Gurdjieff's Search for Esoteric Knowledge

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G.I. Gurdjieff has been described as one of the most fascinating and remarkable men of the 20th century. He possessed immense personal magnetism and profound esoteric knowledge of human transformation, and he brought a spiritual teaching of vast scope and power to the Western world. Yet, throughout his life Gurdjieff was an enigma even to his closest students and was widely misunderstood by observers, critics and the public.

 

From an early age Gurdjieff was preoccupied with understanding the meaning and purpose of human life. Thanks to his father and other influential elders, Gurdjieff was educated in religion and modern science and assimilated essential values and ethics. As he matured, Gurdjieff attracted a group of like-minded ‘Seekers of the Truth’ who studied and travelled with him throughout the East in search of ancient esoteric knowledge. On these arduous journeys, which spanned several continents, Gurdjieff succeeded in finding many fragments of ancient knowledge. However, they were largely disconnected and a good portion was missing. Finally, after a great deal of searching, “the doors of a certain school opened for him, where he came to understand how to bring together all the principles of an esoteric teaching.” (1)

This culmination of Gurdjieff's search involved the discovery of an ancient esoteric school or universal brotherhood, called the Sarmoung, which was believed to possess the keys to humanity's spiritual evolution. Although Gurdjieff claimed that the Sarmoung monastery was located somewhere in Central Asia, its existence could not be independently verified and many believe the Sarmoung to be merely allegorical.

Following this discovery, Gurdjieff spent a further period of time preparing for a teaching mission to the West. He began to formally teach in Russia in 1912 with a personal mission to “add the mystical spirit of the East to the scientific spirit of the West.” (2)

Later, deciding to flee Russia during the Revolution, Gurdjieff and his followers eventually settled in France. Gurdjieff spent the remainder of his life transmitting his ‘Fourth Way’ teachings and serving as spiritual leader to countless students from around the world.

Validating the Events of Gurdjieff's Life

One of the major problems facing biographers and researchers of G.I. Gurdjieff is the unreliability of much of the information regarding his life. The only available information on the events of Gurdjieff's life before 1912 is contained in scattered references in his own writings and in conversations recorded by his pupils. But Gurdjieff was notorious for spinning fanciful tales about himself, making it difficult for anyone to separate fact from fiction.

The primary source of information about Gurdjieff's early life and his search for esoteric knowledge is his semi-autobiographical Meetings with Remarkable Men. Described as a combination of allegory and fact (3), the book is replete with contradictions, logical inconsistencies and confusing chronology. Biographer James Moore asserts that “we possess not one shred of independent evidence to confirm his own extraordinary account -- nor indeed to invalidate it.” (4) Attempts by biographers to reconstruct the chronology and routes of Gurdjieff's travels have met with little success. Although his family confirmed that Gurdjieff journeyed extensively in the regions he described in his books, independent confirmation of these journeys are non-existent.

By contrast, the second half of Gurdjieff's life, from 1912 until his death in 1949, has been extensively chronicled in the accounts of students, journalists and biographers. Yet, there remain a number of gaps in the history of Gurdjieff's activities during this period. As well, the validity of many of the accounts of Gurdjieff's students has been questioned on the basis of factual errors, fabrication and speculation (5). Although many of the inaccuracies are relatively minor, others represent significant distortions of the actual events of Gurdjieff's life. As a result, the contemporary researcher encounters significant challenges in attempting to establish with certainty the salient events in Gurdjieff's life.

NOTES

(1) G.I. Gurdjieff Meetings with Remarkable Men (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971), p. viii.

(2) Louis Pauwels Gurdjieff (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1975), p. 177.

(3) John Bennett argues in Gurdjieff: Making a New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1973, p. 106) that Meetings was not intended as a strictly factual description of Gurdjieff's life:

Meetings with Remarkable Men is written not as a narrative but as a series of pictures of people and isolated events. It does not follow that it is all fantasy or that the events described do not fit into a coherent account of Gurdjieff's search.

(4) James Moore Gurdjieff: Anatomy of a Myth (Rockport, Massachusetts: Element Books, 1991), p. 24.

(5) For example, Professor Paul Beekman Taylor identifies a distorting element colouring the recollections of many of Gurdjieff's students in the web document “Inventors of Gurdjieff”:

The factual accuracy of recollections by Gurdjieff's pupils are always suspect, since each pupil sees his relationship to the man subjectively. With rare exceptions, those who write from a pupil's point of view either invent a privileged relationship with Gurdjieff or exaggerate the actual one.

(6) Gurdjieff’s date of birth has been a source of mystery, conjecture and argument since his earliest teaching days in Russia. Biographer James Moore (Gurdjieff: Anatomy of a Myth, Rockport, Massachusetts: Element Books, 1991, pp. 339-340) concludes that Gurdjieff was born in 1866, citing as evidence his own statements to students in the 1940s, historical records which correlate with accounts of his early life related in Meetings with Remarkable Men and the assessments of some of his pupils. However, William Patterson (Struggle of the Magicians, Fairfax, California: Arete Communications, 1996, pp. 216-217) argues that 1872 is a more plausible date of birth, drawing evidence from events in Gurdjieff’s life recounted in Meetings with Remarkable Men and the conclusions of a number of his students. Patterson ultimately concludes that there can be no definitive answer to this question.

(7) Gurdjieff is a Russian variant of the Greek surname “Giorgiades.”

(8) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 342.

(9) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 36.

(10) G.I. Gurdjieff The Herald of Coming Good (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1974), p. 13.

(11) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 36.

(12) The prospectus for the opening of Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at the Prieuré in France places the founding of the Seekers of the Truth in 1895.

(13) John Bennett Gurdjieff: Making a New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 94.

(14) Scholars have speculated that the word Merkhavat may be derived from the Judaic Merkhabah, a central mystical text of Kabbalism.

(15) G.I. Gurdjieff Meetings with Remarkable Men (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971), p. 90.

(16) Gurdjieff's description of the Sarmoung monastery in Meetings is replete with symbolism. The central temple consisted of three courts: an outer one for visitors, a secondary court for intermediate pupils and an inner court for the initiated. This structure corresponds to the three levels of spiritual teachings: the exoteric, mesoteric and esoteric. Gurdjieff observed young priestesses learning sacred dances with the aid of apparatuses of exquisite craftmanship made of ebony inlaid with ivory. The apparatuses were designed like trees with a central column and seven main branches which in turn were divided into seven sections of varying dimensions, an obvious reference to the law of octaves.

(17) G.I. Gurdjieff Meetings with Remarkable Men (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971), p. 161.

(18) Some Buddhist scholars have noted the similarity between Sarmoung and a Tibetan Buddhist monastery of the Kagyu sect called the Surmang, which is still in existence in Tibet. Gurdjieff's student John Bennett suggests a correspondence with the Persian word Sarman and proposes two possible interpretations: (1) a reference to the perennial knowledge transmitted by initiates, or (2) a synonym for the bee which since ancient times has been a symbol of those who collect the precious ‘honey’ of traditional wisdom and preserve it for future generations. Bolivian esotericist Oscar Ichazo claims that Gurdjieff studied at a ‘School of the Bees’ located somewhere in Afghanistan. And writer Desmond Martin, who claimed to have visited a Sarmoun Brotherhood in Afghanistan in the 1960’s, refers to the ‘bee hypothesis’ in an article “Account of the Sarmoun Brotherhood” in Roy Weaver Davidson (ed.) Documents on Contemporary Dervish Communities (London: Octagon Press, 1982, p. 23).

(19) John Bennett Gurdjieff: Making a New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 64.

(20) James Moore Gurdjieff: Anatomy of a Myth (Rockport, Massachusetts: Element Books, 1991), p. 36.

(21) G.I. Gurdjieff Meetings with Remarkable Men (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971), p. 270.

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