His first class in 1900 was attended by only three students, each of a different religion. But before long, 40,000 people – including Einstein and Gandhi – were turning up to the Bulgarian spiritual master’s lectures. In a Europe that was being torn apart by monstrous wars, Peter Deunov proposed a universal paradise. Surrounded by mountains and lakes, he showed how to live in love and perfect harmony with nature, heralding the rebirth of souls and the advent of a new era.
On 10th January 1944, American and British planes made yet another bombing raid on Sofia, destroying nearly 500 buildings and killing hundreds of people. Before the bombers returned, Beinsa Douno – known as the Master – left the city for the village of Marczewo in the Vitosha Mountains. Supposedly, he told a priest he knew who visited him there: “I have completed my work on Earth. I am leaving.” When his friend visited again in December, Beinsa Douno asked: “Who are Beethoven, Jesus and Deunov? Only God is eternal and limitless, only He is reality.” Then he sang for the last time. He hummed Aoum, his own simple song composed of a single syllable, expressing the sum of existing sounds. During the cold, foggy days of December, he stayed in bed, withdrew from contact with his surroundings, and told visitors that the human body is just temporary and that he no longer wanted to remain in the physical world. He died of double pneumonia on 27th December around 6pm. His students dressed his body in white clothes, the way he had dressed for years – in the photographs and documentaries in which he features, he was almost always wearing a white linen suit like a character from a Chekhov play. His jaw-length hair and beard were bright white. Right up until his death, he retained his keen, penetrating gaze and noble features: a beautiful, perfectly straight nose, prominent cheekbones and shining pupils. He always walked tall, with a relaxed, light step. His appearance, unchanged for decades, was an illustration of spiritual stability – time has barely touched him, leaving only a smattering of wrinkles and perfectly white hair. The pathologist who examined Deunov’s body reportedly said that in his 50 years on the job he had never seen such a youthful organism.
According to Deunov’s biographer David Lorimer, the Master’s body was temporarily transported to the Dawn meditation and spiritual practice centre he had built near Sofia. His tomb, surrounded by a white wall and pentagrams symbolizing positive forces – wisdom, truth, virtue, love and justice – is located in Sofia, encircled by a rose garden. The communist authorities had to issue a special permit for its construction. Deunov’s resting place is still visited by his followers, informally known as the White Brotherhood, who are determined to pursue his teaching of pure love and the blossoming of the soul that leads to true freedom. They meditate at Deunov’s graveside, sing the songs he composed (it is estimated that he wrote 200 songs and musical texts, some of which are even on Spotify), or read his writings. During his lifetime, he delivered around 7000 lectures, some of which were later translated and published in languages including French, German and English.
Deunov did not attach much importance to death. He believed that its date and circumstances were predicted for every human being, like a sentence, and that when we die, we go to the same sphere from which we came into the earthly world on the day of our birth. “A man who has understood love becomes immortal. A man who has understood wisdom becomes complete. A man who has grasped truth becomes free.” He called the end of physical life the greatest limitation for life, but life itself the highest freedom. He regarded the mind as truly immortal and unchanging. According to his teachings, it is the death of the body that frees you from the need to feel emotions. He considered the world of thoughts more beautiful than the world of feelings, and Earth as merely one of the possible manifestations of divinity.
In September 1944, Sofia was occupied by Red Army troops and a new communist regime was installed in the country. Two days after Deunov’s death, representatives of the authorities arrived at the Dawn centre to arrest him. For the next 45 years, until the democratic transformations of 1989, followers of Deunov’s teachings faced persecution and were forced to cultivate their beliefs in secret. However, the last three decades have seen a period of renaissance for the thoughts, writings and exercises of the Bulgarian philosopher, doctor and spiritual guide. His teachings are part of a broader trend of searching for new ethical paths and the development of consciousness that enables man’s place in the natural and cosmic order to be defined in a different way. In his reflections on the need to combine spiritual and physical well-being, and his progressive suggestions for a proper diet and caring for the body, Deunov was a European pioneer, drawing from the wisdom of the East, Slavonism and Bulgarian folk culture.
It is estimated that today the White Brotherhood numbers several thousand people. But because Deunov never wanted to create a Church or a formal framework for his beliefs, his followers remain scattered and difficult to count. In August 2015, photojournalist Hristo Rusev joined the White Brotherhood in the Rila Mountains and documented their celebrations to welcome the new divine year. His photos were viewed around the world thanks to their publication in an international issue of The Guardian. Rusev showed over 2000 people dressed in casual white costumes singing and dancing in concentric choreography, in the spectacular landscape of rocky slopes and clean lakes. The universal harmony of music and movement, which Deunov called ‘paneurythmy’, symbolizes the flow of cosmic forces. The circles of dancing people resemble the circle of the universe. The movement allows people to connect with the pulse of nature. This collective ritual of gentle movements, performed at dawn, is designed to bring strength, joy and beauty to life.
Deunov developed the concept and clear rules of paneurythmy between 1934 and 1942 during the peak of his popularity. At that time, his spiritual practice centre Dawn (Izgrev) was in full swing. Before then, the Master had been travelling around Bulgaria, Europe and Asia, organizing camps in the mountains combining climbing, meditation in nature, breathing exercises and harmonious movement.
Paneurythmy has a strictly codified choreography involving 28 exercises performed in a specific sequence to music. They are mostly composed of rhythmic steps made with legs straight and taut (Deunov is thought to have said that a man with weak legs would achieve nothing in life) and the body upright (he advised starting the day with a good stretch of the spine to get the energy flowing properly). In addition, there were arm movements symbolizing acceptance, gratitude, liberation and consolation. The exercises had to be performed regularly to achieve flow and balance, always in full sequence, and preferably in the company of others, so that interpenetrating circles could be formed.
Commonality and community were particularly important in Deunov’s teachings and activities, and in line with the ideals of love, help and reciprocity that he emphasized. In photos he can be seen surrounded by many people; his students ate meals, exercised, hiked and meditated together. In giving his own definition of Christ, Deunov likened him to the collective spirit, all the gathered sons of God, all mature souls existing in divine unity. In this sense, Christ presided over the non-physical order that Deunov called the Great Universal Brotherhood. It was supposed to consist of nine circles of beings arranged in the following hierarchy: on the highest level were seraphim (brothers of love), then cherubim (brothers of harmony), thrones (brothers of will), dominions (brothers of intelligence and joy), then forces, powers, principles, archangels and angels. Finally – at the lowest level – were the most advanced human souls. All these beings together represented the cosmic man and created a kind of meta-body – a universe with perfectly distributed proportions and tasks, existing in the form of perceptible matter, but also in intangible dimensions. We know from records of Deunov’s lectures that the representatives of the Universal Brotherhood constituted an intelligent living collective, looking after the spiritual development of humanity, but they did not create any organizations or structures. They were a community functioning in freedom and outside the broken order of the modern world.
The Master practised paneurythmy with his students during the spring-summer season, between 22nd March and 22nd September, at sunrise and always in nature. He recommended performing the exercises with total concentration – the spiritual rhythm inspired by Bulgarian folk dances was, in his opinion, one of the many ways to awaken the soul and allow it to blossom. “I live in perfect harmony,” said Deunov in one of his lectures. “I am surrounded by intelligent beings from the higher world, always ready to support me.” He repeatedly told his students not to look for God outside themselves, because such a God does not exist. “God manifests as the light of our spirit, the warm sweetness in our heart, and our will power. Look within yourselves and be thankful.”
Considered one of the most important representatives of esoteric Christianity, Deunov operated on the margins, alongside the madness of wars, mechanization and the totalitarianism of the first half of the 20th century which brought so much contempt and suffering. Even today, his followers remain on the sidelines – Deunov’s teachings are still alive in Europe and around the world, but they are not associated with the promotion or funding processes that have brought other spiritual schools international popularity and allowed them to create influential centres of practice. Deunov was focused on renewing the understanding of the ideal of love and brotherhood from the early Christian era – he believed in the rebirth of a community devoid of all material features, in new man, and in pure divine love. This was the bright future he predicted for mankind.
Crowds at the window
Although he was known for most of his life as Beinsa Douno – the Master, he was born as Peter Konstantinov Deunov on 11th July 1864 in the village of Nikolaevka near Varna. He was the youngest child of Konstantin Dunovsky, an Orthodox priest who was one of the first to hold masses in Bulgarian rather than Latin. Deunov’s father was an activist in the independence movement in Bulgaria, aiming to liberate his country from the Turkish domination that had lasted several centuries. On the day of his son’s birth, he wrote in the margin of his Bible giving thanks for this “sign filling life with joy”.
Very little is known about Peter’s early years. He graduated from schools in Varna and the American Methodist School in Svishtov, and learned to play the violin, on which he would later compose and perform songs for his students. He treated music as a spiritual practice, a manifestation of divinity and a path to self-improvement, and lamented that people reduced it to entertainment. He worked briefly as a teacher in a village school before leaving for the US in 1888. We don’t know where he got the money for his travel and his education in Madison, New England. He spent seven years in the US, graduating from the Institute of Methodist Theology and writing his master’s thesis on the migration and Christianization of Germanic tribes. He also studied at Boston University’s medical faculty and returned to Bulgaria with a doctor’s degree.
In his home country, he began to put out publications, including his doctoral dissertation and a number of scientific articles, before turning his attention to phrenology – the theory, born at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, that individual parts of the cerebral cortex are responsible for various mental functions and that a person’s character traits and specific abilities can be deciphered by looking at their face. Deunov took meticulous measurements of skulls, eye spacing and nose length. According to some sources, he amassed an impressive collection of 5000 measurements. Although phrenology contributed to the development of neurology, it was discredited by later brain researchers as a mixture of scientific evidence, superstition and completely erroneous thinking. All that remains of Deunov’s phrenological fascination are a few articles published at that time.
From an early age, the Master prayed and meditated in solitude. His biography – written by his students and followers and difficult to verify from other sources – tells of numerous cases of revelations and miraculous or prophetic events. The first revelation, or rather a kind of summons, happened to Deunov in 1897. From then on, he considered himself a Master, an incarnation of divinity; he felt he had been chosen and it was his duty to sow the seeds of love among people all over the world. It is worth noting here that, according to Deunov, the relationship between the master and the student is not entirely hierarchical – the master is not someone dominant and more important, merely a more mature, more enlightened soul. The student is a few steps further back on the path. Deunov’s first high-profile work was “The Testament of the Colour Rays of Light”, published in 1912. After studying the Bible at length, the Master assigned appropriate colours to the virtues of love, wisdom, promise and grace. He believed the spirit of Christ was manifested in white and diamond-bright rays, which he called the light of the world. He began to give public lectures and proclamations in which he announced that his task was to revive the nation and restore the harmony of souls and minds.
In 1900 he founded the Society of Light, which held its first meeting in Varna. Only three people took part, each of a different religion. But Deunov knew this would change. “There will be thousands of you,” he predicted at the time. In 1914, he gave his first public lecture and went on to give an intensive series of talks on Sunday mornings and afternoons, as well as other days of the week. Among his followers were skilled stenographers who transcribed his speeches. By 1948, these speeches had been published in 184 books.
Deunov travelled around the country, meeting people in Burgas, Vitosha, Sofia, and also in the Rila Mountains, where he started organizing annual student gatherings. For a few years he lived in Sofia, where he opened the Universal White Brotherhood School with classes for adults and children. The number of his followers and students soon grew. Crowds stood for hours outside the windows from which he gave his speeches or sang and played the violin. In autumn and winter he focused on lectures and instructions, in spring and summer he emphasized exercises and contact with nature. According to his biographers, at the peak of his activity, there were around 144 associations of his supporters in Bulgaria alone, and at the time of his death he had about 40,000 students in over a dozen countries.
Prayer on the peak
For years he was on the road – he travelled, gave speeches, and apparently also healed people. Various examples of miraculous cases in which he supposedly participated are cited on the websites devoted to his teachings and in the accounts of his biographers. There are also descriptions of his predictions. The most famous relates to his saving thousands of Bulgarian Jews from deportation to Nazi death camps in Poland. It was 1943 and the rail transport had already been arranged when Deunov made a prediction to the tsar that if he sacrificed even one Jewish life, his dynasty would turn to dust. In the end, the tsar refused to deport the Jews – they were still stripped of their possessions and sent to do hard labour in the villages, but under this pretext, as indispensable workers, they survived the war at home. Deunov’s life, full of miraculous – according to descriptions – events, could easily be compared to that of Christ. For example, Deunov told his students: “I am among you, but I am not like you.” He devoted himself to 40-day fasts in isolation. When he was accused of heresy for not attending the Orthodox church, he replied: “I am always in the church, the church is living people, their hearts.” Among the dozens of people who declared that they owed their salvation to him were an engine driver, a single widow with a seriously ill daughter, and a labourer who had emigrated to the US.
In 1927 he founded the Dawn village near Sofia, where he had his most important house and long-term abode. Two years later, he gave a 5am speech at Musala, the highest peak in the Rila Mountains at 2925 m above sea level. He called it Prayer Mountain. It took three days to climb, which for many believers became a physical and spiritual journey. In the harshness of nature, the spirit of brotherhood and community was completely exposed, allowing followers to practise love for others; this was always the essence of Deunov’s reflections and lectures. From the biblical statement “God is love” he derived his teachings about the various types of love, the most important being divine love, which permeates all and manifests the highest being and order. He was interested only in living love – shown and practised, not expressed in the form of images, buildings or institutions. All aspects of his activity were characterized by simplicity: from the casual white clothing made of natural materials, through the minimalism of the exercises and the clear language of his lectures, to the purity of his musical compositions. In the 1930s, visits to the mountains and the paneurythmic choreography perfected there formed a coherent whole for the Master’s spiritual concepts, combining prayers, meditation, rhythmicity, sounds and profound contact with nature. In music, Deunov saw a force that triggered great cosmic harmony.
An ecology forecast
The development of consciousness and the soul, as well as physical activity, were part of the holistic spectrum of Deunov’s interests; he appears today to have been a pioneer, a forerunner of combining spiritual practices with a healthy and eco-friendly lifestyle. He argued that for the full existence of the body, which is a temporary but valuable and inalienable emanation of the soul, a proper diet is needed. In his schools and camps, all meals were vegetarian and eaten communally. Deunov was outspoken in his belief that meat eaters live shorter lives and get ill more often, claims for which we have plenty of scientific evidence today. He also felt strongly that the diet should include clean air and the art of proper breathing (full inhalations using the diaphragm and abdominal muscles), as well as frequent exposure to sunlight. The sun occupied an important place in the teachings of the Bulgarian thinker, who regularly lectured and exercised at sunrise to offer the sun a ceremonial greeting. The last big camp under his leadership was held in August 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II, and attended by 500 students from many different countries. Deunov then returned to Musala. His students had to resort to complicated machinations to get hold of a car and a permit. As a result, he was able to meditate for three days among mountain streams and crystal clear lakes.
In one of his lectures, he said: “I do not promise you salvation. I teach a way for you to carry out God’s will, this is where you will find liberation. He will make you feel like sisters and brothers and prepare you for the wonderful life that is coming on Earth. There is no need for you to be infatuated with my speeches or with me myself. The point is for you to use these teachings and solve your own problems.”
He considered himself to be God’s worker. His unwavering modesty is evidenced by the fact that he left behind many believers, a lively community of followers, but not an empire. Among others, his lectures were attended by Mahatma Gandhi; Albert Einstein, to whom the whole world bowed, used to say that he himself bowed to only one master – Beinsa Douno.
Six months after Deunov’s burial, World War II ended. A dark era of totalitarianism arrived, which first promised to create a new and better human and to bring transnational equality, then started to brutally implement this promise via terror and military domination of half the world. The followers of Deunov’s teachings went underground for almost 50 years. The first comprehensive biography of their Master was written in 1991. Two years earlier, in a nationwide opinion poll asking Bulgarians to name the most outstanding compatriot in history, first place went – unsurprisingly – to Vasil Levski, the greatest hero of Bulgaria’s liberation from Turkish rule. What was amazing was the fact that Peter Deunov, the spokesman for pure love, plant-based breakfasts and gentle morning arm movements, was right behind him.
While working on this text, I used the following books: Prophet for Our Times by David Lorimer, The Might of Love by Beinsa Douno, and The Extraordinary Life of the Master Beinsa Douno by Vlad Pashov and Svilen Chorbadijev.
Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster
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