Feb 20, 2014

Theosophy and Culture: Nicholas Roerich

Anita Stasulane

Interreligious and Intercultural Investigations Series, Volume 8, 2005. Gregorian Research Centre on Cultures and Religions. (Editrice Pontificia Universita Gregoriana, Piazza della Pilotta, 35 – 00187, Roma, Italia. Email: editricepugpib-gi@biblico.it.) ISBN 88-7839-035-6 (trade paperback) $25.00. 336 pages.

Reviewed by Joseph P. Szimhart

If you look at an American one-dollar bill, you will find a pyramid with an “eye” on top. The Great Pyramid is often associated with Freemasonry, and many of the American founding fathers were Freemasons. The symbol comes from the Great Seal of the United States designed in 1782 by Charles Thompson. In 1934 the Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace convinced Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau to place it on the dollar. It appeared in 1935. Morgenthau did not know at the time that Wallace made the suggestion at the behest of his guru Nicholas Roerich. To Roerich, the eye represented the gaze of mahatmas, or super-evolved beings that guide the affairs and spiritual evolution of humanity. Roerich (d 1947) and his wife Helena (d 1955) followed the Theosophy teachings of the colorful 19th century occultist, Helena P. Blavatsky (1831–1891). By 1925, the Roerichs had established a new theosophical group called Agni Yoga in New York and London, and later in Latvia, Russia, and India. Like Blavatsky, the Roerichs believed that mahatmas had chosen them as messengers to an elite core of mankind.

Roerich died the year I was born, so by the time I encountered his art and Agni Yoga teachings in 1975, his legacy had faded considerably in America. For example, as late as the mid-1980s, Agni Yoga did not make it into an impressive list of new religious movements established by the Institute for the Study of American Religion. Roerich’s greatest achievement in America was, through President Franklin Roosevelt, to have 21 nations in the Pan-American Union sign the Peace Pact, also known as the Roerich Pact, in 1935. The Pact was intended to preserve cultural creativity in hospitals, museums, and significant religious sites in time of war. For his effort, Roerich was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize; he did not win.

In a way, Roerich, who was an accomplished artist, and his wife Helena, who “transmitted” the Agni Yoga spiritual teachings, were my favored gurus from 1975 to 1982. I mention this because I gained an intimate insight into their work, history, and devotees. I met with the last two directors (both gracious individuals) of the Roerich Museum in New York many times. I also had occasion to study several offshoot groups that used the Agni Yoga teachings in their core doctrine. The largest of these was the Church Universal and Triumphant cult that used Roerich art images and teaching without permission from the Agni Yoga Society. The second largest of these groups in America was the Aquarian Educational Group founded by Torkum Saraydarian.

All this brings me to Theosophy and Culture: Nicholas Roerich, published last year by a Roman Catholic press associated with the Vatican. Why, I asked, would the Catholic Church bother to publish an extensive study on a new religious group rarely even mentioned by religious scholars in America? My answer came when I discovered through Internet resources that the author had written this study initially in 1997 as a student dissertation (under the direction of Dr. Michael Fuss) to address the phenomenal growth of the “Rerikh societies and groups” throughout the Russian Federation since the late 1980s. According to the author Anita Stasulane, a religious scholar from Latvia, the Roerich teachings have “captivated the minds of millions” in the former Soviet Union.

Anita Stasulane has done a remarkably even-handed job delineating essential aspects of the Roerich approach to theosophy and culture at large. I can hardly imagine how someone not familiar with Helena Blavatsky might appreciate this study, but it contains just enough essential information to give most readers a good grounding to understand Roerich in context. The text is heavily footnoted with a majority of Russian-language references. Some of the text is in French, especially when it quotes René Guénon, an esoteric scholar who was critical of Blavatsky’s writings and claims. In that regard, the study would better suit the religious scholar or a student familiar with languages than the average American reader.

Stasulane points out that the “Rerikh” groups “differ enormously throughout the world but they fulfill the longing in atheist Soviet society for something that is simultaneously highly intellectual, scientific and mystical.” [i] Prior to the Bolshevik takeover, Russian seekers were already imbued with what later became the New Age explosion of beliefs in America in the decades after 1960. That explosion includes astrology, Theosophy, occultism, vegetarianism, Buddhism, Indian religions and yoga, and messianic expectations. It is no surprise, therefore, that a significant portion of post-Soviet seeker society has embraced the culture’s native mystics in Blavatsky and the Roerichs. It is important to remember that Agni Yoga per se, as offered by the Agni Yoga Society, has sustained a rather benign history for the past half century. Stasulane states:

Totalitarian sects pass away like illnesses, but the Rerikh movement is alive and well all over Russia, even after accusations in the press that the Rerikhs collaborated with the NKVD [communist secret police], and even after the Russian Orthodox Church has anathematized it.[ii]

The author quotes extensively from primary source texts of Agni Yoga and the two volumes of published Letters of Helena Roerich to define for the reader exactly what the Roerichs teach and believe. Stasulane demonstrates that the Roerichs teach that the great religions, including Christianity and Indian religions, have distorted the pure teachings of their founding prophets. With Agni Yoga, or the “Teaching,” the Roerichs viewed themselves as emissaries of the master Morya and other mahatmas who will draw enlightened seekers toward the one Truth or Ancient Wisdom. Despite the Roerichs claims to “the highest” spirituality, Stasulane shows that the Russian couple defines or reduces religion, whether Buddhist or any other, to a version of “Blavatskaya’s” theosophy. The latter’s genius was to apply a spiritual form of evolutionary theory to human destiny supported by stringing together a myriad of 19th century occult teachings. The result in both Theosophy and Agni Yoga, as the author demonstrates, is a highly suggestive, vague notion that we are destined to return to the impersonal Source of being after efforts in many incarnations. The real, unvarnished Truth is thus hidden, or occulted, from the uninitiated or ignorant.

With the richness of thought and lofty efforts of the Roerich agenda for humanity, Stasulane’s study should impress any reader. She shows that, among theosophists, Nicholas Roerich stands out mightily as a particularly accomplished artist and teacher. In the end, she writes that Roerich in 1926 visited and approached the Kremlin with his blessings for the communist regime. The author does not mention this, but Roerich did praise Lenin at the time as a “mahatma” on the order of his Morya. In the author’s opinion, Roerich believed that Theosophy, as a “theosophocracy,” would be the proper route for the people in a “New Russia.”

[i] Religion, State and Society, Vol. 28, No. 1/2000, 134-148 (www.vatican.va).

[ii] Ibid.