The house sits hidden in an orange grove, well back from a narrow country lane that winds up through the citrus country of the Ojai Valley. The structure is modest, simple and architecturally characteristic of ranches hereabouts. It is wood and stone, plain, unpretentious.

Since 1922, it has, for at least part of each year, been the headquarters of a short, slender and now, just-turned 90, frail-looking man once called a messiah who settled here in the belief, popular then, that the dry warmth of the valley could cure his younger brother of tuberculosis. It could not.

Back Almost Every Year

Jiddu Krishnamurti has returned here almost every year in mid- to late winter, staying until the end of May. As he has done so, he has tried to convince people he is not what reporters, commentators and other observers have insisted, anyway, on saying he is: a guru, a sage, a mystic, a swami, a leader, Bhagwan this, Maharishi that, a holy man, someone who would be God.

That he has been denying he is any of these things since he was a teenager - and has lived a life apparently consistent with his insistance that he is not a guru - has not been sufficient to deter an ever-skeptical world from insisting regularly that he thinks he is, anyway.

Trappings of Cults

Such titles have the trappings of cults-"isms," as Krishnamurti likes to call them. He contends that cults-which he says range from individual groups of religious extremists to the broader Christian and non-Christian religious right-represent the disturbing harvest of people trying to follow some leader when, in fact, truth can only be found by oneself, in oneself.

That his denials have so largely fallen on deaf ears has been interpreted by some as confirmation of one of Krishnamurti's most salient points: that the world so thirsts for God figures that it will do almost anything to conjure one up. Faith has no value to Krishnamurti. Faith, as he sees it, is an abdication of personal responsibility.

"Don't follow authority"

In the years after he was, as a boy of 9, identified as a messiah, Krishnamurti led a cult, the Order of the Star, but he disbanded it in 1929 and liquidated all of its assets. It had taken a year of deliberation, he recalled, to make the decision final. But in the end, he disbanded the order because he had decided a central tenet of his value system was that "I said, `Don't follow authority.' " And, since to lead a cult was to be an authority figure, the order had to go.

Since then, a central component of Krishnamurti's message has been a warning about how dangerous cults can be and how much more prevalent they are still likely to become.

If Krishnamurti knows nothing else, he knows perseverance; and in a small, shy, quiet voice that reflects a mind still keen, he will speak this weekend, as he did last, in a stately oak grove on the other side of town from the citrus ranch, delivering essentially the same message in precisely the same place as he has for about 70 years. Last Saturday's and Sunday's lectures drew about 2,000 people each. This weekend's addresses begin at 11:30 a.m. each day.

In many ways, Krishnamurti's is a starkly simple philosophy: that the existing world order, in which human behavior is based on a system of faith in something or another-regulated by reward and punishment - is wrong and that such concepts as nationalism and the supremacy of one religion over another ought to be foreign to it. He does not offer - and he has never offered, his writings through the decades confirm - himself as a leader for the system he advocates.

When Krishnamurti speaks in public, he scrupulously avoids referring to himself in the first person, preferring "the speaker," instead. Last Sunday, sitting on a simple folding chair on a low, unadorned platform under a spreading oak, he repeatedly cautioned his audience against perceiving him as an oracle and themselves as the people honoring the sage and awaiting his commands.

"Be Skeptical"

"Be skeptical of what the speaker is saying, especially," Krishnamurti told them. "He is not a guru. He doesn't want a thing from you . . . not even your applause. Please be sure of that, so you can relax. Please listen . . . not to the speaker, but to yourself.

"The speaker, he is not important at all. But what is being said (and discussed) is important. Please don't wait for the speaker to tell you what to do, which would be another form of the cultivation of guilt." But even Krishnamurti recognizes how much he is asking of his adherents when he demands that they not perceive themselves as followers. At 90, he retains a quick, self-effacing wit. Trying to introduce a point he had made in a recent address at the United Nations, for instance, he told the crowd "the speaker . . . doesn't know why he was invited, but he went. He's not telling you this out of vanity. He's informing you."

Then, having posed a broad question-"What is thought? What is thinking?" - Krishnamurti paused for a moment and asked, "Do you want my explanation?" The crowd, of course, murmured assent. Krishnamurti chuckled. "That is what I am objecting to," he said in jocular reproach. "(The speaker) becomes the nasty guru; and you become the followers." Laughter rose from the audience; the speaker had struck again. He objects to having his opinions called a philosophy, though the language probably fails as a resource for otherwise describing it.

He isn't a philosopher, at least not a conventional one. Instead, he says simply, he is offering facts.

Philosophy, you see, he explained in a rare interview at the little ranch house, has grown to consist of the study of the writings and teachings of others. He says that, since he has never read widely in philosophy or theology-studying only the Old Testament, and that to appreciate the rhythm and flow of the King James English more than the nature of the theology it contains - he isn't a philosopher, at least in the conventional sense. Instead, he says simply he is offering "facts" -a characterization woven throughout his writings and teachings of the last seven decades-that a listener is free to disregard.

Not a Philosopher

Philosophers, he says, a twinkle coming to his eyes, "talk or write about something that other people have taught. Aristotle will lay down certain principles and the Aristotelian people talk about what he said. You understand, they talk about talks and write about what has been written. So I am not a philosopher."

He has delivered this message in such places as India, England and Switzerland. This year, it was Washington, where two addresses at the Kennedy Center were sold out, and at the U.N. In March of 1984, he said the same things to scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Two years before, in "The Network of Thought," an anthology of addresses he gave in 1981 in Switzerland, Krishnamurti first likened the drift of contemporary education and thought to the simple programming of computers.

"We are educated wrongly," he said, sitting in the ranch house. "I have spoken at some of the universities in this country and we are programmed. We're conditioned. And of course (being conditioned) religiously is the easiest.

"The brain is becoming narrower and narrower. I don't know if you have observed this. We are never educated inwardly. Do you understand? So there is no holistic education. That is education of the whole human being. Only partially."

There can be no moral initiative but the purest form that comes from within an individual.

And yet to the Los Alamos scientists, Krishnamurti could offer little solace, for his is a system of beliefs in which being a leader or having followers is simply wrong. There can be no moral initiative but the purest form that comes from within an individual. It is a demanding system-one even Krishnamurti realizes is far more difficult to apply in practice than in the abstract.

Even the Oak Grove School, founded by Krishnamurti here 10 years ago, has a problem with it. For a time, the school operated without giving grades. But a few years ago, when it expanded from elementary grades to include the high school level, Oak Grove gave in to the expectations of colleges and began offering transcripts with grades attached, David Moody, Oak Grove's educational director, said.

And if students fight, Oak Grove insists it does not use punishment, but it does not rule out expulsion as a last resort. Isn't expulsion a form of punishment and aren't good grades a form of reward? Moody chuckled. "You're getting to the heart of controversies that have swirled around this school for years," he said.

Krishnamurti's is a set of beliefs that requires at once both everything and nothing from its adherents. Everything in the sense that to agree with Krishnamurti is to agree that there can be no leaders and no followers; no tenets on which to fall back, and no honor in the defense that one was simply following orders.

"What Would You Do?"

"I was asked this question by the scientists at Los Alamos," he said. "'What would you do if you were director of this (laboratory)? Taking into account you are responsible for the safety and security of the country, what would you do?' I said, 'probably exactly what you are doing. Thank God I'm not in your place.'"

There was a minority view clearly discernible in the audience that Krishnamurti's philosophy is attractive because it requires no action outside the individual

"But one has to go very deeply into the (true) question, which is: 'Why have we done these things (developed nuclear bombs) in the first place?' " Yet his message is perceived almost as just the opposite, even by some of the people who were laying down blankets on the fresh green grass in the oak grove to listen to him-obviously not for the first time. There was a minority view clearly discernible in the audience that Krishnamurti's philosophy is attractive because it requires no action outside the individual. One middle-aged man who obviously was the veteran of many Krishnamurti talks was attempting to explain the philosophy to a young friend. It wasn't clear whether Krishnamurti would agree with the man's description of the Krishnamurti message.

"That's why he (Krishnamurti) is so popular," the middle-aged man said. "You don't have to do anything. You just have to be aware." Sitting, wearing blue jeans, an open-collar, brown-striped cotton sport shirt, button-up, dark-blue sweater and sandals over his socks, in a spare den at the citrus ranch house here, Krishnamurti would not be taken by a casual visitor for 90. A likely guess would be 70 or 75. He does not wear glasses and has both the gait and gaze of a man 20 or perhaps 25 years younger than he is.

Krishnamurti was born near Madras, India, on May 12, 1895 - 10 days earlier than the date erroneously listed in a variety of published biographical sketches, according to Mary Zimbalist, the stately older woman who is a friend and associate (he eschews the terms disciples, believers or followers). As a trustee of the Krishnamurti Foundation of America, the tiny organization that functions as the only American corporate structure (there are separate foundations in India and England) supporting him, she accompanies him in his travels.

He spends roughly four months each year in India; four in England and Europe, and four in Ojai. His time is divided between supervision of schools he has founded on three continents (five schools in India, one in England and the 82-student Oak Grove School here, which came into being in 1975); public speaking, and contemplation.

Except for four years during World War II, which broke out while he was here and resulted in his spending the war in residence on the citrus ranch, Krishnamurti has adhered to this schedule annually with only infrequent variation, Zimbalist said.

Though he is philosophically an ardent anti-Communist, Krishnamurti avoids political entanglements. His reading habits as he describes them are eclectic. He still studies the Old Testament, but most of his other reading, he said, is of thrillers and detective novels. Lately, he said, he has been captivated by the best seller "Breaking With Moscow," by the Russian defector Arkady Shevchenko.

Follower of Cultists

Krishnamurti's mother died when he was quite young, but his father was a passionate follower of an American cultist, Annie Besant, head of the Theosophical Society, whose philosophy was a mix of Buddhism and Indian Brahmanism. It was as prominent a cult in its time as any of today's sects or fascinations. At the height of the Victorian Age, Besant, Krishnamurti recalled, advocated such controversial concepts as birth control and divorce.

When Krishnamurti was very young, he recalled, Besant was searching for a boy who would become anointed as a great teacher, and express the word of God direct. After considering a few others, Besant chose young Krishnamurti as the chosen one, adopting him as a foster son so he could begin to be trained for his calling. Newspapers of the day quickly called it a declaration of the new messiah, but Krishnamurti says the analogy distorted Besant's expectations.

"It was a deep conviction for Mrs. Besant that there would be a great teacher coming . . . that there is in the world the concept called bodhisattva (a particularly enlightened being) and he would manifest," Krishnamurti recalled. "So they were looking around for a human being . . . for a boy . . . and when I came on the scene, they said, 'This is the boy we've been looking for.' I was probably 9 or 10.

"Dr. Besant said, `The world-teacher is coming.' And, of course, the newspapers said (she said I was the) Messiah. I'm trying to put it in words that you will understand and I don't want to hide anything. I've had various experiences of a special kind, but I don't cling to them. It's water under the bridge."

Whatever he was supposed to be, the youngster was venerated by Besant and, through his teen years, Krishnamurti traveled widely and enjoyed celebrity status as he matured. Besant also had adopted Krishnamurti's younger brother, Nityananda, and when the two boys were in their teens, the younger one contracted tuberculosis-Krishnamurti has always believed it was from swimming in infected waters in Lake Geneva in Switzerland. In India, someone told them that Ojai in California offered the chance of a cure-the theory of the day being that TB could be treated by exposure to dry, clean air.

First Visit in 1922

In 1922, the two young men made their first visit here. Nityananda grew worse, however, and died in 1925 at the age of 28. But the grooming of Krishnamurti continued unabated. Besant established the Order of the Star to serve as the conduit for the teachings of the bodhisattva, or Messiah or whatever she thought Krishnamurti was. He became a darling of the media, and his comings and goings-in luxury aboard the most noted ocean liners of the day-were regularly chronicled. A strikingly handsome young man, he was rumored and reported to have had romantic involvements all over the world-all of which he denied. Reporters swarmed around him, demanding his opinions on baseball, flappers, jazz and fast cars.

As the 1920s progressed, Krishnamurti began holding camp meetings at the end of May every year, speaking in Ojai in the same oak grove where his annual talks are held now. Sometime in 1928, however, young Krishnamurti, then 33, realized that something about the adulation bothered him. He had concluded, he recalled, that the premise of his own near deity "was wrong." For the next year, he said, he sought advice of world leaders and trusted friends, all of whom, he said, urged him to retain the Order of the Star as a vehicle. There were properties and wealth all over the world, but, in 1929, Krishnamurti announced to a startled Besant and his own followers that the Order of the Star was dissolved and all its holdings were to be divested. "At the end of some time," Krishnamurti recalled, "I said, `All right, I'm going to decide this,' and I said, 'Dissolve the whole thing.' It had gradually become ugly. And I've been doing this (traveling, denying his own deity and talking) ever since.

"We don't want facts. We want some quick theological theories"

"This is true, all this. It's a fact. It's like you're sitting there. I'm sitting here. "And we don't want facts. We want some quick theological theories. "If I promised reward, I would have quantities of money . . . great estates. You understand? At one time, I used to have all that when I was quite young. I said it's all wrong." Krishnamurti invariably faces questions about religious fads and their contemporary manifestations. It is easy, he responds, to allow the heat of the modern moment to make it appear that cultism or religious fanaticism is a new problem.

Sitting in the white-painted den, Krishnamurti, as he often does, met one of the first of an interviewer's questions about cults allegorically-a technique he has been known for throughout his public life. "I have a friend who is a very serious journalist in Europe," he said. "And a friend of his one morning said, 'I'm leaving everything and going off to Oregon.' " The destination: Rajneeshpuram, the controversial headquarters of the cult led by the self-described mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. "And my friend asked him why," Krishnamurti continued. "He (the friend's friend) said, 'Here, there is no hope.' A while later, the friend wrote back saying, `You know, I feel entirely free . . . free because I am totally irresponsible. " 'And you know what I am doing? I am pulling out old nails from old wood.' "

Krishnamurti paused for a moment for the anecdote to have the calculated effect. "You understand, sir," he said finally to his visitor, "this is what is happening in the world. "The gurus come along with their beards, whether in the name of the savior or the priest or the Indian gurus with their nonsense, and people flock to them. The gurus say, 'I know. I'll tell you all about it.' And the person who hears that is so gullible, hoping the guru will give him something. And behind it, there is a lot of money and a lot of power. And to protect that power and money, they (some cults) have guns. "This is happening in the name of God."

"The word guru in Sanskrit, the root of it means weight. And it has several meanings, but it also means one who removes ignorance, not imposes it, as is done now. It has been traditional in India for many centuries, the idea of somebody leading you to something, and in India many of the gurus have made enormous amounts of money, because people want to be led. . . . Want to be told what to do."

He contends today that at no time has the problem of cults and "isms" been more critical than it is now. It has become a worldwide affliction, spurred, Krishnamurti contends, by a complex of modern-day social problems, ranging from the persistent specter of nuclear annihilation to social problems and the inexorable threat of a growing world population. Krishnamurti bridles at the philosophy of much of the anti-nuclear war movement because, he said, "they want a particular type of war to stop, but not war itself. Why? It's because of nationalism or some other kind of separation."

In that context, according to Krishnamurti, all religious extremism can be viewed as part of a single process. "We begin in the East. In India, there is a population of over 800 million people, and it increases by the population of England and Australia combined every year. There is enormous uncertainty, insecurity, poverty, and this is propelling them to gods," Krishnamurti said. "Then you come to the West, including Europe, and something of the same phenomenon is going on. The threat of war. And in this country, too, there is uncertainty. "And along come the evangelists. I've heard several of them on the television. They're making pots of money, in the name of Jesus. "So, fear is the base of all this. If there was no fear, we wouldn't need gods. "I'm not being cynical. I'm just pointing this out."