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A hidden holy place in Buddhist mythology

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 A hidden holy place in Buddhist mythology, associated with a future Messiah.

The name means “quietude.” Shambhala figures in the Lamaistic Buddhism of Tibet and Mongolia as a venue of spiritual initiation. It is the source or principal source of a system of esoteric lore called Kalachakra, the Wheel of Time, which lays a stress unusual in Buddhism on astronomy and astrology. While Kalachakra is still taught by a surviving Lamaistic school, its reputed place of origin is elusive. Shambhala has been tracked to the north, and the same direction is implied in Tibetan legend. The most detailed account makes it a paradisal valley concealed among mountains, accessible only through a cave or narrow gorge. It may not be “there” in quite the ordinary sense! Lamas connect it with the aurora borealis and say that would-be seekers can only find it if they are summoned by its resident sages. It has a king, who lives in a tower or citadel. One of the royal line received a visit from Buddha himself and wrote down some of his teachings, which were embodied in Kalachakra; this king was an incarnation of Manjushri, the god of divine wisdom.

A Jesuit missionary, Father Stephen Casella, who died in Tibet in 1650, was told about Shambhala. It was known also to Csoma de Körös, a nineteenth-century Hungarian orientalist. Neither, however, discovered where it was. James Hilton may have had it in mind when he invented Shangri-La, but if so, his novel Lost Horizon reflects a theory locating it in the Himalayas, which is a modern fancy incompatible with genuine legend. To the slight extent that real geographic clues have ever emerged, they point toward the Altai range extending from Mongolia into Siberia.

Despite the name’s peaceful connotations, lamas have prophesied a future War of Shambhala in which good forces will conquer evil and bring in a golden age. The messianic figure who will then step forth from the holy place is conceived in different ways. He may be a king of Shambhala called Rigden Jye-po. He may be Gesar, a Mongolian legendary hero. He may be Maitreya, the next Buddha, or a forerunner. There seems to be a remote connection with Hindu beliefs about a future world regeneration by a forthcoming avatar of Vishnu.

During the late nineteenth century, Shambhala began attracting the notice of Western esotericists and inspiring fantastic theories. Madame Blavatsky “HPB,” the founder of Theosophy, mentions it in her writings and spells it with variations such as “Shambalah” and “Shamballah.” She makes one assertion that has left an enduring and misleading mark—that Shambhala is in the Gobi Desert. Long ago, the desert was a vast lake, and Shambhala was an island. It became a haven for a select remnant of “Lemurians” whose homeland sank in the Pacific. It still exists in some sense, though perceptible only to occult vision. Annie Besant, who became Theosophy’s chief leader and ideologue, claimed to have made astral visits to “Shamballa” and had consultations with its ruler, whom she called the King of the World. The king, she explained, was the head of an invisible hierarchy of great beings who met in Shamballa every seven years and guided humanity. In 1913, the king reassured her on the political issue that interested her most: India, he predicted, would become a self-governing member of the British Empire, like Canada or Australia.

Alice Bailey, a latecomer to Theosophy who broke away and started her own esoteric movement, echoes Annie Besant, with elaborations. “Shamballa” was founded by superior beings who came from Venus 18 million years ago. It is built of “etheric physical matter” and, as Theosophists say correctly, is the earthly home of the great spiritual Hierarchy. Bailey gives it several locations, but the Blavatsky-Besant Gobi Desert is the favorite. When the desert was a lake, the island was linked by a bridge with a city of colonists from Atlantis on the south shore. Shamballa is still invisibly present on the site of the island, a sacred city with seven gates ruled by the “Lord of the World.” The Hierarchy confers there in an annual gathering called the Wesak Festival. Buddha is involved in all this, and so is Christ, who is the same person as Maitreya. Alice Bailey predicted his Second Coming before the end of the twentieth century.

Nearly all of this is Theosophical fancy evolved from a few bits of Lamaistic legend. The Gobi location is often referred to as if it were traditional, but it seems to be a product of HPB’s imagination. There is somewhat more authenticity in stories of Shambhala having a sort of downward extension, a subterranean region known as Agharti or Agarttha, the “inaccessible.” This, it seems, has a large population and spreads a long way underground. The ruler of Shambhala rules over Agharti also. Lamas who spoke of him to travelers early in the twentieth century described him as the King of the World—there, perhaps, is the source of the phrase as used by Theosophists. He and his council have telepathic influence over persons in power outside and are secretly manipulating events: this much Annie Besant got right, after a fashion. Rene Guénon, discussing Agharti in Le Roi du Monde, tries to relate it to other sacred centers such as Delphi, but his interpretations are mainly a product of European comparative mythology; at least, their pretensions to being more than that are not very substantial.

The Shambhala-Agharti mythos became influential for a while after World War I and the revolution in Russia. It was picked up by Baron Roman Ungern-Sternberg, a Cossack army leader and anti-Communist fanatic. He journeyed eastward with a notion of organizing a Greater Mongolian state as a bulwark against bolshevism. In 1919, he attached himself to Grigorii Semenov, an adventurer who had seized control of part of Siberia and who welcomed his alliance in the hope of extending his own influence into Mongolia.

Ungern-Sternberg told Mongols that he was a reincarnation of Genghis Khan and would revive their past glories. He also pretended to have an understanding with the King of the World in Agharti. Those who knew him best regarded him as a megalomaniac, almost literally insane. His career was brief—he was killed in 1921 in one of the last flickers of anti-Soviet military action. Yet he had an impact. At Urga in Mongolia, he met Ferdinand Ossendowski, a doctor who had escaped from Siberia. Ossendowski was struck by his ideas and collected lore of Agharti and the King of the World, which he put in a book entitled Beasts, Men and Gods, introducing these topics to the Western public. He included related speculations about an imminent Asian upsurge, heard from the monk in charge of a temple at Narabanchi. According to this monk, the King of the World made a foray from his retreat in 1890 and visited the temple, where he uttered a long prophecy covering “the coming half century”'#8212;actually, much more than that.

As recorded by Ossendowski, the prophecy runs through a succession of horrors more or less fitting World War I, though not closely enough to be impressive. It refers to the Crescent growing dim, a possible allusion to the decline of Turkey; to the fall of kings (as happened in Germany, Austria, and Russia); to roads covered with wandering crowds—refugees, perhaps. But the fairly good predictions are almost swamped by long, vague outpourings about slaughter and earthquakes and fires and depopulation.

After these, the last part of the prophecy is more interesting, not as a forecast but as a just-possible influence in a surprising quarter. Its assessment requires a glance at the context of the early 1920s. Thanks partly to Ungern-Sternberg, the hope of a Shambhalic Messiah grew more specific and even political. The Panchen Lama, at the great monastery of Shigatse, claimed that a predecessor had received a message from the King of the World, written on golden tablets. Expelled in 1923 through a dispute with the more powerful Dalai Lama, he traveled north in the direction of Mongolia, founding colleges allegedly in touch with Shambhala. Mongols began to speak of the War of Shambhala as getting close and to favor the identification of the promised Messiah as Gesar Khan, a hero of their own epic tradition who was destined to return like King Arthur. He would form an Asian alliance against the white races.

Alexandra David-Neel, a student of Lamaism who translated the Gesar epic, saw a shrine with an image of the hero, before which a woman prayed for a son who could fight for him. She was assured several times that he was already in the world and would be manifested in fifteen years. According to her own account, the bard who dictated the epic to her gave her a flower that was a present from Gesar himself—a blue flower of a species that bloomed in July, though it was winter at the time. Another Western inquirer was the distinguished Russian artist and anthropologist Nicholas Roerich, remembered especially as Stravinsky’s collaborator in devising rituals for his ballet The Rite of Spring. Hearing of the ferment in Central Asia, Roerich led an expedition that set off in 1923 and assembled many reports and rumors. He respected some of these as predictive but hoped for a new dawn of enlightenment rather than an outbreak of militancy. As a Shambhalic Messiah he preferred the pacific Maitreya to the martial Gesar.

Communist progress in Mongolia dampened down the excitement. However, Japanese imperialists tried to woo non-Communist Mongols by applying the Shambhala-Agharti mythos to themselves. It has been claimed—though only as part of a dubious “secret history”—that the mythos became a factor in Nazism. The story focuses on Karl Haushofer, a racial mystic who was the principal mentor of Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess. During the 1920s, Haushofer allegedly fed information about Shambhala and Agharti to leading Nazis, separating the two places, relocating both in Tibet, and asserting that their occupants possessed occult wisdom and psychic powers that could be used against enemies. On his advice, German expeditions went to Tibet and brought back a large number of Tibetans supposed to have secret knowledge or clairvoyant gifts. Some of them fought in the German army and were found dead in Berlin when the city fell.

Hardly any of this is well attested, though prominent Nazis such as Himmler held bizarre beliefs, and at least one expedition did go to Tibet, but to study Tibetans in the interests of racial pseudo science. Notions about subterranean peoples, derived from fantasy literature, figured in German fringe thinking, but do not seem to have been associated with Agharti. A serious possibility does exist—that Ossendowski’s book, sketching the proposals of Ungern-Sternberg, was seen as offering a hint for disrupting Russia from the rear. If the Hitler elite became aware of it, the last part of the prophecy of the King of the World could certainly have been taken as relevant. Looking ahead from 1890 to the aftermath of World War I, the king speaks of the action he will take by his own mysterious power. “I shall send a people, now unknown, which shall tear out the weeds of madness and vice with a strong hand and will lead those who still remain faithful to the spirit of man in the fight against Evil. They will found a new life on the earth purified by the death of nations.”

Hitler might have seen himself and his movement in this passage. Purification of the earth “by the death of nations” could apply to the extermination of Jews and other condemned breeds: the word genocide was coined to define this aspect of the Führer’s policy when in power. The King concludes: “In the fiftieth year only three great kingdoms will appear, which shall exist happily for seventy-one years. Afterwards there will be eighteen years of war and destruction. Then the peoples of Agharti will come up from their subterranean caves to the surface of the earth.”

This carries the story as far as 2029. Here, it is only the first of the time periods that is interesting. The fiftieth year from the prophetic pronouncement was 1940. In that year, Germany, Italy, and Japan, “three great kingdoms,” formed the Tripartite Alliance that was intended to dominate the world. The subsequent attacks on Russia and the United States were acts of apparent lunacy, yet it could be that delusions about the king’s foreknowledge and guidance of events played a part in the overriding of sanity.

There is a strange sequel. While Communist rule in Mongolia almost broke Buddhism as an organized religion, lamas were allowed to survive as individual scholars. Some of them still expounded Kalachakra and still connected it with Shambhala. In 1970, they acquired an English initiate, Stephen Jenkins, who held a teaching post in their country. He heard a tradition that toward the end of Buddha’s life, a European came to him to learn the wisdom of Shambhala, and this man, the lamas believed, was a Celt. Possibly, he went back, taking what he had learned with him; at any rate, during the last centuries b.c., Shambhala was visibly manifested in Britain. Jenkins wrote that he was “considerably taken aback” to hear this, as well he might be. Can it be given any kind of rational meaning? Some tenuous evidence exists for an Asian influence on the Druids. But it is hard to see what these lamas meant and why their speculations should have fastened on Britain.

Further Reading

Ashe, Geoffrey. Avalonian Quest. London: Methuen, 1982.

———. Dawn behind the Dawn. New York: Henry Holt, 1992.

Ossendowski, Ferdinand. Beasts, Men and Gods. London: Edward Arnold, 1922.

Roerich, Nicholas. Altai-Himalaya. London: Jarrolds, 1930.