TT The Table

David Bohm and Jiddo Krishnamurti.

Skeptical Inquirer, July, 2000, by Martin Gardner

My previous column was about the guided wave theory of David Bohm, and its growing acceptance by many of today's quantum theorists. In this issue I will sketch Bohm's sad life and his strange relationship with the Indian guru Jiddo Krishnamurti.

Bohm was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1917. When he obtained his doctorate in physics under J. Robert Oppenheimer, at the University of California, Berkeley, Bohm was a dedicated Marxist and a strong admirer of Lenin, Stalin, and the Soviet system. These opinions drew the fire of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Bohm's refusal to name names resulted in his indictment for contempt of Congress. Princeton University, which had hired him, let him go. No other university in America wanted him. After brief periods of teaching in Brazil, Israel, and England, he finally became a professor at London's Birkbeck College where he remained until he retired.

As Bohm grew older, he became increasingly preoccupied with Eastern mysticism and parapsychology. The Indian philosopher Krishnamurti became a good friend. The "All is One" aspect of Buddhism and Hinduism, and the pantheism of Hegel and Alfred North Whitehead, strongly influenced Bohm's view of the universe. He became convinced that being is multidimensional, with infinite levels in both directions--levels far beyond our comprehension. On Newton's level the universe is deterministic and mind independent. On the quantum level it rests on uncertainty and chance, with tinges of solipsism. Below the quantum level, Bohm believed, is a subquantum world in which determinism and reality return. And below that? The levels are endless. Ultimate truths are forever beyond our grasp. I do not know whether Bohm believed in reincarnation or personified the Unknowable as the Hindu god Brahman, the ultimate ground of being about whom nothing can be said.

"If Bohm's physics, or one similar to it," Gary Zukav writes in his popular New Age book The Dancing Wu Li Masters (1979), "should become the main thrust of physics in the future, the dances of East and West could blend in exquisite harmony. Do not be surprised if physics curricula of the twenty-first century include classes in meditation."

For another typical example of how occult journalists have latched onto Bohm, see Michael Talbot's The Holographic Universe (1991). Talbot buys just about everything on the paranormal landscape including palmistry, UFOs, poltergeists, and dermo-optical perception--the ability to see with fingers, nose, and armpits. His book's main theme is that Bohm's quantum potential field accounts for all paranormal wonders. Curiously, Talbot doesn't mention astrology, even though Bohm's quantum potential might offer a good basis for it.

Bohm's disenchantment with Soviet Communism did not come until 1956 when Nikita Krushchev delivered his blistering attack on Stalin, and the magnitude of Stalin's purges and the slave labor camps became widely known. It was a crushing blow that plunged Bohm into the second of his periodic depressions. (The first began when he was 26, and lasted two years.) For six months Bohm underwent intensive Freudian psychoanalysis before this second depression lifted.

Ex-Communists and fellow travelers have a habit of turning from Marxism to another ideology, often Catholicism or some other religion. In Bohm's case it was a bounce toward Buddhism and Hinduism, and the teachings of Krishnamurti. After decades of close friendship, with unbounded admiration largely on Bohm's side, the two had a bitter falling out. Krishnamurti always had a low opinion of physics, and Bohm's pilot wave theory in particular. He had a cruel way of treating Bohm as if he were a stupid child unable to fully appreciate his (Krishnamurti's) vast wisdom.

Krishnamurti (1895-1986) was one of the most peculiar gurus ever to come out of Mother India. In 1908, this thin, frail, shy lad, of Brahmin birth, was discovered by Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater, the most famous disciples of Madame Blavatsky. They became convinced that young Jiddo was the new messiah, or world teacher, and the incarnation of Lord Bodhisattva Maitreya, the fifth Buddha. Leadbeater, who claimed to be clairvoyant, saw all this when he viewed Jiddo's aura. Besant adopted him as her son and raised him as a theosophist. In 1910, Krishnamurti's first book, At the Feet of the Master, was published by England's Theosophical Society. It was said to have been written by Krishnamurti who used the pseudonym of Alcyone, when he was 15.

In 1911, Besant, then the international president of the Theosophical Society, founded the Order of the Star of the East. Krishnamurti was the rising Star. In 1922 Annie purchased six acres in Ojai, California, where Krishnamurti eventually settled, and which became the headquarters of the still-flourishing Krishnamurti Foundation.

Jiddo's father lost a lawsuit trying to regain custody of his son. His Lawsuit accused Leadbeater, who was probably gay, of having had sexual relations with Jiddo.

In 1922 Krishnamurti had a spiritual awakening which Harper's Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience, edited by Rosemary Ellen Gulley, describes as follows:

He suffered excruciating headaches, visions, and convulsions, shuddering and moaning, and semiconsciousness, much as a person possessed. These seizures and spiritual manifestations lasted for several years and formed the basis for Krishnamurti's later orientation. He called the ordeal "an inward cleansing."

Krishnamurti tried to enter Oxford, but failed its entrance examination. He never got a college degree. In 1929 he made a cleansing break with his theosophical upbringing by disbanding the Order of the Star. A year later, to Annie Besant's sorrow, he resigned from the Theosophical Society. Henceforth he would travel around the globe, giving talks and conducting dialogues in which he taught a vague form of consciousness raising unrelated to any religion, and based on his own techniques of meditation and self-improvement.

As Bohm's friend and collaborator David Peat tells it in his biography of Bohm, Infinite Potential (1997), young Krishnamurti actually believed for a time that he was indeed the incarnation of Lord Maitveya, and the true successor to Jesus. His consciousness and that of Maitveya had merged; the "beloved" spoke through him. Although Krishnamurti outgrew the theosophical nonsense Besant and Leadbeater had drummed into him, he never stopped believing that he and he alone among living mortals knew the truth about everything. His teaching was a mix of dull platitudes and murky phrases such as "the observer is the observed," "thinking is the thought," "choiceless awareness," and that to be transformed one must "die to the moment." He was convinced that when a person was radically changed through proper meditation there were actual mutations in the brain!

Krishnamurti's name was on more than forty books, as well as on endless audio and video tapes. The Ending of Time (1985) was a book coauthored with Bohm. I have done my best to try to read some of these books without falling asleep. It is hard to understand how the author of such vapid ideas could have mesmerized listeners, most of them women, when he lectured, and to have captured the admiration of a great physicist. His lines are like those in Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky." As Alice remarked, they seem to mean something, but it's hard to pin down just what. There is never a hint in Krishnamurti's writings of a personal God or the survival of personality after death. He almost never refers to or quotes from any other thinker. His vision is a kind of watered-down Buddhism in which the key message is that everything is interconnected and one must live in the moment, without fear, and accept everything that happens with resignation and tranquility. The same infuriating vagueness permeates books written by his admirers.

To give you a glimpse into Krishnamurti's vagueness, here are a few typical excerpts from his talks:

... There is no such thing as doing right or wrong when there is freedom. You are free and from that centre you act. And hence there is no fear, and a mind that has no fear is capable of great love. And when there is love it can do what it will.

Death is a renewal, a mutation, in which thought does not function at all because thought is old. When there is death there is something totally new. Freedom from the known is death, and then you are living.

When you love, is there an observer? There is an observer only when love is desire and pleasure. When desire and pleasure are not associated with love, then love is intense. It is, like beauty, something totally new every day. As I have said, it has no yesterday and no tomorrow.

As long as there is a time interval between the observer and the observed it creates friction and therefore there is a waste of energy. That energy is gathered to its highest point when the observer is the observed, in which there is no time interval at all. Then there will be energy without motive and it will find its own channel of action because then the "I" does not exist.

To see what you actually are without any comparison gives you tremendous energy to look. When you can look at yourself without comparison you are beyond comparison, which does not mean that the mind is stagnant with contentment.

You can face a fact only in the present and if you never allow it to be present because you are always escaping from it, you can never face it, and because we have cultivated a whole network of escapes we are caught in the habit of escape.

We might be able to modify ourselves slightly, live a little more quietly with a little more affection, but in itself it will not give total perception. But I must know how to analyse which means that in the process of analysis my mind becomes extraordinarily sharp, and it is that quality of sharpness, of attention, of seriousness, which will give total perception. One hasn't the eyes to see the whole thing at a glance; this clarity of the eye is possible only if one can see the details, then jump.

It was not just Bohm who fell under the sway of Krishnamurti's charisma. He strongly influenced such writers as Joseph Campbell, the poet Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller, Aldous Huxley, and Alan Watts who churned out popular books about Zen Buddhism. George Bernard Shaw once called young Krishnamurti "the most beautiful human being" he ever saw. After visiting Krishnamurti's castle in Holland, Campbell wrote in a letter: "I can scarcely think of anything but the wisdom-and-beauty-of-my friend." In another letter he said, "Every time I talk with Krishna, something new amazes me."

There were two Krishnamurtis. One was the persona presented to the world through lectures and books; a man without ego who led a sanctified life of celibacy and high moral purity. The other Krishnamurti was a shadowy, self-centered, vain man, capable of sudden angers and enormous cruelty to friends. He was also a habitual liar. Krishna, as his friends called him, freely admitted his compulsive lying. He blamed it on simple fear of having his deceptions detected.

Krishna's closest associate was Raja, whose full Indian name was Desikacharya Rajagopalacharya. A native of India, Raja was as handsome as Krishna, and for almost thirty years a devoted disciple who served as his master's business manager, secretary, literary agent, and editor. It was Krishna's good friend Aldous Huxley who introduced Raja to his editor at Harper and Row, the firm that published Krishna's many books. Krishna had little interest in writing or publishing, but he allowed Raja to cobble books out of his talks and notebooks, and to edit this material into volumes.

Raja's wife Rosalind was a beautiful American Caucasian who grew up in Hollywood, a friend of movie stars, who almost became a professional tennis player. Toward the end of Krishna's life an astonishing revelation came to light. For nearly thirty years, unknown to Raja, Rosalind had been Krishna's mistress! As such, she had undergone a miscarriage and several abortions, all miraculously kept secret from her husband.

Raja forgave his wife and never ceased loving her, but a rift between Raja and Krishna grew steadily wider until finally they became bitter enemies. Twice Krishna unsuccessfully sued Raja for mishandling funds, and Raja in turn sued Krishna for slander. All three lawsuits were finally settled out of court. The two former friends never reconciled.

Rosalind's passion for Krishna cooled when she discovered he was having another secret affair, this time with a shy, beautiful young woman, Nandini Mehta. Raja's passion for Rosalind also dimmed when he fell in love with Annalisa Begha, a Swiss-Italian who was twenty-three years his junior. After he and Rosalind finally obtained a Mexican divorce, Raja and Annalisa married.

You can learn all the sordid details about these surprising events in a splendid biography of Krishna, Lives in the Shadow with J. Krishnamurti (1991), by Radha Rajagopal Sloss, the daughter of Rosalind and Raja. Now married to mathematician James Sloss, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Radha is also the author of India Beyond the Mirror (1988).

A story in Mrs. Sloss's book reveals how little Krishnamurti understood science. America's funniest and nuttiest medical quack was Dr. Albert Abrams. You can read about him in my Fads and Fallacies. Abrams invented a bizarre electrical machine which he claimed could diagnose all ailments from a drop of blood, and could cure terrible diseases by electrical rays. Like the writer and socialist Upton Sinclair, Krishna became convinced that Abrams's machine did everything he claimed it did. He sent Abrams a blood sample, and was told he had cancer in his intestines and left lung, and syphilis in his spine and nose. After being treated for a while by Abrams's machine, Krishna said he felt much better.

Radha likens her father to the Hindu god Vishnu, the preserver, and Krishna to Shiva, the destroyer. "The division between Krishnamurti himself will cast a very dark shadow on all he has said or written," Radha concludes. "Because the first thing the readers will say, is: 'If he cannot live it, who can?'"

After learning about Krishnamurti's secret love affair with his best friend's wife, Bohm felt betrayed. Perhaps this plunged him into his third and final deep depression. Hospitalized, suffering from paranoia and thoughts of suicide, Bohm underwent fourteen episodes of shock therapy before he recovered sufficiently to leave the mental hospital. Earlier triple bypass surgery on his heart had been successful, but his death in 1991, at age 75, was from a massive heart attack. Krishnamurti had died six years earlier, at his home in Ojai, of pancreatic cancer. His body was cremated.

Bohm's creative work in physics is undisputable, but in other fields he was almost as gullible as Conan Doyle. He was favorably impressed by Count Alfred Korzybski's Science and Sanity, with the morphogenic fields of Rupert Sheldrake, the orgone energy of Wilhelm Reich, and the marvels of parapsychology. [1] For a while he took seriously Uri Geller's ability to bend keys and spoons, to move compasses, and produce clicks in a Geiger counter, all with his mind.

Bohm also flirted with panpsychism, the belief that all matter is in some sense alive with low levels of consciousness. "Even the electron is informed with a certain level of mind," Bohm said in an interview published in Quantum Implications: Essays in Honor of David Bohm (1987), edited by Basil Hiley and David Peat. Bohm's later writings swarm with neologisms such as holomovement, rheomode, levate, enfoldment, soma-significant, and implicate and explicate levels of reality.

In his biography of Bohm, David Peat tells how Bohm carried with him a key bent by Uri Geller as if it were a holy relic. When the key later disappeared, Bohm took this to be Geller's psychokinetic powers at work from a distance. When the key was found an hour later, he believed this to be another paranormal event! Bohm's close associate Basil Hiley at once recognized Geller as a charlatan. He often warned Bohm that if he appeared to endorse Geller it would damage their work. Bohm agreed to back away from Geller. As Hiley said to Peat, Bohm often had to be saved from idiots.

Bohm's Eastern metaphysics, even though it helped shape his interpretation of quantum mechanics, should not be held against the potential fruitfulness of his pilot wave theory. In a similar fashion Isaac Newton's Biblical fundamentalism and his alchemical research cast no shadows over his contributions to physics. Nor did Kepler's belief in astrology throw doubts on his great discoveries.

Einstein once said that his misgivings about the Copenhagen interpretation of QM came from something he felt in his little finger. For decades his intuitions were ridiculed by Bohr and his followers. They never ceased to express sorrow over how the great man had deserted them by refusing, in his senior years, to view QM as a beautiful, complete theory, in no need of being replaced or modified.

It is too bad that Einstein did not live to see an increasing number of top physicists, such as Roger Penrose, Jeffrey Bub, and John Bell, who suspected, and today suspect, that the old maestro may turn out to be right after all.

Martin Gardner's two-volume Annotated Alice has recently been reprinted in a one-volume edition.


(1.) Sheldrake's latest book, published by Crown in 1999, is titled Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals. The other animals with psychic powers include cats, parrots, horses, monkeys, sheep, pigs, rabbits, and even chickens! On Sheldrake's earlier bizarre claims, see Chapter 15 in my 1988 collection of SI columns, The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal in association with The Gale Group and LookSmart.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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