Autumn 1995




Illusion of Difference

Kriben Pillay

The impetus for this paper arose as a direct response to an article by Douglas Harding in the journal The Mountain Path, wherein Harding points to an immense divide between the teachings of Ramana Maharshi and J. Krishnamurti, both in form and practical realisation.

I have no quarrel with the view that the form and content of the respective teachings of Ramana Maharshi and Krishnamurti show great differences; but these are differences of the periphery rather than of the essential centre. As I shall demonstrate later, in terms of the actual practices advocated there is absolutely no difference experientially, except in the labels given to them. For Ramana Maharshi it was asking the question ‘Who am I?’, for Krishnamurti it was a matter of being choicelessly aware.

However, before examining the two methods of inquiry, it will be useful to look more closely at Douglas Harding’s ‘differences of substance’ (20) as he puts it. It is by looking at just how valid these are that prepares the ground for seeing what is essential in the two teachings.

Quite rightly, I think, Douglas Harding draws attention to essentially two kinds of spiritual teachers; the spiritual- psychological and the spiritual-religious (22), but he presents an uninformed point of view when referring to Krishnamurti. (I might add that Douglas Harding, in a written reply to me about my reservations concerning his assessment of Krishnamurti, acknowledged that his study of Krishnamurti was not very extensive and was therefore subject to misinterpretation. Also, during his visit to South Africa, he publicly acknowledged that his ‘two-way seeing’ was essentially no different to Krishnamurti’s choiceless awareness.) But in the article he says:

The difference between them is wide and deep. For the first kind, Reality or the Goal is strictly impersonal, am absence rather than a Presence, a cold white light, a void, a disappearance, nothing at all rather than the marvellous No-thing that's wide awake to Itself as nothing and everything. (21-22)

It is my view that Krishnamurti's teachings evolved in response to the general condition of the western mind which, already convinced by logic of the postulates of materialism, was living in a universe where God was dead. In order to touch that mind and open it to something beyond itself, Krishnamurti had to take the psychological path, which included the path of negation, in order to show what is.

V. Ganesan, in his article ‘Inquiry and Identity’ (45) quotes Sri Yogi Ramsuratkumar:

Krishnaji is for the non-believers. For believers, there are any number of Masters for them to follow. But for a genuine non-believer, what is the recourse? Hence, Krishnaji chose totally differing terms, yet acceptable to non-believers ... I assure you, Krishnaji gives us the same essence as any of the great Masters, but couched in opposite terminology.

Also, in Krishnamurti's notebooks there is more than ample evidence that he was not pointing to ‘a void’, but ‘an awakened attention ... in which the origin of thought had ceased.’ (1976:142) This is perfectly in accordance with Maharshi’s utterance that ‘the intellect ... can never reach the Self’ (83).

Ramana Maharshi's teachings on the other hand, arose within the context of the traditional Indian mind where he had to negotiate the simplicity of his vision with the spiritual heritages of those who came to him. He is different in that while he insisted on the supremacy of self-inquiry, he nevertheless also spoke in traditional terms for those who were simply too conditioned spiritually to see the profound in the simple.

However, both Ramana Maharshi and Krishnamurti radiated a quality that drew listeners to them irrespective of whether they understood these teachers intellectually or not.

Douglas Harding also asserts that because Krishnamurti, in his psychological approach to Self-realisation, asks us to be choicelessly aware of the activities of the mind in order that thought may be transcended, he is inevitably involved in a `gradual and cumulative' process. Ramana Maharshi, in contrast, argues Harding, denies the mind and as such points directly to the Self which is perceivable in the moment. Yet, this is to overlook the one statement that Krishnamurti made most repeatedly; that transformation can never be a matter of time, that it is always in the immediate moment.

I assure you, you can do it immediately if you give your whole attention to it. (1954:69)

The other point that Harding draws our attention to in order to substantiate his view that there is a great divide between Ramana Maharshi and Krishnamurti, is the former's acceptance of the traditional scriptures while the latter rejected them completely. Yet, Ramana Maharshi is on record as saying:

The sage who is the embodiment of the truths mentioned in the scriptures has no use for them. (36)

I have gone into Harding's points of difference in some detail simply to show that where spiritual teachings are examined intellectually, one can arrive at differing conclusions because it is the very nature of dynamic teachings to deal with the challenges of the moment and to be true to the requirements of the moment rather than to the consistency of verbal utterances. For this reason, in both the teachings of Ramana Maharshi and Krishnamurti, one will find statements that appear to contradict each other. But this is as it should be, for finally the teachings are pointing to that which is beyond words. It is precisely because we are fixated with the relative that we fail to see that the relative, by definition, cannot be wholly consistent. In the history of religions this false identification has caused much suffering through the resultant dispute over words. The equally great teacher Nisargadatta Maharaj said:

I make no claims for consistency. You think absolute consistency is possible; prove it by example. (254)

Having attempted to clear the area of the intellectual nit- picking that tends to cloud the more fundamental understanding needed, let us now look at the respective modes of self-inquiry advocated by Ramana Maharshi and Krishnamurti.

I shall begin with Krishnamurti's ‘choiceless awareness’.

For Krishnamurti, choiceless awareness meant awareness of the totality of the observable field of consciousness without any condemnation whatsoever. It is simply the act of observing; both the outer and the inner, and the reactions of the inner to the outer.

Awareness is a state in which there is no condemnation, no justification or identification, and therefore there is understanding; in that state of passive alert awareness there is neither the experiencer nor the experienced. (1954:176)

If one actually experiments with being choicelessly aware, one will automatically perceive that the actions of the ‘me’, the small self, loosens its grip because the habitual process of identification that creates the ‘I-am-my-body-and-my-thoughts’ idea is negated by the act of observing without a ‘me’ that is doing the observing. Where there is choice there is the moment to moment birth of the ‘me’, but where there is no choice there is just the state of awareness, which Krishnamurti points to as being the ground of Silence which is the gateway to the immeasurable, to that which cannot be named.

How different is choiceless awareness, which is not a process of thinking but a ceaseless watching of thoughts, to Ramana Maharshi's Self-inquiry? Let Ramana Maharshi speak for himself:

If the inquiry ‘Who am I?’ were a mere mental questioning, it would not be of much value. The very purpose of Self-inquiry is to focus the entire mind at its Source. It is not, therefore, a case of one ‘I’ searching for another ‘I’. Much less is Self-inquiry an empty formula, for it involves an intense activity of the entire mind to keep it steadily poised in pure Self- awareness. (76)

What is pointed to here is precisely the act of being choicelessly aware. It is experientially impossible to ‘focus the entire mind at its Source’ without being in a state of seeing, which at the beginning, at least, will inevitably involve the seeing of the activities of thought, but without identifying with them.

If Douglas Harding objected to Krishnamurti's way as being time-bound as compared to the Maharshi's instant seeing of the Self, then there has been a gross misunderstanding of both methods, because in response to the question `How long should inquiry be practised?', Ramana Maharshi answered:

As long as there are impressions of objects in the mind, so long the inquiry ‘Who am I?’ is required. As thoughts arise they should be destroyed then and there in the very place of their origin, through inquiry. (8)

In fact, both teachings give rise to similar confusions for inquirers. Both Ramana Maharshi and Krishnamurti state that transformation, in the sense of having a true perception of who we really are, can be attained now, yet both point to practices that seem to involve time.

It is my contention that this is a paradox that one has to unravel for oneself, for it is in the very unravelling of the paradox that we gain an insight into the logical difficulties of attempting to understand that which is beyond the intellect with the intellect. Also, to attempt to explain it intellectually would be to shy away from the real inquiry.

In this view one can see the significance of the Zen koan whose sole purpose is to frustrate the intellect into surrender with its maddening verbal play and so allow the mind to see its real nature.

However, there is more than a clue to what Ramana Maharshi and Krishnamurti's teachings are really about in the following words of Nisargadatta Maharaj, which in closing, more than adequately sums up the central methods of these two spiritual geniuses of the twentieth century.

The very fact of observation alters the observer and the observed. After all, what prevents the insight into one's true nature is the weakness and obtuseness of the mind and its tendency to skip the subtle and focus the gross only. When you follow my advice and try to keep your mind on the notion of `I am' only, you become fully aware of your mind and its vagaries. Awareness, being lucid harmony (sattva) in action, dissolves dullness and quietens the restlessness of the mind and gently, but steadily changes its very substance. This change need not be spectacular; it may be hardly noticeable; yet it is a deep and fundamental shift from darkness to light, from inadvertence to awareness. (271-272)


Ganesan. V. 1991. Inquiry and Identity. The Mountain Path.  28 (1 & 2),  41- 48. 

Harding, Douglas E. 1991. Ramana Maharshi and Krishnamurti: Differences of  Substance. The Mountain Path. 28 (1 & 2),   20 - 22.

Krishnamurti, J. 1954. The First and Last Freedom. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd.

Krishnamurti, J. 1976. Krishnamurti’s Notebook. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd.

Maharaj, Nisargadatta. 1988. I Am That. Durham, North Carolina: The Acorn Press.

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