Gurdjieff Work and the Teaching of Krishna – Ravi Ravindra


Ravi Ravindra

[This article was published in Gurdjieff:Essays and Reflections on the Man and his Teaching, ed. J. Needleman andG. Baker (New York: Continuum, 1996). Also published in R. Ravindra; Spiritual Roots of Yoga]

 “If I were to cease working,” says Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (3.24), “all these worlds would perish”. He advises his friend and disciple, Arjuna, to act on his own level and scale as Krishna himself acts on the highest level and on the largest scale.1 So are seekers firmly and repeatedly advised in the Gurdjieff Work to work on their own level, that of the earth, lest the earth should collapse.

This is not the place to discuss the question of any historical links between the teaching of Gurdjieff and India. Gurdjieff was widely traveled and may have been influenced by the various strands of the vast Indian tradition -either directly or indirectly through Tibet and other parts of Asia. He refers to India on many occasions in his writings, often with the suggestion that in ancient times, if not now, esoteric schools with real knowledge had existed there. He even referred to himself as a ‘Hindu’ in his first public announcement in a Moscow newspaper in 1914 regarding the performance of an Indian mystery play called The Struggle of the Magicians. This particular instance may not be anything more than a useful role playing, but there is no doubt that he was very knowledgeable about Indian traditions and often mercilessly critical of their exaggerations and of the many fads derived from India which were current in the occult and spiritualist circles of his day.

One cannot fail to be struck by the many parallels between the Gurdjieff Work and the teaching of Krishna, as well as other traditional teachings. However, every teaching has its own specificity, a particular centre of gravity and area of emphasis. The important thing is to remark that no real teaching can be made by the ordinary human mind, here below. There cannot be a way from here to There, unless the way is laid down from There to here. No teaching can be true unless it originates from Above, by the Will of Heaven. Great teachers and messengers from Above are needed in order to assist in the descent of Heavenly wisdom by preparing the right ground of being –body, mind and heart. Gurdjieff’s teaching is not personal any more than are the teachings of the Buddha or of the Christ. He lays no claim to any subjective or private invention of his ideas; on the contrary, he continually stresses the antiquity of his ideas and practices. They are original only in the sense that they originate from the Source and carry the potential of relating sincere practitioners to the origins. However, the Work is unique and fresh. And it is demanding, for it requires a total response. Gurdjieff’s pupils recall him saying about his teaching, “This, no cheap thing!” and Madame de Salzmann2 often reminded us of Gurdjieff’s remark that “Very good is not enough.”

It is to be expected that genuine teachings would naturally have much in common at depth. They are likely to be different from each other at the surface, owing to different emphases arising in response to contingencies of time, place and language. Every teaching belongs to its time, utilizing the specific modality of thought and idiom relevant to the people who are addressed by the teaching, but every teaching invites those who hear it to respond to what is true with an objective vibration quite independent of their own subjectivity. Completely lawfully, as is explained in detail by Gurdjieff using the Law of Seven,3 and is indicated in passing by Krishna (BG 4.1-3), every teaching is subject to the ravages of time, unless great care is taken in maintaining the original vibration –which must not be confused with the old forms– or unless there is a continual revitalization.

Most of us, whether from the East or the West, have been cut off from the living waters of the great traditions which are constantly menaced by the twin forces of sentimentality and scholasticism. Great texts exist as do wonderful ceremonies and rituals rich with meaning and knowledge, but they do not have an action on the whole of our being. Our eyes are dulled so that we do not see clearly and we do not dwell in the right mind from which we might comprehend their meaning. Cleansing of our eyes and connecting us with our right mind is the purpose of the teaching and practise of Gurdjieff’s Work. It is quite reasonable to ask what light the traditions shed on the Gurdjieff teaching. But, in fact, seekers engaged on this path often realize, through their deep personal experience, that the traditions get charged with meaning for them by their contact with the teaching of Gurdjieff. He brings fresh insight to the old formulations and a practical way of relating with the depth of ourselves as well as with the depth of the traditions.

It is true that rightly understood the tradition is always right; but it is also true that the tradition is almost always misunderstood, especially when taken externally and partially, with exaggerated emphasis on rational speculation or on sentimental devotion. We can see this historically: if the traditions had not been misunderstood there would not have been such a forceful challenge thrown at the official guardians of the traditions by Krishna or the Buddha or the Christ. One sees not only that the traditions are continually betrayed, but that the traditions themselves betray the truth –as is implied by one of the root meanings of the word tradition.   Whenever a scholastic interpretation freezes the tradition in a rigid formulation, however liberating it had once been and however hallowed by time, one needs especially to recall the words of Krishna that “For a brahmin [seeker of Brahman, the Vastness] who truly knows, there is as much use in all the Vedas [sacred texts] as there is in a well when there is a flood of water on all sides” (BG 2:46).

In our days, the revitalizing challenge to the traditions is brought by Gurdjieff, not in order to destroy them but in order to recover and release their essential core from the encrustation of dogma, exclusivism and mechanical repetition. Gurdjieff was a traditionalist –although from all accounts a very untraditional one– in the sense that he had an enormous respect for the traditions and believed that all the major traditions once carried a kernel of truth which has in general been lost and which may be recovered from the fragments which have been preserved in the sacred texts and ceremonies of many religions. He referred to his Work as ‘esoteric Christianity;’ but one feels that in other contexts he might have called it ‘esoteric Buddhism’ or ‘esoteric Islam’ as well. Esoteric does not refer to any concealment, but rather to a level which is more inner and higher, and which is not available to ordinary, unintegrated, mind and sentiments. In order to approach the esoteric level a preparation is needed: a preparation not only to understand truth but also to withstand it. More than anything else, this requires a sacrifice of our mental and emotional habits which keep us tethered to our present mechanical level.

 One particularly striking example of a habit of thought in connection with the Indian tradition is that of kundalini which is said to be a force which is situated coiled up like an earring or a serpent at the base of the spine, in the chakra (subtle center of energy in the body) representing the earth (prithivi). In most religious and philosophic circles in India, especially those fascinated by occult phenomena, kundalini is given a very high valuation. But, Gurdjieff has nothing positive to say about kundalini. Having undertaken, as he himself says, “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,”4 he ascribes to the suggestively parallel organ kundabuffer the property of making human beings perceive reality topsyturvy.5 Ouspensky quotes Gurdjieff as saying, “In reality Kundalini is the power of imagination, the power of fantasy, which takes the place of a real function… Kundalini can act in all centers and with its help all the centers can be satisfied with the imaginary instead of the real… Kundalini is a force put into men in order to keep them in their present state. If men could really see their true position and could understand all the horror of it, they would be unable to remain where they are even for one second. They would begin to seek a way out and they would quickly find it, because there is a way out; but men fail to see simply because they are hypnotized. Kundalini is the force that keeps them in a hypnotic state. ‘To awaken’ for man means to be ‘dehypnotized.'”6

As one recovers from the shock dealt by Gurdjieff’s merciless criticism of one of the precious jewels of Indian spirituality, one can begin to look at the tradition again. One discovers that the most thorough and insightful authority on Yoga, Patanjali the author of the celebrated Yoga Sutras, never mentions kundalini, and some of the very ancient and authoritative texts on Yoga, such as Yoga Yajñavalkya, regard kundalini to be a hindrance in the spiritual evolution of a person, an impediment which needs to be removed in order to be touched and transformed by the energy from Heaven. The human being is situated along an axis stretched from Heaven to earth, and the proper inner order demands a flow of energy (prana) from above downwards. Naturally, the powers from below, entrenched and coiled up in the organism as kundalini,7 resist and try to block the entry and movement of prana from Above.

Although I was born and brought up in India and although I learned the Bhagavad Gita by heart as a boy, this ancient text remained essentially a closed book. It is only after I encountered the ideas and practices of the Work that the text became really sacred: it became more profound, more universal and much more existentially engaging than before. Gurdjieff and Madame de Salzmann constantly emphasized the importance of struggling against one’s habitual nature, the automaton that one calls myself. This self, including the psyche and the body, is the battleground in which the forces of the real I, the Self (Atman), and those of mechanicality, inattention and unconsciousness fight. The symbolic setting of the Bhagavad Gita is quite rightly a battleground. Krishna says in the Mahabharata that human beings do not have a choice between war and peace; the only choice concerns the level of the warrior’s struggle. There are subtler and subtler levels on which the battle has to be fought again and again: inside oneself, there are forces of opposition, resistance and discord as much as are the forces of aspiration seeking right order. Arjuna, and by extension each one of us, has only this choice: one can be compelled by one’s own nature, which is lawful Nature (Prakriti) following her laws in miniature, to struggle and suffer as a victim of the cosmic drama, or one can see the necessity to labour and to suffer intentionally as an instrument of Krishna’s purposes. In undertaking the struggle as yajña (sacrifice, as a way of exchange with higher levels), Arjuna assists in the maintenance and upholding of proper order (dharma).  

Gurdjieff realized that the contemporary humanity cannot respond to the traditional religious ways based on faith, hope or love. He quotes the deliberations of the Very Saintly Ashiata Sheimash, a messenger from Above, concerning the terror of the human situation:

During the period of my year of special observations on all of their [of human beings] manifestations and perceptions, I made it categorically clear to myself that although the factors for engendering in their presences the sacred being-impulses of Faith, Hope and Love are already quite degenerated in the beings of this planet [earth], nevertheless, the factor which ought to engender that being-impulse on which the whole psyche of beings of a three-brained system is in general based, and which impulse exists under the name of ObjectiveConscience, is not yet atrophied in them, but remains in their presences almost in its primordial state.

Thanks to the abnormally established conditions of external ordinary being-existence existing here, this factor has gradually penetrated and become embedded in that consciousness which is here called “subconsciousness,” in consequence of which it takes no part whatever in the functioning of their ordinary consciousness.8

Gurdjieff taught ways of awakening objective conscience –which has as much to do with a feeling perception of higher reality as with a direct insight into oneself, almost always producing a remorse of conscience, yet without loss of hope. The teaching of Gurdjieff relates to the body, feeling and intellect, and not solely to one or the other. Even though different components of the Work may at different times demand more from one or another aspect of the total human being, the overall emphasis is on the harmonization of all the parts. The Work is also called the Fourth Way, as distinct from the ways somewhat exclusively emphasizing physical discipline and asceticism, or faith and devotion, or reasoning and knowledge. All these other aspects are not ignored in the Work, but are rather integrated in a comprehensive whole. It can almost be said that the fourth way is for ‘man number four’’ who does not have a lopsided development of the mind or the emotions or the body, and in whom the various psychic centres are in some balance.9 A proper balance and equilibrium of the centres can be said to be an intermediate aim of the Work, so that what is above the centres altogether can have the possibility of embodiment for a conscious action in the world.

With this background of the Work, one questions the traditional interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita which enumerate the various yogas (ways, disciplines, practices) and almost always emphasize one or the other. The different yogas which usually get mentioned are: karma yoga of action, bhakti yoga of love, jñana yoga of gnosis, and dhyana (ch’an in Chinese and zen in Japanese) yoga of meditation. A closer examination of the text, always keeping an eye on the actual practice and not adhering exclusively to a theoretical study, reveals that the overall yoga enunciated by Krishna for the transformation of Arjuna is that of buddhi yoga.10 The various other yogas constitute limbs of buddhi yoga, as do the diverse musical instruments in an orchestra, and are called and emphasized at different times in the symphony. This yoga is based on the awakening of buddhi, the integrated intelligence and will. Buddhi is derived from the same root from which buddha is derived; the verbal root is budh, meaning to wake up, to discern. Buddhi is the faculty of higher vision, of discernment, of attention, and it is above the ordinary mind (manas) and the senses. Buddhi seems to be a composite of the higher emotional and the higher intellectual centres in Gurdjieff’s teaching, as manas is a composite of the lower mind and emotions.

In an unintegrated person, the desire-will –which arises mostly from the senses, from likes-dislikes, pleasures and fears– runs the mind. Such a mind, in its turn, dissipates the vision of buddhi into conflicting desires. If a person is integrated, there is a reversal of this uneducated natural order and the establishment of the right order. The proper internal order is a prerequisite for the maintenance of external order. External dharma is possible only after the right internal order is established, which is possible only through spiritual discipline (yoga). Yoga is any discipline or way or path for the transformation of a human being, from a state of fragmentation to a state of integration, from the monkey-mind to the Buddha mind.11

There is a persistent tendency in the spiritual traditions of India, more pronounced in the schools influenced by Vedanta, to regard the whole of the manifested creation –of individuality, time, space, energy and substance– as an unholy mistake which needs to be undone by a spiritual person. It is worth remarking that the Bhagavad Gita itself is rather unique in the Indian tradition in its emphasis on action in the here and now, on the body as a vehicle of yajña and dharma. Krishna’s teaching, just as that of Gurdjieff, is not to make us angels but to make us human –whole, complete and integrated.  

The Indian spiritual traditions have been so occupied with the oneness of all there is that the uniqueness of a person, with his specific responsibility and possibility, tends to get ignored. There is only one reality, and that is Brahman; everything else is false. Plurality may be allowed, but only at a lower level of relative truth, of ignorance. Distinctions are just not considered a mark of high enough vision, and are mere appearances. This point of view, although seemingly derived from the highest realization of the sages, is only theoretical and not connected with their actual experience. It relegates the whole realm of space-time, of particularity, uniqueness and of history to a lower level, and somehow manages to denigrate it in social practice. Unfortunately, in the hands of those who are not sages and have neither the accompanying love nor the sense of the uniqueness of everything –and such is nearly everyone, by no means excluding the theologians and philosophers– the result is quite pitiful.

One can easily get the impression from much of Indian spirituality that individuality is an illusion which a sage sheds when enlightened. Given the emphasis placed by Gurdjieff on the development of true individuality, one indivisible I, of human “beings having in their presences every possibility for becoming particles of a part of Divinity,”12 we need to look again. Whereas it is true that Krishna teaches the renunciation of egotistic self (samkalpa atma), he does not advise the abandonment of individuality (svabhava) which is the true representative in each person of Krishna himself, the Very Atma, the Real Self. According to Krishna, the integration of a person is possible only through the discovery of his individuality, his svabhava, his own essential becoming. One of the basic teachings in the Bhagavad Gita is that nobody can be really free without following his own svabhava, manifested in the corresponding svadharma and svakarma. That is to say, only those undertakings and actions which correspond to one’s innermost tendencies and one’s proper place in the cosmic scheme can lead to freedom.  

Of course, this freedom is only from a particular level of existence, and it is possible only when the demands of that level are fulfilled. Otherwise, as Krishna says, one is compelled to return again and again to one’s own deepest unsatisfied yearnings. Human incarnation is necessary, useful and sacred; it takes place for the purpose of undertaking action, which is required for the maintenance of inner and outer order. The world is real, even though in general we live in a fantasy world of our own making and not in the real world.

Apart from the selflessness (and the accompanying absence of pride) and the natural feelings of compassion and love, which are characteristic of all the sages, there is one feature which needs to be underscored, and which is rarely remarked upon.   A sage simultaneously sees the oneness of all there is and the uniqueness of everything. One cannot be unmindful of the seeming paradox implied here. However, we are speaking about the experience of the sages and not about the limitations of our ordinary minds. It is a fact of their existence and behaviour that, in relationship with others, the sages are aware that each human being is a manifestation of One Divine Energy, but that at the same time each person presents a unique potential (and corresponding particular difficulties) and a wondrously unique expression of the Vastness. Each person is related with the oneness –and ultimately all there is is Krishna or Brahman, or, as Madame de Salzmann said, everything comes from the same conscious energy– but a person is not replaceable by another as a part in a machine. The One is unique in each manifestation. Precisely because a sage knows oneself very well and has therefore become a ‘first person universal,’ everyone is seen by the sage as both one with the Source as well as uniquely oneself.

It is necessary to make one more remark in connection with the understanding of individuality. In Indian thought, and in particular in the Yoga Sutras, the first manifestation of fundamental ignorance (avidya) is said to be asmita, which is often translated as individuality. Literally what it means is I am this or I am that. This expression is deceptively close to I AM, a practice significant in the gospels 13 and sacred in the Gurdjieff Work, witness the title of the third series of Gurdjieff’s writings, viz., Life Is Real Only Then, When ‘I Am.’ Asmita is a limitation of Being by specification and restriction, and therefore leads to smallness and self-importance. I AM, on the other hand, is the practice of awareness and participation in the fullness of Being, and always leads to humility.

Madame de Salzmann often emphasized the need to watch for the subtle point of transition between making an effort, which is done by the ego, and the letting go of the ego-effort so that what is higher, and therefore unknown to the ego, and certainly not in its control, may enter and transform oneself from Above. Real and true action is from Above, and cannot be controlled from below. In the terminology of the Bhagavad Gita, a person can woo Krishna, not compel him. That is why a proper aspirant is simultaneously an active warrior and a lover –until he becomes a receptive beloved, knowing when to assert and when to surrender: beloved above and warrior below.  

 Having admonished Arjuna to carry out his proper dharma and to act like a good warrior that he is, Krishna says towards the end of the Bhagavad Gita, (18:66), that “Relinquishing all dharmas, take refuge in Me alone; I shall deliver you from all evil; be not grieved.” One may abandon all dharmas and efforts if one is completely disciplined and vigilant against distractions from below. Rightly aligned and ordered, one is a spacious vessel filled from Above. Such a one is a miniature Krishna, a microcosmic human, assisting the maintenance of the cosmos by alchemical Work.

But what is true at the mountain top is not true at the base. This teaching, “most secret (esoteric) of all secrets” (BG 18:63), “is not to be spoken by you to anyone who is without austerity, not dedicated and not obedient,” Krishna warns in the immediately following verse (18:67). One must not abandon right action, effort and dharma, out of cowardice, self-pity or laziness.

Only a warrior earns the right to be a lover, and then to be the beloved.

Ultimately, of course, it is less important to know Krishna or to love him than to be known and loved by him.

It is almost inevitable that in any tradition the words accompanying the sightings from the mountain top will sooner or later be reproduced in the textbooks of philosophy and religion, and these will be read, argued about and debated, without the accompanying practice which alone could assist in the embodiment of vision. It is in order to guard against this partialization and degeneration of vision that it is highly recommended traditionally that a seeker should work with a master who embodies the teaching, and remains in a dynamic exchange with the levels above and the levels below. A practical teacher always has a necessary reminder, as in the following pertinent remark of Madame de Salzmann: “The religious people talk about the Lord, the Seigneur. That is an energy of a very high level. They say the Lord helps me; that is true, but something is required of me. I have to prepare myself for this Seigneur to help.”14

Sentimentality and scholasticism are the two main avenues by which the vitality of any spiritual tradition is drained. This has also happened in India. Merely mental understanding of the peak vision of the sages in which Atman is said to be one with Brahman, that is the deepest self of a person is the same as the highest Absolute, has tended to make us forget the actual situation in which we are very far from the realization of this supreme identity. Unless we recognize our actual situation, and suffer the fact of our alienation from the Real, nothing can in fact change. In the crucible of that suffering, that which keeps us attached to the surface levels of ourselves may be dissolved. “Stay in front of your inadequacy,” repeatedly exhorted Madame de Salzmann; “suffer the fact that you are in pieces!”

The significant aspect of any true teaching, whether of Krishna or of Gurdjieff, is the preparation of the entire human being in order to be able to receive the energy and substance from above oneself. Quite typically in the Indian philosophical tradition, the highest resides in the deepest part of the person. The person is not limited by the physical body, nor is the boundary between the inner and the outer determined by the skin. There are subtler and subtler levels within a person and one can come to a realer self if one is willing and able to pay the requisite price — namely, that of the sacrifice of the samkalpa atma (fantasy self). One of the strongest memories I have of Madame de Salzmann is her sitting like a combination of a tiger and a hawk, compassionate in the hope she emanated and terrifying in the objective demand, asking “Are you willing to pay the price?”

Work, like yajña in the Bhagavad Gita, is the occasion, or the process or the means for an exchange of substances or energies between levels of being. An invocation of higher forces (devas, gods) or a feeding of them is yajña. The gods sustain human beings through yajña, and are in their turn nourished by human beings through yajña, in a cycle of reciprocal maintenance (BG 3:10-13). The whole universe is created as yajña and is sustained through it. We cannot live without participation in the cosmic rite, the universal yajña; and we are either instruments or victims. Through the voluntary act of sacrifice, in particular the purusha yajña, a person offers oneself in sacrifice. In this the self is the sacrificer, the ego-self is the oblation, and the Real Self is the eater of sacrifice.

In becoming food for the Self the ego becomes sacred; in sacrificing one’s selfwill, a person can be willed by the Self.  

Without a true internal integration, one is fragmented and in pieces; there is discord inside, adding to the discord outside. What is necessary, as Gurdjieff said, is to die to one’s ordinary self while still alive, that is to one’s habits and attachments. Only when the requisite price has been paid, a new birth can take place. Work is needed in order to make contact with higher levels –a living, substantial contact, not only in rational philosophy or in wishful poetry. It is appropriate to quote a fragment of a letter which Madame de Salzmann wrote to the author: “It is a moment when the ideas are not enough. There is a force, a higher one; it is in us, but can have no action as long as our state does not allow it –as long as our centres are not related. At that stage the ideas do not cooperate, one has to feel the inner inadequacy, be touched, suffer from it and give all one’s attention to this inner relation which will open the door to the higher energy.”15


  • The remarks about the Bhagavad Gita made in this paper constituted the basis of a talk given at the Société d’Etudes et de Recherches pour la Connaissance de l’Homme, in Paris, France, in June, 1981. In this connection, see R. Ravindra, “Teaching of Krishna, Master of Yoga,” American Theosophist, 72, 55-61, 1984. Also included in Yoga and the Teaching of Krishna by R. Ravindra; Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Chennai, India, 1998.
  • Born in 1889, Madame Jeanne de Salzmann inherited the mantle of responsibility for the Work in 1949 after Gurdjieff’s death, and carried out this responsibility with extraordinary intelligence and strength until she left her physical body at the age of one hundred and one in 1990.
  • For the Law of Seven, see P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, chapter 7.
  • I. Gurdjieff, All and Everything: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, Preface.
  • , p.88.
  • Ouspensky, cit., p. 220.
  • It may be useful to quote a contemporary authority on Yoga in this regard: “If you analyze what I have been saying, you will see that kundalini is nothing but what has been called avidya [ignorance]. In the same way that avidya has become so powerful that it stops purusha [spirit, the very person] from seeing, kundalini blocks prana from entering the sushumna [the central channel in the body for the flow of prana].” — T.K.V. Desikachar, Religiousness in Yoga: Lectures on Theory and Practice, edited by M.L. Skelton and J.R. Carter, University Press of America, Lanham, MD, 1980, p.244.
  • I. Gurdjieff, op. cit., p. 359.
  • For details and definitions see Ouspensky, cit., chapters 2 and 4.
  • For a detailed discussion of buddhi and of buddhi yoga, and comparable notions in the thought of Plotinus, see A.H. Armstrong and R. Ravindra: “The Dimensions of the Self: Buddhi in the Bhagavad Gita and Psyché in Plotinus;” Religious Studies, vol. 15, pp. 327-342, 1979. Also included in Yoga and the Teaching of Krishna by R. Ravindra; Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Chennai, India, 1998.
  • In this connection, see R. Ravindra: “Yoga: The Royal Path to Freedom,” in

Hindu Spirituality: Vedas through Vedanta (volume 6 of The Encyclopedic History of World Spirituality); ed. K. Sivaraman; New York, Crossroad Publishers, 1989. Also included in Yoga and the Teaching of Krishna by R. Ravindra; Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Chennai, India, 1998.

  • I. Gurdjieff, op. cit., p. 452.
  • In this connection, please see R. Ravindra, The Yoga of the Christ, Element Books, Shaftesbury, 1990, especially chapters 6 and 14. This book was published published under the title Christ the Yogi in 1998, and as The Gospel of John in the Light of Indian Mysticism in 2002 by Inner Traditions International, Rochester, Vermont, U.S.A. Also published by the Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Chennai, India, 2007.
  • This and other remarks of Madame de Salzmann in the following are taken from R. Ravindra, Heart Without Measure: Gurdjieff Work with Madame Jeanne de Salzmann; Shaila Press, Halifax, Canada, 1999. A paperback version was published by the Morning Light Press, Sandpoint, Idaho, U.S.A. in 2002.
  • Private communication; reproduced in Heart Without Measure:Gurdjieff Work with Madame Jeanne de Salzmann, op. cit.

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