Krishnamurti: the philosopher and his Swiss gatherings – Expat Guide to Switzerland

For 25 summers, a sleepy Swiss mountain village has drawn thousands of visitors eager to listen to the charismatic thinker Jiddu Krishnamurti.

The year is 1975. Oil prices are skyrocketing, the Vietnam War is finally coming to an end and Jaws creates a bloodbath in cinemas.

The Australian Henri Quin is 28 years old, fresh out of university and has no other plans than to travel to exotic India or Bali. While pondering his future, he works as a fruit picker in the Adelaide Hills.

One day, while traveling in the big city, he sees a poster in a health store about the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. Two years earlier, Quin’s mother had taken him to Sydney to listen to the man.

“I was impressed and interested, but it wasn’t until college that I started reading it seriously. People called me ‘Krishnamurti kid’ for a while because that was all I thought about,” he told SWI swissinfo.ch.

Soon after, the self-confessed “hippie dropout” decided to travel across Europe and meet Krishnamurti in Switzerland, where he gave his annual summer lectures in the mountain village of Saanen.

Krishnamurti: Man and the Pathless Earth

Jiddu Krishnamurti was born in Madanapalle, a small town in southern India, on May 11, 1895. He was raised as a future prophet by members of the Theosophical Society, an esoteric group who saw themselves as a bridge between Eastern philosophies and western. In 1911 he was declared the head of an organization called the Order of the Star in the East, a role he later dramatically relinquished much to the chagrin of his followers.

“I maintain that Truth is a wayless land, and you cannot approach it by any path, by any religion, by any sect. This is my point of view, and I adhere to it absolutely and unconditionally,” he said.

He disbanded the organization and for almost 60 years, until his death in 1986, he traveled the world, speaking to large audiences and individuals about the need for radical change in humanity.

He taught that tradition and environment condition people and burden them with egos that separate them from others. According to him, true freedom can only be achieved when conditioning is overcome – or, as he puts it, when people free themselves from the “contents of their consciousness”.

Although considered a guru by many, Krishnamurti rejected the label and in public discussions simply referred to himself as a “speaker” whose platform gave him no authority.

Saanen as a spiritual center

Krishnamurti’s connection to Saanen in the mountainous southwest of Switzerland began in 1957. The previous year he had fallen ill while lecturing in India and canceled all public engagements to recuperate. Nora Safra, a follower, invited him to spend some time in his chalet in the neighboring ski resort of Gstaad. According to Mary Lutyens, who wrote a book about him titled J. Krishnamurti: a lifeit was during this time that he devised an annual gathering that would lessen the need for him to travel so much and strain his health.

He would return to Gstaad again in 1961, staying with his friend and yoga exponent Vanda Scaravelli in her chalet. The day after his arrival, Krishnamurti wrote about Saanen’s calming influence in his notebook.

“The body is completely relaxed and at rest here. Last night, after the long and beautiful drive through the highlands, entering the room, the holy blessing was there.

His visit was not just about rest and recuperation, however. A small rally had been organized for him in the neighboring town of Saanen at the town hall of the village. A total of nine meetings were held between July 25 and August 13, and the town hall, which had a capacity of 350 seats, was full each time. Listeners of 19 nationalities reportedly participated.

A special committee called the Saanen Gatherings Committee was formed to organize a series of public lectures in the following years. Thus, the first official gathering took place in 1962. It was a larger affair and held in a domed tent that could accommodate 900 people.

Celebrities and hippies

The Saanen gatherings grew in size and reputation and thousands of people flocked to the village each year to attend. Among the notables who came to see Krishnamurti in Saanen were writer Aldous Huxley, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, aviator Charles Lindbergh and actor Richard Gere.

“I remember the young people who came to listen to Krishnamurti. They slept in stables and stole strawberries from my garden, but that didn’t bother me,” says Franziska Haldi, a 77-year-old local resident and vice-president of the board of directors of the Museum of History. farming in Saanen.

She was usher at a concert given at the church of Saanen during the 1971 Gathering. Besides Menuhin, the French cellist Maurice Gendron and the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar were to perform. Haldi was guiding people to their seats when she spotted a hippie climbing up to the pulpit reserved for the priest.

“I tried to stop him, but he said, ‘Don’t get mad, baby’.”

Despite the presence of a few hippies, the Saanen gatherings were neither Burning Man nor Woodstock. “The atmosphere was clean. You didn’t want to be seen drinking beer or smoking. There was no loud music, drunkenness or drug use,” Quin says.

He remembers how the participants organized themselves into walking and hiking groups that went into the mountains on days when there were no talks.

End of an era

The summer of 1985 was to be the last of the Saanen gatherings. Krishnamurti, now 90, was in poor health. He was staying in Rougemont in a chalet rented by his disciple Friedrich Grohe, a retired industrial magnate who wrote a book called The Beauty of the Mountain: Memories of J. Krishnamurti. According to Grohe, Krishnamurti’s doctor had advised him to rest in bed after each conversation. His daily walk along the Sarine was reduced to a walk.

Despite his declining physical condition, Krishnamurti managed to deliver all of his public speeches. The news that this was the last Saanen Gathering had spread. Krishnamurti addressed the elephant in the room in his characteristic way during the first question and answer session after the talks.

“I was told that there are so many people who are sad to leave, ends Saanen. If someone is sad, it’s time to leave,” he said.

Quin was also present at the last Saanen Gathering in 1985. He didn’t have to stay in a barn this time even though he was still broke. His mother had come from Australia to join him and had rented an apartment in the village.

“She passed away a few years later. I was happy that we spent this month together,” he says.

In 2020, an exhibition on the Gatherings took place at the Saanen Agricultural Museum. It was financed by a foundation created by Grohe.

“The exhibition attracted more people than expected and we had to extend it over two seasons instead of one. It was a success and brought new visitors to the museum,” says Stephan Jaggi, Chairman of the Museum Board.

Swiss heritage

After the last Saanen Gathering, Krishnamurti returned to Brockwood Park, a school he had founded in the UK, and then embarked on his final journey to India. He died in 1986 in Ojai, California, less than a year after his last summer in Saanen.

However, Krishnamurti’s Swiss legacy did not end with his death. Gisele Balleys, a teacher at Brockwood Park School who later helped organize the Saanen Gatherings, continued the tradition even in Krishnamurti’s absence.

At its height, around 2,000 people continued to discuss Krishnamurti in Saanen until the village became too commercial for Balleys’ liking. The venue was moved to Mürren, where gatherings continue to this day despite the pandemic.

“As long as there are human beings, they will come together and discuss the teachings of Krishnamurti,” says Balleys, who is now 86.

Sara H. Byrd