Nicholas Roerich

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Nicholas Roerich or Nikolai Konstantinovitch Rerikh (Николай Константинович Рерих) was a Russian painter, traveler, and esoteric writer (1874-1947) who lived in New York City, and later in India's Kulu Valley. He and his wife Helena Roerich (Elena Ivanova Rerikh, 1879-1955) have become influential figures among Russian New Age spiritual seekers.

His life and work

As a painter, Roerich is usually grouped with the Russian Symbolists. His best-known paintings (generally tempera on canvas or cardboard) feature old Russian churches, Himalayan landscapes, or religious scenes representing various Eastern religions. He also painted the interiors of several churches, as well as the backdrops for a number of operas, including the premier of Stravinsky's Sacre du printemps. Museums of his artwork exist in New York City, Moscow, and Naggar (Himanchal Pradesh, India), among other places.

The Roerichs joined the Theosophical Society in 1920, Nikolai having been exposed to Buddhism through working on a Tibeto-Mongolian temple in Saint Petersburg. As a worldwide schism developed among Theosophists over the claims of Annie Besant and the young Krishnamurti, the Roerichs began receiving their own revelations from the Master "M" (for "Morya") of Theosophical lore. "M" is said to represent a certain Brotherhood of Adepts headquartered in the Himalayas, whose members assist with the process of spiritual evolution.

"M's" revelations (in Russian) became the series of seventeen Agni Yoga books, also known as the Teaching of Living Ethics (Zhivaya etika, Живая этика). These stress the perception and development of unseen spiritual potencies. Later volumes claimed a cosmic significance for Helena (called the "Mother of Agni Yoga") as world savioress.

Between 1924 and 1928 Roerich led a U.S.-flagged expedition through various regions of Central Asia including Chinese Turkestan, Siberia, Mongolia, and Tibet. The journey is described in his travelogue Altai-Himalaya (which incidentally reports an early UFO sighting, over Eastern Tibet in 1926). Also relevant is his essay Shambhala, describing a paradisial Buddhist kingdom which only the elect may find.

During a secret side-visit to Moscow, Roerich (ostensibly acting on the instructions of his Masters) approached the Soviet authorities with a proposal to establish a new Central Asian Buddhist state, in hopes of fulfilling prophecies related to Shambhala. His proposal was received coldly (as was the Masters' endorsement of V.I. Lenin as a Mahatma, equal to Jesus or Buddha), and the Roerichs soon felt it adviseable to flee Moscow.

During the 1930's Roerich visited Manchuria at the behest of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace (later U.S. vice president, and a presidential candidate), to whom he reportedly suggested adding the Great Seal of the United States (the eye-in-pyramid symbol) to the obverse of U.S. currency. Exposure of Wallace's "guru letters" to Roerich (so named for their customary salutation, "Dear Guru...") helped to derail Wallace's political career.

Roerich was also instrumental in promoting the 1935 "Roerich Pact" among 21 American nations, which established the "Banner of Peace" symbol--three red dots surrounded by a red circle, on a white flag--as a protection for cultural sites such as museums and libraries, on analogy with the Red Cross. (I.e., the signatories undertook not to bomb sites displaying the symbol.) The symbol is now used primarily by Roerich groups.

The Roerichs had two sons: George Roerich (Yuri Nikolaivitch Rerikh), a Tibetologist (1902-1960); and Svetolslav Roerich, an artist (1904-1993).

Doctrinal differences with Orthodox Christianity

The theology of the Roerich movement is basically similar to that of the Theosophical Society (founded 1875), which presents itself as a set of doctrines revealed to Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and others, from the aforementioned Brotherhood of Adepts. These describe the spiritual evolution of the universe and humanity, in symbolic language drawn from Eastern religions as well as Western esoteric lore. Not only were the Roerichs sometime members of the Theosophical Society, but the Agni Yoga books specifically endorse Mme. Blavatsky's writings, one of which (The Secret Doctrine) was translated into Russian by Helena Roerich.

One key difference is that of spiritual authority. Orthodoxy acknowledges a Tradition which includes the Bible along with the writings of the Church Fathers and other saints, and which continues to be available through the Church. While the Agni Yoga writings do express admiration for certain aspects of Orthodoxy (the Philokalia, Saint Sergius), these are found separated from the framework of the Church, and incorporated alongside various Eastern religious beliefs into a new superstructure. According to Agni Yoga, the Russian Church is largely corrupt, and no longer offers spiritual solace.

Based on these divergent sources of authority, Agni Yoga and Orthodox Christianity propose radically different theologies. To begin with, Agni Yoga (like Theosophy) affirms the truth of reincarnation, and proposes this to have "originally" (before Origen) been taught by the Church. And where Orthodoxy affirms the centrality and uniqueness of Jesus Christ, Agni Yoga (like Theosophy before it) views Jesus merely as one member of the hierarchy of Masters or Mahatmas. Like Buddha, his putative colleague, Jesus evolved over the course of many lifetimes in order to reach his present station, which we too may ultimately attain. This viewpoint is also reflected in Nikolai's paintings, which exalt numerous Asian religious figures as well as Christ.

The central emblem of the Roerich Banner of Peace--three dots within a circle--recalls a similar design used in Byzantine icons before saints' names (presumably as a symbol of the Trinity). Similar designs are also found in Central Asia, where they probably carry a Buddhist meaning. To Roerich, this made the emblem especially appropriate, since he perceived it to represent a "core of truth" at the heart of various religious traditions. However, that the Buddhist "trinity" (probably the Trikaya, the "Three Bodies" of the Buddha) is a fundamentally different concept than the Christian Trinity is widely recognized. Their use of a common symbol appears to be mere coincidence, and much the same could be said of various other perceived commonalities (other than, for example, universal moral insights).

The relationship of Christianity to non-Christian religions other than Judaism is a thorny question. That non-Christian writings may reflect spiritual truth is affirmed by the Church's tradition of venerating pagan figures such as Plato, whose image is depicted on the walls of several Athonite monasteries. At least two Orthodox writers have produced sympathetic commentaries on the Tao Te Ching, on the principle that its author must have glimpsed something of divine truth. On the other hand, the Orthodox presumption is that these prefigure, anticipate, or are completed by the Gospel. The suggestion that the Gospel is incomplete, or equal in merit to the scriptures of other religions and philosophies, would be generally rejected in Orthodox circles.

Relations with the Orthodox Church

Roerich's followers--called Rerikhovtsi ("Roerich-ites") in Russian--are a major component of Russia's New Age subculture, in which the Agni Yoga writings are quite influential. In some ways, the history of the Roerich groups parallels the modern history of the Russian Church. Both were suppressed or strictly controlled during the Communist period, and were active producers of samizdat literature. Both divided into rival groups, whose relations with one another are similarly fractious. Both saw their fortunes reverse during Perestroika (Raisa Gorbachev is said to have been an Agni Yoga supporter), and now wrestle with the problem of Soviet-era state expropriation of property (church buildings, Roerich paintings).

The post-Soviet rise of the Russian Church to political power has caused a rupture with various sects and dissident religious groups, with which it formerly enjoyed better relations. Specifically, the Church has pushed for laws restricting the activities of various religious groups which it views as competitors, most notably the Roman Catholic Church but also including Russian esoteric groups. Much the same viewpoint also informs the opinion of many ordinary Russians, who have been known to harass Roerich followers out of religious zeal. According to Orthodox theology, "the Church" can do no wrong--therefore such actions (assuming them to be misguided) are not the work of the Church, even if led or urged on by local Orthodox clergy (as often seems to be the case).

Throughout their lives, the Roerichs maintained a loose relationship with the Orthodox Church, similar to the situation of many other White Russian exiles. For example, both their sons received Orthodox baptism. Helena and Nicholas were finally excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church in the year 2000, a half-century after their deaths. While the move raises thorny jurisdictional issues--the Roerichs ended their days not in Russia but in India, whose territory falls under the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch)--the factual correctness of the Orthodox complaint (i.e., that the Roerichs promoted what amounts to a different religion than Orthodoxy) seems well-established. The Church's proximate motivation appears to have been its irritation with Roerich groups.


  • Archer, Kenneth. Roerich East and West.England: Parkstone Press, 1999.
  • Decter, Jacqueline. Messenger of Beauty: The Life and Visionary Art of Nicholas Roerich. Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1993.
  • Drayer, Ruth Abrams. Wayfarers: The Spiritual Journeys of Nicholas and Helena Roerich. New Mexico: Bluewaters Press, 2004.