Vibhuti Patel visits Ojai—a southern Californian town of 7,000—and is enchanted when she discovers a spiritual oasis tucked away in the mecca of mass materialism and celebrity obsession
When I was growing up on Bombay’s leafy Carmichael Road, my mother often attended JD Krishnamurti’s lectures in an old bungalow down the road from us. I remember her discussing his philosophy with my father, who claimed women were seduced more by Krishnamurti’s good looks and charisma than his ideology. I was too young to know anything about philosophy then but that iconoclasm stuck in my memory for five decades. Then, Krishnamurti’s name cropped up again in a late-night conversation, halfway across the world, at my friend Deepak Chopra’s home.
Deepak spoke admiringly of his intellect, his radical philosophy and of Ojai (pronounced oh-high)—his official home in California. In fact, he often went on “reading breaks” to the library there to absorb his mentor’s works, archived with videos of his lectures.
When a newfound Ojai friend unexpectedly invited me to visit her in February, I flew 4,000 kilometres cross-country to Los Angeles. This was followed by a two-hour scenic coastal drive during which Vinny, my chauffeur in Ojai, surprised me endlessly—a Buddhist meditator, familiar with Hinduism, he was curious about Sikhism, had a master’s in literature, a subscription to The New Yorker and loved Indian food.
I knew the 60s were long dead. But were hippies still around in southern California—that redoubt of Reaganesque materialism and Hollywood celebrities’ flirtation with pop spirituality? This had to be an aberration: the latest movie remake of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby depicted an obscene pursuit of wealth; Sofia Coppola’s Bling Ring told the true story of LA teenagers who burglarised the homes of several A-list celebrities, including Paris Hilton and Megan Fox, to steal designer clothes, shoes and jewellery. The recent Great Recession had brought out America’s worst monetary obsessions. Liberalism was near-dead, spirituality had ceased to be synonymous with India, and Gandhi and Nehru were passé. Americans associated “India Shining” with the garish excesses of Bollywood and Silicon Valley’s multimillionaires. The evening news obsessed over Rajat Gupta, Wall Street’s “rock star”, whose Shakespearean fall from heroic integrity made the cover of the New York Times Book Review.
So, intrigued by Vinny, I entered tiny Ojai—a town of 7,000—and artist Bernadette Dipietro’s charming cottage where I was to read, write and hibernate, far from New York’s bitterest winter. Online, I had discovered it was an upscale resort town, known for its spas, artists and pricey real estate. But I was more interested in Ojai’s most famous resident, and Bernadette had lured me here by promising to show me around his estate. Standing in a large well-maintained garden, Krishnamurti’s spacious ranch-style home has been preserved as a memorial to his life and works. Like Deepak, I soon returned to find out more about him.
I learned that Annie Besant and the Theosophists in Madras had discovered 12-year-old Jiddu—the son of middle-class Telugu Brahmins—and trained him rigorously for his mission as World Teacher. In 1921, he came to Arya Vihara—now Pine Cottage—the Ojai house his followers built him where, in 1922, he had his first mystical experience. But he broke away from them soon after, insisting, “I do not want followers . . . the only essential thing is to set man free, not to found religions.” He urged everyone to “question everything that man has accepted as valuable, as necessary”, and regarded the guru-disciple relationship as one that encourages dependency and exploitation.
Still, as Krishnamurti’s reputation grew worldwide, he attracted celebrities. Hollywood stars Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and Charles Laughton came to listen to him, as did painter Jackson Pollock and writer Christopher Isherwood. Aldous Huxley became a close friend. Visiting India in 1947, he attracted young intellectuals, befriended Nehru and, years later, met Indira Gandhi through his friend and biographer Pupul Jayakar. At a Sunday “event”, I joined a dozen locals and out-of-towners to listen to Krishnamurti on DVD in a wide-ranging and candid conversation with Jayakar that sparked an animated discussion.
Krishnamurti loved the unspoilt beauty, tranquility and temperate climate of the Ojai Valley where he led a quiet life—walking, mingling and singing songs with Mexican orange pickers, shaded by a large straw hat, hiking through the hills to the top of the iconic Topa Topa Ridge. “If I had nowhere to go in the world, I’d come to Ojai,” he said. “I would sit under an orange tree, it would shade me from the sun and I could live on the fruit.” Occasionally, he caught a Disney movie or a musical at the Ojai Theater. Sharing his enthusiasm for Ojai and its luminous orange-and-gold citrus orchards, I checked out the elegant bed and breakfast retreat, behind the main house, where guests enjoy peace among eucalyptus, cypress and cedar trees.
We drove past the 175 rolling acres of Oak Grove School, modelled after India’s much-acclaimed Rishi Valley School. Krishnamurti founded both institutions on the ancient gurukul concept of students learning in the nurturing environment of a teacher’s home. Krishnamurti lived happily in Ojai for 64 years, even rushing back from Madras in 1986 to die here at 90. His name and spirit remain enshrined forever in this picturesque valley where I found no Indian resident or tourist, not even the ubiquitous Indian restaurant. And yet, there were numerous spiritual centres and boarding schools here attended by the children of well-heeled East Asians and Californians.
One evening, we enjoyed the sunset from Meditation Mount. Built—like much of Ojai—by wealthy entrepreneurs, its mission is “to promote the creation of an enlightened and compassionate world through the power of creative meditation.” Another afternoon, I accompanied Bernadette who regularly visits Meher Mount, a 172-acre centre on a 2,500-foot-high mountain top, overlooking the valley, the Pacific Ocean and the Topa Topa Mountains. It is dedicated to Meher Baba, Bombay’s Zoroastrian avatar, who celebrated divine love and oneness by urging his followers to “love Baba through Nature”. He had sanctified this property on his only daylong visit in 1956. Bernadette, who had brought flowers “for Baba’s birthday”, put them under “Baba’s tree”. Then, we ate a simple al fresco (non-vegetarian!) lunch and birthday cake with a group of about 20 middle-aged devotees.
Since 1926—after Krishnamurti broke away—Ojai has also housed the Krotona Institute of Theosophy, another lavishly landscaped, hilltop centre in the heart of residential Ojai. It holds workshops on Theosophy, maintains an extensive library and has a well-stocked occult bookstore.
Krotona’s lush garden is full of sculptures, fountains, walkways and benches. Surprisingly, these centres all predate the 60s’ spiritual revolution that was inspired mostly by Indians. But neither the devotees nor the gurus have been ethnic Indians. Legend has it that aerial views of the valley here were portrayed as the mythical Shangri-La in the 1937 film Lost Horizon.
Enthused by my excitement at these discoveries, Bernadette took me to her favourite place of worship, 40 minutes away, in Montecito—the posh hilltop neighbourhood of fancy homes, swanky inns and expensive restaurants. Hollywood’s Vedanta Society owns a choice property here, nestled against a scenic mountain range, overlooking Santa Barbara and the ocean. Its breathtakingly beautiful modern temple is dedicated to Sri Ramakrishna. A convent of seven nuns oversees the maintenance of the 45-acre property, manages the superbly stocked bookstore and facilitates public activities at the temple, including meditation, aartis, poojas and Sunday lectures.
I discovered that in 1944, one of the Kelloggs gifted his idyllic country estate to the Vedanta Society to serve as a retreat for their monastics. The estate designated a convent for nuns who moved here from the Hollywood centre and, for the first time, three American women were given sanyaas (voluntary exile) by India’s Ramakrishna Order. A local architect was recruited to design a striking building inspired by south Indian wood temples; the building has received several design awards and continues to attract visitors from all over the world.
Deeply moved by the spotless church-like interior of this temple, its clean lines and peaceful atmosphere, I returned that weekend with artist Robyn Dalby, a yoga instructor who had rented Bernadette’s studio to teach a drawing workshop to 12 yoginis. She was eager to experience the aarti, I was curious to check out its authenticity. We were not disappointed: a printed brochure lucidly explained the Vedic significance of this “vespers” service that I—despite performing and attending numerous aartis at home—had never heard of before. The temple’s atmosphere was dark, hushed and the service performed most authentically in limpid Sanskrit by a saffron-robed Caucasian nun.
Then, as I despaired of topping that experience, Bernadette suggested we visit the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts. We drove up to Ojai’s most aesthetic hilltop center and entered her home—now a museum and studio open to the public. The only child of aristocratic Americans, Beatrice gave up her privileged upbringing—finishing school, tours around Europe and living in pre–World War I Paris with a chaperone—to study acting at the Comédie-Française and art at the prestigious Académie Julian. Upon her return to New York, she performed 60 roles in two years.
In Paris, Beatrice met and fell for the renowned artist Marcel Duchamp, who introduced her to her first lover, Henri-Pierre Roché. She worked with them to create a magazine that showcased art’s avant-garde Dada movement and came to be known as the “Mama of Dada”. More interestingly, she became Roché’s mistress and, with Duchamp, they became an inseparable threesome. That love triangle is said to have inspired Roché’s novel Jules et Jim and, in 1962, François Truffaut’s iconic film of the same name. Jeanne Moreau played the free-spirited heroine, Catherine, who embodies Beatrice’s irrepressible rebelliousness. I was amazed to discover this in the museum’s videography on Beatrice’s life. In her 1985 autobiography I Shock Myself, Beatrice half-denied that juicy rumour: “Because the story concerns two young men who are close friends and a woman who loves them both, people have wondered how much was based on Roché, Marcel and me. I cannot say what memories or episodes inspired Roché, but the characters bear only passing resemblance to us in real life!”
Years later, Beatrice, who had chosen the bohemian life of an impoverished ceramic artist, befriended Krishnamurti, moved to Ojai and became a lifelong member of The Theosophical Society, Adyar. She made many trips to Madras and was so enchanted by India that, for the rest of her long life, she wore only south Indian silk saris and heavy jewellery. At 104, she served as inspiration for the 101-year-old Rose in James Cameron’s 1997 epic, Titanic. Cameron notes, “Reading I Shock Myself, I realised that its first chapter describes, almost literally, the character I was already writing for “Old Rose” . . . When I met [Beatrice] she was charming, creative and devastatingly funny. . . The film’s Rose is a refraction of Beatrice, combined with fictional elements.”
Beatrice’s spirit remained puckish to the end. When asked the secret of her longevity, she invariably responded, “Chocolate and young men!” Bernadette attended her 95th birthday celebration when Beatrice, a well-established serial monogamist, said of her latest young lover: “He’s only 79!” Nine days after her 105th birthday, she died in Ojai. The day after I visited her museum, decorated with colourful folk art pieces lovingly collected from India and displayed alongside her own quirky ceramic works, I left Ojai, savouring a uniquely educational tour, bookended by Krishnamurti’s philosophy and Beatrice’s art.