants.  I am thankful that it was my mother’s and grandmother’s guidance and teachings that kept me grounded right through this metamorphosis. I realised that good looks, attention and power were as impermanent as most of the tangible realities like a home or education around me. As Krishnamurti declares – “Like the leaves that fall from a tree, all things are impermanent, nothing endures; there is always change and death.”[26]

My mother and grandmother have planted a bug inside me – to travel and explore, see and listen to the world around us. If we examine the deeper philosophy of travel it would be quite simply to ‘understand’ how impermanent our lives truly are.  Mark Twain once said “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”[27]

We can also read this as – Travel teaches us to listen otherwise, listen such that we include all those voices, cultures, patterns, people, and ideas quite dissimilar to your own.

There is a difference in listening to opinions of what others have of you (which I stated above as something that I needed to filter from my thoughts as it did not give the space to listen to my inner voice) and listening to others when we educate ourselves about this remarkable world we live in. According to Lipari[28]the ground of listening otherwise, compassion moves from the realm of maxim and utility into a world of imagination and self-transcendence. It is a sensitivity to the suffering of others that derives from regarding the other’s suffering as a concern of mine not because I make some kind of cognitive leap of comprehending… all things in the universe, or because of some strategic need I have of you, but because I feel with you, ineffably and irrevocably connected but not subsumed.”[29] Having travelled to 23 different countries, I cannot claim to be more open-minded, compassionate or perceptive than my peers, but I can say this – I enjoy meeting and interacting with people who are ‘different’ and most of all understanding what makes them “different.” As beautifully worded in the conclusion of ‘Listening Otherwise,’ “it is to welcome the other inside, but as an other, as a guest, as a not-me. It doesn’t insist on understanding or familiarity, or shared feelings.[30] Yet, the early exposure to a myriad of diversity has shown me that it is possible for ‘different’ people to share a common thread drawn from shared interests, activities, and aspirations all rooted in the core fundamentals of humanity.

I often wish I had that one ‘decisive and defining moment’ where the sense of acceptance dawned unto me. If I had to narrate a story to someone, wouldn’t it sound rather grand to say … “and one day this happened and my whole outlook to life changed!” But that is quite obviously not the case –the acceptance of my identity crisis and turning it into my strength of being adaptable and receptive to others like Krishnamurti’s river gradually evolved. We as individuals have a whole bundle of experiences and emotions that make us – and this constantly flows, I am also aware that this awareness is only a fraction of what is yet needed to be fathomed. I only hope that it is what I can call a “beginning” to a long journey I must set forth in looking for my own sea of knowledge. One of the greatest offshoots of this Fellowship Programme is that if we choose it to be so, we can internalise the coursework of nearly each discourse taught to us here. A previous course in Leadership and Group Dynamics introduced me to the very ‘right-brained’ thought of thinking paradoxically. One amongst them was of how ‘change is the only constant’ – and thus to achieve stability, we need to constantly accept change. This would involve us thinking ‘relationally’, fostering dialogic listening to others and to ourselves. In fact, I was delighted to find that when Jeff Volk discussed Cymatics, giving it a powerful ‘scientific’ theory on the persistence of repetition vs. the compulsion to change, he enunciated – “This dynamic between statis and growth goes on constantly and is characteristic of the domain of physicality. It is yin/yang principle that underlies heredity and evolution, racial and cultural identity and individuation, tradition and innovation.[31]

Or as Krishnamurti powerfully concludes –

But you can do that only when you leave the pool you have dug for yourself and go out into the river of life. Then life has an astonishing way of taking care of you, because then there is no taking care on your part. Life carries you where it will because you are part of itself; then there is no problem of security, of what people say or don’t say, and that is the beauty of life.”[32]

I shall conclude on a note of a very personal account of how very grateful I am to this discourse of Listening, Thinking and Being – for widening the river that is my own life. This Fellowship has introduced me another Fellow – with whom I am in a very ‘stable’ relationship, and if all flows well, we shall soon be betrothed to each other.

I stand on the brink of another tip-over; of change – the very ‘single’ me from an all-women upbringing who has always been acknowledged as a ‘feminist‘(different occasions have led people to decide that I am sometimes radical, sometimes liberal) – will now be making ‘space for another.’  More so, he is a young man and both of us are very conscious that we still have to ‘discover each other’ a whole lot more and if time and tide ebb together – we can make it a life-time of discovery of both the other and self.

And it is now, more than ever that I must keep in mind the awareness of dialogic listening and even fully comprehending the ‘River of Life.’ It was astonishing that our last Listening class was when I truly felt that the class was ‘especially designed for me’ and came to me when I needed it the most.

I recorded what was taught there in my class-notes, and have typed it up for me to see in a space in my cupboard at home as “Lessons for a Lifetime in Listening.”[33]

Continuum listening (no pure forms, but always a dialectical negotiation)

  1. Monologic/Instrumental – receiving “pure” information, needs precision, accuracy, fidelity, comprehension. ( for some sciences, medicine, military)
  2. Professional – filtering information through an interpretive framework in order to accomplish the goal – whether tell a story, diagnose, argue a case etc. (for law, psychology, journalism, police)
  3. Dialogic/Relational – Giving attention to the other, letting the other be the other, openness to learning, nurturing ambiguity, inter-subjective discovery ( in a family, democracy, workplace and classroom)

It is the awareness of this Dialogic Listening and communication that I indebted for – as I know that Jairaj[34] and I will need to nurture our ambiguities with each passing day – so that we do not develop the ‘sense of permanency in our relationship and make it the stagnant – pool of existence’[35] but rather for our relationship to be an ‘extraordinary truth’ flowing like a river with the river of life.


  1. Krishnamurti, Jiddu – ‘Think on These Things, Part 1 – Chapter 17. (KFI Foundation, Publication) Retrieved from http://www.jiddu-krishnamurti.net/en/think-on-these-things/1963-00-00-jiddu-krishnamurti-think-on-these-things-chapter-17 – last viewed on 12-02-2011
  2. Volk, Jeff. “From Vibration to Manifestation.” At “The Illusion of Circumstance” para.1. The Quester, 2010, 2-13. (LTB Readings)
  3.   Mandukya Upanishad. http://sanskrit.safire.com/Sanskrit.html#stotras –  (as given in the readings of Week 1(a) LTB)
  4. Voloshinov, V.N. “The Construction of the Utterance.” In Bakhtin School Papers, edited by Ann Shukman, translated by Noel Owen, 114-138. Oxford: RPT, 1983. Excerpt: pp. 114-P127.  (LTB Readings)
  5. Charles Husband. “Between Listening and Understanding.” Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 23, no. 4 (2009): 441-443 (LTB Readings)
  6.   The Art of Listening, Rodolfo Lino. The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education. Paramus: Dec 14, 2009. Vol. 20, Iss. 6 (LTB Readings)
  7.   Lipari, Lisbeth. “Listening Otherwise: The Voice of Ethics.” International Journal of Listening 23, no. 1 (February 2009): 44-59. (LTB Readings)
  8. General classroom discussions, notes and snippets of information derived for confirmation etc.

[1] Sabarmati in the State of Gujarat, India is a name synonymous with Mahatma Gandhi as he built his ashram on the banks of this river, and many social movements (the Dandi March and fasting events in the freedom movement for India’s Independence) have begun or taken shape there.

[2] Hinduism as a religion advocates for the kitchen, a home, or the direction for laying to rest to be facing eastwards – spiritually fulfilling as one gets the first glimpse of the sunrise and a fresh morning.

[3] Krishnamurti, Jiddu – ‘Think on These Things, Part 1 – Chapter 17. (KFI Foundation, Publication) Retrieved from http://www.jiddu-krishnamurti.net/en/think-on-these-things/1963-00-00-jiddu-krishnamurti-think-on-these-things-chapter-17 – last viewed on 12-02-2011

[4] Ibid – at Para. 3

[5] Durga Puja is an annual Hindu festival celebrated especially in Eastern India, but has spread all over to venerate Goddess Durga – the Goddess of Strength and victory. It is a nine-day festival usually in October-November and has a famous ritual of conch-blowing for every evening the prayers are conducted.

[6] Supra n. 3 at Para .1

[7] India is a heavily patriarchal society, and often surnames and father’s name denote legitimacy. My surname Devi is my own – and my mother reverted to her maiden name post her divorce. While we were clear that we did not wish to recall or be associated with my father any longer, my mother having endured violent domestic abuse for the years she was married to him, divorce or single mothers in India is still frowned upon in many parts of this country.

[8] Volk, Jeff. “From Vibration to Manifestation.” At “The Illusion of Circumstance” para.1. The Quester, 2010, 2-13.

[9] Ibid

[10] Supra n.8

[11] As perceived in the class teachings of LTB- Prof. Lipari while studying the Continuum of Listening.

[12] As perceived from Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs – the Pyramid representation.

[13] Mandukya Upanishad. http://sanskrit.safire.com/Sanskrit.html#stotras – verse 6, as given in the readings of Week 1(a) LTB

[14] As perceived from ‘ Charles Husband – Between Listening and Understanding’  (Readings)

[15] Ibid

[16] Voloshinov, V.N. “The Construction of the Utterance.” In Bakhtin School Papers, edited by Ann Shukman, translated by Noel Owen, 114-138. Oxford: RPT, 1983. Excerpt: pp. 114-P127.

[17] Ibid at pg.114 para 1

[18] Supra n 16 at pg.114 – 115 para 3 and 5

[19] Charles Husband. “Between Listening and Understanding.” Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 23, no. 4 (2009): 441-443. At pg. 443 – para 3 1st line.

[20] Deriving it from Voloshinov’s – Construction of Utterance

[21] Supra n.19 pg. 443 Concluding paragraph

[22] The Art of Listening, Rodolfo Lino. The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education. Paramus: Dec 14, 2009. Vol. 20, Iss. 6; pg. 22, 3

[23] Supra n.22 1st paragraph of the said reading

[24] Supra n.3 at para.8

[25] Supra n. 3 at para 9

[26] Supra n. 3 at para.4

[27]  Can be obtained at brainyquote.com, but is memorable from a conversation first heard back in 1998, quoted by my Grandmother.

[28] Lipari, Lisbeth. “Listening Otherwise: The Voice of Ethics.” International Journal of Listening 23, no. 1 (February 2009): 44-59.

[29] Supra. n 28 at pg. 54 para 1.

[30] Supra n. 28 at pg. 56 para 1 of the Conclusion

[31] Supra n. 8 – under the ‘Persistence of Repetition’ concluding remarks of that sub-topic

[32] Supra n.3 Last para before his Q&A session on the talk begins.

[33]  The table below was presented as a Slide in the last class of Listening, Thinking and Being by Prof. Lipari at the YIF. This is as I had copied it into my class-notes for reference later, as I knew I would use it in my essay here.

[34] Jairaj Bhattacharya – 11M22 at the YIF

[35] Supra n. 3 – derived from the essay and questions thereafter.

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