Monday, September 28, 2009

Shambhala | Gobi Desert | Madame Blavatsky

While in the city of Graz, in Austria, for the 2002 Kalachakra Initiation given by the Dalai Lama I wandered down Sackstrasse and into the Graz State Museum, which now occupies the townhouse in which the ill-fated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in 1914 touched off the First World War, was born.

In concert with the Kalachakra Initiation, which attracted over 10,000 Buddhists and hangers-on of varying stripes to this staunch Catholic town in southern Austria, the museum was hosting a show entitled “Dreamland Tibet”. Featured was an extensive array of exhibits showing how Tibet has been portrayed in books both highbrow and low, movies, art, advertisements, and other media. One of first items that caught me eye was a painting on wood of the Kingdom of Shambhala as it is usually portrayed on Shambhala Thangkas.

The inclusion of a depiction of Shambhala in the show was certainly fitting, since by tradition the Kalachakra Tantra, the basis of the initiation which the Dalai Lama was giving here in Graz, had been first taught by the Buddha to Sucandra, the first of the Kings of Shambhala.

Next to the Shambhala painting was a thangka which was not at all traditional. Superimposed over Kalapa, the capital of Shambhala, and the eight provinces which surround the capital was a portrait of Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1991), founder of the Theosophical Society, proto-hippy, and Fairy Godmother of the New Age movement. As the driving force behind the India-based Theosophical Society and through her voluminous writings, including Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, she was in large part responsible for the spread of Eastern religions and philosophy into the Occident. The thangka on display here would seem to indicate that she was also connected with the introduction of the Shambhala Mythologem into the West.

Another exhibit nearby reinforced this idea. In a diorama Madame Blavatsky was shown seated in her study with a thangka of Shambhala shown prominently on the wall. From this we might gather that Madame Blavatsky was at the very least knowledgable about Shambhala and we might also infer that she played some role in spreading the legend of Shambhala and the Kalachakra Tantra. Indeed, Madame Blavatsky has somehow managed to become associated with Shambhala in the popular mind. Numerous people with whom I myself have spoken connect the Madame with Shambhala, although very few if any can offer any explanation why this is so.

This assumption extends to even to scholarly and semi-scholarly works on Shambhala and the Kalachakra. For instance, Tibetologist Glenn Mullin, in his book The Practise of Kalachakra, writes, “ . . . Madame Blavatsky, the Russian mystic who founded the Theosophical Society, widely popularized the legend throughout Europe and North America during the end of the last and the first half of this century [twentieth-century].” Since Madame Blavatsky died in 1891 it is unlikely she was promulgating the legend of Shambhala in the early twentieth-century. In any case, there is little if any evidence to suggest that even in her own lifetime she did anything to promote the legend of Shambhala. In fact, as we shall see, in the entire fifteen volumes of her collected writing she mentions Shambhala only a couple of times, and this Shambhala was quite different from the Tibetan version of Shambhala which would later be disseminated in the West.

That Madame Blavatsky believed her beloved Mahatmas, the Himalayan Masters who she claimed as her teachers, were headquartered or at least somehow connected with Shambhala is another widespread assumption. For example, Fourth Way Gurdjieffian J. G Bennett, in his Gurdjieff: Making a New World, states that “Much of the mystery of the Theosophical Masters derived from their supposed location in Tibet, although Madame Blavatsky herself asserted that their headquarters was beyond the mountains in the legendary Shamballa.”

Victoria LePage, in her Shambhala, the Fascinating Truth Behind the Myth of Shambhala, promotes a variant of the same claim:
“Fabled Shambhallah,” as she [Madame Blavatsky] calls it in her book The Secret Doctrine, was an etheric city in the Gobi Desert, the invisible headquarters of the Mahatmas, a brotherhood of great spiritual masters who had moved there long ago after the submergence of the land of Mu under the Pacific Ocean.
Peter Washington in his book Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon, a blistering exposé of “the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits who brought Spirituality to America,” a rogue’s gallery which included Blavatsky and Gurdjieff, among others (mercifully he left out the Roerichs), makes much the same claim:
According to Blavatsky's later description of the Brotherhood, this hierarchy is headed by the Lord of the World, who lives at Shamballa in the Gobi Desert. The Lord of the World came originally from Venus with several helpers and now inhabits the body of a sixteen-year-old boy. In descending order of authority, his helpers are the Buddha, the Mahachohan, Manu and Maitreya. . . .
Washington’s assertions in the Baboon book finally goaded Theosophist W. T. S. Thackara into unleashing a fiery rebuttal. Washington, Thackara thundered in the pages of the august journal Theosophical History, was guilty of numerous scholarly crimes and misdemeanors, not the least of which were:
Misinformation; misattribution; [and] evident reliance on secondary or tertiary sources . . . This misleading description is not to be found in Blavatsky's writings, but may be traced to a divergent tradition which gained prominence among some theosophists many years after Blavatsky's death in 1891. A careful scholar reasonably conversant with theosophic history and doctrine would not confuse the two.
Thakhara had reason for his ruffled feathers: Blavatsky says nowhere that the Brotherhood of the Mahatmas was headquartered in a Shambhala either in the Gobi Desert or elsewhere, nor does she say anything about the Lord of the World and his putative origins in Venus. Many of these later embellishments were accreted to the Shambhala mythologem by Madame Blavatsky’s notorious acolyte C. W. (Madame Blavatsky mischievously called him “W. C.”) Leadbeater and others of the Leadbeaterian School.

What little Blavatsky had to say about Shambhala was about what we might call, for lack of a better term, the Theosophical Shambhala, which was, and supposedly still is, located in the Gobi Desert. In her writings she was totally silent about the Tibetan legend of Shambhala, which is odd, since she was almost certainly aware of the Tibetan version of the Shambhala mythologem.

While living in India, Madam Blavatsky, an indefatigably bibliophilous pack rat and intellectual magpie, would almost certainly seen Csoma de Köros’s seminal article about Shambhala on the Asiatic Society of Bengal’s 1833 journal. She was certainly aware of Csoma de Köros. She herself wrote:
. . . a poor Hungarian, Csoma de Köros, not only without means, but a veritable beggar, set out on foot for Tibet, through unknown and dangerous countries, urged only by the love of learning and the eager wish to shed light on the historical origin of his nation. The result was that inexhaustible mines of literary treasures were discovered.
The article itself, entitled “Note on the Origins of the Kála-Chakra and Adi-Buddha Systems”, first brought the Legend of Shambhala to the attention of scholarly Europe:
The peculiar religious system entitled the Kála-Chakra is stated, generally, to have been derived from Shambhala (in Tibetan . . . “dé-jung”, signifying “origin or source of happiness”), a fabulous country in the north, the capital of which was Cálapa, a very splendid city, the residence of many illustrious kings of Shambhala, situated between 45º and 50º north latitude, beyond the Sita or Jaxartes, where the increase of the days from the vernal equinox till the summer equinox amounted to 12 Indian hours, or 4 hours, 48 minutes, European reckoning.
She may also have perused Csoma’s Essay Towards a Dictionary, Tibetan and English (1834), which contains a definition of Shambhala—“the name of a fabulous country or city in the north of Asia”—and also Tibetan renderings for Kapala, the “fortress of Shambhala” [usually defined as the capital of Shambhala] and for “a passport for visiting Shambhala.” Also included in the dictionary is a lengthy chronology of Shambhala starting with the Buddhas’s birth in 962 b.c. and including the date he supposedly taught the Kalachakra Tantra to the King of Shambhala and ending with the introduction of the Kalachakra into India in 965 a.d.

It is not clear if Madame Blavatsky actually met Sarat Chandra Das (1849-1917), the famous Indian pundit who compiled his own dictionary of the Tibetan language. She does say that he was “known personally to Indian and some European Theosophists.” Madame’s cohort and fellow pandjandrum in the Theosophical Society Henry Steel Olcott did meet personally with Das many times. (“Colonel” Olcott, it will be remembered, was a more-or-less respectable New York City lawyer until he met Madame Blavatsky, after which they both decamped to India where the Colonel affected wire-rim glasses, grew a Santa Claus beard, and started going bare-footed.) Wrote Olcott:
Sarat Babu’s Narrative of a Journey to Lhasa in 1881-82 (later published as Lhasa and Central Tibet) is one of the most interesting books of travel I have ever read. It teems with accounts of dangers faced, obstacles surmounted, life imperiled, new peoples met, plans and projects fully achieved, yet is free from bombast and vain boasting . . .
More to the point, Das wrote some of the first notices about Shambhala since Csoma’s seminal issuances, including this:
It is universally believed in Tibet that after two hundred years the Tashi Lama will retire to Shambala, the Utopian city of the Buddhists, and will not return to Tibet, and that in the mean time the whole world will succumb to the power of the Phylings (Russian and English). Neither the Emperor of China nor the combined legions of gods and demi-gods who reside round the golden mount of Rirab (Sumeru) will be able to arrest the progress of their arms or the miracles of their superior intellect.
Madame Blavatsky was in Darjeeling, where Das had taken up residence, at least part of the time Das was in Tibet, and it seems likely that she at least knew of him and his subsequent writings, including those about Shambhala. But again she did not take up the lead about Shambhala which Das had thrown out to the public.

Why Madame did not embrace the Shambhala Mythologem remains a mystery. Such a mythical construct would seem to have been ready-made for her own particular brand of mysticism, and if the Mahatmas were not, according to her, headquartered in Shambhala, well then we are tempted to say that they should have been. Seemingly such exalted personages would have been right at home in the storied Kingdom.

There remains just one more Kalachakra-Shambhala-Blavatsky thread to follow. David and Nancy Reigle, in their Blavatsky’s Secret Books, make the intriguing if not entirely convincing argument that the so-called “Stanzas of Dzyan” on which Madame Blavatsky based her own book The Secret Doctrine were in fact excerpts from the long-lost Kalachakra Mūlatantra taught to Sucandra, the first king of Shambhala, by the Buddha himself at Amaravati, in India. (The oldest extant version of the Kalachakra Tantra, the so-called Kalachakra Laghutantra, is supposedly a summary of the lost Mūlatantra composed, according to tradition, by Yashas, the eighth of the Shambhala Kings.

Somehow, the Reigles maintain, Madame Blavatsky got her paws on a copy of the legendary and long-thought-to-be-lost Kalachakra Mūlatantra. This may have happened during the seven years she claimed she lived in Tibet—an assertion dismissed by most of her biographers as a figment of her legendarily fecund imagination—or perhaps the tantra was in the treasure trove of Tibetan texts Sarat Chandra Das brought back with him from his 1881-1882 sojourn in Tibet. Colonel Olcott claims that Das showed him many of these work and added that he was “confident that when the Great Teachers of the White Lodge see the auspicious moment has arrived, these long-lost treasures will be rescued from obscurity and brought before the literary world, to enrich us with their contents.”

Neo-Theosophist K. Paul Johnson tees off on this theme: “One cannot but wonder if the Stanzas of Dzyan and the Voice of Silence [another of Blavatsky’s works] were based on ‘long-lost treasures rescued from obscurity’ by Das and ‘brought before the literary world to enrich us with their contents’” This Kalachakra Mūlatantra-Stanzas of Dzyan Connection, tantalizing as it may be, must remain conjecture, however.

So what did Madame Blavatsky have to say about Shambhala? It can be stated in a couple of paragraphs from The Secret Doctrine:
The last survivors of the fair child of the White Island (the primitive Svetadwipa) had perished ages before. Their (Lemuria's) elect, had taken shelter on the sacred Island (now the "fabled" Shamballah, in the Gobi Desert), while some of their accursed races, separating from the main stock, now lived in the jungles and underground ("cave-men"), when the golden yellow race (the Fourth) became in its turn "black with sin." From pole to pole the Earth had changed her face for the third time, and was no longer inhabited by the Sons of Sveta-dwipa, the blessed . . .
Elsewhere she says, “the ‘Island’ [the White Island mentioned above], according to belief, exists to the present hour; now, as an oasis surrounded by the dreadful wildernesses of the great Desert, the Gobi -- whose sands ‘no foot hath crossed in the memory of man.’”

Then again, in a very confusing passage, she proclaims that Mother Earth’s heart “beats under the foot of the sacred Shambalah.” (Note that she uses variant spellings of Shambhala even within her own text.)

That’s about all that the good Madame has to say about Shambhala. And as can be seen this Shambhala has nothing to do with the traditional Tibetan conception of Shambhala. So why is she to this day persistently identified with the Shambhala Mythologem? Perhaps because her acolytes, for instance Leadbeater in his books like The Masters and the Path and others, and Alice A. Bailey (1880-1949), who claimed to be channeling both Koot Hoomi, one of the Mahatmas Blavatsky claimed as a teacher, and Djwal Khool, yet another Theosophical Master, would write much more extensively on Shambhala and do much more to popularize the Shambhala Mythologem. Those who first learned about Shambhala from Neo-Theosophists like Leadbeater, Bailey, and others might naturally assume that their conception of Shambhala originated with Blavatsky, the founder and guiding light behind the Theosophical Society. This would not seem to be the case.

I will have more to say about the so-called “Theosophical Shambhala” in a later post.