We continue to publish transcripts from the Spas TV program My Path To God, in which Priest George Maximov interviews people who converted to Orthodoxy from various non-Orthodox denominations. Today Father George’s guest is Andrey Gukov, who spent almost 20 years in the community of followers of Nikolai and Helena Roerich. How do people join such communities? Is India the country of mahatmas and gurus or the country of indifference to abysmal poverty, so baffling for a Russian person? Why can’t the Roerichs’ teachings quench one’s spiritual thirst? What makes people return to Christ? How to tell a real miracle from a “spiritual theater”? An expanded and amended text of the interview is provided below.
Father George Maximov: Hello! You are watching My Path To God. This program is about the people whose conversion to Christianity was an event that divided their lives into a “before” and an “after” periods and made them reconsider many things. What moves such people and what gives them the strength to change themselves and live in a Christian way? This is what we talk about with our guests. The guest of today’s program dedicated almost twenty years of his life to teachings related to Indian religions reinterpreted by theosophical movements. Specifically, we will be talking about the teachings of Nikolas and Helena Roerich. Please tell us, how did your spiritual quest begin?
Andrey Gukov: First of all, I’d like to say that I was baptized when I was an infant and my mother and grandmother had been telling me about our faith, Orthodoxy, ever since I was a child. I remember that I always liked going to church when we visited my grandmother. These childhood memories are still alive in my heart. I remember how I attended a service and how impressed I was. I really liked the solemnity of the service and the decorations of the church. As I was growing up, I gradually lost touch with Orthodoxy. Those were the times of Communist pressure and atheistic propaganda and people couldn’t freely go to church. I couldn’t get to know my faith closely. When the Soviet Union broke up, a great number of sects rushed into our country. Since during the atheistic rule the people (including myself) were thirsty for faith in God and didn’t know anything about these matters, they were ready to follow any teaching that somehow involved belief in God and took into account the spiritual aspect of life. An acquaintance gave me an illegally self-published book called Community by Helena Roerich. It was difficult to read because of the specific terminology, and I can’t say that I was particularly captivated by it, but it was interesting for me to communicate with the people who were into all this. That was how I got into the Roerichian sect— mostly because of a spiritual vacuum and lack of knowledge about Orthodoxy.
Father George: Many people know Nikolai Roerich as a painter, but not everybody knows that he and his wife had their own religious doctrine. Can you tell us briefly about the essence of this doctrine?
Andrey Gukov: It is based on Helena Roerich’s “Living Ethic”. She said that she was in contact with supernatural forces and claimed that she received “mystic revelations” from them. This teaching is a hodgepodge of ideas from various religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. This mixture is passed off as the Truth. Her teaching also promulgates women’s superiority over men, which is reflected in the concept of the Epoch of the Mother of the World or Epoch of Women, where women play the paramount role. That is why there are many feminists in the Roerichian communities. One of the specific aspects of the teaching is a negative attitude toward the Church.
Father George: How does it manifest?
Andrey Gukov: For example, they criticized priests, saying that they distorted the teachings of Christ. The Roerichians always tried to set people against the Orthodox Church and Christianity in general. They always criticized and ridiculed it. In her books, Helena Roerich states that Christianity is a false religion, the Church is a “source of corruption” and the priests are hiding the truth from people.
Father George: What do you think people find attractive in this doctrine?
Andrey Gukov: I think it is the Eastern flavor, because we always associated the East with something mysterious. This probably won many people over.
Father George: Yes, there is some kind of fascination with the East, but people are fascinated by this idealized and even somewhat surreal version of it. This is because Nicolas Roerich’s ideas about searching for Shambhala are in many ways the product of his fantasies and interpretations of things he heard while living in the East.
Let me share the following observation: It is very difficult for a Christian to talk to people who are into such theosophical and esoteric teachings. Firstly, there is no common point that we can base our discussion on. Secondly, when you talk to esotericians, you feel like you are hitting against some kind of cotton wall, as they usually are not aggressive, but behave as if they absolutely do not care about what they hear. They look at you in a condescending manner, nod their heads politely and think, “Well, maybe for your low level your words are important, but we know something so important that you can never comprehend, so we won’t even discuss it with you.” Is this observation correct?
Andrey Gukov: Yes, I fully agree with you, your observation is correct. Indeed, the members of that Roerichian organization often looked down on the representatives of Church, both priests and laity as if they didn’t know anything, while the Roerichians were given some special knowledge. I remember that at that time the Roerichs’ teachings cultivated in me and in others the feeling of superiority that made me think that I was unique and knew some secret, although I knew absolutely nothing. All this was just personal views of Nikolai and Helena Roerich that they expressed in their works.
Father George: I remember what one atheistic author said about such esoteric movements: When you are about to follow that path you find yourself in a situation when you are told, “Let’s climb this mountain and something incredible will be revealed to you there, something that you cannot get in any other place.” So you go up the mountain and when you’re at the top, the person who invited you simply sits down and doesn’t say a word. That is it. So the question arises, “Why did we climb this mountain?” The meaningful teaching is basically substituted by this “journey” that is always associated with some enigmas, mysteries, hints at some secret meaning and promises that something remarkable will be revealed to you in the future. So it feels like people are in some kind of game. Would you agree with that?
Andrey Gukov: Yes, this is correct. People there don’t really feel the things that are promised to them and mostly ham it up for those who gather in such groups. They try to show that they are knowledgeable and enlightened… At the same time, there are many conflicts within the movement. During my considerable time in this movement, I often saw situations where one group would say bad things (to put it mildly) about the other group. There is no unity or mutual understanding between them. This is probably because everybody considers himself of herself to be that unique person who knows more than everybody else does. As this stands in the way of unity, there is no harmony in this movement and some groups are set against the others. I’d like to add that the Roerichian movement uses a purely sectarian method of publicity: publicly they proclaim one thing (for example, religious tolerance and faithfulness toward the Gospel), but in fact the true essence of the doctrine is for a certain period of time withheld from the wide circle of followers and outsiders. In her letter of March 8, 1938, Helena Roerich even recommends lying for the purposes of publicity.
Andrey Gukov: I had various impressions. I often met friendly and warm-hearted locals who were very religious but at the same time very superstitious. When they learned that I was Russian, they smiled, hugged me and asked many questions about Russia. This amiability of Indian people is of course very likeable, but at the same time I saw things there that simply shocked me.
Father George: What, for example?
Andrey Gukov: For example, a great number of poor people. Their situation is so bad and they live in such subhuman conditions that they are forced to deliberately mutilate their children in hope that people would feel pity for them and give them alms. I was appalled that locals do not care about the disabled people who stand or lie in the street begging for alms.
Father George: It’s because they believe that it is their karma.
Andrey Gukov: I realized that later. Indians justify everything by saying that it is karma.
Father George: From their point of view, these people deserved such deformities, poverty and predicaments by behaving badly in their past lives, so now they are getting their comeuppance. Why pity them? I heard that when the English started building hospitals in India, not everybody there supported them, because from the point of view of the teaching about karma, if somebody is sick, that person should stay sick and die from that disease. That way this person would clear his or her karma and live happily in the next life. If a sick person is cured in this life, it means that this person didn’t suffer enough and will continue suffering in the next life. This logic probably influences the people’s attitude toward beggars and the disabled. I remember that when I came to Calcutta, I saw whole families living on sidewalks and this shocked me. The poverty that you can see in India, you probably can’t see anywhere else. I even heard that after visiting India people from Africa would say that they thought that they were living in poverty, but only here they saw what poverty really was. I sincerely hope that in the course of its development, India would provide some care to this part of its population. But coming back to the Roerichs’ teaching—is it popular in India?
Andrey Gukov: In India this movement wasn’t popular and did not have many followers. The Roerichs Museum (their former estate) and Urusvati Himalayan Research Institute founded by them are located in the Himalayan mountain village of Naggar, Himachal-Pradesh. However, even though some of the Living Ethics books were translated into English and Hindi, this teaching is not popular in India. Even people living in Naggar and surrounding villages are not the followers of Living Ethics. They know that a Russian painter lived in this area with his family, but the Roerichs’ teaching is of no interest to them.
Father George: What about Indian spirituality? I know that some foreigners, including our fellow citizens, become fans of certain gurus or Hinduism in general. I met people who told me that they felt or experienced something when they visited Hinduist temples. I even talked to a man who demonstrated all the signs of being demonically possessed and was happy about it, believing that he was possessed by one of the Hindu gods. And even though that god controlled the man and prevented him from doing some things that that man wanted to do, the man still thought that it was a positive experience. I assume that at that time when you wanted to learn about local spiritual tradition, you also visited ashrams. Did you have any unexpected discoveries there?
Andrey Gukov: In fact, I did. I went to one ashram, just out of curiosity. People recommended that I go there, saying that I will see how “superior” the gurus that live there are. I stayed there for about half a month. The founder of that ashram, that guru, was originally from Punjab, and followed the Sikh traditions. However, he was mixing everything up, just like the Roerichs did. They said that any path you take would lead you to God. When I got to see that guru and learned about this life, I was very disappointed. I was disappointed even though I was a Roerichian at that time. I saw that it was some kind of a theater performance. With a long beard and a large turban, the guru looked like a villain from a fairy tale. People that came to him always fell on their knees and asked him for something. An American named Mary was his right hand. She writes books about him and zealously believes in all that. However, I saw lies and hypocrisy there and it shocked me. I’ll give you an example: to be received by that guru you had to go through his security. There were Sikhs in turbans with Kalashnikovs who watched closely not to let too many people go through. When I asked Mary why that was, she told me that it was a precaution against attacks. I was confused. How come? If he is a saint, and everyone called him that, why doesn’t he know who is coming? Our Father Seraphim of Sarov would receive everybody with great love.
Andrey Gukokv: Later, when I talked to locals who worked there like slaves, I asked them, “Do you like it here? Do you believe in this guru?” They sighed and said, “Well, we can’t even come near him. They simply won’t let us.”
Father George: After so many years in the Roerichian movement, how did you decide to quit and return to Orthodoxy?
Andrey Gukov: What helped me was that my grandmother, God rest her soul, and my mother showed me the world of Orthodoxy when I was a child. I think that the prayers of my close friends and relatives also helped me. Hearing their prayers, God took pity on me. After I came back to Russia from India, that serene Christian childhood memory came to me again. I started going to church again. Whenever I was passing by a church, I would come in. Of course, at first I didn’t stand through the entire service, I just stood there, in that atmosphere and watched the people pray to God so sincerely. And memories of my grandmother and the things she told me about became even more vivid.
I quit the Roerichian sect completely after I saw a Miracle of God. Several years ago, they started broadcasting the Descent of the Holy Fire live from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. When I first saw this miracle with my own eyes, I suddenly realized that this was the true faith in the living God, who is close to each of us faithful, rather than somewhere in a mysterious Shambhala that nobody ever saw. I understood that that was where Christ was. Every year He still demonstrates that He is with His people and that He is indeed a true God. In Orthodoxy, this inexplicable miracle occurs every year. The Roerichs do not have anything like that. I even told their followers, “Your teaching is called Agni Yoga and you say that some kind of fire descended upon Helena Roerich, but here we have a real fire you can actually see.” This is a real miracle. I was very impressed by it. I saw the faces of people in that church who washed their faces with that fire and received spiritual joy and strengthening of their faith in Jesus Christ our Lord. You could clearly see that on their faces. Looking at them, I too experienced a great joy and calmness in my soul, realizing how wrong I was when I believed the false teachings of the Roerichs. After that, I threw all the Roerichian and theosophical literature away, went to church and confessed to stepping on a false and demonic path.
Father George: How did your friends and acquaintances in the Roerichian movement react when they learned that you were returning to Christianity? Did you tell them about it or did you just stop going to their meetings?
Father George: Considering that over the past years you neither learned the answer nor regretted your decision, Christ turned out to be stronger than mahatmas.
Andrey Gukov: Nobody ever saw them! Just like Shambhala… Who saw it? Nobody! After this discussion, the activists of the Roerichian movement didn’t bother me, although regular members sometimes called me inviting to their various events, but I refused to attend them.
Father George: What changed in your life after accepting Orthodoxy?
Andrey Gukov: Orthodoxy brought me down to earth in terms of spiritual development and let me look at myself from the outside. It led me to repentance and understanding my sinfulness. I never had it in the Roerichian sect, as the Roerichs’ teaching does not even consider the sinfulness of human nature. Moreover, it states that repentance is useless and that people have nobody to repent to. “Living Ethic” prohibits repentance, and the Roerichian teaching cultivates pride in people. Orthodoxy helped me understand that my sins make me sick, and only Jesus Christ our Lord can cure me through His mercy. After becoming Orthodox, I really felt God’s support. You just ask Jesus Christ our Lord sincerely in prayer, and soon you see that problems are resolved right before your eyes and the circumstances develop in such a way that you’d never humanly anticipate.
Father George: What would you say to people who are still fascinated by that teaching and think that it has an incredibly profound wisdom, while Christianity is something boring and depressing compared to it?
Andrey Gukov: Christianity offers a unique path that can lead people to real salvation. Our Church has many examples, including holy fathers who followed Christ and reached the pinnacles of spiritual perfection. For example, St. John of Kronstadt who lived in relatively recent times. His works and the testimony of people who saw him show us the life he led and what he achieved by living that way. The Roerichians do not have such an example. They never say that you need to fight your passions, recognize them in yourself, confess and, with the help of God, get rid of them. What will happen, if we keep on pretending that we are those who “climbed the mountain”, as you rightfully noted? We will start fighting each other for the sake of our mountains and this will turn into hell on earth. Only Christianity makes it possible for people to understand themselves and analyze their deeds, thoughts and actions. I am so grateful to Jesus Christ our Lord for giving us this path!
Father George: I hope to God that other followers of this teaching will find the courage to see Christianity without prejudice, not as “an ideology”, but as a way of life consistent with the Divine Revelation. I think that you’d agree with me, if I say that the experience of transforming your life through knowing Christ is something that people still captivated by such esoteric ideologies are missing. This is what they should know before jumping to any conclusions about Christianity based on distorted information about it shown in certain books and the books by the Roerichs in particular.
Andrey Gukov: As you so rightfully mentioned, Father George, the Roerichs’ books contain many distorted facts and lies. The Roerichs taught that all religions could lead to salvation. However, it is very difficult to imagine how the religions that teach opposite things may lead to the same result.
Father George: It is similar to a situation where police arrest both the thief and the victim. The victim says, “He threatened me with a gun and took my wallet”, but the robber says, “Nothing of the kind; he gave it to me himself.” And if the detective says, “You’re both right. You have a common truth that unites you. Do not argue, you’re both equally right.” This, of course, would be absurd. This is something that people who are into syncretic teachings do not understand. If you mix religions that teach opposite things and say that they all are parts of a single Truth, it would be both simplification and misconception. Even the followers of such religions wouldn’t agree with that.
Andrey, thank you for your story. I hope to God that all who are still at the crossroads of esoteric teachings would learn the truth about Christianity and make a well-founded choice in favor of Christ. Thank you and God help you!