In the 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 landscapes. Yet, even 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 service.
As 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 pro-ject. The name of this ambitious dreamer was Nicholas Roerich.
What 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.”
The 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). After 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.
In most 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. Theologically 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 Mongolia.
The 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) Yet few 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.
For the 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 disciples.—editor)
The final 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 which announced the Buddha of the new coming world. This 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.
To 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 which 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. In the 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.”
Roerich 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 Buddhism:
- 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.
Although 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. In 1927, 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 Roerich’s expedition.”
The 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 become special.” Otherworldly 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.”
Yet, despite 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. On 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.
After 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.
Andrei Znamenski is author of the new book Red Shambhalla: Magic, Prophecy, and Geopolitics in the Heart of Asia, Quest Books.