G.I. Gurdjieff & the Hidden History of the Sufis

From New Dawn 107 (Mar-Apr 2008)

Sufism belongs in spirit to the modern age. It has an affinity with it; it is in tune with secularism, with the modern thirst for objective knowledge. Yet the Sufi tradition is immensely old. In some quarters a belief still persists that it is a mystical offshoot of Islam, but most reliable sources claim it is far older than the Muslim religion.

Evidence is emerging that suggests the tentacles of the brotherhood reach out to many religions and cultures and extend thousands of years into the past, and that its members were once better known as the Friends of Truth, the Builders, the Masters, the People of the Way and numerous other appellations that had been circulating for far longer than the lifetime of Islam. The Friends, it is said, were already present in Medina during Muhammad’s lifetime and adopted the name Sufi after taking an oath of fidelity to the Muslim cause.1

A number of derivations of the word Sufi have been put forward, including Ain Soph, the Kabbalistic term for the unknowable, and Sophos, meaning Wisdom. This is in line with the view held by many students of Sufism who claim that it corresponds with the hidden esoteric wisdom-dimension that underlies all religions. Thus the British Sufi fellow-traveller and author Ernest Scott believes the Sufi tradition has impregnated Western culture to a degree we rarely realise, leading him indeed to call it the Invisible Tradition. Its covert influence, he says, has been strong in Manichaeism and the Cathar faith, in the Troubadour and Jester traditions of medieval Europe, in the evolution of Jewish Kabbalah, in alchemy and in Christianity itself. Scott quotes the Afghan Sufi teacher Idris Shah as saying that “there is evidence that at the deepest levels of Sufi secrecy, there is a mutual communication with the mystics of the Christian West.”2

Scott further quotes Hakim Jami, a twelfth-century Sufi master, as implicitly denying Sufism’s Islamic origin by declaring that Plato, Hippocrates, Pythagoras and Hermes lay on an unbroken line of Sufi transmission, thus making a causal connection between Sufism and the Greek Mystery schools of antiquity.3 The British esotericist J.G. Bennett goes further, claiming that the Sufis are the descendants and spiritual heirs of the old master magicians of Altai, and that Central Asia has been their heartland for forty thousand years or more. He says that it was from the Altaic shamans that the Sufis inherited the religious tolerance, supremely practical expertise and democratic ideals that are their hallmark today. And it was from the Siberian schools of wisdom that they learned their unique way of surrender, the way of total obedience to a higher principle than man which has earned them the soubriquet “the slaves of God.”4

Bennett gained much of this knowledge of Sufism’s hidden history from his mentor George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1877 – 1949), the Armenian-Greek mystic and spiritual teacher who travelled extensively in the Caucasus and Central Asia and who received Sufi training in the dervish schools he encountered there. In The Masters of Wisdom, Bennett recounts:

Gurdjieff told me that he had learned about these ancient schools of wisdom from researches he himself had made in caves in the Caucasian mountains and in the great limestone caverns of the Syr Darya in Turkestan. I have since learned that there is a Sufi tradition in Central Asia that claims to go back forty thousand years.5

Gurdjieff also told Bennett that the paintings in the Lascaux caves in the Dordogne, France, which the great authority on parietal art, the Abbé Breuil, has dated to about thirty thousand years BCE, were the work of later Sufi descendants of the shamans.6 Gurdjieff took the story of Atlantis literally. He associated it with pre-sand Egypt and believed the Lascaux artists were members of a brotherhood that survived after Atlantis sank seven or eight thousand years ago.7 They were highly evolved Masters of Wisdom, “‘psychoteleios’ who had learned the secret of immortality,” and whose centres of initiation on the now submerged Atlantic continental shelf have left us, in their paintings of deer, bison and auroch, a magical message of prehistoric spirituality that lay undeciphered for many thousands of years.

In that palaeolithic age art and religion were still one; secular and religious consciousness had not yet separated out, and spirit and matter were not yet in opposition; nor was evil an absolute force seeking the overthrow of good. All things and all attitudes to things were filled with the magnetic, synthesising radiance of hypercosmic energy, which Gurdjieff called conscious energy. In such a unified world the great Initiates developed the unique type of spirituality that still distinguishes Sufism today, wherein the polarising activity of mind is submissive to the over-riding Spirit that ever seeks a return to the One. Only in the later more alienated religious systems, Gurdjieff believed, do we find the divisive seeds of philosophical dualism.

The Sarmoun Society

At the apogee of the Sumerian civilisation, Bennett continues, the Sufis are believed to have founded a brotherhood called the Sarman or Sarmoun Society, which, according to Gurdjieff, met in Babylon as far back as c. 2500 BCE and was responsible for preserving the inner teachings and initiations of the Aryan tradition in a period of religious decline. Sarmoun is a word meaning bee in Old Persian, and refers symbolically to the practice of the brotherhood of storing the “honey” of both the traditional wisdom and the supernatural energy or baraka enabling it to be understood, and sending this double “nectar” out into the world in times of great need.8 The word Sarmoun can also mean “those who are enlightened.” The Sarmouni are believed to have secret training centres hidden to this day in the most remote regions of Central Asia.

In Gurdjieff: Making a New World, Bennett conjectures that around 500 BCE the Sarmoun Society migrated from ancient Chaldaea to Mosul in Mesopotamia, moving north into the upper valley of the Tigris, into the mountains of Kurdistan and the Caucasus. There it became active in the rise of Zoroastrianism under the Persian monarch Cambyses I. According to Gurdjieff, the Society later moved eastward to Central Asia, twenty days’ journey from Kabul and twelve days’ journey from Bokhara. “He [Gurdjieff] refers,” says Bennett, “to the valleys of the Pyandje and the Syr Darya, which suggest an area in the mountains south-east of Tashkent.”9 Although Gurdjieff was never explicit about his relationship to the Sarmouni or the precise locality of the monasteries in which he trained towards the end of his travels, he provides many hints in such autobiographical writings as Meetings With Remarkable Men that this Sarmoun brotherhood, whose monasteries were situated on the northern slopes of the Himalayas, was the custodian of the most ancient wisdom known and the primary source of his extraordinary esoteric knowledge and powers.

Gurdjieff came to the West as a man with a mission. He had journeyed extensively in the Caucasus, where it is thought he first entered the tekkes of the Yesevi dervishes of Sheikh Adi in the Kurdish foothills and later those of the Sarmouni in Afghanistan, receiving a number of initiations by the remarkable age of twenty two. Those closest to him maintain that he remained in touch with hidden Sufi sources throughout his life and received help and support from them. He clearly believed that he acted on their authority in setting up schools in the West that transmitted the cosmological and psychological teachings he himself had learned during his travels. Yet while freely recounting his many Central Asian adventures in his search for wisdom, Gurdjieff managed to draw a permanent veil of secrecy and ambiguity over all details of these intimate encounters with the dervish tradition. This of course is in line with the extreme reticence of the Sufi orders themselves.

Gurdjieff and the Masters of Wisdom

A charismatic hypnotist, carpet trader, Russian spy and mystic extraordinaire, George Gurdjieff was the son of a Greek-Armenian bard and was deeply impressed by his father’s songs concerning the great spiritual luminaries of a vanished past. The boy apparently began his search for the lost wisdom of the ancients at the early age of fifteen, and maintained it at huge cost to his health and material resources until he emerged, nearly thirty years later, a magus of mysterious yet undeniably charismatic authority. Possessed of enormous personal courage, during World War I Gurdjieff led a large posse of Russian followers across Eastern Europe to safety, through the raging battle lines of Bolsheviks and Cossacks in turn, eventually establishing a school in Fontainbleu, outside Paris, for the study and practice of methods of spiritual self-transformation. These methods, revolutionary in their day, are believed to have included the sacred dance and music exercises of the shamanistic Yesevi dervishes of Kurdistan, a community in which Gurdjieff seems to have received his initial training in Sufi techniques of “soul-making.”

The Yezidis, a secretive Kurdish religious sect from which the Sufi Bektashi order has sprung, live to this day in the foothills north of Mosul in Iraqi Kurdistan pursuing a cult of angels. According to the British baroness E.S. Drower, who in 1940 published a detailed paper on the sect, the chief Yezidi angel is Malek Taus, the Peacock Angel who has some likeness to Lucifer, the fallen angel of Christian fame. A black serpent is also held in special reverence in the Yezidi religion as a symbol of magical potency – no doubt ultimately a symbol of kundalini and the spinal system of energies elaborated in spiritual physiology. While paying lip service to the Muslim faith, the Yezidi have their own unique cosmogony, mythology and ritual practices, which have more commonality with the Magian or Gnostic belief-systems than with either Islam or Christianity. Ceaselessly persecuted and destroyed by Kurdish Muslims and Ottoman Turks as well as Islamic armies of both Iraq and Iran, the once powerful Yezidi tribes have been almost wiped out as heretics of the first order. Only isolated groups are now left. These include small pockets in Central Kurdistan, the Russian Caucasus and in satellite communities in Syria, Lebanon, Anatolia and Iran.

Sheikh Adi, a noted mystic of the thirteenth or fourteenth century, was a Median Magi, and although he is regarded as the founder of the Yezidi faith and an incarnation of the Peacock Angel, both the religion and the tribe are ascribed a far earlier date of origin. They are believed to be heirs to an ancient ancestral tradition going back to Noah. Adrian G. Gilbert comments:

It is my belief that they [the Yezidis] are descended from the ancient Chaldaeans. Their own tradition is that they migrated from the South, and they may well be the lost remnants of the Babylonian Magi who disappeared after the time of Alexander of Macedon.10

This is certainly in line with Gurdjieff’s belief that the roots of Sufism lie in a spiritual tradition of extreme antiquity such as is found in the Yezidi faith, and that it was probably centred in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Nevertheless, there is much evidence that Sufism continually developed beyond its initial form and amplified its teachings over the ages.

The late Hugh Schonfield, a noted Jewish scholar and author, says that by the third century CE Sufi schools were well established in the Middle East, particularly in Mosul, the heart of the old Assyrian kingdom, under the auspices of the Zoroastrian Magi. There the Sufis were joined by many Jewish refugees from Egypt fleeing Roman persecution. Among these were the Therapeutae, members of an Essene Order of contemplatives strongly imbued with a revolutionary New Covenant with God. The covenant involved a Judaic reformation that forbad militarism and animal sacrifice and embraced the principles of gender equality and an equitable distribution of wealth. The Therapeutae brought to the Sufi tradition not only these enlightened social ideals which were actually already enshrined in its own constitution, but much of the new Hermetic and Kabbalistic mysticism fermenting in Alexandria. Thus, says Schonfield, throughout Egypt and the Middle East

there were religious fusions and amalgamations, and the emergence of spiritual hybrids… Zoroastrianism and Mithraism lent their characteristics to Jewish Essene teaching, and found a Greek expression in the Hermetic and Christian Gnostic. The coverage of the Roman empire right round the Mediterranean carried the cults with it, and opened the way to new blendings.11

In this way Sufism was continually invigorated by new trends and in turn invigorated others. Then, when in the seventh century CE civilisation was in danger of total collapse through the ravages of global pestilence, war, earthquakes and the suppression of all Greek learning by Byzantine Christianity, the Sufi masters transferred their allegiance from Zoroastrianism to Islam, the latter offering the greater hope of rehabilitation for humanity. Thus the wisdom and science of Persia, with its great heritage of Greek learning, passed into the Muslim culture and was carried by Muslim sages into every quarter of the globe. The Dark Ages were halted and Islam, supported by the Sufis, brought about a brilliant revival of the Graeco-Roman arts and sciences.12

The conquest of Spain by the Muslim Moors meant Jews, Muslims and Christians were able to live there harmoniously until the fifteenth century, creating a culture of superb beauty and intelligence which lasted until the Jews and Muslims were banished to Byzantium, and which gave Sufism entrance into the rest of backward Europe. During the same centuries Crusaders such as the Templars encountered the rich Saracen culture in the Holy Land and secretly brought back the cream of Sufi thought to Europe to enrich Christian theological scholarship, art and sciences.

Himalayan Withdrawal

With the Mongol invasions, however, came difficult days for European civilisation as many sources of Sufi wisdom withdrew. The Sufi Masters of Wisdom known in Central Asia as the Khwajagan lineage withdrew at this time to the Trans-Himalayas, where their schools still persist. The Khwajagan were neither savants nor mystical ecstatics. They were practical men who assiduously practiced the breathing and mantric exercise of the zikr, fought their own weaknesses by means of trials based on humiliation and abasement, and during the Mongol depredations of the conquered western cities built new schools, hospitals and mosques. Some say these Masters, who may be synonymous with the Sarmouni, have continued to this day to head the Sufi hierarchy – which Bennett has called the Hidden Directorate – from its hidden Trans-Himalayan headquarters. Meanwhile, the Sufi orders left behind continued to strengthen their ties with other esoteric systems, such as the Magian secret societies in Persia and the Copts in Egypt, and to extend their formidable influence across the world into South-East Asia.

In the Sunda Islands they amalgamated successfully with the indigenous shamans, Hindu-Buddhists and Taoists and were instrumental in establishing in Java one of the most influential schools of Tibetan Kalachakra Tantra in the world. The result was a chain of hybrid secret societies around the globe whose roots were buried deep in a freedom-loving soil compounded of Sufism, Magian wisdom and the Solomonic and Hermetic wisdom of the Egyptian Essenes. It was these pan-religious amalgamations that produced over the centuries initiatic schools like the Templars, the Chartres masters, the Rosicrucians, the Illuminati, the Freemasons and the Theosophists, all dedicated to working for the religious and scientific dawning of a new age free from religious intolerance.

Throughout the long Sufi saga, the West had been unaware of intervention in its affairs, or indeed of the very existence of a powerful organisation in its midst that was monitoring the course of history and at the same time maintaining its own hierarchy, objectives and worldview independently of the visible political and religious structures of society. But the Sufi masters knew that this unconscious condition, mainly imposed on the people by repressive forces outside their control, must end, and that the time of awakening was drawing near.

Sufi Masters and Rosicrucianism

The two Rosicrucian manifestos pseudonymously published in Germany in the early years of the seventeenth century marked the first Sufi venture into the public domain and caused a sensation. The manifestos purported to advertise a mysterious order called the Fraternity of the Rosey Cross which had been founded, it was claimed, by one Christian Rosencreutz; and a third publication called The Alchemical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz, written in high Dutch, came out soon after. The manifestos declared that Fr. Rosencreutz had obtained the inspiration for his brotherhood from Arabia, Fez (the home of Sufic alchemy since the eighth century) and Egypt, all centres of Sufi activity. And Rosicrucian tradition has it that Fr. Rosencreutz was initiated in Palestine by an Arabic sect. Observes Ernest Scott:

When it is realised that the Sufi teacher Suhrawardi of Aleppo had a teaching method called the Path of the Rose and that the Sufic word for a dervish exercise has the same consonantal root as the word for a rose, the Sufic origin of the Rosicrucians may be inferred with some confidence.13

As we now know, the series of Rosicrucian publications with their visionary and reforming talk of an invisible college, a “winged academy” dedicated to a commonwealth of man, created a furore in Europe. Some saw the publications as a hoax, others as a God-given sign of the millennium. As ever, the Sufis were not directly mentioned: but, sweeping like a rejuvenating wind through Protestant and Catholic lands alike, the movement stirred up by the mysterious manifestos became a potent though short-lived catalyst for change. It instigated a religious and intellectual uprising that sought reform in education, religion and science, promising a coming utopia in which the dignity and worth of every man and woman would be recognised.

Frances A. Yates, a foremost Renaissance scholar, believes this period in the seventeenth century can rightly be called the Rosicrucian Enlightenment and that out of its “great reservoir of spiritual and intellectual power, of moral and reforming vision”14 came the Royal Society and the age of scientific revolution.

Full of Christian mysticism yet also permeated with Hermetic-Kabbalistic angelology and alchemical religious philosophy, the Rosicrucian teachings proclaimed that this age of enlightenment, in which religion and science would no longer be antithetical, was at hand. Great advances were to be made and a reformation of the whole wide world would presage “a great influx of truth and light” into fallen society such as shone on Adam in paradise. For a time large factions of the Church espoused these ideas, and the Jesuits, themselves of occult and hermetic origin, took over much of the Rosicrucian symbolism and emblematics.

Yet in the event the whole programme was aborted by the fiercely reactionary response of the Spanish Inquisition and its political ally, the Hapsburg dynasty, which instigated the Thirty Years’ War, forcing thousands of religious dissidents to flee with the seeds of the new vision to the New World. The Sufi programme had to incubate in secret for several more centuries.

Sufis Re-emerge in Twentieth Century

Not until the twentieth century, in a more tolerant and receptive age, were the Sufis finally able to reveal themselves openly. In 1921 Gurdjieff, the emigré and entrepreneur from Armenia, was the first to make this possible. He came with a crucial message for the twentieth century and, as we shall see, for our own era in the third millennium. Of great personal magnetism, drive and unusual psychic powers, Gurdjieff burst upon the Western scene with his programme for spiritual development, bringing to the European cognoscenti for the first time an awareness of the sacred ritual dances and dervish exercises of the East. These, he said, had strong links with Altaic shamanism and Tibetan and Chinese Tantra.

But Sufis have never regarded spiritual exercises alone as adequate. Generally speaking, little is said in Sufi literature about baraka, the effective grace that makes spiritual development on this path possible, yet its importance is primary. Baraka, as transmitted from teacher to pupil, is said to be a high emotional energy associated with the heart centre, and according to Bennett, enables the pupil to do what would be quite beyond his unaided strength.15 It is this inner infusion of conscious energy – energy of a high spiritual nature – that enables the zikhr, the Sufi invocatory exercise, to be fruitful. Discipline, austerity and voluntary suffering, which Gurdjieff translated as conscious labour and intentional suffering, were also needed. By intentional suffering he meant exposing oneself to painful situations in order to help others.

While the southern Sufi orders embraced the mystical doctrine of love and union with God, these northern Sufis were strongly influenced by Buddhism and, like the Khwajagan, were concerned with a total liberation from self and the world of appearances. They were regarded by the more conservative southern Sufis as unorthodox, even being accused of magical practices learned from the Siberian shamans to the north. Nevertheless, Gurdjieff saw great benefit for the West in the dervish practices, disapproved though they were by the more purist brotherhoods such as the Nach’shbandi and the Qadiri, and made his unique programme available to all those wishing to develop their human potential.

At his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainbleu, Gurdjieff trained his students in group dance movements set to dervish rhythms that demanded of them intense physical effort and coordination and which raised the body to a “high state of consciousness” conducive to a transformation of energies. He also encouraged his pupils to observe intensively their own psychic centres of thinking, feeling and instinct as a means of achieving a degree of self-government that man at present entirely lacks – but without which, Gurdjieff insisted, it is impossible for him to govern and maintain the planet. Public performances of Gurdjieff’s dervish dances were put on at various theatres, even in the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York, and Europe and America marvelled: nothing like it had ever been known. Sacred dances, Gurdjieff said,

have always been one of the vital subjects taught in esoteric schools of the East… Such gymnastics have a double aim: they contain and express a certain form of knowledge and at the same time serve as a means to acquire a harmonious state of being.

At one time it was his intention to use the movements in the traditional way for which they were principally intended in the ancient temples of initiation – that is, as a means of transmitting knowledge directly to the higher centres without passing through the mind, which is the way of Tantra. But a car accident in which Gurdjieff’s physical health was severely damaged put an end to his wider plans for the movements and turned his attention to writing and training selected people to carry on his work at a more intellectual level.

Sufi prescience, Sufi aptitude for the right teaching in the right time and place, is well attested. In many respects, Gurdjieff’s writings contributed enormously to the familiarisation of the West to the radical idea of the psyche or soul – the dynamic centre that mediates between the spiritual and the sensory functions – which at that time Sigmund Freud was also bringing to Western notice. Recognition of this unifying centre of relativity, which modifies the traditional absolutes of philosophy and religion on one hand and the physical sciences on the other, was just then opening up, and Gurdjieff’s psychological brand of theosophy, which became the vogue at the same time as Freudian and socialist theory, made a very great impact.

The Gurdjieff schools of self-development spread to numerous countries and his ideas became common coinage in the new enlightenment of the sixties. Through the interest aroused in his methods and teachings, in which the centrality of individuation was paramount, Gurdjieff was able to give out for the first time a certain amount of information about the Sufi tarekats hidden in Eurasia. And in his train came a school of eminent Sufi writers like Guénon, Bennett, Ouspensky, Schuon, Hazrat Inayat Khan and Idris Shah, all of whom further opened up the world of Sufism to a vast reading public.

One of the central strands in Gurdjieff’s belief-system was the principle of world-creation and world-maintenance, which he said was derived from “an old Sumerian manuscript” discovered by a great Kurdish philosopher. The doctrine can be summed up very simply: “Everything that exists maintains and is maintained by other existences.” Peculiar to Sufism and appearing in no other religion, it states that the whole of the universe is a web of mutually supporting systems, “apparatuses for transforming energy,” each one of which produces the means of sustenance for others.

This law of reciprocal maintenance governs all of life and applies to man as well as in his relation to Mother Nature. The world is not made for man, as we have been taught; both are made for each other. Man’s destiny and the destiny of the earth are interdependent. The evolution of the one depends on the evolution of the other, the survival of one on the survival of the other. Man is not separate from the cosmic process; he is himself part of the ecosystem he observes out there, and he must serve the evolution of the world as well as his own. That is the law of the cosmos, even as the palaeolithic shaman defined it many millennia ago.

From the Sarmounis, Gurdjieff learned that man is at present an automaton, a mere mechanism driven by the blind forces of action and reaction, his sense of identity fragmented, his will almost non-existent. Yet even work on himself will not redeem him without an acceptance that he is here to serve the world. Through Gurdjieff, therefore, the Sufis gave out to the twentieth century a new teaching, a new outlook on life that was revolutionary seventy years ago: man cannot advance spiritually unless he fulfils his obligation to planet earth, and through planet earth to the solar system. He must “pay the debt of his existence” by nurturing that which nurtured him.

For man’s cross is a twofold spiritual destiny; to evolve as an individual, but also to serve the evolution of kingdoms other than his own, lives other than his own. Out of the friction these opposed drives generate, said Gurdjieff, there comes a transcendental third, the birth of conscience. This suffering of the tension between the opposites is the law of true religion and is alleviated only by the awakening of the mediating force inherent in the soul; that is, conscience or love. The Sufi theory of world-creation and world-maintenance – “a new master idea for the coming age,” as Bennett called it – has become increasingly relevant as the planet’s ecological crisis has worsened over the decades; and now, looking back from our vantage point in the new millennium, we see how it has indeed become the hallmark of our time, perhaps the key to its essential meaning. Wherever the next civilisation is centred it must be where the third and reconciling power can operate; where conscience can find a home. That is the prime Sufi message for our generation, as it was Gurdjieff’s.

This article was published in New Dawn 107.
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1. Ernest Scott, The People of the Secret, Octagon Press, London, 1985, p.45.
2. Ibid., p.118.
3. Ibid., p.45.
4. J.G. Bennett, Gurdjieff: Making a New World, Turnstone Books, London, 1973, p.94.
5. J.G. Bennett, The Masters of Wisdom, Turnstone Books, London, 1977, p.40.
6. J.G. Bennett, Gurdjieff: Making a New World, p.86.
7. Ibid., p.86.
8. Ibid., p.57.
9. Ibid., p.64.
10. Adrian G. Gilbert, The Magi, Bloomsbury, London, 1996, p.49.
11. Hugh Schonfield, The Essene Odyssey, Element Book, UK, 1984, p.166.
12. J.G. Bennett, The Masters of Wisdom, Ch. 6.
13. Scott, op. cit., p.176.
14. Frances A. Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1986.
15. J.G. Bennett, Gurdjieff: Making a New World, p.278.

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About the Author

VICTORIA LEPAGE (1919-2018) published numerous articles on the new spiritual paradigm emerging in cultures worldwide. She wrote Shambhala: The Fascinating Truth Behind the Myth of Shangri-la (published in ten foreign languages) and Mysteries of the Bridechamber: The Initiation of Jesus and the Temple of Solomon.

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