Roerich and Tibet: The Road to
Can Take Some Very Surprising Turns
by Andrei Znamenski
fall of 1923, a peculiar sage-looking European appeared in Darjeeling in
the northernmost part of India near the Tibetan border. A plump man with a
round face and a small Mongol-styled beard, he moved and talked like a high
dignitary. He announced that he was a painter, and, indeed, from time to time
people could see him here and there with a sketchbook, drawing local
for an eccentric painter, he acted strangely. To begin with, he argued that
he was an American, although he spoke English with a heavy Slavic accent.
He also demonstrated a deep interest in Tibetan Buddhism, particularly in
the Maitreya and Shambhala legends, which was not unusual—except that the
painter had a ceremonial Dalai Lama robe made for himself and donned it
occasionally, hinting he was the reincarnated fifth Dalai Lama, the famous
reformer in early modern Tibet. His behavior raised the eyebrows of local
authorities who passed this information along to the British intelligence
strange as it might sound, the “sage” did strike a chord with some local
Tibetan Buddhists, for several visiting lamas did in fact recognize him as
the reincarnated Dalai Lama by the moles on his cheeks. At that time, no
one except a few close relatives and disciples of the painter knew that he
had formed a grand plan, which included dislodging the sitting Dalai Lama
and installing instead the Panchen Lama, second in the Tibetan hierarchy
after the Lhasa ruler, reforming Tibetan Buddhism, and establishing in the
vast spaces of Inner Asia a new theocracy, which he planned to call the
Sacred Union of the East. On his occult map, which was tied to
Tibetan-Mongol prophecy of Shambhala, the timing was right, he declared, to
launch this exciting new project. The name of this ambitious dreamer was
so special about the Shambhala prophecy that made it so attractive for
various spiritual and political seekers in the first three decades of the
twentieth century—a time of great turmoil on the vast spaces of Eurasia?
Shambhala was a prophecy that emerged in the world of Tibetan Buddhism
between the tenth and twelth centuries CE, centered on a legend about a
pure and happy kingdom located somewhere in the north; the Tibetan word
Shambhala means “source of happiness.”
legend said that the people of this mystical land enjoyed spiritual bliss,
security, and prosperity. Having mastered special techniques, they
turned themselves into godlike beings and exercised full control over the
forces of nature. They were blessed, it was said, with long lives, never
argued, and lived in harmony as brothers and sisters. At one point, as the
story went, alien intruders would corrupt and undermine the faith of
Buddha. That was the time when Rudra Chakrin (Rudra with a Wheel), the last
king of Shambhala, would step in and, in a great battle, would crush the
forces of evil called mlecca (or people of Mecca).
this, the true faith, Tibetan Buddhism, would prevail and spread all over
the world. The image of Shambhala as the Buddhist paradise and the motif of
the final battle between good and evil (elements missing in original
Buddhism), which may have been borrowed from neighboring religious
traditions, particularly from Islam, which had violently dislodged
Buddhists from northern India in the early Middle Ages.
recent times, indigenous lamas and Western spiritual seekers muted those
“crusade” notions of the prophecy, and Shambhala became the peaceable
kingdom that could be reached through spiritual enlightenment and
perfection. Yet from olden times to the early decades of the twentieth
century, the Shambhala prophecy was frequently revived whenever the Mongols
and Tibetans had to face foreign invaders. In order to fully comprehend the
geopolitical significance of this legend, it is important to remember that
although old Tibet was ruled by the Dalai Lama (“Ocean of Wisdom” in
Tibetan), the chief religious leader and administrator, he did not enjoy
total power. The Panchen Lama (Great Scholar), abbot of the Tashilumpho
monastery, traditionally exercised control over the eastern part of the
country. Most important, people believed that one of the Panchens would be
reborn as the king of glorious Shambhala.
speaking, the Great Scholar stood even higher than Dalai Lamas. Tashilumpho
abbots were considered the reincarnation of Buddha Amitabha (one of
the five top Buddhas, in addition to Gautama), whereas Dalais were only
reincarnations of Avalokitesvara, who was only a bodhisattva and the
manifestation of Buddha Amitabha. Panchen Lamas, whom many viewed as the spiritual
leaders of Tibet, did not pay taxes and even had small armies. In modern
times, this privileged status of the Panchen Lamas became a liability,
undermining and chipping away at Tibetan unity and sovereignty, to the joy
of its close neighbors, some of whom did not miss any chance to pit the
Ocean of Wisdom against the Great Scholar. In 1923, when the thirteenth
Dalai Lama attempted to curtail the autonomy and tax-exempt status of
Tashilumpho, the conflict between the two powerful Tibetan leaders reached
its peak; and the Panchen Lama, in fear for his safety, had to escape to
flight of the Panchen Lama stirred diplomatic and spy games that involved
England, Japan, China, and Red Russia. Surprisingly, each, for its own
reasons, wanted the Panchen Lama back in Tibet. Driven by spiritual and
geopolitical dreams of his own, painter Roerich joined this game. He is
mostly known as a talented Russian émigré painter and a spiritual seeker.
(Roerich’s paintings were exhibited throughout Europe and America; his
designs for the original production of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring won
much acclaim; and his many ardent supporters included Albert Einstein, H.G.
Welles, and George Bernard Shaw. In 1929 he was nominated for the Nobel
Peace Prize. —Editor)
know that Roerich’s spiritual quest led him to form a geopolitical plan
that would have drastically changed the entire map of Inner Asia. By the
early 1920s, he and his wife Helena had delved deeply into Theosophy,
reading Helena Blavatsky’s works, frequenting occult and spiritualist
salons, and eventually pioneering Agni Yoga, a school that was an offshoot
of Theosophy. They also came to believe that the Great White Brotherhood,
the hidden masters of Shambhala, acting through their otherworldly teacher
Master Morya, chose them to speed up human spiritual evolution by
establishing a great Buddhist theocracy in the heart of Asia.
couple, the flight of the Panchen Lama from Tibet in December 1923 was an
important and occult sign of the coming new age. The painter was convinced
that he needed to act assertively by bringing the Panchen Lama to Lhasa,
repairing the situation, and making sure that the thirteenth Dalai Lama
would be the last. Roerich was convinced that all Tibetans were awaiting “the
prophecy that a new ruler from Shambhala, with numberless warriors, shall
come to vanquish and to establish righteousness in the citadel of Lhasa.”
An expedition to Inner Asia, headed by the painter and disguised as a
scientific archeological enterprise, was to accomplish this task. (The
expedition was carried out under the auspices of the United States
Department of Agriculture headed by Henry Wallace, later to serve as vice
president under Franklin Roosevelt; and Wallace was one Roerich’s closest
goal was to bring all Tibetan Buddhist people of Asia, from Siberia to the
Himalayas, together into the Sacred Union of the East with the Panchen Lama
and Roerich presiding over this future theocracy. The spiritual tool to
rally Buddhists around this plan would be the power of the Shambhala
prophecy boosted by the Maitreya legend, another potent Mongol-Tibetan
prophecy that announced the Buddha of the new coming world.
theocracy was to be guided by reformed Buddhism, cleansed from what the
painter and his wife considered “shamanic superstitions,” adjusted to the
original teachings of Buddha, and injected with the Roeriches’ Agni Yoga.
The couple envisioned this utopia as a commonwealth of people who would
live a highly spiritual life and work in cooperatives—the economic
foundation of this new state.
accomplish such an ambitious project as the unification of all Tibetan
Buddhists into a grand theocracy required a powerful sponsor. Yet, far from
being helpful, English colonial officials of India were very suspicious of
the adventurous painter and attempted to disrupt his plans that came to
light after he turned up wandering along the Indian-Tibetan border. So,
Roerich, who liked to call himself a practical idealist, decided to seek
the help of Red Russia, which was obsessed with spreading its own gospel,
Communism, to Mongolia, Tibet, and further to India, and which was fiercely
competitive with England for influence in the region.
spring of 1924, the Reds, whom the Roeriches had previously viewed as the
servants of Satan, suddenly became allies. Their otherworldly teacher Morya
had blessed this political turnaround Roerich announced: “Now business
needs to be done with the Bolsheviks.” Soon, after receiving these revelations,
Helena noted in her diary, “Now everything has changed. Lenin is with us.”
openly approached Bolshevik diplomats in Paris and offered to gather
intelligence on England in India and Tibet in exchange for logistical
assistance. Red Russia became interested and eventually invited the painter
to visit Moscow. On June 10, 1926, the Roeriches were in Moscow, where they
met Chicherin, Soviet secretary for foreign affairs, and Meer
Trilisser, head of the foreign espionage branch of the Bolshevik secret
police. Without beating around the bush, Roerich laid out for the Bolshevik
leaders his program to secure the alliance between Communism and Tibetan
Buddha’s teaching is revolutionary.
Maitreya represents the symbol of Communism.
The millions of Buddhists of Asia can be
drawn into the movement to support the idea of the commune.
The basic law of Gautama Buddha easily
penetrates the minds of the masses.
Europe will be shattered by the alliance
between Buddhism and Communism.
The Mongols, Tibetans, and Kalmyk now expect
the fulfillment of Maitreya prophecies, and they are ready to apply them to
the current evolution.
The escape of the Panchen Lama from Tibet
provides an incredible opportunity to stage a revolt in the East.
Buddhism explains the reason for the
negation of God
The Soviet government needs to act quickly,
taking into consideration cultural conditions and prophecies of Asia.
they swallowed some of the Roeriches’ bluff, the Bolshevik leaders were not
so naïve as to immerse themselves completely in such a reckless plan.
Although they did provide logistical help for the painter’s expedition to
Inner Asia, Chicherin and Trilisser made it clear that the direct
involvement of Red Russia in their Tibetan venture was out of the question.
the Soviet embassy in Mongolia provided automobiles, which allowed the
Roeriches to quickly reach the southernmost border of Mongolia. There they
switched to camels and entered western China, an area populated by warlike
tribes, infested with bandits, and contested by several Chinese warlords.
From Moscow the Bolshevik secret police sent a radiogram to a warlord
friendly to the Bolsheviks, asking him “to provide all possible help to
traveling party, which, in addition to the Roerich couple, included their
son George, three occultist friends, and twenty Buryat and Mongol armed
guards, took the form of a spiritual march. Proceeding as an American
expedition under the Stars and Stripes, the party also carried the Shambhala
banner (tanka) attached to a flagpole. En route, the Roeriches spread word
about the coming new age of spiritual bliss and prosperity. Special efforts
were made to promote rumors among local nomads about the party as
messengers of Shambhala and the new age of Maitreya. The painter constantly
reminded his travel companions to remember that now they were all walking
heroes: “All our steps are destined to become legends, which people will
compose about our journey. And who knows, they might be great legends. On
the threshold of the coming of the sixth race, all events are destined to
teacher Morya was pleased with how the legend-making was developing and
encouraged his earthly students: “The legend is growing. You need to proceed
to Tibet without hurry, sending around rumors about your Buddhist embassy.
The appearance of the embassy under the banner of Buddha is something that
has never been seen before in the history of humankind. In the name of
Maitreya Commune, you need to topple false teachings. . . . Each evening
talk about Shambhala! Shambhala prepares the coming of Maitreya…. Plan your
movement to make sure that each phrase you utter turns into a legend.
Remember, you already stand above regular human beings.”
an official permission to enter the snow kingdom, when they reached the
Tibetan border, Dalai Lama’s border guards suddenly detained them and
marooned them on a high plateau in the freezing weather for five months
without any explanation. Little did the travelers know that the formidable
wall on their way to Tibet was erected by Lt. Colonel Bailey, the English
spy stationed in Sikkim entrusted with monitoring all Bolshevik activities
in Inner Asia. The English spymaster recommended that Tibetan authorities
immediately block the movement of the “American” expedition, and Lhasa
followed this advice.
February 17, 1928, after prolonged deliberations, Lhasa officials finally
worked out a solution, forcing the party to quickly proceed straight to
Sikkim and letting Bailey deal with them. Lt. Colonel Bailey welcomed the
exhausted travelers into his residence, acting as if nothing had happened.
It took the experienced operative only a brief chat with the painter to
figure out that Roerich was not a Bolshevik but simply someone Bailey took
to be a dangerous eccentric.
parting with the hospitable Bailey, the painter suddenly announced to his
friends that he, along with Helena and George, would leave the rest and
proceed straight to the forbidden Shambhala kingdom—the Great White
Brotherhood was calling them. Exclaiming “It is nice to believe in the
fairy tale of life,” the Roeriches parted with their comrades. Although the
Shambhala war that was to bring all Tibetan Buddhists into the Sacred Union
of the East had apparently fallen through, it was not the end of the
Roeriches’ ventures. The second part of this geopolitical drama, which
unfolded in northeastern China and which involved FDR and his
Vice-President Henry Wallace, was no less exciting and intriguing. But that
is another story.
Znamenski. Reprinted with permission from Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC., Paradigm
Busters by J. Douglas Kenyon is available wherever
books or ebooks are sold or directly from the publisher at 1-800-423-7087 or www.redwheelweiser.com.