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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Gurdjieff, George Ivanovich

(1866?-1949). An influential mystic, born in Alexandropol, Russia. There is some doubt regarding the exact date of his birth, but latest research has suggested that 1866 is the most likely one. Like many spiritual revolutionaries, he has been the subject of varied assessments by both contemporary and post-mortem critics. On the one hand he has been called a charlatan; on the other the most significant spiritual teacher since Helena P. BLAVATSKY.

After desultory educational episodes Gurdjieff’s education was undertaken by Dean Borsh at a Russian military cathedral at Kars and subsequently by Dean Bogachevsky. In 1883 Gurdjieff left home and moved to Tiflis where he worked as a stoker on the Transcaucasian Railway. He made a pilgrimage to Echmiadzin and studied for three months at the Sanaine Monastery under Father Yevlampios. In the summer of 1885 he visited Constantinople where he studied with the Mevlevi and Bektashi dervishes.

1886 was an important year for Gurdjieff for it was then, when digging at the ruined city of Ani, he and his companion Pogossian found an ancient manuscript that made reference to the “Sarmoung Brotherhood,” a wisdom school said to have been founded in Babylon c. 2500 BCE. This discovery was to impel Gurdjieff on a long quest in an attempt to discover more about this secret brotherhood. After many travels and adventures, in 1896, he suffered a gunshot wound and returned to Alexandrapol to recover. In 1897 he renewed his travels with a companion named Soloviev, and in 1898 was taken blindfolded on a twelve- day journey from Bokara to the chief Sarmoung Monastery. It was from the Sarmoung that Gurdjieff was reputed to have gained his knowledge of a system of spiritual enhancement which he subsequently brought to the West and called “The Work” or “The System.”

In 1901 Gurdjieff entered Upper Tibet disguised as a Transcaspian Buddhist and studied with the “Red Hat” Lamas. He is said to have married a Tibetan woman while in that country. Gurdjieff was in Tibet when the British, under Younghusband, massacred many Tibetans on August 3, 1904; about 600 were either killed or seriously wounded, mowed down with machine guns. He was forced to leave Tibet owing to illness in 1904.

From 1912 Gurdjieff began his teaching career, first in Moscow and then at St. Petersburg and in November 13, 1914, he advertised his ballet The Struggle of the Magicians, which attracted the attention of Piotr (Peter) Demianovich OUSPENSKY who was destined to become his most influential pupil. Ouspensky remained with Gurdjieff until 1918 when they parted ways and the former began to teach independently.

The Russian civil war forced Gurdjieff to move many times to escape becoming involved, but in 1919 he was in Tbilisi where, on June 22, in collaboration with Jeanne Salzmann, he gave his first public demonstration of his Sacred Dances. In the autumn he formed his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. In 1920 Gurdjieff moved to Constantinople where he re-animated his Institute, giving public lectures and instruction to a small group of students.

After much travel from place to place, presumably seeking a location for a more permanent Institute, Gurdjieff, in 1922, with generous financial assistance from English supporters, acquired a large property at the Prieuré des Basses Loges at Fontainbleau-Avon, France. On October 17 he agreed to accept the New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield as a resident at the Prieuré, which decision was to cause him much trouble. Mansfield was in the final stage of tuberculosis when she arrived and presumably Gurdjieff knew of her condition. He quartered her in a cold damp stable over the cows saying that she would benefit from the exhalations. Whether she would have lived much longer at a Swiss sanatorium is a moot point, but since she had freely elected to live out her last days with Gurdjieff he could scarcely be blamed for her death.

A summary of Gurdjieff’s “system” is not an easy undertaking. His writing style was obscure, particularly in his major work, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson and indeed his pupil, Alfred ORAGE, reported that the first instalment was unintelligible. Perry recalls that Ouspensky and the Moscow and St. Petersburg group were continually baffled by their master’s paradoxical way of erecting a whole cosmological system for their study, only to abandon it for another theory later. (Gurdjieff in the Light of Tradition, W. N. Perry, Perennial Books Ltd., p. 65). The focus of Gurdjieff’s teaching was “Know Thyself.” To make this injunction something that was achievable, he subjected his pupils to various exercises and tightly structured movements to music. He seems to have been consistent about one theory, the idea that humans are, in the main, “asleep” in respect of their potential. The whole process of living, he claimed, which results in endless habitual behavior, produces a sort of “mechanical person.” Sometimes a very severe shock or trauma may temporarily jolt one into partial “awakenness” but in most cases the effect is quite transitory. Humans, he said, are not born with immortal souls, but might, by very great endeavor, create a soul within.

What he had to say about such esoteric teachings as “reincarnation,” “karma,” “the Astral Self,” is confused and inconclusive. However, his description of “man” as a “three-brained” creature may be a reference to some equivalent of the astral and mental bodies which are part of the theosophical philosophy. His attitude toward Christian churches was dismissive. Gurdjieff died October 29, 1949.

P.S.H.

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