Ancient Bonds To Esoteric Doctrines: Some Forgotten Hindu-Russian Connections

Aravindan Neelakandan

Jun 24, 2020, 06:51 PM | Updated 06:51 PM IST

Woman from Belovodye (Wikimedia Commons)
Woman from Belovodye (Wikimedia Commons)
  • Evidence suggests that Indian ties with Russia go so far back in time, that today they are found in Russian folklore as much as in Russian history.
  • As the Defence Minister of India visited Russia and attended the victory parade of Russian military, commemorating the 75th anniversary of their defeat of Nazi Germany, let us also look into some of the old and esoteric ties that Russia has with Hinduism and India, which were not much talked-about even during the Soviet-India bonhomie. But, they reflect a bond that is stronger than the state machinations.

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    Russian folk traditions have preserved the memory of an old Utopia – Belovodye (also Belovodiye) : ‘the land of white waters.’

    The famous Russian painter-mystic Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) had written about the traditions of Belovodye as it was believed in Siberian Buddhist communities:

    If despite all the dangers your spirit is ready to reach this spot, the people of Belovodye will greet you, and, should they find that you are worthy, they may even permit you to remain with them. This rarely happens, however, and many people have tried to reach Belovodye.
    Nicholas Roerich, Himalayas Abode of Light, Nalanda Publications, 1947, pp.108-9

    The belief in Belovodye was not only limited to Siberian Buddhist communities. It also existed in the general Russian folk memories.

    Not just old memories, even in their futuristic Utopian imaginations, Belovodye figured as the place free of persecutions. This was such a fixation in the Russian worldview that there were even explorations and papers appeared in journals. Roerich writes:

    The Journal of the Western Siberian Geographical Society in Omsk published an article in 1916 by Belosliudov — ‘To the History of Belovodiye’ and the Journal of the Russian Geographical Society, St. Peters-berg published another article in 1903 by Korolenko entitled ‘The Journey of Ural Kossacks into the Belovodiye Kingdom.’ In these articles we are told that the old believers’ legend about Belovodiye, that earthly paradise where there are no persecutions, still exists. It is a mythical land lying somewhere in the East. Such legends arose towards the end of the 17th century, when the persecutions of the old believers began in Moscovia. These old believers made great efforts to find this fairy land, and for some time Altai came to be looked upon as Belovodiye, but gradually the legendary realm began to move in the direction of the Himalayas. The old believers also penetrated into India through Afghanistan. Beloshinov wrote down the story of such a journey told by an old man named Zyrianov who was still living in 1914, to which had been sketched by the old man himself. In a newspaper of Perm of 1899 there is the story that somewhere in the East there exists a fairy land known as Belovodiye to which an expedition of Cossacks was dispatched in 1898. Then followed a detailed description of their hardships, but one thing particularly interested them—an image of Maitreya, the future Buddha, who held His fingers in the same posture as that in the images of the old believers.
    Nicholas Roerich, ibid., pp.108-9

    In a way Belovodye is the Russian equivalent of Atlantis.

    Even though there is a lot of pseudo-scientific new-age crackpot theories surrounding Belovodye very much like Atlantis, it may be a pointer to a historic core event in the lost past.

    It is tempting to speculate if the ‘white waters’ is actually the lost river Saraswathi in the Hindu memory. After all, in the later iconography, Saraswathi wears white.

    Whatever may be the truth of Belovodye, in the history of twentieth century, in the artistic and intuitive realm of Russian psyche, this was associated with India and the associated Himalayan realms.

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    Interestingly, there is also another seemingly ancient connection.

    Russian folk tales also speak of Indrik – a lord of all the beasts (considered both as unicorn and double-horned) living above the mountains and which released the bound water.

    Russian Indrik is considered a variant of edinorog, ('rog'/'inorog' > edinorog), 'monokeros, unicorn' [James R Russell, The rime of the Book of the Dove, in 'From Daēnā to Dîn', Ed. Christine Allison et al, Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, 2009, p.180].

    This is an interesting connection because at least two Hindu scholars have suggested a connection between the Harappan Unicorn and Vedic Indra. Michel Danino in his well-researched book on the river Saraswati points out:

    ... thus Indra is ‘like a bull who sharpens [his horns] or tears his enemies apart ‘like a sharp bull’. Moreover, Indra’s weapon is the vajra or thunderbolt, which he ‘whets for sharpness, as a bull [whets his horns]’, it is a ‘sharpened’ weapon. Thunderbolt or horn, therefore has the same function - that of the aggressive, pointed divine power concentrate on a hostile point. ... If one were to create an iconography for this whole symbolism, it would be hard to think of a better one than unicorn. ... That the unicorn actually stood for Indra in the eyes of Harappans cannot be proved, but its affinity with the Vedic concepts of a mighty bull with a sharpened horn certainly calls for attention.
    Michel Danino, The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati, Penguin India, 2010

    Nepali Sanskrit scholar Gautama Vajracharya in his very insightful study on the unicorns in Vedic literature as well as Harappan iconography points out:

    Previous scholars did not give any attention to such information derived from the Mahabharata statement. As a result, they never tried to find the Rsya being mentioned in Vedic literature as a unicorn. The earliest textual reference to rsya is found in the Rigveda 8.4.10 ‘O Indra, visit us like the thirsty Rsya which comes to drink water from avapana.’
    Gautama Vajracharya, Unicorns in Ancient India and Vedic Ritual, Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies (EJVS) Vol. 17, Issue 2, 2010

    With the Russian folk etymology that ties Indrik with unicorn, the association of Indra with Harappan unicorn again gets reinforced.

    Indrik in Russian folk tradition is also an animal that enters the underworld tunneling with its horn and is also a water-borne creature that sports a single horn.

    All these are associated in Hindu Puranas in one way or another with the avatars of Vishnu.

    What has degenerated into folk traditions in Russia, are actually in their full manifest Puranic form in India.

    A recent work on Huns, their origins and their relation to Russia, points out that 'often in the works of folklore, the 'homeland' of Indik the beast is called - full of wonders of the Indus-land- India’.

    Taking merely Russian Indrik, the unicorn, and Vedic Indra, it may be tempting for an Aryan invasionist/ IE migrationist theorist to use this connection to reinforce her model. However, the strong presence of unicorn symbolism in Harappan culture with its presence and continuity in Vedic literature and rituals negate that.

    There may be a core truth again in Russian folk memory of India being the homeland of Indrik - the original epicenter of Indra worship.

    Hindu roots and bonds which have been almost subterranean in the collective Russian psyche for millennia soon started getting manifest as enlightenment of scientific renaissance loosened the grip of dogmatic and institutional religion.

    Here are presented three Russian mystic-pioneers who have a great influence in the mystic movements of the West and their well known and not-so well known relations to Hindu spiritual traditions.

    Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891)

    Helena Blavatsky was open about her Hindu-Buddhist influences, so much so that Theosophy itself was known as ‘esoteric Hinduism’ or ‘esoteric Buddhism’ in Russia. (George M Young, The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers, Oxford University Press, 2012, p.45)

    Helena Blavatsky and Olcott : Pioneers of Theosophy movement
    Helena Blavatsky and Olcott : Pioneers of Theosophy movement

    She had a profound influence in both Russian and Western circles.

    Her theosophical movement also had a tremendous impact on Indian freedom movement and social reforms.

    Unfortunately some of its historical narratives had its roots in racial stereotypes of the colonial West. This became one of the contributing factors to the Buddhist-Sinhala racism in Sri Lanka.

    Perhaps one of the most important impacts of the Theosophical movement was on none other than a young Indian studying for Barrister in England who was confused enough by missionary propaganda. His name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

    Like most of his ‘progressive’ country men, Gandhi was also convinced that Hindus should give up their old ways and become like the British. It was then that he met the Keightleys - whom he called 'theosophist brothers', (actually they were uncle and nephew).

    For Gandhiji, Theosophy disabused him of missionary propaganda against Hinduism.
    For Gandhiji, Theosophy disabused him of missionary propaganda against Hinduism.

    The theosophists introduced Gandhi to Bhagavad Gita. That was in 1889.

    Gandhiji had also met Blavatsky and Annie Besant. On 26 March 1891, Gandhi became an associate member of the Blavatsky Lodge.

    In Gandhi’s own words, reading Blavatsky’s Key to Philosophy, ‘disabused me of the notion fostered by the missionaries that Hinduism was rife with superstition’ ( An Autobiography: Story of my experiments with Truth, Navajivan Publishing House, 1959, p.60)

    Gary Lachman, biographer of Blavatsky points out the abiding influence Theosophy had on Gandhi:

    Strangely, some of Gandhi’s last words were of Theosophy. On January 30 1948, the day he was assassinated, Gandhi’s journal Harijan published some of his reflections on Theosophy and on what he saw as its overemphasis on the occult. He had come to the conclusion, however, that ‘Theosophy is Hinduism in theory, and Hinduism is Theosophy in practice.’ It was through Theosophy, too that Gandhi was introduced to the work of Leo Tolstoy, which influenced him almost as greatly as the Gita.
    Gary Lachman, Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality, Penguin, 2012

    George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1866/77 – 1949)

    Among the esoteric circles of the West, perhaps he was the most famous, next only to Blavatsky.

    Gurdjieff , Eccentric Shaman from Russia
    Gurdjieff , Eccentric Shaman from Russia

    G.I. Gurdjieff was an eccentric, even somewhat diabolical personality – at least on the surface. A mesmerizing teacher of occult sciences, he became a cult figure in the West. Quite a few also consider him a charlatan and not without a little justification. Yet, he was an extraordinary thinker and a quite an eccentric,even for the Western mystic new-age variety.

    Little known is the fact that he referred himself as a ‘Hindu’ in his very first public announcement in a Moscow newspaper in 1914 regarding the performance of “an Indian mystery play”.

    Gurdjieff scholar Ravi Ravindra points out that though the particular instance may in itself be anything not more than 'a useful role-playing', there was no doubt that Gurdjieff was very much knowledgeable about Indian traditions.

    He was particularly critical of Kundalini because he equated the serpent power as a force that keeps the humans hypnotised in their present state.

    This stance of Gurdjieff is also found in certain Indic traditions which consider Kundalini as an obstacle to the path of spiritual liberation. (Gurdjieff work and the teaching of Krishna, in 'Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teachings', (Ed. Jacob Needleman & George Baker), Bloomsbury, 1998, p.144)

    Despite his rejection of Kundalini which was then the popular face of Hindu esoteric knowledge in the West, he employed explicitly Hindu techniques.

    For example, Gurdjieff gave his pupils various breathing exercises, combined with mantras. His exercises for the disciples included sitting with knees bent, hands pressed together and then reciting 'Om' ten times to special measure of breathing, and then progressively repeating, reducing the chanting one by one till one. (Whitall Perry, Gurdjieff in the Light of Tradition, Sophia Perennis, 2005,p.54)

    Gurdjieff scholar, Johanna J.M. Petsche points out another Hindu element in Gurdjieff's teachings:

    It is noteworthy that Gurdjieff’s system of centers in the body and his teachings on the transformation of matter within the body are reminiscent of Indian tantric tradition, with Gurdjieff’s centers reflecting the tantric system of c(h)akras. Indian tantric practices aim to cultivate internal alchemical processes in the subtle, or vajra, body, made up of channels (nadi) through which substances flow and are directed by the practitioner, and centers where these channels intersect (c(h)akras). These practices appeared in a more or less complete form in Buddhist and Saiva texts in the ninth and tenth centuries, and can involve deity and mandala visualizations, and yogic practices with a marked sexual component.
    Johanna J.M. Petsche, ‘Gurdjieff on Sex: Subtle Bodies, Si 12, and Sex Life of a Sage’, in (‘Sexuality and New Religious Movements’, Ed. Henrik Bogdan, James R. Lewis), Palgrave Macmillan,2014, p.134

    In trying to adapt the therapeutic technologies of the East in the context of the West, Gurdjieff might have erred and could have added his own eccentricities. But most probably he was also aware of the presence of ancient Indian influence in the Central Asian shamanic traditions of healing.

    Gurdjieff refers to the religious exercises of the Matchna monks in the eastern Gobi desert. These monks had connections with Yesevis whose religious rites where Shamanic and had influences of Tibetan tantric Buddhism. (Whitall Perry, 2005, p.8)

    During the Soviet rule, these Shamans were persecuted in a violent way. Yet, these shamanic traditions could not only be not stamped out but would make a come back.

    Pyotr Demianovich Ouspensky (1878-1947)

    Unlike Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky never became much of a cult figure though he was an avid system builder, more systematic and deeper than Gurdjieff in a way.

    A mathematician, philosopher, and mystic, Ouspensky was influenced by Swami Vivekananda early on.

    Ouspensky: Tried Systematizing Esoteric knowledge
    Ouspensky: Tried Systematizing Esoteric knowledge

    Pianist Anna Butkovsky was an intimate associate of Ouspensky during his Russian days.

    The list of topics Anna and Ouspensky discussed clearly shows the popularity and attraction Hindu concepts had for the Russian seekers, ‘fourth dimension, Wagner, the Holy Grail, Vivekananda, alchemy, yoga, Nietzsche, magic, samadhi and the rest’.

    Later, Anna saw and picked from his books, among others, a volume on yoga by Vivekananda.

    Ouspensky told her that if Vivekananda's books were translated into Russian they would certainly sell. Anna got in touch with a publisher, one Alexei Souvorin and 'his editions of Vivekananda's works, with their bright purple covers and yellow lettering, became very popular'. (Gary Lachman, In Search of P. D. Ouspensky: The Genius in the Shadow of Gurdjieff, Quest books, 2014, pp.70-71)

    Though Ouspensky was disillusioned on his visit to India because to enter any school he had to completely give up his ‘past’ (so he alleged), nevertheless the study of Yoga systematised by Vivekananda provided him a framework to understand his own spiritual culture.

    In his book, A new model of the Universe, Ouspensky had a chapter ‘What is Yoga?’, in which he used the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda framework to study the prayer techniques in not only in Catholic and Russian Orthodox Christianity but also in Sufi and Buddhist practices:

    In Catholicism everything that had any life in it was probably killed in the times of the Inquisition, and Catholic works on religious practice, such as the well-known book of Ignatius Loyola, are nothing but manuals for creating hallucinations of a definite and stereotyped character, Jesus on the Cross, the Virgin Mary with the Infant, Saints, Martyrs, “ Hell “, “ Heaven “, and so on. .... The most interesting works on religious practice are to be found in the literature of the Eastern Orthodox Church. ... (The) book is called ‘The Sincere Narrations of a Pilgrim to his Spiritual Father. It is by an unknown author ...a quite independent treatise on religious practice very near to Bhakti-Yoga. An acquaintance with this small book gives an exact idea of the character and the spirit of Bhakti-Yoga.... Bhakti-Yoga can be applied to every religion (of course to a real religion, not to an invented one); this means that Bhakti-Yoga includes all religions and recognises no difference between them…. As well as in Orthodox monasteries the ideas of Bhakti-Yoga occupy a very important place in Mahomedan monasteries of Sufis and Dervishes and also in Buddhist monasteries, especially in Ceylon where Buddhism has been preserved in its purest form.
    Piotr Ouspensky, A New Model of the Universe, Dover Publications,1931:1997,pp.263-7

    Nevertheless, Ouspensky was not completely satisfied with Indian systems. He even finds the later development of the Sri Ramakrishna movement wanting from the point of view of his own quest.

    His visit to India ended with disillusion mainly because he could not get anything new apart from what he had already read. (Gary Lachman, 2014, p 77.)

    Perhaps he was more influenced by colonial perceptions. In this way, he could be excused given the fact that even Joseph Campbell in the post-colonial period could not escape colonial, prejudiced evaluation in experiencing India during his visit.

    Ouspensky belonged to the decades when colonialism was ripe.

    Perhaps the only person who could go somewhat beyond such colonial obstacles and taste true India was Roerich. Yet, for Ouspensky, in his own journey, Indic traditions and knowledge played a crucial role and whatever later system he developed, carried the stamp of Indic influence.

    Also see:

    • A Soviet U-Turn on Yoga : here

    • What Russian Writers Learnt from India: here

    • How India influenced flowering of Russian Art: here

    Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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