Gurdjieff and Ecology: The Astral Ecosphere in Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson

Printed in the  Spring 2021  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Smoley, Richard"Gurdjieff and Ecology: The Astral Ecosphere in Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson" Quest 109:2, pg 34-39

By Richard Smoley 

richard smoleyThe human connection with nature is one of the chief themes of esotericism. As soon as we grant that nature is alive, we are faced with the question of how we are to relate to it. Is it beneficent, inimical, or (as secular thought often suggests) merely indifferent?

Just as it became fashionable over the last generation to speak of a hermeneutics of suspicion, it may be possible to speak of an esotericism of suspicion. Rather than seeing the universe as the creation of a benevolent God, this position would regard it as fraught with ambiguous supernatural forces that do not necessarily have the best interests of humanity in mind.

Today we tend to associate this view with that of the Gnostics, but it is hardly a new one, nor is it limited to the Gnostics. In fact what used to be called “natural religion” contained a heavy dose of this perspective. We need only look back at the literature of classical antiquity, with its capricious and irritable gods who are all too willing to visit their wrath on humanity for the slightest offense, to appreciate this fact.

At first glance, the teachings of G I. Gurdjieff (1866?–1949), the enigmatic and paradoxical Greco-Armenian sage who was both one of the great spiritual teachers of the twentieth centuries and one of its most accomplished tricksters, would seem part of this esotericism of suspicion. This is particularly true for those who know him chiefly through In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of a Forgotten Teaching by Gurdjieff’s student P.D. Ouspensky (1878–1947). Although this book was published posthumously in 1949, it was written much earlier and paints a portrait of Gurdjieff and his work from 1915 to 1924, the years when Ouspensky worked with him. Ouspensky broke with Gurdjieff in January 1924, although he continued to visit him until 1930 (Webb, 379–84).

At one point in Ouspensky’s narrative, Gurdjieff tells a strange parable about a magician who is perplexed by a flock of disobedient sheep. “This magician was very mean,” says Gurdjieff. “He did not want to hire shepherds, nor did he want to erect a fence around the pasture where the sheep were grazing.” The sheep kept running away, “for they knew that the magician wanted their flesh and skins and this they did not like.”

The magician hit upon an expedient. He hypnotized the sheep into thinking “that they were immortal and that no harm was being done to them when they were skinned, that, on the contrary, it would be very good for them and even pleasant; secondly he suggested that the magician was a good master who loved his flock so much that he was ready to do anything in the world for them.” (Personally I can no longer read the Twenty-third Psalm without having this parable come to mind.) “After this all his cares and worries about the sheep came to an end. They never ran away again but quietly awaited the time when the magician would require their flesh and skins.

“This tale is a very good illustration of man’s position,” Gurdjieff ominously adds (Ouspensky, 219). The ideas here are intimately bound up with one of his most famous teachings, that of the sleep of man: the idea that our allegedly waking life is in fact a low-grade hypnotic stupor. “A modern man lives in sleep, in sleep he is born and in sleep he dies,” Gurdjieff contends (Ouspensky, 66). This sleep is the result of kundalini, which, in his view, is not the coiled serpent power at the base of the spine, as many Eastern mystics teach, but “the power of imagination, the power of fantasy, which takes the place of a real function” (Ouspensky, 220; emphasis in quotes is in the original). This power of imagination, which Gurdjieff practically never understands in a positive sense, constitutes the sleep of man.

What, then, is this sleep for? What are we sheep going to be skinned for? The moon. The moon occupies a strange and crucial place in Gurdjieff’s cosmology. Contrary to contemporary science (and to some other esoteric systems, such as Theosophy: The Secret Doctrine, 1:155–57), he does not regard it as a dead shard of a planet. Instead, he claims, it is a “growing end of the branch” of the ray of creation, which proceeds in a lawful series of steps from the Absolute down through the galaxies and suns down through our own earth to reach its culmination, at least for the time being, in the moon.

Because the moon is a growing planet that may someday become like earth, it requires food. The energy passing down through the cosmos is gathered on its behalf in a “huge accumulator situated on the earth’s surface.” This accumulator is organic life on earth, of which we humans are a part. “Everything living on the earth,” says Gurdjieff, “people, animals, plants, is food for the moon. The moon could not exist without organic life on earth, any more than organic life on earth could exist without the moon.” Human awakening is “liberation from the moon” (Ouspensky, 85).

Here we can see the analogy with the parable of the magician and the sheep. Our “flesh and skins”—that is, certain cosmic vibrations emitted by organic life—are required in order to feed the moon. We are little more than livestock waiting in a planet-sized feedlot until we are sent to the slaughterhouse. We have been hypnotized into a waking sleep so that we will not realize our true situation. “One would think that there are forces for whom it is useful and profitable to keep man in a hypnotic state and prevent him from seeing the truth and understanding his position,” Gurdjieff says (Ouspensky, 219).

Elsewhere in Ouspensky’s book Gurdjieff states that the project of evolution goes against this natural process of feeding the moon. (Gurdjieff means evolution not in the Darwinian sense but in the sense of human awakening and spiritual liberation.) “The evolution of humanity beyond a certain point, or, to speak correctly, above a certain percentage, would be fatal for the moon. The moon at present feeds on organic life, on humanity. . . . If all men were to become too intelligent they would not want to be eaten by the moon. . . . Nature does not need this evolution and does not want it.” Our only chance for success, according to Gurdjieff, is due to the fact that the cosmic feeding cycle is so enormous that a few individuals can slip by, just as “the presence or absence of one cell will change nothing in the life of the body” (Ouspensky, 57–58).

Such is Gurdjieff’s position as outlined by Ouspensky. Most sources indicate that Ouspensky’s book is a faithful record of Gurdjieff’s teaching and that Gurdjieff himself approved it soon after Ouspensky’s death in 1947. Gurdjieff’s own groups would occasionally read from In Search of the Miraculous in the last years of Gurdjieff’s life (Bennett, 205).

Nevertheless, Ouspensky’s account of Gurdjieff’s teaching differs in at least one major respect from that of Gurdjieff’s own as expressed in his magnum opus, All and Everything, First Series: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. Written mostly during the 1920s, it contains a lengthy and fantastic account of human origins and history, all designed with one motive in mind: “to destroy mercilessly, without any compromises whatsoever, in the mentation and feelings of the reader, the beliefs and views, by centuries rooted in him, about everything existing in the world” (Gurdjieff, v).

In this book Beelzebub is not a devil but a senior member of the cosmic hierarchy, returning from a long exile for a certain unspecified infraction of divine law. The exile was to a remote and inhospitable location: our solar system. From this vantage point Beelzebub, whose lifespan enormously exceeds our own, has been able to observe, and occasionally visit, planet earth, with its singularly unfortunate “three-brained beings”—the human race, who view everything “topsy-turvy” (Gurdjieff, 88). The bulk of this 1200-page narrative consists of Beelzebub’s discussion of our hapless race with his grandson Hassein, who is accompanying him on the return voyage.

Beelzebub tells Hassein that the current plight of our race began with a cosmic accident. During the formation of our solar system, a comet known as Kondoor was due to pass through the orbit of the nascent earth. Unfortunately, “as a result of the erroneous calculations of a certain Sacred Individual concerned with the matters of World-creation and World-maintenance,” this comet collided with the earth, so that “two large fragments were broken off from the planet earth and flew into space” (Gurdjieff, 82). These are our moon and another, smaller moon, unknown to us but which Beelzebub calls “Anulios.” The two fragments did not fly far and were drawn into the orbit of our planet. To prevent further disturbances, the cosmic authorities deemed it necessary that these fragments should stay in the earth’s orbit and that the earth “should constantly send to its detached fragments, for their maintenance, the sacred vibration ‘askokin’” (Gurdjieff, 84).

 Here I should say something about Gurdjieff’s terminology in Beelzebub’s Tales. The book is peppered with curious and almost unpronounceable words like “askokin,” “Heptaparaparshinokh,” and “Ikriltazkakra.” These were Gurdjieff’s creations, coined as portmanteau words from roots taken from the dozen or so languages he knew. Sometimes the roots are easily discerned: “Heptaparaparshinokh”—the “Law of Sevenfoldness” (Gurdjieff, 470)—is derived partly from the Greek hepta, or seven. (Greek was Gurdjieff’s first language.) In other, perhaps most, cases, the origins of these terms are hard to determine, although I suspect that anyone who knew the same languages that Gurdjieff did would be able to decipher most of these words.

In any event, the moon and its unknown sister, Anulios, have been broken off, and the earth has to send vibrations of the mysterious askokin to maintain them. Here we can see a clear analogy to Gurdjieff’s idea, as expressed in Ouspensky, that organic life is “food for the moon.”

Later Beelzebub explains just how this askokin is produced—it is emitted by living beings during the process of their “Rascooarno”—what we usually call “death.” So the moon is fed by the vibrations emitted by the deaths of living creatures.

Suddenly the parable of the magicians and the sheep becomes much easier to understand. We are the “sheep,” and the “flesh” and “skins” required of us upon our slaughter are really these vibrations that are given off at our deaths. The “magicians” are the “Sacred Individuals” who are pasturing us for this purpose.

This is a humiliating and unpleasant state of affairs, and the Sacred Individuals who set up this process realized, as humanity was beginning to evolve out of “mechanical instinct” toward “the attainment of Objective Reason,” that these beings might “prematurely comprehend the real cause of their arising and existence and make a good deal of trouble”—for instance, by being “unwilling to continue their existence” and destroying themselves (Gurdjieff, 88).

The Sacred Individuals decided to respond by implanting a strange pseudo-organ at the base of our spinal column. It is what Gurdjieff in In Search of the Miraculous calls “kundalini,” although he stresses that this has no relation to current occult concepts of kundalini. In Beelzebub he calls it “kundabuffer”—an amalgamation of “kundalini” and “buffer.” And it does serve as a buffer against humanity’s realization of its true purpose. Its effect is that we unfortunate beings “should perceive reality topsy-turvy” (Gurdjieff, 88).

Later these Sacred Individuals decided that the danger of our premature realization of our function had passed and the organ kundabuffer could be removed, but by then it was too late: “Although this astonishing organ and its properties had been destroyed in them, nevertheless, owing to many causes, the consequences of its properties had begun to be crystallized in them” (Gurdjieff, 89). Through inertia, we still suffer the maleficent effects of this organ, even though the organ itself was removed in prehistoric times. This is why, according to Gurdjieff, we continue to perceive things “topsy-turvy.” It would not be hard to see the whole of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, which spans a range of human history from the lost civilizations of Atlantis and Tikliamish (the latter supposedly existed in what is now the Gobi Desert) to the Jazz Age, as an account of the effects of this vanished but still-operative kundabuffer. As we have seen, the entire objective of Beelzebub is, through literary means, to destroy the residual effects of this organ in the reader.

Up to this point, the theories about the moon presented by Ouspensky and in Beelzebub are similar or identical. But here the theory in these two books begin to diverge. At one point Ouspensky quotes Gurdjieff as saying, “In living, in dying, in evolving, in degenerating, man equally serves the purposes of nature—or, rather, nature makes equal use, though perhaps for different purposes, of both the products of evolution and degeneration.” But, he adds, “The evolution of large masses of humanity is opposed to nature’s purposes” (Ouspensky, 57). Humans can make use of nature’s purposes—the emission of these mysterious vibrations—for their own evolution, but Gurdjieff does not explain how; moreover, he suggests that this making use of nature’s purposes is adventitious or even subversive. Elsewhere in the same book he says, “The way of the development of human possibilities is a way against nature, against God” (Ouspensky, 47).

Gurdjieff’s position in Beelzebub is the exact opposite. He still holds that the emission of the sacred askokin takes place upon the death of living creatures, but one small detail changes the whole picture. Gurdjieff mentions it toward the end of the book in a long chapter on the causes of war.

To understand this idea, we have to realize that Gurdjieff, unlike most other exponents of the esoteric wisdom, denies that immortality is the automatic birthright of every human being:

The “man-machine” with whom everything happens, who is now one, the next moment another, and the next moment a third, has no future of any kind; he is buried and that is all. Dust returns to dust. . . . In order to be able to speak of any kind of future life there must be a certain crystallization, a certain fusion of man’s inner qualities, a certain independence of external influences. If there is anything in a man able to resist external influences, then this very thing itself may also be able to resist the death of the physical body. (Ouspensky, 31)

In Ouspensky’s book, Gurdjieff equates this “crystallization” with what the Western occult tradition calls the astral body, although they are not identical (in ways that are too intricate to explore here). In Beelzebub he gives it his own name: the body Kesdjan. If a human being is, by dint of “conscious labors and intentional suffering,” able to crystallize this body, he will eventually be able to perfect himself up to the level of genuine immortality.

Gurdjieff says that in order to perfect this body Kesdjan, man must absorb the sacred substances Abrustdonis and Helkdonis; in order to do this, he has to perform a kind of extraction, because they are ordinarily found in combination with the sacred askokin. This sacred askokin, as we have seen, is the very substance needed to feed the moon. The ultimate gist is that the substance that the moon needs for its maintenance—the sacred askokin—is not only the substance that is emitted when living creatures die, it is the substance emitted when human beings work on perfecting themselves. Beelzebub says that when he realized this, “only then did I finally understand to which end both Great Nature herself and the Most High and Most Saintly individuals always patiently adapt themselves to everything” (Gurdjieff, 1106). Unlike the Gurdjieff of In Search of the Miraculous, who says that human evolution is “against nature, against God,” the Gurdjieff of Beelzebub says that human awakening creates a force that feeds the moon—which is exactly what we were put here for.

That is, we have a choice. We can and must satisfy the purpose for which we were created. The universe requires certain energies from us and will get them one way or another. If we want to cooperate and incidentally gain our own immortality, well and good. If not, the energy will be extracted by other means.

As a system of sacred ecology, this must seem extremely abstruse and irrelevant to current concerns, but it is not. Gurdjieff in Beelzebub stresses that nature has had to compensate for human beings’ failure to perfect themselves by extracting the sacred askokin in the other way—through physical death on a mass scale. “Great Nature . . . was constrained to adapt Herself to extract this sacred substance by other means, one of which is precisely that periodic terrifying process there of reciprocal destruction” (Gurdjieff, 1107). That is, war. For Gurdjieff, war is not the result of squabbling or territorial disputes or whatever high-blown slogans will lead men to the slaughter. It is the result of the demands of nature. As weird as this may sound, it has one advantage over conventional theories: it at least explains why war is so universally irresistible a temptation even though everyone claims to hate it.

Gurdjieff also suggests that this need for the sacred askokin is the cause of the population boom. Since there are few people giving out these vibrations consciously through self-perfection, nature requires more people to accomplish the task unconsciously by dying. Nature, as he puts it, has to “‘puff and blow’ in order to adapt Herself to remain within the common cosmic harmony” (Gurdjieff, 1107).

Conversely, at a point in human prehistory, when through the labors of a certain Sacred Individual known as Ashiata Shiemash, large numbers of humanity began to work on self-perfection, both the birth rate and the death rate dropped enormously. “The said decline in both their death rate and their birth rate proceeded because as they approximated to an existence normal for three-brained beings, they also began to radiate from themselves vibrations responding more closely to the requirements of Great Nature, thanks to which, Nature needed less of those vibrations which are in general obtained from the destruction of the existence of beings” (Gurdjieff, 388).

The need for these sacred vibrations and the inability of humans to provide them by self-liberation is the key to understanding Gurdjieff’s rebarbative book, and probably his thought as a whole. There is very little in Beelzebub that is not, in one way or another, related to these themes.

Hence the esotericism of suspicion that appears in the Gurdjieff of In Search of the Miraculous gives way to quite another vision, one that is more wide-ranging, more profound, and more reassuring (although Gurdjieff would not have wanted to reassure anybody about anything). Humans have a meaningful part to play in the cosmos, and the dislocations in the ecosystem caused by war and the population explosion—which are key factors in the ecological crisis by anyone’s account—arise because we are unaware of this role and are hence unable to carry it out.

Several considerations about this sacred ecology of Gurdjieff would be worth exploring further. For example, one could ask about the reason for these subtle but crucial differences in the accounts given by Ouspensky and by Gurdjieff himself. Did Ouspensky misunderstand, or did Gurdjieff’s own ideas change? There is a space of about ten years between Gurdjieff’s Petrograd lectures during World War I, which form the core of In Search of the Miraculous, and Gurdjieff’s composition of Beelzebub in the 1920s. I personally tend to incline toward the view that Gurdjieff modified his ideas over time, but that is a highly debatable point.

 Another issue has to do with the origins of Gurdjieff’s system—again a topic too large for a single article. An astonishing number of possible candidates have been proffered as sources—Sufism, the esoteric tradition of Eastern, even Ahmusta Kebzeh, an allegedly 26,000-year-old esoteric teaching indigenous to Abkhazia in the Caucasus (not far from Gurdjieff’s native Armenia: Yagan, 40–47)—but none of them has proved entirely convincing.

To my knowledge, no one yet has examined the connections between Theosophy and Gurdjieff’s teaching in detail. He was certainly aware of Theosophy:

There are two [esoteric] lines known in Europe, namely theosophy and so-called Western occultism. . . . Both lines bear in themselves grains of truth, but neither of them possesses full knowledge and therefore attempts to bring them to practical realization give only negative results. (Ouspensky, 286) 

Gurdjieff seems to dismiss Theosophy outright, but the picture is not quite so simple. In 1922, for example, he leased a property called the Prieuré in Fontainebleau, France, and set up his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. Soon after, Maud Hoffman, to whom A.P. Sinnett had willed the Mahatma Letters, arrived and, with the help of A. Trevor Barker, prepared them for publication (Ginsburg). This fact could not have been unknown to Gurdjieff, who was intimately involved with every detail of Prieuré life. One must at least suspect that he regarded this task as of some importance.

Furthermore, some scholars of esotericism, such as Wouter Hanegraaff and Julie Chajes, have argued that the original Theosophical Society, formed in New York in 1875, changed radically after its founders went to India in 1878–79. (See my review of Chajes’ Recycled Lives in Quest, winter 2021.) The scholars contend that originally Blavatsky did not teach the immortality of the soul, citing an 1877 letter of hers to her aunt, Nadezhda de Fadeyev, which said:

Per se, the soul is not immortal. The soul outlives the man’s body only for as long as is necessary for it to get rid of everything earthly and fleshly; then, as it is gradually purified, its essence comes into progressively closer union with the Spirit, which alone is immortal . . . But if whilst still in the flesh . . . the man has lived only his earthly life, and the fleshly thoughts have strangled all trace of spiritual life within him, he will not be born again, he will not see God (John iii, 3). Like a still-born child, he will leave the womb of earthly life, his mother, and after the death of his flesh he will be born not into a better world, but into the region of eternal death, because his Soul has ruined itself for ever, having destroyed its connection with the Spirit. (Algeo, 304–05; cf. Chajes, 58)

These scholars may well be overstating the differences between “the first” and “the second” Theosophical Society; that is a matter too large for discussion here. But notice the resemblance of HPB’s ideas in the letter above to Gurdjieff’s concept of a soul that is only provisionally immortal, requiring a process of crystallization to form the body Kesdjan.

We do not know whether Gurdjieff got this idea from HPB, with whose writings he was undoubtedly familiar, but I am convinced that the connections between his thought and Theosophy are far more extensive than is currently believed. For our purposes here, however, I think we will have to content ourselves with his claim that his teaching “is completely self-supporting and independent of other lines and it has been completely unknown up to the present time” (Ouspensky, 286).

As the title of this article suggests, Gurdjieff may have something more to offer than a fantastic science-fiction construct. Ecological fears have been pressing on the collective mind more heavily each year. And yet the discourse has been conducted almost exclusively in negative terms. There is frequently the background assumption that the human presence on earth is a kind of blight. Should we simply “destroy ourselves” deliberately, as the Sacred Individuals in Beelzebub feared that our primordial ancestors would? Even the more positive perspectives have really argued for nothing more than leaving a light footprint—walking on the eggshells of nature. While this may be necessary, it is ultimately uninspiring. We are not going to find life’s ultimate meaning in clearing up our own garbage, however necessary that may be.

In the end, I suspect, human civilization is going to have to move toward a vision like Gurdjieff’s. The sacred askokin, the organ kundabuffer, and so on are unlikely to become household words anytime soon. Perhaps he even coined such bizarre usages to keep them from being turned into slogans. On the other hand, his suggestion that human beings have something positive to offer to the cosmic ecosystem may in the end be vindicated. It will probably not take the form of his ideas specifically, but we may find ourselves called back, say, to the ancient Chinese ternary of heaven, earth, and man—to the idea that we as human beings constitute a bridge between the visible and invisible worlds in a way that no other creature that we know of can do.

It’s also possible that some of Gurdjieff’s techniques and practices, many of which have to do with self-remembering and conscious sensation of the body, may become—as they deserve to be—part of the broader esoteric legacy of the West. Gurdjieff’s pupil Kenneth Walker writes:

The first step to self-remembering was to come back from our mind-wandering into our bodies and to become sensible of these bodies. We all know, of course, that we possess limbs, a head and a trunk, but in our ordinary state of waking-sleep we receive few or no sense-impressions from these, unless we happen to be in pain. In other words, we are not really aware of our bodies. But G[urdjieff] taught us special exercises first for relaxing our bodies to the fullest possible extent, and then for “sensing” the various areas in our bodies. . . . These exercises became of immense value to us and were particularly useful as a preparation for self-remembering. (quoted in Lindh)

On the surface, this passage appears to have little to do with ecological concerns. But if we look deeper, we may see that much of the compulsive consumerism that drives the wasteful aspects of contemporary society is fueled by this disconnection from the body. Indeed much of the time the mind and the ego are not only disconnected from the body but are unaware of the fact. They obscurely sense that something is missing, and they seek to fill the lack—but the means they often choose are buying, spending, and the compulsive chatter of communication that our technology has made infuriatingly easy. If the aspects of Gurdjieff’s teaching that emphasize this reintegration of mind, emotions, and body become more of a part of the mainstream, they may help us stop the activities that are proving most harmful to the earth.

Most of the esoteric traditions place humanity at the center of the cosmos, and while this view may seem naïvely anthropocentric, it reflects our own situation: as humans, we necessarily live in an anthropocentric universe. Gurdjieff departs from this vision in Beelzebub: his protagonist constantly stresses the abnormality and inferiority of humanity and its comparative insignificance in the cosmic scheme of things.

Nonetheless, he does grant humankind a vital role in sustaining the ecology of our solar system. This role has to do with conscious participation, and here Gurdjieff shows some affinity with Hermetic and alchemical traditions, for they too seek to sustain and foster living nature by interacting with the subtle forces  in animals and plants. Gurdjieff places this interaction not outside us, but within us. Through “conscious labor and intentional suffering” in the work of our own being, in our own sensations and feelings, we perpetuate the wholeness of the universe.


Algeo, John, ed. The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky, volume 1, 1861–1879. Wheaton: Quest, 2003.

Bennett, J.G. Witness. Santa Fe, N.M.: Bennett Books, 1962.

Blavatsky, H.P. The Secret Doctrine. Edited by Boris de Zirkoff. Wheaton: Quest 1993 [1888].

Chajes, Julie. Recycled Lives: A History of Reincarnation in Blavatsky’s Theosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

 Ginsburg, Seymour B. “A Teacher of Dancing: The Mahatma Letters and Gurdjieff.” Quest 103, no. 2 (spring 2015): 58–60.

Gurdjieff, G.I. All and Everything, First Series: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1950.

Lindh, Allan. “Considering Fragments.” Gurdjieff International Review website, accessed Dec. 31, 2020:

Ouspensky, P.D. In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of a Forgotten Teaching. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950.

Webb, James. The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Work of G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, and Their Followers. Boston: Shambhala, 1987.

Yagan, Murat. “Sufism and the Source,” Gnosis 30 (winter 1994): 40–47.

Richard Smoley’s video, audio, and book series The Truth about Magic was released in February 2021. A version of this article was presented as a paper to a conference of the Association for the Study of Esotericism, Charleston, South Carolina, June 2008.


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