J.G. Bennett was a student of George Gurdjieff, who could be called a spiritual teacher (though that might not be entirely accurate). Gurdjieff was notable for bringing to Europe, shortly after World War I, startling ideas, many of which were entirely new to Western culture. A number of people have written about Gurdjieff and his teachings, but none as much as Bennett. This has been valuable for those interested, as his ideas are far-ranging, deep, and subtle.
In The Masters of Wisdom, Bennett presents some startling ideas of his own, though some may have been derived from Gurdjieff. The book is an attempt to give an overview of “the spiritual unfolding of life on this planet”, according to the subtitle.
Bennett begins with the formation of the planet, its cooling from a molten state, the change of the atmosphere to oxygen through the photosynthesis of plants, and the slow establishment and progression of life from slime molds to individual cells to multi-cellular organisms to fish to amphibians, insects, birds, reptiles, mammals, and finally humans. This process took a very long time, and may have included some evolutionary blind alleys, from which the guiding intelligence seems to have learned.
Bennett calls this guiding intelligence the Demiurge. He sees the supreme God of the Universe as being concerned with life on all worlds, which are uncountable. We know there are billions of stars in our galaxy alone, and billions of galaxies much like ours, so many and so distant that there is no end to the universe we can detect. He quotes David Hume as saying, “God is either omnipotent and not loving, or loving and not omnipotent. He cannot be both” approvingly. It is possible to conceive of a God immensely more intelligent and potent than we are, who is yet limited. To imagine that he is aware of each individual in the world is difficult enough; to imagine he knows each individual in the universe (even assuming that only planets like ours contain life) seems preposterous. Much easier to believe that a Demiurge concerned only with life on this planet (or perhaps in this solar system) has slowly and painstakingly created life on this world and guided it. It took a long process for life to develop as far as the human race, and we are clearly less than perfect.
But Bennett points out that “Four characteristics of nature cannot be understood without reference to intelligence.”
- Progress. Life has progressed from simple primitive forms towards conscious creative beings. The first forms of life were simple in the extreme. The extreme multiplicity of life is nothing short of amazing.
- Interdependence. Although we often don’t care to recognize it, our lives are interwoven with the rest of life on this world in a variety of ways, some of which even scientists who study ecology have yet to notice. The world is an extremely complex work of art in that respect.
- Beauty. Bennett points our that beauty isn’t strictly necessary for living organisms to function, but it is a frequent part of our world, which strongly implies that the Demiurge loves beauty just as we do. The world wasn’t made only to serve a purpose, but to be enjoyed too. While beauty may serve an evolutionary function, in many cases it seems here merely to be enjoyed.
- Play. We rarely associate play with God or his purposes, but we and other organisms play, and are amusing and absurd. Apparently, God is not always serious.
A recent NPR program said that each human contains the equivalent of enough 1600 page books to fill the Titanic, all contained in DNA, the most efficient means of storing information known. It’s unfortunate that the idea of Intelligent Design became identified with taking the book of Genesis literally. Anyone willing to look can see a LOT of intelligence in the design of the natural world. And a lot of less than perfect design too, like the female reproductive system, which works adequately, but is still dangerous to both mother and child.
The human species is about 4 million years old, and it took a long time for our own breed of humans to come along. The age of Homo Sapiens seems to be in excess of 200,000 years, but humans weren’t greatly different from other animals until between thirty-five and fifty thousand years ago. Bennett sees “Adam”, the beginning of man beginning to be conscious of himself starting about 37,000 years ago. The reason, he says, is that it took time for the substance of mind, as opposed to brain, to become established. He sees this as being based on the energies generated by mammals in particular. These energies, according to Gurdjieff, are the reason for life in general, including human life. They contribute not only to the welfare of all the different species in the world, but also to the development (which is too slow for humans to observe) of the planets. Of course this is not obvious, but is at least an interesting hypothetical answer to a question that hasn’t otherwise been answered satisfactorily, as far as I know.
There were shamans among most groups of humans at this time, since most (if not all) humans were nomadic, following the animals they hunted during each season. The shamans were in touch with the Demiurge partly through techniques for changing consciousness that were further developed later, including not only meditation and dance, but also hallucinogenic drugs. This is when Bennett believes mankind was imbued with creativity, and was also when religion began. Graham Hancock joins Bennett in believing that religion began the journey of humankind toward becoming the dominant species in the world, something almost impossible to foresee then.
As religion developed, four primary conceptions of God arose in different parts of the world. One was of the Mother Goddess in the Middle East and Europe, which celebrated and tried to ensure fertility in both agriculture and humans.
Another was the Creator God, which Bennett says began in Africa. He associates it with the climate change after the end of the last ice age, when African lands became drier and new animal and plant species appeared. Bennett says the leaders of the time were real magicians who lived much differently from the ordinary people, beginning the idea of aristocracy.
Then there were the Great Spirit cultures who emerged from northern Asia and traveled to the Americas. Shamans there, according to Bennett, were possessed by the Demiurge. Those cultures had few established religions, unlike the Mother religions based on agriculture and a settled population which could build temples. This form of religion may have lasted longest in North America (with the exception of Mexico, where there was established religion). Bennett sees Taoism in particular as being influenced by the Great Spirit conception.
The most surprising of the four conceptions is that of the Savior God. Bennett cites the work of Indian historian B.G. Tilak, who analyzed the ancient Vedic hymns, and believes them to be describing phenomena within the Arctic Circle, where the destructive potential of Nature is particularly impressive. The Aryans who once lived there believed they couldn’t survive without the help of God. One example of evidence is extensive descriptions of sunrise in the Upanishads. Bennett says that sunrise in the tropics is unremarkable, but in the Arctic, where winter is entirely dark, sunrise is a gradual phenomenon over many days in which the sun approaches the horizon and retreats again. The actual sunrise is spectacular.
The theory of Aryan invasion of India is debatable, as some Indians resent the idea that the Aryans (a theory especially popular with Europeans) brought a superior culture to the subcontinent. While this attitude is understandable, there’s at least anecdotal evidence it is true (whether or not the culture brought was superior). An Indian friend told me that Indian gods and demons have the same names as the Persian equivalents, but that the Persian gods are Indian demons, and vice versa. And an Iranian friend told me that Iranians believe their distant ancestors once lived in Siberia. By itself, that proves little, but does mean the Aryan invasion isn’t unthinkable.
Gurdjieff taught that there is an “inner circle” of mankind based on higher consciousness which tries to influence humans to evolve, One method of doing so is by means of ideas, which have often been spread by religions. Between the seventh and sixth centuries BCE several either began or became prominent across Asia. These include Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism. In addition this was the time of several of the important Hebrew prophets, as well as that of Pythagoras. According to Gurdjieff, there was a conference in Babylon near the end of the sixth century, which was instigated by the Persian king Cambyses’s conquest of Egypt and his removal of many of the priests and other wise men. It’s possible that the Buddha and Zoroaster attended this (or sent representatives), and it’s known that Pythagoras was removed from Egypt with the priests and others, and stayed in Babylon for some time. The common idea of these religions was that ordinary individuals had as much right to work for their salvation as did the kings, warriors, and priests who dominated early societies. The new ideas didn’t prevent ordinary people from being mistreated, but did change prevailing attitudes.
Bennett also believed Jews became the Chosen People because Judaism united the four conceptions of God. Although early Judaism probably included the fertility religion rituals of their neighbors, by the fifth century they had pretty much put that behind them–except that they saw Jerusalem as being their mother, and were passionately attached to her.
They had also been a Great Spirit culture in the time of Abraham, being nomads and and worshiping a god who belonged strictly to them. In the Egyptian captivity they were exposed to the Creator God. Much later, after the kingdom of Judah was conquered by Babylon, and many Jews were taken there, Judaism was also exposed to the Savior God culture, in the form of Zoroastrianism, a dualistic religion, in which Ahura Mazda, god of Truth, opposed Ahriman, god of the Lie. From Zoroastrianism Judaism borrowed apocalyptic ideas of a war between good and evil, including the Saoshyants, who became in Judaism, the Messiah. By the time of Jesus, there was a powerful desire for the Messiah to come, especially because the Romans dominated Palestine and were greatly resented by the Jews.
When I first read The Masters of Wisdom I agreed with Bennett that the conventional explanation of Jesus’s mission had never seemed satisfying. For one thing, he stated in the gospels that he had the power to forgive sins already. Bennett points out that modern psychology (in which we might include Gurdjieff’s teachings) have made it clear that most humans aren’t conscious enough to be held responsible for the horrible things many of us do. Bennett sees Jesus’s mission as being a decisive step in human evolution.
The Demiurge had, much earlier, managed to give mankind intelligence and creativity. Bennett believes a shadowy memory of the method this was passed on is recorded in the book of Genesis, which speaks of the Sons of God having intercourse with the daughters of men and having outstanding offspring.
But Jesus’s mission was to transmit Divine Love to the human race, and it couldn’t be transmitted in that way. It must be explained that Divine Love differs from ordinary human love in not being polar. In other words, in human love the positive pole is attracted to the negative pole, but repulsed by another positive pole. It is a quality of will rather than a physical attribute. “Divine Love does not derive its power from separation, but from union. It is not fullness, but emptiness, not Being, but the Void.” Bennett takes one of the most mysterious stories in the New Testament and tries to explain what was happening.
This was the Transfiguration, when Jesus took several disciples up a mountain where he appeared to be shining, and two other figures appeared with him, identified by the disciples as Moses and Elias. There was also a voice which spoke out of a cloud. Moses is symbolic of the Law, while Elias symbolizes the miraculous.
Why was this incident recorded in three of the Gospels (and not the fourth)? It’s difficult, from what is recorded in the Gospels, to say what was happening. But what is recorded may give clues.
Immediately after the Transfiguration the sons of Zebedee disputed who would sit at Jesus’s right hand when he came into his kingdom. This aroused the jealousy of the other disciples, and they were rebuked.
More famously, Peter boasted that he would never betray Jesus, then did so three times in one night, just as Jesus had predicted. No doubt Peter didn’t mean to betray, but he was certainly humiliated at being unable to stop himself.
Bennett points out that at the Last Supper the disciples began speculating as to who would betray Jesus, which means they knew someone had to, though they didn’t understand why. As everyone knows, it turned out to be Judas, and his name still represents the archetype of the traitor.
But Gurdjieff told Bennett that Judas was the disciple closest to Jesus, who knew all his secrets. For this reason, Bennett believed that Judas also accompanied Jesus to the top of the mountain.
Why was the betrayal of Jesus necessary? Because Divine Love couldn’t be accepted without being changed to ordinary human love unless each person receiving it had completely given up egoism. This could best be done through humiliation. Not only had the disciples to be humiliated, but Jesus himself, by the crucifixion and the repudiation by most of what he had taught.
So at the Last Supper Jesus indicated that Judas was to betray him, and told him to do what he needed to quickly. After Judas accepted the sop Jesus handed him, Satan entered him. This, says Bennett, was to expel Satan from the other disciples, so that Divine Love could deeply enter them, which was impossible if they had fear, egotism, and hatred, all of which Satan represents. Why did Jesus appoint this task to Judas? Bennett believes it was because Judas had reached a higher level of being than the other disciples, and could allow Satan to enter him without being destroyed. He was also the one who understood the necessity, but this didn’t make him comfortable with the task. Bennett suggests that if anyone could be said to have died for the sins of mankind, it must have been Judas, who did what Jesus asked, rather than Jesus, who supposedly never sinned. As Bennett points out, we feel our own sins most acutely. Compassion for the sins of others is different. Judas, on the other hand, must have tortured himself in questioning if he had done right, which is why (at least by one account) he committed suicide. To argue that Judas had always been a traitor is to disparage Jesus’s judgment of people.
What happened at the Last Supper has been celebrated ever since by Christians in the form of the communion, but it’s unclear just what this was, except that it prompted Jesus to declare a new commandment: to love each other as he had loved them, which strongly implies this was more than ordinary love.
Had Jesus been an ordinary leader, he could have started a revolution against the Romans. It was Passover, a time when there were many in Jerusalem who could have been roused to fight. Such a revolution might even have succeeded for a time, but Jesus had a much greater mission. And he succeeded in being crucified, a death reserved for traitors and criminals (and he was, according to the Gospels, descended from King David), so that his teaching was discredited and rejected.
“Once the full tragedy of despair and humiliation was complete, the resurrection became possible. The ‘resurrection body’ (comparable to the astral body occultists speak of) is perceptible only to those able to love.” The New Testament says Jesus visited the disciples after the crucifixion, but doesn’t record anyone else seeing him. It does record that the disciples had new powers, though, including being able to speak to foreigners who understood in their own languages.
Bennett emphasizes that love is the consequence of humiliation, and that humiliation is the only thing that cancels sin. Groups like the Essenes, he says, accepted humiliation within the community, but not outside it. They and the Pharisees chose the path of gnosis and power, as most human groups do, and as Christianity did in the 4th century, when the Emperor Constantine made the religion legal, intervened to try to resolve the controversy of whether Jesus was of the same substance of the Father, or was inferior to him. This set the stage for Christianity to become the state religion of Rome so they could persecute fellow Christians as well as the pagan majority. Thus did the religion most based on love become its opposite.
Part of the problem was that the ideas on which Christianity and the other religions which had become important in the previous thousand years were based on esoteric ideas that were inevitably misunderstood by masses of people. From that misunderstanding came religious dictatorship and war.
Islam rose in the 6th century, and we may suspect it was intended to correct the mistakes of Christianity, but as a whole it didn’t do so for very long since the religion was closely allied to the Muslim conquest and administration of the Middle East, northern Africa, and Spain. Power is inhospitable to love.
However, a thousand years after Jesus, people corresponding to what we might expect of an inner circle of humanity began gathering students and training them in Turkestan, north of Iran and Afghanistan, centered around the cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent. These teachers were greatly respected by the whole population in the area because they were absolutely impartial. Even though they sometimes advised rulers, they refused to accept any funding or gifts. They made their own livings, often as artisans, working with their hands. All were extremely modest, and all said they made spiritual progress through humiliation.
Ever since the advent of Islam (and possibly before) Sufis have practiced in the Middle East, but Bennett draws a distinction between northern and southern Sufis. Southern Sufis, from Iraq, Arabia, Egypt, and Spain, aimed at union in love with God. But the northern Sufis of Turkestan and Iran aimed higher, at complete liberation, which meant giving up the limitations of existence. What is meant exactly by that phrase isn’t entirely clear, but it may mean the ego. Leaving behind the ego means transformation, and Bennett connects this with the early Christian understanding of dying with Christ and being reborn. Gurdjieff taught that one couldn’t be a real Christian without being transformed because, as we usually are, we’re unable to follow Christ’s commands. The Masters of Wisdom, as the teachers in Turkestan were known, were teaching transformation, and it was common for students to be taught for thirty or forty years before being allowed to teach themselves.
The first of the Masters to become publically prominent, Yusuf Hamadani said, “All men know that love is the Supreme Power that unites Man and God, but no one who is not free of self is capable of love.” As Jesus had said much earlier, Strait is the gate. What Bennett doesn’t portray is just how the Masters pursued humiliation. It may be a powerful tool, but it can destroy people instead of helping them grow, if taken the wrong way. Probably the approach had to do with teaching students to recognize their deficiencies and correct them.
Turkestan was a wealthy area, since it was on the Silk Road trading route, but there were frequent civil wars as, when each ruler died, one of his sons would seize power and try to kill all his brothers to keep them from trying to seize power themselves.
After about two hundred years of the Masters’ activity, the ruler of Turkestan came in contact with the Mongols and Genghis Khan. When he and one of his friends stole wares sent by the Khan to be traded, and executed the Khan’s representatives, invasion became inevitable. When it came it was devastating.
The Mongols were ruthless toward any cities that resisted them, though they spared any that surrendered. The influence of the Masters saved many lives and helped speed up the necessary reconstruction after the invasion (which nevertheless took some two hundred years).
Throughout the three hundred years after the Mongol invasion the Masters were greatly respected by all levels of society, but ceased to play a public role in the 16th century. They were succeeded by a number of Sufi brotherhoods, but these seem not to have reached the same level as the Masters.
One of the Masters said that religion would fail if the chance the Masters were offering was refused. That seems to be the case now. On one hand there are more secular people than there have ever been. On the other, many of the most publicized religious people are now fanatics. Those who are not (probably the majority) know little or nothing of transformation. After nearly two millenia of religion (especially Christianity and Islam) dictating what people were allowed to believe and prohibited from believing, the real crux of the matter, and much more difficult, had gotten lost for most. Though both religions have produced good people, what they have been able to do has been woefully inadequate to the world situation.
Bennett believed we are on the brink of a make-or-break moment in evolution, when humans must begin learning how to cooperate with higher intelligences. We now have godlike powers, but our behavior is rarely godlike. The powers we have are often monopolized for the benefit of few, and are thus destructive. Gaining the whole world and refusing to share causes us to lose our souls.
Bennett died before he could complete this book. One of his ideas for it was to write about Masters who lived in Europe, though it’s uncertain he would have included this. A long list of the names he might have written about includes the anonymous builders of the Gothic cathedrals, Saint Francis, Dante, Torquato Tasso, Meister Eckhart, Duns Scotus, Roger Bacon, Jacob Boehme, Massacio, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Kepler, Copernicus, Newton, the Rosicrucians, and others.
There have always been people who were enlightened, and no doubt still are, though few are in the public eye. Perhaps these are the hope of humanity, though. What is most needed are leaders who are neither fanatical nor corruptible. People who are like the Masters of Wisdom, as Bennett describes them.