G.I. Gurdjieff: Opener of the Way
Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff was born approximately 1872 (some sources say 1866) in Alexandropol, the Caucasus region of what is now Russia. His father was Greek, while his mother was of Armenian descent. His father was an Ashokh, a lineage of bard priests. As a part of his training, his father had memorized the entire Gilgamesh epic poem, which was transmitted to him in its entirety orally. The young Gurdjieff listened to his father recite portions of this epic throughout his growing years. Tutored by the dean of the Russian military cathedral in academic studies, Gurdjieff prepared for the vocations of physician and priest. None of these studies gave him the answers to questions that burned within his heart. In addition, he had witnessed marvels for which he could not rationally explain.
Around this time Babylon was first being excavated by archaeologists. Cuneiform tablets carved with the epic poem of Gilgamesh, dated around 2,000 BC, were found among the ruins. Gurdjieff read excerpts from the translation published in a local newspaper and was astonished to realize that, word-for-word, it was nearly identical to what his father had recited to him as a child. For over 4,000 years this epic had been preserved intact through the oral tradition of these bard priests (who, incidentally, are no longer to be found). What was the truth behind the myth? What civilization gave birth to this great legend? Gurdjieff's thirst to understand the origins and meaning of life and humanity's place in the scheme of the universe drove him to leave his homeland in search of hidden knowledge.
Gurdjieff knew that in remote regions of Asia there were monasteries of different orders reputed to preserve the knowledge he was seeking. Reasoning that Babylon, known for its ancient ruins, might be the birthplace of civilization, Gurdjieff set out in that direction. Along the way, through a series of events more fully described in his book, Meetings with Remarkable Men
, Gurdjieff happened upon an Armenian priest who produced before his amazed eyes a well-preserved parchment showing a map of “pre-sand Egypt”, a time when the region was dotted with bodies of water and covered with lush vegetation. On that map of pre-sand Egypt was the distinct image of the Sphinx. To fully appreciate Gurdjieff's amazement, consider that the last time Egypt had that much water was, at the earliest, 7500 BC! This lead Gurdjieff to believe that the origins of civilization must be in Egypt rather than Babylon, and so he immediately changed course.
Gurdjieff and a few comrades lived among the ruins from Giza to Thebes and Edfu, learning to decipher some of the hieroglyphs they found on the walls of ruins. One story told of the “7 sages” that came to ancient Egypt and founded the society that built the great temples. The sages had arrived on a solar barq from the sunken continent of Atlantis. In the Gilgamesh epic, there are similar stories of the arrival of emmissaries of an ancient spiritual culture. There is considerable corroborating evidence that Egyptian civilization, among others, was "seeded" in this way, rather than "evolving" as academia claims. However, Egypt suffered from years of Islamic and Christian invasions, so that eventually Egyptian language and the inner meaning of its sprituality ceased to be practiced. Having derived all he could from the ruins, Gurdjieff returned to the Middle East to continue his search.
For a time Gurdjieff traveled throughout Eurasia in the capacity of a Russian spy. The early 1900s were a time of great political upheaval, so this occupation afforded him both income and passage through borders that would otherwise have been impossible. It also cost him three near-death encounters with “stray bullets”. Eventually he made his way to Tibet, where he studied with the Rinpoches of Tibetan Buddhism. During this period he says he acquired the ability to "accumulate life force sufficient to kill a yak at a distance.” Later he would use this ability to channel life force for healing human ailments.
For many years Gurdjieff received training from several orders of Dervishes, where he learned craftsmanship and submission to the Higher. He eventually merited to be discovered by a secret brotherhood, and was taken -- blindfolded through the mountain passes -- to a hidden monastery in the Hindu Kush. There he endured intensive, specially arranged conditions for the purpose of transforming the ego from enemy to ally.
Establishing His Mission
In 1915 Gurdjieff launched his mission to teach in Russia, at first holding lectures and instructing pupils in Sacred Dance. He was forced to flee to France to escape the Bolshevik revolution. In 1922 he founded the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainbleu, which he operated until 1933. At the institute he incorporated the intensive methods he had learned in the monasteries, but adapted for Europeans.
Upon arriving at the institute, all pupils understood that they were there for one purpose: to free themselves from the slavery of egotism. They voluntarily agreed to the intensive conditions, which included hard physical labor by day, long hours of lectures and practicing the Sacred Dances by night. Time alotted for sleep was a bare minimum. Through these labors one learned to make "super efforts", how to tap hidden reserves of energy and thereby also to access higher states of consciousness. Gurdjieff's institute attracted many of the intelligensia of the times. Several prominent people gave up their prestigious careers to live at the Institute and work on their inner being.
In 1924 Gurdjieff visited America, giving lectures and demonstrations of his Sacred Dances in New York, hoping to establish a branch of his institute there. But in 1925 he was involved in a near-fatal automobile collision, from which his physicians did not expect him to recover. The nature of his teaching entirely changed after that event. His recuperation was long and never complete. During that period he closed the Institute and instead dedicated himself to writing and rewriting his books. In between periods of writing, he taught solely over the dinner table, establishing elaborate teaching rituals including a "Toast to the Idiots" (a true "idiot" is one who knows that he does not know.) He died in 1949, shortly after his own epic myth, All & Everything: Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, was set for publication.
For more information about Gurdjieff, visit The Gurdjieff International Review.
To learn more about the Gurdjieff Movements and Sacred Dance, visit the World Forum for Gurdjieff Movements