Learning in the Absence of Authority.


Geetha Waters with David Allan  

 How can there be learning in the absence of authority? Surely that is quite ridiculous. Surely schools are about giving direction to children, order, the imparting of knowledge, discipline, and that is why we have them. Yes, O.K. but that’s teaching.

  The dance floor under the large Banyan Tree was made of grey polished concrete. The stage was wrapped around the main trunk and the massive tree stood as a grand backdrop. It was an open air theatre set in the wilderness. I noticed that there weren’t any monkeys hanging off the branches. Perhaps they had retreated to the hills for the day. It was good to be alone, to be able to hear the birds in the trees. I could hear the estate workers calling in the distance. Standing on the ground in front of the raised stage, I felt rather small and humble; the Great Banyan inspired that feeling in me. It was hundreds of years old and I was merely eight. I wondered what it must feel like to be so old. Age and wisdom were linked in my mind. What would it feel like to dance on that stage in front of the elders of our community? In the evenings there would be children dancing on the polished floor. They would dance to live music as they practiced for the end of year performance when Krishnamurti would return to our school. He would sit in the audience for a change and watch the dance with the rest of us.

  The school was proud of its rich cultural heritage which spanned back thousands of years to the Vedic traditions. There was a strong emphasis on Karnatik music, sport, dance, and yoga, and a great respect for learning. It was a shared heritage which enabled people from different parts of India to work together in mutual understanding. We shared the same stories, had a common understanding and drew on similar values. Many of us spoke different languages but at school we relied on English. The songs we sang in the morning were in Sanskrit and Kannada. We sang simply for the joy of singing. It was great to sing with others. I could not understand the meaning of the words, but that did not seem to matter. What really mattered was the feeling of singing together while musicians played the veena, tambura, and tabla.

  Looking up at the canopy of the Great Banyan with long roots dangling down, I walked to the tall granite slabs that had been erected beneath the roots at some distance from the main trunk. One of the estate workers had mentioned that these slabs would be packed with rich soil in hessian bags to guide the roots all the way to the ground. This way they would make sure that the roots would eventually grow into strong columns to support the wide span of the branches above. I was amazed that the tree had once stood in a forest. It was now the center of a school that was working to bring about a revolution in education. When they were looking to site the school the founders had seen the Great Banyan from the hills. It was proof there was sufficient ground water in the valley to support such a scheme. No one had imagined that the school would thrive and grow. It had seemed such a wistful dream at first. Now that the school had become established, people visited from far and wide to see what had been accomplished. Many were impressed by the idyllic scene they encountered. Places of learning were honored in the Vedic tradition but there was a key difference about our school that few realized. It was all to do with authority.

  When Krishnamurti dispensed with authority while speaking with the children, many onlookers regarded it as a passing phase, a gimmick of some sort. After all he was a great man and he was allowed to be somewhat eccentric. They did not realize that each time he pointed to the absence of authority it sparked our interest and some of us became alert because he was challenging us to check things out for ourselves. If he had no authority and we were interpreting his words, then the onus for interpreting fell on us. So I began to test what was said with great care. I listened somewhat skeptically and then went away and began to reflect on the things I had heard and understood. If he had no authority, then it was up to me to make sure that what he said made sense. It was no longer a matter of merely following his words. I had to engage with the message and make sure it was true. That was the vital difference. He spoke about the concerns he had about the world, enquiring into the problems, the contradictions. By denying the power of authority, Krishnamurti enabled us to experience the wonder of our own innate capacity to gather information. He focused our attention on the unpleasant things about life that we had come to ignore. By making a presentation in which there was no place for authority a number of points of particular significance arose repeatedly:

The word is not the thing.
The description is not the described.
The part is the whole.
Don’t become second hand human beings.
Don’t rely on second hand information.
Thought is the past.
Observe the network of thought.
Observe the impact of labels on your mind.
Knowledge is limited.
Knowledge is the past.
See, don’t seek.
We are here together. We are learning together, thinking together.
Don’t follow the speaker, find out for yourself!
Are you interested in life, or are you too lazy to pay attention to what is really going on?
The observer is the observed.
Observe, observe, observe!
(1.)

  Children rarely get an opportunity to engage in this way with authority. I felt emboldened within minutes of hearing him. It was an extraordinary couple of years for me. For the first time in my life, I had begun to reflect on my thoughts. I watched the way I interpreted what was being said. I became familiar with the feeling of listening and making sense. Before arriving at the school, I would take what was said on board and simply run with it. I used to ignore large chunks of what I heard and deal only with what concerned me most. Compared to that, listening, reflecting and checking things out for myself required a lot of serious effort on my part. It made me feel that I was alive and fully engaged in learning about life. This reawakened my interest. By denying authority Krishnamurti had effectively restored my sense of autonomy. I wasn’t being told what to do and I could no longer blindly follow what was said. I was made responsible for checking things. If I did not understand, it was up to me to clarify my mind. I could talk to my father, or my Ayah, or perhaps a friend. I was amazed by the difference this made to my world. All of a sudden it opened up. I could not rely on authority to tell me what to think, feel, or see and there was no room for complacency. I had to discover things afresh.

 Although I could not rely on authority, I didn’t suspect for a moment that I could not rely on intelligence. Life was tangibly, palpably filled with intelligence. It filled my world and brought me to my senses. I had nothing to be wary of, I realized; I simply had to be aware. For the first time in my life, I began to realize that was enough and that was all.

  References: (1.) These quotations from Krishnamurti’s teachings may be readily found throughout his work. See for example, D. Rajagopal (Ed.) Commentaries on living, Third Series. From the Notebooks of Krishnamurti. (Also, First and Second Series.) London, Gollantz, 1991.

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