J. Krishnamurti’s Birth Anniversary Special/ The New Leam in Conversation with Dr. Shailesh Shirali

In an insightful conversation with The New Leam. Dr. Shailesh Shirali shares glimpses of his own engagement with the ideas of J.Krishnamurti and the philosophy behind the Sahyadri School.

Dr. Shailesh Shirali, Director Sahyadri School, Pune, India
Dr. Shailesh Shirali, Director Sahyadri School, Pune, India

On the occasion of the birth anniversary of thinker-philosopher and educationist J. Krishnamurti, The New Leam had a conversation with Dr. Shailesh Shirali Director of Sahyadri School, Pune. The Sahyadri School is run by the Krishanmurti Foundation and is based on the teachings of the great educator.

Here are excepts from this thought proving and very engaging conversation.

1. Dr. Shailesh Shirali, we would first like to know about your life trajectory a little bit and how your association with J. Krishnamurti’s ideas began. We would like you to throw light on what fascinated you about the work and vision of J. Krishnamurti and brought you to the Sahyadri School?

I grew up in Delhi (as my father was a government servant), so that’s where I studied. After a B Sc in physics, I went to IIM Ahmedabad. Soon after graduation, a chance encounter in a bookshop with one of Krishnamurti’s books proved to be a turning point for me. In a way it was not a chance encounter. I had been wondering for some time what was the point of heading purposefully and determinedly up a career ladder: getting a good job, settling down, and going up, up, up. These and other questions led me to study texts from ancient Hindu philosophy, including the works of Swami Vivekananda. But it was an accidental encounter with The Penguin Krishnamurti Reader that really opened my eyes. I was deeply touched by the transparent simplicity and directness of Krishnamurti’s writing: free of jargon, free of quotations from Sanskrit, free of expert opinion. 

I looked for more such material and soon came across Commentaries on Living, Third Series, which I studied in its entirety. I was deeply moved by this study and transfixed by Krishnamurti’s depictions of nature and by the conversations it detailed. It was a style of writing I had never come across earlier. At that point, I knew nothing about him, and I certainly did not know anything about his educational work. But presently I came across references to the schools founded by him.  Soon after, I travelled to the US to do a PhD in mathematics. I first heard Krishnamurti in person during my stay there, at Ojai (in California). After my PhD, I taught in a university in Canada for a couple of years.  I then returned to India and joined Rishi Valley School as a teacher of mathematics. I have been with the Krishnamurti schools ever since.

It is revealing to list the topics one finds in Krishnamurti’s books. Here are the names of a few chapters in Commentaries on Living: Identification; Gossip and Worry; Thought and Love; Aloneness and Isolation; Pupil and Master; The Rich and the Poor; Ceremonies and Conversion; Knowledge; Respectability; Politics; Experiencing; Virtue; Simplicity of the Heart; … As we can see the range is vast. The common factor in all these writings is the extraordinary clarity and directness with which Krishnamurti goes into the complexity of the human mind, and the complete absence of cliches and sentimentality in the way he holds up a mirror to the reader.

In 2012, I moved to Sahyadri School KFI, near Pune, and that’s where I am at present; I serve as the Director of the school. Sahyadri is a comparatively young Krishnamurti school, established in 1995, the year of Krishnamurti’s centenary.

2.  It is widely known that the Sahyadri School is based on the educational philosophy of J Krishnamurti, can you briefly talk about how such an educational experiment is different from other mainstream models of schooling and what are the challenges of running such an institution?

To start with, the difference lies in the intention. In general, what is the purpose of schooling? Is it to help children fit into society? Prepare students for professional life and help them along a career ladder? These objectives are certainly part of schooling. Unfortunately, school education rarely goes beyond this. A quick look at the world should convince us of this. In every direction we are being overwhelmed by problems: the crisis of large-scale environmental breakdown; the problems of fundamentalism, nationalism and authoritarianism; the aggressive assertion of identity, now spreading across the world; consumerism and the desperate desire for entertainment; and the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor (it has reached intolerable levels in our country). These problems do not belong to separate, unconnected departments, to be solved by domain experts – though it may appear that way. Shouldn’t we ask in the first place why these problems exist? Shouldn’t we in our country ask why we are so authoritarian and hierarchical in our outlook, why problems of caste persist with such tenacity, and why religious divisions are steadily deepening? Shouldn’t we ask why life has become so fragmented, with great sophistication and extraordinary advances existing side-by-side with irrationality, brutality and callousness? Why do we accept such an intolerable state of affairs? Is it not right for such questions to be part of education?

The only lasting way, surely, to address such problems is through education, by bringing up young people rightly. But this requires us to question the very purpose of education. What should we consider to be the purpose? Is it only the acquisition of knowledge and the mastery of skill and technique? Is it knowing how to solve problems? Such approaches condition us to live very narrow lives. We try to solve our problems with patchwork reform, content with making small modifications to society. Isn’t some other approach possible?

We have also accepted the world over, the principle of reward and punishment, and our schooling systems have adopted this approach. Perhaps it would be surprising if this were not the case, given how deeply modern society and industry are based on the same model.  But we do not look into the consequences of this deeply enough. As Krishnamurti writes,

‘Reward or punishment for any action merely strengthens self-centredness. Action for the sake of another … leads to fear, and fear cannot be the basis for right action. If we would help a child to be considerate of others, we should not use love as a bribe, but take the time and have the patience to explain the ways of consideration. … There is no respect for another when there is a reward for it, for the bribe or the punishment becomes far more significant than the feeling of respect. If we have no respect for the child but merely offer him a reward or threaten him with punishment, we are encouraging acquisitiveness and fear. Because we ourselves have been brought up to act for the sake of a result, we do not see that there can be action free of the desire to gain.’

It is in looking at the underlying problems of life that Krishnamurti’s approach is radically different from traditional approaches. He points out that our problems result from our mindset, our inclinations, and our relationship with the world. Unless we comprehend this fact deeply, we will not change inwardly, and our problems will recur. But what does it mean to ‘comprehend’ this fact? Does it not mean becoming aware of our belief structures and ideologies, and the way we become prisoners of our drives? The question of self-knowledge naturally comes up, and we begin to see how essential it is to understand ourselves. This brings us to a famous statement of Krishnamurti’s:

The ignorant man is not the unlearned, but he who does not know himself… Understanding comes only through self-knowledge… Thus education, in the true sense, is the understanding of oneself…

Conflict and confusion result from wrong relationship with people, things and ideas, and until we understand that relationship and alter it, mere learning can only lead us to engulfing chaos and destruction …

While it is obviously necessary to know how to read and write, will technique give us the capacity to understand life? Surely, technique is secondary; and if technique is the only thing we are striving for, we are denying the greater part of life. Life is pain, joy, beauty, ugliness, love, and when we understand it as a whole, that understanding creates its own technique. But … technique can never bring about creative understanding.

Present-day education is a complete failure because it has overemphasized technique. In overemphasizing technique, we destroy man…

Krishnamurti is pointing out here how important it is for education to be much wider in its outlook. The following lines bring this out even more clearly:

It is becoming more and more important in a world that is destructive … that there should be a place, an oasis, where one can learn a way of living that is whole, sane, and intelligent. … Surely a school is a place where one learns about the wholeness of life. Academic excellence is absolutely necessary, but a school includes much more than that. It is a place where the teacher and the taught explore not only the world of knowledge, but also their own behaviour. Freedom from conditioning begins with this awareness. It is only in such freedom that true learning can take place. … A school is a place where one learns the importance of knowledge and its limitations [and] the importance of relationship which is not based on attachment and possession.

From the ancient of times, man has sought something beyond the materialistic world. It is the intent of this school to inquire into this possibility.

How does one proceed to take such insights forward? It is a huge, huge challenge! What might it mean to talk of the ‘limitations of knowledge’ and of ‘relationship which is not based on attachment’? We seem to be going against the direction that society values so much. Children come to our schools conditioned very heavily by all that they have seen and experienced, from their parents and teachers, from the media, from this films that they see, from their sports heroes, … Much the same is true for teachers. This means that ‘educating the educator’ (Krishnamurti’s words) is just as much part of the work of the school as educating the student. But as can be anticipated, not all adults welcome work of this kind; they may assume that their work lies in teaching and not in learning. Some may see this as a chore, a boring piece of work. This mindset naturally affects the integrity of the teacher body, and it becomes an uphill task for the school administration to carry it out.

It is vital for teachers to reflect deeply on these matters and bring their learning and understanding to the classroom. There are no shortcuts in this matter. Krishnamurti himself refused to put down blueprints for his schools. For him, it was essential that schools grow around the teachers’ understanding of themselves as human beings, and around the integrity of the teacher body; they must be places where the teachers flower. “If you flower, the school flowers”, he would say to the teachers. But as noted above, this can be a major challenge.

3. J. Krishnamurti reflected on the challenges of contemporary life and man’s conflict within himself and his surroundings, as we face ecological crisis and growing moral degradation and unpredictable change and insecurity around us. What do you think makes J. Krishnamurti’s outlook and approach about the role of the teacher not just as an academic expert but a sensitive mentor all the more important? How does the Sahyadri School educate its educators for this challenge?

Krishnamurti’s vision of education places a huge responsibility on the teacher, far more than traditional schooling does. He regarded it as essential that we appreciate the importance of understanding ourselves as human beings, of seeing that we are human beings first and teachers or subject experts second, and of seeing that the problems of the world are essentially expressions of our wrong relationship with things, with ideas, and with one another. He regarded it as vital that we learn from our own direct experiencing of life, which means learning through listening and seeing, and through dialogue and mutual enquiry. For example, do we know why we behave in a particular manner? Do we know why power and authority play so great a role in human relationship? Do we understand why nationalism exists among human beings? Do we know why we are so competitive? Are we aware of our dependence on the principle and practice of reward and punishment? Are we aware of the way in which we divide our lives into compartments? Are we aware of the extent to which we are influenced by words? Are we aware of the second-hand nature of our lives? It is essential that educators reflect deeply on such questions and learn from one another (and from students as well), and it is essential that students see their teachers as fellow-learners and as human beings who deeply value learning.

Krishnamurti often talked about the arts of listening, seeing, and learning. He considered that education needed to concern itself profoundly with these arts. He regarded listening as one of the greatest arts:

Listening is an art not easily come by, but in it there is beauty and great understanding. We listen with the various depths of our being, but our listening is always from a particular point of view. We do not listen simply; there is always the intervening screen of our own thoughts, conclusions, and prejudices. To listen there must be an inward quietness, a relaxed attention. This alert yet passive state is able to hear what is beyond the verbal conclusion. Words are only the outward means of communication; but to commune beyond the noise of words, there must be in listening an alert passivity. … It is only in listening that one hears the song of the words. …

Is it possible for the body of teachers to learn this art together, through mutual enquiry? Is it possible for us to nurture among ourselves a quality of quietness in which we can be directly in touch with each other? It is possible, perhaps, when we see the vital importance of such contact. But it is hard work!

The situation today is that we are drowning in words, in labels, in explanations; we ‘know’ too much. But if I want most profoundly to understand another human being as he/she actually is, then I must see how labels come in the way, I must see how stored reactions impede this understanding. It therefore becomes my task to nurture a culture in my school in which such seeing is valued – seeing at first-hand, which also means not living a second-hand life. We need to bring the centrality of such understanding into our lives. This, to me, is what ‘educating the educator’ implies.

4. In a world that values cut-throat competition and looks at the values of compassion and care as characters of the weak, how does the Sahyadri School encourage children to excel while holding onto the spirit of growing in harmony and reciprocity? Krishnamurti’s vision as we know values freedom over fear and lays emphasis on compassion and empathy in relationships, what kind of pedagogic interventions do you think make that possible?

There is no easy answer to this question. The school itself does not encourage competition, but children may have grown up (prior to joining the school) to be highly competitive by nature, or they may be heavily conditioned by and dependent on the principle of reward and punishment; and there is enough and more in our media-saturated environment encouraging us to be competitive. When the desire to compete is strong, it generally finds expression, in some way or the other. So, it is not as though competition does not exist in the school, though avenues for organized competition may not be available. The real challenge before us is, how do we encourage children to excel in the absence of organized reward and punishment? From my long years of experience at the school, I can testify to the difficulty of this. It takes a long while for children to see the intrinsic beauty of doing something well. The responsibility of the teachers is very great in this matter. Not only do we have to nurture a culture of doing something well for its own sake, and feeling the beauty of this, we also have to discuss these matters with students with sensitivity, without becoming moralistic and pedantic. We have to be highly self-aware and self-reflective, questioning and examining our own dependence on the principle of reward and punishment.

It needs to be emphasised here that denying the principle of reward and punishment does not imply non-recognition of a piece of work. Quite the contrary. It is important that teachers engage with students and try deeply to understand what students are trying to communicate through their work. It is important also that students engage with their own work critically, without becoming identified with it. Conversation is therefore essential, in a friendly and affectionate atmosphere, without any sentimentality. This is an art which teachers need to learn – through discussion and exploration and experimentation.

It is a great art to nurture talent without identification.

5. How do you think people who believe in a different kind of education or feel deeply inspired by the educational vision of J. Krishnamurti can get involved with the work of Sahyadri School? Is there any special message that you would like to give to young people wanting to associate with your organisation?

It is one of the tragedies of this country that so few among us want to take up teaching as a vocation, that so few realise the intrinsic importance of teaching, that so few see that teaching is also about learning, and that so few become teachers because they really love teaching. Perhaps that is why education today is so crisis-ridden in our country.

To start with, I would encourage individuals and would-be-teachers who have some familiarity with the writings of J Krishnamurti to go through an online course conducted by schools of the KFI, called “Role of a teacher in school”. This provides a platform for engaging deeply with the teachings of Krishnamurti and grappling with difficult real-life issues that one encounters in education: how does one meet the habit of comparison, or the dependence on entertainment; or our authoritarian, bullying tendencies? When such examination takes place in a dialogue format, there is a huge opportunity for learning. I would strongly encourage more individuals to make use of such opportunities.

Additionally, engaging in dialogue creates opportunities for articulating, examining and challenging our own ideas. It happens often (more often than one would expect!) that those who have read some of the writings of J Krishnamurti have some romantic and unrealistic ideas about what a Krishnamurti school is all about. Engaging in critical and unsentimental dialogue about education is essential in such a situation. Lack of sentimentality is vitally important!

I would also encourage individuals to visit the Krishnamurti schools and see at first-hand what happens at these institutions; for example, the outreach activities, which could be in variety of areas: rural education, seeds conservation, organic farming, and rural health. It is not generally known to the public that the KFI schools also engage vigorously in these activities, over and above their ‘regular’ educational work. Some may want to get more closely associated with such outreach work.

The New Leam thanks Dr. Shailesh Shirali for this wonderful and enriching conversation. We wish him and the Sahyadri School all the very best.

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