“Esoteric Gatherings” – Benjamin TEITELBAUM

I SPENT DECEMBER 2018 AT HOME IN BOULDER PLAYING catch-up with events that had taken place on the global political stage during the past months. This was the time of midterm congressional elections in the United States, and the Democrats had taken the House of Representatives but failed to wrest control of the Senate from Republicans. The outcome could have been worse, Steve thought, though he anticipated that the Democrats would now use their power to try to impeach Trump. There were various defense mechanisms in place, but it was a setback, no doubt. Ups and downs—Steve had his eyes on the long game, on spoils greater than any single congressional election, larger than Trump, larger even than the fate of the United States.

I had learned that Traditionalism motivated him to connect with one other major global figure—Aleksandr Dugin—and that his access to Dugin’s thinking, if nothing else, had come via Traditionalism’s far-right underground channels, through the publishing output of Arktos. I was on the hunt for details about this, though Steve had said he wouldn’t be available for an interview for a few weeks. That’s when something unexpected happened. There was chatter among Traditionalists online about yet another figure in the upper reaches of powerful governments, someone unfamiliar to me, someone connected with the political upheaval taking place in Brazil.

A renegade politician, Jair Bolsonaro, dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics,” had just won the presidency in Brazil. Bolsonaro’s victory marked yet another startling success for the global far-right populist wave. He rattled international observers through his overtures toward state violence, political violence, and the consolidation of executive power, as well as his contempt for the media and political establishment, socialism, Islam, LGBTQ people, and other minorities. And whereas populists elsewhere combined cultural conservatism with celebrations of social safety-net welfare policies, Bolsonaro’s hostility toward socialists in his country inspired him to demand free-market reforms. His platform and demeanor were unthinkable even in the raucous world of Brazilian politics, and the opposition to his candidacy was fierce (he survived a knife attack a month ahead of the first round of voting), but he prevailed nonetheless, bolstered by a deep reservoir of resentment against the political establishment and progressive political movements. He also had a prominent ideologue stirring these sentiments through social media.

I looked up his acceptance speech, posted online just weeks before, on October 29. Bolsonaro made it an informal affair, streaming the address from his home via Facebook Live in an affront to Brazil’s standard media channels. He seemed not to be speaking from a teleprompter or from notes. Instead, he had laid four books on a table in front of himself and would use them as mnemonic devices to help him organize the seemingly ad-libbed speech. A theatrical move, I thought, portraying him as a leader of conviction following the steady compass of words committed to paper, like when Napoleon staged a portrait in the presence of scrolls.

He put his hands on the Bible and the Brazilian constitution—two of the four books—when reiterating his campaign messages of honesty and anti-corruption. “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” lines from John 8:32, were his introduction to calling for a new era in which Brazilians enact a revolution of realism and transparency.

“What I most want is, by following God’s commandments along with the constitution of Brazil . . .” Bolsonaro shifted his hands again, set down the constitution, and lifted book number three, an abridged version of Winston Churchill’s Memoirs of the Second World War, waving it at the camera as he spoke. “. . . being inspired by great world leaders . . .” He immediately set the Churchill tome down as he continued: “. . . and with good technical and professional counseling free from the usual political calculations, build a government.” His eyes continued wandering as he spoke. He was looking for the fourth book, lying on the table but apparently out of his view, written by Olavo de Carvalho, the man who would be his counselor: O Mínimo que Você Precisa Saber para Não Ser um Idiota (The Minimum You Need to Know Not to Be an Idiot). I paused the video.

Olavo, as he is simply known. He’s the one my contacts were talking about. And I was growing more and more certain that Steve had referred to him in an offhand comment as I was entering his hotel earlier, as a great “theorist” of the Bolsonaro regime whom he was coming in contact with through his existing links to the president’s sons. (He had met with Eduardo Bolsonaro, the new Brazilian president’s most politically prominent heir, in New York City during the summer of 2018.) Shortly thereafter, Brazilian media reported that Bannon would be advising the Bolsonaro election campaign.

Meanwhile, Olavo was causing alarm. Liberal international commentators were lamenting that the vote would empower not only an unqualified person hostile to the environment, minorities, and education to be president but also the mad pseudo philosopher at his side. Olavo lived in rural Virginia, which is a bizarre piece of this story in and of itself. But he and Bolsonaro had been close for years. In 2014, they began streaming online chats together, where they gossiped about politics and culture. Olavo was eccentric in ways the future president and his family of soccer fanatics weren’t, but the two connected in their contempt for the media and universities. However, it was Olavo’s scorching critiques of contemporary Brazilian politics paired with his call for a new pious Christian honesty that most won Bolsonaro’s admiration. Olavo, for his part, liked Bolsonaro’s unrefined nature, his willingness to speak in crass terms, and his penchant to sprinkle his speech with references to God and Christ. He understands that society needs a spiritual basis, Olavo thought, and that the real people of this country are Christians.

At first glance, Olavo seemed no different from the fire-and-brimstone Christian nationalists I was used to seeing in the Anglo-American world, but looks can be deceiving. I would soon learn that Olavo, like Bannon and Dugin, was some kind of Traditionalist, and that his credentials in the school far surpassed that of his counterparts in the United States and Russia. Steve has a long history of reading Traditionalism and interacting with a few of its key interpreters. Aleksandr Dugin had also intersected with its latter-day celebrants, including those on the radical right. Olavo, in contrast, had lived Tradition, in the ways and even in the institutional line of its original founders. Among the three, Olavo’s journey to power and influence seemed the most unbelievable, especially when you consider how it began.

Olavo de Carvalho was born in 1947 outside of São Paulo, and for a stint during his college years was a communist. That was standard behavior for rebellious youth during the reign of the U.S.-backed Brazilian dictatorship. But Olavo’s penchant for dissidence was not limited to politics. During the mid-1970s, he delved into alchemy and astronomy, and started hanging out in occultist circles in São Paulo. Soon he began writing for the French-based occultist magazine Planète. It hardly counted as standard journalism: he interviewed extraterrestrials, dead people, and so on. At the same time, he started teaching, offering astrology lessons in bookstores, and later lecturing in astrology at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo. Esotericism was his overarching passion.

It was all great fun. But in 1977, Olavo’s girlfriend brought him a book that would change his direction: The Sword of Gnosis, an anthology of essays by Traditionalist writers, including René Guénon. It was edited by American Jacob Needleman—the same Needleman who years later would mentor Steve Bannon. The text inspired Olavo to read all of Guénon’s books. After having mastered Traditionalism’s primary sources, Olavo decided that he was done with study. He had to find a way to start practicing.

And that was how Olavo found himself at an unusual ceremony on the outskirts of Bloomington, Indiana, in 1986, mesmerized by an ensemble of voices, bodies, and drums. I knew about the place—anyone who studied the history of Traditionalism did. Through online documents and eventually by speaking with Olavo himself, I could imagine the environment and just how bizarre it was. And to think that someone’s journey could lead from here to the upper echelons of Brazilian and American power.

 *

THE STICK-END PLUNGES into outstretched hide, sending reverberations through the drum barrel and out into the thick Indiana air. Each lift of the stick is an escape; each strike, a homecoming. There is no motion other than that: going from and back to the core—centripetal and centrifugal. No other motion save, that is, for the movement of the dancers. The pounding of the drum drives them round and round in a circle. White sashes and beaded tassels trail behind their bodies as they move. Only women danced in the outer circle, and these were their only clothes, meant to expose them and the life force they carried. Their circular path symbolized the extent of the universe, its bounds and its current. They were in a state of being, never becoming, forever and ever. And they all encircled the creative force, the axis rising high and standing still, whose nature cannot be female—the tree and the man next to it wearing a horned headdress.

Olavo de Carvalho stood to the side and watched as the dance unfolded. He was short and slightly plump, with dark hair combed to the side and thick round glasses, and he wore a buttoned-up pinstripe shirt. His appearance made him appear normal, maybe even boring—an accountant, a salesman, something like that.

The community, tucked away in a leafy forest about twenty miles north of Bloomington, Indiana, had a hundred or so permanent members, almost all white Westerners, and called itself a tariqa—a school or order of Sufism. There can’t have been many groups like this one in this area, in rural Midwestern America. Male initiates referred to one another with the title of respect Sidi (Lord). The organization and its offshoots were structured with the Sufi position titles of muqaddam, shaykh, and khalifa. Participants—sometimes secretly from the outside world—considered themselves Muslims. But these practices were relics of a few years ago, when the community followed the laws of Islam more stringently. Since the tariqa had arrived in Bloomington in 1980, its rituals had gradually broken from its roots—observing, though officially never fusing into synthesis, other Traditional faiths in addition to Sufism. Olavo was considering starting a branch back home. For that, he would need the approval of the leader of the tariqa here, the shaykh, whose books he had poured over in Brazil; the horned man in the center of the dancer’s circle, on the compound in the woods.

Frithjof Schuon looked like no one else. His aquiline flat nose seemed to pull his entire face down, forcing an expanse for itself between his mouth and his deep-set eyes. His beard made his face look longer yet. It stretched down inches below his jawline and was squared at the edges. A wild vertical halo of hair emanated from behind his head, and he dressed eccentrically.

On this day, he stood in the center of the circle next to the tree with the cyclone of skin whirling around him. He wore a cloak of flowing animal hide, an ornate bead breastplate in whites and reds, and a warbonnet headdress with buffalo horns at the temples and trails of feathers leading across his forehead and down over his shoulders and back to the ground. He was clothed in the ceremonial style not of a Sufi, but of the Oglala Sioux Indians, who during the 1960s adopted him and gave him the name Wicaphi Wiyakpa (Bright Star) to accompany his Sufi name, Shaykh Isa Nur al-Din. The dance was based on the Sun Dance of the Sioux, though it also resembled the circular dhikr dances of the Sufis and those of the Hindu Vaishnava bhakti, too. His donning of Sioux dress paid respect to their Traditional pathway, though he held no particular allegiance to it, nor to the Islamic-inspired garb he was most often seen wearing. Like the faiths they represented, the garments were only wrappings, different shells of a common core manifest and delivered, not in another set of garments, but in the naked body of Schuon himself.

Olavo de Carvalho had come to the kind of place that parents warned their children about. Religious cults had haunted the United States in particular since the 1960s thanks to a string of sensational flashpoints: Jim Jones. David Koresh. Bhagwan Rajneesh. No single religion held a monopoly in such cases. The constant instead was the presence of charismatic leaders who claimed to be unique conduits of divinity, making themselves indispensable to the spiritual and social needs of their disciples. Conventional wisdom taught that involvement in breakaway religious sects like this lead to brainwashing, extortion, and abuse. Conventional wisdom, however, was the last thing Olavo was interested in.

Frithjof Schuon waved a feathered staff in his right hand as the dance proceeded. His followers were all watching him as they were supposed to, though they kept tabs on one another as well. You wouldn’t believe the infighting in this place. The tariqa observed varying levels of initiation, entailing differing degrees of access to Schuon himself, and everyone seemed to be maneuvering to climb a step higher.

A lot was at stake in that play for positioning. The most initiated men could hope to speak directly to the shaykh, to see the most holy and revealing paintings he made of himself, and perhaps to be named his successor when the time comes. For women in the tariqa, those highest in the hierarchy might lead dances, sing during ceremonies, facilitate communication for others, and maybe come in contact with the core in ways no man could.

Born in Switzerland to French and German parents, Schuon came to see himself as the heir apparent to René Guénon. He had been a somewhat rambunctious follower of Traditionalism’s patriarch from the early 1930s on, begrudgingly following Guénon’s direct advice to convert to Islam and pursue the path of Sufism, though his original interest was in Hinduism. Sufism, however, proved to be a good home for Schuon. After having been initiated into a Sufi order in Algeria and after having declared himself a leader—shaykh—based on a vision rather than on the call of an elder, he started a tariqa in Basel and began initiating others. By the time Schuon and his first wife moved their tariqa to Indiana in 1980, they could claim followers throughout the Americas and Europe, and even a few Muslims by birth in the Middle East.

By that point, Schuon also functioned as the unofficial figurehead for individuals throughout the globe looking to deepen their understanding of Traditionalism. René Guénon died paranoid and embroiled in conflicts with his former followers in 1951, and Julius Evola spent his last years holed up in his Rome apartment with a tiny group of exceptionally radical and dangerous followers—simple terrorists, some of them—and scorned by many Traditionalists. Schuon would lead the spiritual effort forward, but not without major modifications of his own.

His changes weren’t necessarily those of moderation: he celebrated Indo-European caste hierarchy (believing that castes should be based on “natural” rather than “institutional” qualities and affiliations). And like Julius Evola, he, too, had a race theory to go with his Traditionalism, one that saw extensive mixing of “white,” “black,” and “yellow” races as a product of modernity’s formlessness and chaos. “White” was a race, in his mind, native to the wider Indo-European world (encompassing India and the Middle East as well as Europe).

But he also was more open to what was called universalism than Traditionalists of the past. Guénon’s way of thinking was that, with the ancient ur-religion having been lost, seekers needed to settle for just one exoteric religious way today in hopes of uncovering traces of what once was. To choose this path was to admit a defeat: what in the past was a unified whole had through time been divided piecemeal among a number of faiths, any of which would demand devotion to obtain its modest yield. Schuon, however, would suffer no such concession. Though he embraced Sufism, he gradually warmed to and participated in other religions at the same time—notably Native American spirituality and Orthodox Christianity—suggesting that he was above the need to limit himself to one path, but might instead encompass them all at once. The underlying logic seemed a rejection of Traditionalism’s time cycle and its fatalism: Schuon could bring about the reconstruction of the ur-religion in the here and now.

 *

THE DANCE CONCLUDED. People dispersed every which way—some to head home, some to change their clothes for additional events. Olavo struggled to reach Schuon. Since his arrival in Bloomington, Olavo had not been able to speak with the shaykh directly. Schuon was surrounded by his inner circle, and they regulated where he went and who could come close to him. This was part of the hierarchy that Olavo had yet to climb, that was surely the official explanation. But to him, it seemed more like a bureaucracy. It was off-putting. Didn’t the shaykh know how far he had traveled to be here, and didn’t he know of the rarefied recommendation that accompanied him?

Olavo’s path to Bloomington began with disillusionment. Back in São Paulo in 1982, he discovered a local tariqa, thanks to a tip from one of his students. It was part of an international Sufi order headed by Omar Ali-Shah with his brother Idries—both British Muslims of Indian, Scottish, and Afghan origin. Upon arriving at his first prayer session, Olavo was surprised to find essentially all his students in attendance. They had been recruited, without his knowledge, based on their affiliation with him. But he was encouraged to stay, and so he did. He even introduced additional students: one young woman—Roxane, a Catholic former communist with flowing red hair who had taken his classes—came to the tariqa in 1983 specifically to spend more time with him.

Still, Olavo participated in gatherings and rituals with some hesitation. The deeper he got into the community, the more he came to see its leader, Omar Ali-Shah, as a con man who used the tariqa for money and influence. His brother Idries would even claim to be the heir to the spiritual project of George Gurdjieff, mainly as a ploy to gain money. This was not the experience of transcendence that Olavo imagined. And he might have left the scene altogether, had it not been for a tip from a friend to write directly to a prominent Traditionalist Sufi for advice.

The prominent Sufi’s name was Martin Lings. He led a tariqa in the London area while also working as an Islamic scholar for the British Museum. Not only was Lings renowned for his writing and his personal warmth, but his circle of contacts came to include composer John Tavener, who wrote pieces dedicated to both Schuon and Guénon, and Charles, Prince of Wales—the future king of Great Britain. Further, he would be traveling “nearby” Olavo—perhaps the two could meet? “Dear Senhor Olavo,” Lings wrote on June 2, 1985, “I received your letter and hope that you will be able to come to Lima.”

The two met face-to-face on a cool August morning in Lima, Peru, that same year. A gentle, sweet, honest guy, Olavo thought, and immediately felt at ease in Lings’s presence. They talked about the Ali-Shah brothers. Lings knew all about them. And he had a solution. “You have an experience of fake Sufis,” he said to Olavo. “In order to restore your spiritual situation, you need to go see real Sufis.”

Olavo needed to find a new tariqa network to belong to, one that was linked with the Traditionalist linage of René Guénon, one with an authentic spiritual master at its head—no more con artists. Lings wasn’t promoting himself; he was referring to a tariqa in the United States. Its shaykh was Lings’s shaykh, too, and he said of him: “I knew when I was in his presence that I was in the presence of a true saint and the spiritual master that I was seeking. And when I say true saint, I don’t mean just a saintly man. I mean a saint of first magnitude, such as one could not expect to meet in the twentieth century.”

Lings suggested that Olavo complete the process of converting to Islam before going to meet the great Shaykh Isa Nur al-Din. Something happened afterward, because when Lings wrote again, on September 8 of that year, with additional instructions to Olavo for arranging a visit to Bloomington, Indiana, it opened, “Dear Sidi Muhammad . . .”

 *

NOW, IN BLOOMINGTON, Olavo was feeling duped again. The all-too-familiar game of petty personal politics appeared to rule this order, too. Perhaps he could even leave and go home early.

Then a surprise. A communication from the shaykh: He, Olavo, was to be appointed as a muqaddam. Already. Just after he had arrived. That meant that he would be allowed to run his own tariqa. Olavo de Carvalho: Sidi Muhammad, muqaddam of the Maryamiyya tariqa of Brazil.

He was excited, yes, though it was a little strange, he had to admit. This whole thing, this place, its rules and ways, and the shaykh, too. Then again, he had taught himself not to question much, to instead be patient, knowing that the most important truths—hidden truths—require time and devotion to reveal themselves. That’s the way of esotericism.

Esoteric. The term in its narrow definition describes knowledge that has been rejected, most often knowledge rejected in favor of reason and science, and which therefore is not apparent to most in modern Westernized society. In religious contexts, it could also describe ineffable personal spiritual sensation in contrast with the outward “exoteric” trappings that may accompany it—the rituals, names, places, and histories surrounding inner experience. For the seeker of esoteric insight or spirituality, sources tend to be marginalized or hidden. Rejected knowledge may be conferred though accessible vessels like a church or books in a public library. But it can also be tucked away in the codes and rituals of a clandestine organization. In some cases, the source of the esoteric is a single person who shares it in the ways and under the conditions that individual chooses.

Traditionalism counts as one of the clearest examples of religious esotericism. It opposes itself to Western modernity and science. In its doctrinaire form, it repudiates the hope of going mainstream and changing society as a whole, and it strives toward an undefined and unexplained body of knowledge (the core religion, whatever that is). Further, while Traditionalists write, they urge followers to align themselves with a relevant practice, sending them off into the world of clandestine initiatory spiritual circles where the unarticulated and unspecified would be made clear to a chosen few. It was a matter of time until Traditionalism manifested itself as it did in Indiana.

 *

OLAVO HAD BEEN appointed as a muqaddam. What was the process? Don’t even ask—they won’t tell just anyone. But immediately after his initiation—after entering one circle—he found another group forming that he was excluded from.

A select number of members gathered at another part of the compound to attend what was called a “Primordial Gathering.” This circle was made up mostly of women. No one who had read Schuon extensively should have been surprised that so many of his rituals treated men and women differently. The sexes were in his mind manifestations of different cosmic forces that shaped the cosmos. He saw modernist feminism as an attempt to strip women of that force and its characteristics: beauty, passivity, purity, goodness, love, and logic. As he wrote, “Feminism, far from being able to confer on woman ‘rights’ that are non-existent because contrary to the nature of things, can only remove from her her specific dignity; it is the abolition of the eternal-feminine, of the glory that woman derives from her celestial prototype.”

That he spent far more time writing about women than men may have had to do with a series of visions he had throughout his life, those most prominent involving semi-sexual encounters with divine female figures: the Virgin Mary in one instance, and Pte-San-Win of Sioux mythology in the other. One result of these visions was Schuon’s insistence on including prayer to Mary in his routine of Sufi practices and eventually to name his tariqa order Maryamiyya—an Arabic, adjectival form of her name. But before that, the encounter gave Schuon, in his words, a “need to be naked like her baby.” Nudity became an expression of divinity for Schuon, “a return to the essence, the origin, the archetype, thus to the celestial state.” His own nudity, further, may also have been intended to draw an association between himself and Jesus, just as his position at the center of the circle gyrating to the strikes of the drumstick linked him to the Sun, to Krishna, to God, to eternity.

Some troubling things were taking place in Bloomington. At least one community member would report of rituals for the inner circle of initiates that shed pretenses to the exoteric and focused instead on bringing participants into contact with the esoteric truth—that is to say, rituals bringing female initiates into contact with Schuon’s naked body. He was seventy-nine at the time, but rumors were spreading about the age of the other participants involved.

 *

OLAVO RETURNED TO BRAZIL and began arranging his—or Schuon’s—tariqa. It was sure to be a success; his own students would follow him, he knew. Roxane, the former communist student, was a sure bet.

Still, there were so many technical details to work out, and as disciplined and studious as he was, he didn’t yet know a lot about Sufism and the running of a tariqa. Worse yet, the workings of a tariqa were not written down, but were instead determined by the shaykh, and Schuon wasn’t always responsive. Luckily, Martin Lings from London was happy to correspond with Olavo on these matters as an approved authority on the shaykh’s rules.

I found a copy of a letter Martin Lings sent to Olavo. It had no date written by the author on it, but it must have come shortly after Olavo’s return from Indiana. The only date on the paper was from years later—a stamp from the Justice Court of São Paulo on January 27, 2014.

“Dear Sidi Muhammad,” Lings wrote. “Thank you for your recent letter. Here are the answers to your questions.” Lings then went on to answer Olavo’s questions with businesslike efficiency.

Olavo had asked about how much members of the tariqa needed to contribute financially (zakat) to be in good standing. Each should contribute 2.5 percent of one’s yearly income, Lings replied, though there are many exceptions. Olavo asked about the chanting of the shahada, the Muslim profession of faith—who should lead it, how many times it should be repeated, and how tariqa members should arrange themselves during the process. You lead it, Lings replied, and you can chant it up to a thousand times. Sexes should be segregated throughout, with women standing behind men, as was done in Bloomington. Oh, and about them—women—a final question: Olavo wondered how they were to be initiated into the tariqa. Lings’s reply to this final question was curt and direct: “The woman is initiated by man during the sexual act—assuming no interference by birth-control devices. There is no initiation apart from this contact.”

Financial contributions, the chanting of the shahada—that was all fairly standard Sufi practice. But this last part? That was Frithjof Schuon, the Maryamiyya order, with all its sectarian intrigue in tow. It had spread to the tropics via Olavo de Carvalho, who would later find himself advising the president of Brazil and collaborating with powerful Traditionalists around the globe.


TEITELBAUM, Benjamin, War For Eternity: Inside Bannon’s Far-Right Circle of Global Power Brokers. New York: Dey Street, 2020.

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