Was Gurdjieff Spied On?

The moral: To my mind, one of the most powerful signs of Gurdjieff’s deep compassion was how he knowingly accepted as his “pupil” a woman who was spying on him, and suffered from all sorts of problems such that “hysteric” may be the best word for her. It is a testament to his wisdom that although she of course left him before she had achieved what he could have helped her to, yet she saw at the end of her life that she had wasted the great chance.


The story: There is good reason to believe that Gurdjieff himself had once been involved in espionage (see below), but it also appears that he was under surveillance. It seems that the awkward figure of Fritz Peters’ nemesis “Miss Madison,” (in real life, “Ethel Merston”) was something of a Mata Hari, spying on Gurdjieff for the United Kingdom. I am sure he knew this from when she first asked him to come and stay at the Prieuré, and I am equally sure that this treachery limited what she could receive from him. This double-dealing helps to explain the bizarre reason she gave for joining Gurdjieff (viz. for the cure of her back), and why she never returned to him – something she lived to regret. This may even have been the real reason he did not invite her to the USA with him, a matter which had upset her a good deal (she was “shocked and disappointed”). For her back, the hurt at not going to the USA with Gurdjieff, and her regrets, see Mary Ellen Korman’s A Woman’s Work, 3, 19, 28, and 101. But let us return to the espionage.

Alain Daniélou (1907-1994) was the younger brother of the phenomenally erudite and productive Jean Cardinal Daniélou (1905-1974), a Jesuit who fell out with his own priestly society, probably as a result of his principled criticism of their liberalism. The Cardinal left a great legacy of Christian thought behind him, and was one of the few Latin scholars who has ever begun to penetrate into the mysteries of the original Semitic form of typology. Perhaps his master work is the sustained brilliance of A History of Early Christian Doctrine before the Council of Nicaeae in three substantial volumes.

In his own field, Alain was equally brilliant, but his explorations were in Hindu music and philosophy, including yogic practice. In his autobiographical The Way to the Labyrinth, he wrote of Ethel Merston (whom he there called “Juliette”, as to which name, see Korman, 147):

She was  extraordinarily devoted, and we were quite fond of her. It was obvious … that she had to make weekly reports on everything that was said or done at Rewa Kethi [where he and Raymond Burnier were living].

Because she was genuinely attached to Raymond and me and seriously interested in my work, her reports were probably very useful to us and counteracted many of the efforts of some local officials who detested these Europeans “turned native” and denounced us several times for subversive activities. …

Before she came to work for us, she was a disciple of Gurdjieff’s and spied on him as well. (158-159)

Just as he saw through her, so too would Gurdjieff have done, being no less penetrating than Daniélou. I suspect that Gurdjieff, like Daniélou, felt that the very fact that she was spying could be useful to him, because her reports would show that he was no threat to the stability of the British Empire. Daniélou states this as a fact, but does not specify how he knew. In the absence of even a clue as to his source, unless it were Merston himself, it is pointless to speculate. However, the fact that she was genuinely interested in what we might call “theosophical-type mysteries,” would have made her a good choice for a spy-master: her inquisitiveness was natural, and served two purposes at once. Since she seems to have had a fair bit of money, her motive was the best which the UK could have hoped for: she was altruistically serving her country; after all, had her sovereign not deigned to honour her with the Order of the British Empire?

Korman makes an oblique reference to the bestowal of the OBE (20). I made a search of the UK archives, and they do indeed show that on 15 December 1917, Ethel G. Merston was awarded this honour. The entry reads: “Admiralty: Women’s Royal Naval Service: Registers of Appointments of Officers (Short Service). ADM 321.” The reference is 321/1/77 https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/results/r?_q=ethel+merston&_sd=1914&_ed=1920&_hb= I suspect she went into espionage during or as a result of connections made through her army career. It is amusing to reflect upon Merston thinking she could keep such a secret from GurdjieffBut she would have been a rank amateur in the shadowy arts next to Gurdjieff.

Bennett states that he first heard of Gurdjieff when in Turkey, and a dispatch from New Delhi warned of a “very dangerous Russian agent, George Gurdjieff, who was in Georgia and had applied for a permit to come to Constantinople”). Bennett’s own opinion is that Gurdjieff probably had in fact been connected with the Russian Secret Service, indeed, with both the Tsarist and the Revolutionary governments (Gurdjieff: Making a New World, 90, 91, 97, and 99) Bennett’s disclosure also shows the extent of the British interest in Gurdjieff: that an intelligence office in New Delhi knew that he was in Georgia, and the course of his intended travels, says much about their interest in him. It may also point to a greater depth of connection between Gurdjieff and India, something which I have been considering as quite on the cards. In other words, by stressing Central Asia rather than India in Meetings with Remarkable Men, and in conversations, he was covering his tracks.

I recently came across an interesting account of the work of British Intelligence in the Indian Raj: Richard J. Popplewell’s Intelligence and Imperial Defence, Frank Cass, London, 1995. He writes:

The exploration, espionage and intrigue which were British and Russians conducted in Afghanistan and Central Asia … in the period 1810 to 1907, is commonly referred to as the ‘Great Game’. The term was coined in the early 19th century by one of the British participants in this struggle but it only became famous after the publication of Kipling’s novel Kim in 1901. (p.19)

Intriguingly (pun intended), he adds:

The third category of intelligence-gathering were Indian hillmen, whom the British recruited to go into areas too dangerous for Europeans, even in disguise. For British chose these men for their exceptional intelligence, and trained them in the arts of clandestine surveying before sending them across the frontier, often in the disguise of Muslim holy men or Buddhist pilgrims. There is very little information about this group. It remains unclear how many there were, and how important their reporting was because they left no written records of their work. (p.19)

Finally, Popplewell adds:

Generally the published works of practitioners of the Great Game were Russophobe, arguing that the best way to halt the Russian advance was by ‘forward policies’: either the British should invade potential targets themselves; or they should support satellite states blocking the Russian advance. These works were influential in overcoming the opposite school which argued for a policy of ‘masterly inactivity’ on the grounds that Russia could never pose a serious threat to India. ‘Forward policies’ lead to two needless Afghan wars, and culminated in Francis Younghusband’s invasion of Tibet in 1903-4 in search of non-existent Russian agents. (21)

Shades of Gurdjieff! He does not need to have been in Tibet or even in India in 1903 to have known of the expedition, but the likeliest explanation for his horror of it is that he was then involved in the Great Game, on the Russian side, was somewhere in Asia, and was known to be a very effective agent.

The photo is of Ramana Majarshi with others, inc. Merston. I may at some point return to some of her bizarre lesbian relationships, at least one of which was marked by what seems to be vampirism, a very real phenomenon. There does seem to have been a small but steady stream of homosexuals with Theosophical-type interests to Raj India, Danielou and Burnier being among them not to mention Leadbeater.


  1. “There does seem to have been a small but steady stream of homosexuals with Theosophical-type interests to Raj India, Danielou and Burnier being among them not to mention Leadbeater.”

    For reasons of clarity, Charles Webster Leadbeater was by all contemporary evidence a sexual predator whose primary expression was pedophilia. There is scant evidence that he engaged in much (if any) adult, consensual same-sex sexual behavior at all. Therefore, I’m not quite sure if you are placing him in the generalized category of ‘homosexual’ in the statement above but, if so, such a categorization would be completely misleading, at best.

    Pedophilia, whether same-sex oriented or not, and homosexual are two completely separate designations.
    And the sexual predator is, without question, in a category all by itself.

    Leadbeater’s primary student and very likely his primary target of his multiple predations, Jiddu Krishnamurti may have indeed manifested in adulthood as primarily as a consensual homosexual but that has not been conclusively determined as yet. He certainly had an appreciable homosexual following during his years of teaching probably due in no small part to his explicitly non-judgemental stance on the topic which was against any exclusion on the basis of one’s sexual orientation.

    As a side note: the Besant / Leadbeater “Theosophy” is now mostly seen as the separate entity “Neo-Theosophy” deviating as it nearly completely did and does from the original intents and imports of Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky

    But, that is a complex story in and of itself.

    Thank you.

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