Shambhala: Myths and Reality

Other languages

The Earliest Accounts of Shambhala

When we hear the word Shambhala it conjures up all sorts of romantic images and associations for many people. It originally comes from both Hindu and Buddhist sources. We first find it in an early Hindu text, The Vishnu Purana, from the 4th century CE. And there it speaks about the different ages, the four ages of the world system, ending with the kaliyuga (“age of disputes”). And it says that the eighth avatar, or incarnation, of Vishnu will be born in a city called Shambhala. He’s called Kalki and he will destroy an invading group that are bent on destruction. And after he destroys them, then there will be a new golden age; that will be the end of the kaliyuga.

Then a number of centuries later we find Shambhala again, in Buddhist literature, specifically in a group of material known as the Kalachakra texts. Kalachakra means the “wheel of time” or “cycles of time.” And there we find a variation of what we had in the Hindu source. So there Shambhala is a whole land, not just a village, and there will be a king that comes to India from there and gets the Kalachakra teachings from the Buddha and brings it back to Shambhala. And after seven generations of kings there will be a new king who’s going to unify all the castes – the Indian system of castes – he’s going to unify all the castes, and he’s going to take the title Kalki, this name of the Vishnu avatar. And he predicts that there will be an invasion in the future, a number of centuries later, and that everybody has to get together in order to be able to fight off this invasion. And then there’s a succession of these Kalki rulers, and the twenty-fifth – it’s at his time when this invasion occurs from the forces that are bent on destroying all spiritual practice; and the forces of Shambhala, under the leadership of this Kalki, are going to defeat these invaders and again there’ll be a new golden age. So, similar; just a variant of the theme.

Shambhala in the Teachings of the Theosophical Society

So we’ll look a little more deeply, a little bit later in our talk, about further levels of meaning of Shambhala in the Buddhist teachings. But now we have to start thinking what was it like for the early Europeans who came to India and met little pieces, or were introduced to little pieces, of Hindu literature and Buddhist literature. And how did they possibly understand this? They didn’t have the advantage that we have nowadays of so much of that literature being available in translation. In fact, these are the people that made the first dictionaries of Sanskrit, of Tibetan. So it’s really the great pioneers. And they tried to make sense out of the little pieces that they learned about and they were finally able to translate, but they didn’t have the whole picture.

So the first time that we have anything written in a European language about Shambhala was in 1833. This was by the great Hungarian scholar Csoma de Körös. (he’s the one that put together the first Tibetan-English dictionary). And he wrote an article about Kalachakra, and in it he mentions Shambhala. So that’s the first time that anybody in Europe hears anything about Shambhala. And over the following decades we find that a little bit more becomes available. In the 1860s we have a book written by a German, Schlagintweit, called Buddhism in Tibet, that also speaks about Shambhala. And this Vishnu Purana – the one that has the Hindu version – that also gets translated into English.

And it’s at this time that Madame Blavatsky goes to India, and this was the only source of information that she had about Shambhala from European sources. And one has to again try to understand or appreciate the situation that Blavatsky found herself in in India: There’s the problem of languages; and it wasn’t very clear – the division between what was Hinduism, what was Buddhism. But she was a great pioneer, and what she tried to do was to explain some of these things that she learned about in terms and concepts that were more familiar to European audiences at that time. At that time, there was a great interest in various occult things, and so she translated things that she found in the Buddhist and Hindu literature using these occult features. So this was actually a very intelligent way of introducing this material into Europe: you try to introduce it in ways and concepts that people are a little bit familiar with already.

Now in terms of the development of these European ideas about Shambhala, we find that there are two main streams that develop. One is to emphasize Shambhala as a type of paradise, a spiritual paradise. And the other one derives from this idea that the forces of Shambhala destroyed or got rid of the harmful invaders that were trying to do away with all spiritual practice. So you get a more destructive aspect of Shambhala. In other words, very forcefully purifying the world of a so-called evil.

Well, Blavatsky emphasized the first aspect here, of Shambhala being a great spiritual land. And the way that she introduced it was in terms of the common geography that you find in Buddhism and Hinduism – with Mount Meru in the center and the four continents around – and she put this together with the description of four different types of birth that you have in Buddhism: born from a womb, born from an egg, born from heat and moisture, and born by sort of an emanation. And she took this idea – it wasn’t very clear in the literature that she had exposure to – put it together with these four continents, and gave them the names of various places that were more familiar in the occult literature in the West. And she said when one of these continents – Lemuria, it was called – sank, then the inhabitants of that moved to another one of the continents, which she called Atlantis; but the spiritually developed ones went to another place, called Shambhala. So this is where she put Shambhala. And she said that it was a sacred island and it was found in the Gobi, the Gobi desert. She didn’t claim that Shambhala was the source of her teachings, The Secret Doctrine, but followers of her, specifically Alice Bailey and Helena Roerich, said that the secret doctrines did come from the masters in Shambhala. So please bear in mind that they didn’t have any other information at that time from the Buddhist or Hindu sources, so naturally they developed the idea of Shambhala further within the context of their own backgrounds. So, fine.

Shambhala Identified with Russia

Now on the Tibetan side, of course, they were familiar with Shambhala from the Kalachakra literature. And in the Kalachakra literature, it speaks about where Shambhala is, and it’s a land in the north. So the Thirteenth Dalai Lama had a Buryat adviser – his name was Agvan Dorjiev – and this was at the time (in the beginning of the 20th century) when the Russians and the British and the Chinese were all fighting for control of Central Asia including Tibet. And Dorjiev tried to convince the Thirteenth Dalai Lama that his best source of protection would be Russia, so he told the former Dalai Lama – I mean the present one is the Fourteenth, this was the Thirteenth – he told him that actually Russia was Shambhala and that Czar Nicholas II was the reincarnation of Tsongkhapa, who was the great Tibetan Buddhist master, and that the Romanov dynasty were the descendants of the rulers of Shambhala. And although the Thirteenth Dalai Lama had great hopes that Russia would protect them, the Czar never actually agreed. But nevertheless, as a result of all of Dorjiev’s efforts, there was a temple built in St. Petersburg.

Shambhala and Agharti

Now we go a little bit further in the history to the period between the two world wars, and now another occult feature gets added into the story. We had, in two 19th century French novels, a discussion of a place called Agharti. This was an underground kingdom that preserved occult knowledge, and they’re going to come from under the ground and help the world in a war to overcome materialism and destructiveness.

Shortly after the revolution, a Polish captain called Ossendowski, who was in Mongolia, convinced Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, who was in Mongolia trying to cause all sorts of difficulties there, to look in Mongolia for Agharti. Remember Madame Blavatsky had said that Shambhala was in Mongolia, in the Gobi. So this was the start of these expeditions to try to find either Shambhala or Agharti – somehow the two got mixed together – in Mongolia or somewhere in Central Asia.

The Roerichs, Shambhala, and Agni Yoga

And so the next one who sets out on an expedition was a Russian, Nikolai Roerich (his wife, Helena Roerich, was the translator of The Secret Doctrine of Blavatsky into Russian). And between 1925–28 he led an expedition to the Altai Mountains to find Shambhala. And he created a spiritual system called Agni Yoga (agni is the Sanskrit word for fire). And he said that Shambhala was the source of all the Indian teachings, the Indian spiritual teachings, and particularly he focused on, in the Vedas – the earliest Hindu spiritual tradition, Indian tradition – the power of fire (agni) to purify. So he founded this spiritual system and emphasized prayer for purification and peace – in which one chooses either Jesus or Mohammed or Buddha as a spiritual guide. And within all of this, Shambhala represents the perfect embodiment of a land of peace and spiritual practice.

Steiner, Anthroposophy, and Shambhala

Then we have someone called Rudolf Steiner, a German, and he left the Theosophical movement because he didn’t agree with them about Krishnamurti being the new messiah. He said that Christ will reveal the land of Shamballa (Shambhala) with his Second Coming, and Maitreya will be there as the spiritual leader of Shamballa. Maitreya in Buddhism is the future Buddha, and he calls Maitreya the Antichrist and associates him with Lucifer. Lucifer, one of the names of the Devil.

…and he [Maitreya] will purge the world of misunderstanding of the Christian teachings and teach the true message of Christ. And his [Steiner’s] followers established what is called the Anthroposophical Society.

So now we see a slight shift in the other aspect of how the idea of Shambhala developed in the sense that it was associated with destruction – in this case with Lucifer, even – that’s going to destroy wrong views and bring back the true teachings. Again, one has to remember that this is in a period of time when all these movements developed when they didn’t really have any further information, and so they were trying to adapt what they had learned from the little bits and pieces of the Hindu and Buddhist tradition, and tried to adapt it to help people at that time to deal with all the difficulties that they had, especially between the world wars.

Alice Bailey and the “Shamballa Force”

Then next we get Alice Bailey. Alice Bailey had been one of the people that tried to become the leader of the Theosophical movement, but she lost out to Annie Besant, and she founded what she called the Lucifer Trust in America. Remember now, from Steiner, Lucifer was associated with Shamballa (Shambhala). So she had the Lucifer Trust, and she said Shamballa was the source of cosmic fire, and she spoke of it as the Shamballa force, and she associated it with Lucifer, and she said it was the source of destructive power to be able to overcome and destroy degenerated teachings and establish the New Age. And so it is from her that we get the whole idea of New Age (she called it the Age of Aquarius), and the whole New Age movement had its birth in her ideas. What’s quite interesting is she said that the Shamballa force could be used for either good or evil, and so one starts to think of our movie Star Wars, with the Force and the dark side: the Force can be used for good or it can be turned to the dark side. So this idea we have originating with Alice Bailey. After World War II, Alice Bailey said that Hitler took the Shamballa force as a tool of darkness and used it for the dark side.

Nazi Interest in Shambhala

And then we have many, many people (I won’t go through the whole history of it) who tried to associate the Nazi fascination with occult and looking for some special power, which they called vril – that they wanted to associate this with Shambhala, and so on. So we get a large literature like that. So some of them wrote and put together some of the ideas from Agharti – that Shambhala was actually under the ground – and eventually we have even the idea of flying saucers being under the ground in Shambhala and coming up to help fight the forces of evil. And of course the Nazis did send an expedition to Tibet in the late 30s. This is when they were interested in measuring the size of heads and stuff of various people in Central Asia to try to demonstrate that there was some sort of common origin of the Aryan race, that somehow one branch went to Germany and one branch went to Japan, so somehow keeping the alliance between the Germans and the Japanese. And of course some people speculate that this expedition secretly had the mission to try to find Shambhala in Tibet.

We see that so many different ideas developed around the story of Shambhala in our Western literature, European literature. Many Western occult spiritual traditions used Shambhala as almost like a justification of the purity of their teachings, saying that their teachings came from Shambhala. And as I said, some of them emphasized that it was a great spiritual paradise, and some emphasized this destructive nature from Shambhala – that they would destroy the degenerate ideas and bring about the new golden age. So we get this development of what we would call the Myth of Shambhala. Now I think it’s very important to realize that just because we use the word myth here in association with the picture of Shambhala that we get in these various Western occult movements, the use of this word myth doesn’t imply that the spiritual traditions that claim it as their source are not helpful traditions – they are helpful. But if we just try to isolate, in a sense, this idea of Shambhala, we find that the picture that we get – which is very different in all these Western occult movements – that this is quite… although it has some things that are similar to the original Hindu and Buddhist ideas, it’s different.

Buddhist Accounts of Shambhala

So let me explain a little bit about how Shambhala appears and its place in the Buddhist literature. The literature that it appears in is from this system, as I mentioned, called Kalachakra (“cycles of time”). This system emerged in India quite late, from the point of view of Buddhist history. It’s difficult to date it exactly, but I would say probably in the 9th or 10th century, that period of time. And although it’s very difficult to say really where it emerged, my own personal theory is that it emerged in the area that is presently the eastern part of Afghanistan, Northern Pakistan, going over to Kashmir; this region.

When we look at the history, of course there’s the Buddhist version of the history and there is a – what shall we say? – a more scientific, Buddhological view of the history. And of course in the Buddhist history it speaks in terms of the Buddha himself having taught the Kalachakra text, and this was very long ago. The dating of the Buddha in the Kalachakra system is different from the dating we find elsewhere: when we calculate it, it comes to 880 BCE. So, long ago. And at that time, Shambhala was a land in the north. And the king of Shambhala, as I mentioned, came to India where Buddha taught it, and he brought these teachings back to Shambhala, where they flourished.

And as I mentioned before, there was a line of kings, seven kings later; the first, he’s called Kalki. Kalki means “the unifier (or the holder) of the castes.” And so he lived in a kingdom in which there were people who followed many different religions – including Hinduism and Buddhism, and there were Muslims there as well – and that’s why, from a Buddhological point of view, one identifies it with this area that I mentioned, of Afghanistan/Pakistan/Kashmir, because that’s what the population was like there, and that’s also to the north from central India.

At that time, the king warned – this first Kalki – that in the future there would be an invasion, and if the whole society is divided into castes, and people won’t even eat with each other, let alone cooperate with each other, then we’re going to lose to these destructive forces. So in order to have peace in our land, then, everybody has to come together into one caste. And he brought them all together in what’s called an initiation, or empowerment, into the Kalachakra meditation system, because everybody who receives an empowerment (or initiation) together becomes what’s known as vajra brothers and sisters; so they’re all made into one family. Then the teachings flourished, because this war and invasion wasn’t going to happen until twenty-five generations later, in the future. So this is all projected to be way, way back in the past, seven generations after the Buddha, so we’re still way in the period before the Common Era. So you have this continuation of the lines of these kings, these Kalki kings; there’s a line of twenty-five of them.

And somehow the Buddhist masters in India heard of this, about Shambhala and these Kalachakra teachings, and two famous Indian masters set off to find Shambhala. So this whole tradition of Roerich and these people going to find Shambhala is not something new. But what’s very interesting is that these two expeditions from India by these Buddhist masters never made it to Shambhala. The first one reached the Himalaya mountains, and one of the Kalki, one of these rulers, sent an emanation of Manjushri – another Buddhist figure, who embodies the wisdom, the discriminating awareness of Buddha – sent an emanation to this Buddhist master; and this Manjushri revealed the Kalachakra teachings to this Indian master called Chilupa. Then two generations later there was another master from India, called Kalachakra-pada the Elder, and he also set out to find Shambhala. And again in the Himalaya region he received a vision that was sent by another one of these Kalki kings; and in this vision, again, the Kalachakra teachings were revealed. And from that first master, Chilupa – he’d given it to his disciple, who was called Pindo, and this Kalachakra-pada the Elder got that lineage as well, so these were combined and the lineages in India developed from that. And eventually the teachings went to Tibet, and from Tibet they went to Mongolia, and Buryatia, Kalmykia, etc. So when we read of Blavatsky getting secret teachings revealed to her, etc., this is nothing new in the Indian traditions.

But that’s the traditional Buddhist explanation of the history. Buddhologists would question that of course. But in any case, they seem to agree in terms of the historical period when this literature first appears in written form. So two different ways of explaining, and one just leaves it at that – explaining the history.

Threat of Invasion from the Fatimids

What is also quite interesting, in terms of the historical period in which this developed, was that in Afghanistan… this was a part of a large Muslim empire, an Arab Muslim empire, called the Abbasid Empire, and they were the leaders of the Islamic world. And at that time there was another dynasty, which developed in Egypt, called the Fatimids, and they had a vassal state that followed them on the other side of the Abbasids, in Pakistan (the area called Multan). And they wanted to take over the leadership of the Islamic world. They were on both sides of the Abbasid Empire and everybody was really frightened of an invasion.

And so this is the historical situation in which this literature flourished or developed in this area. And so this idea of invasions, and everybody getting together, and so on, to fight off – which you have even earlier in the Hindu literature, and we have it also in the Kalachakra literature – was a very good teaching appropriate for that time. If the people are going to be able to face an invasion and fight it off, they have to cooperate with each other; they can’t have different castes, different ideas that prevent them from cooperating. It doesn’t mean that everybody has to become Buddhist; it just means that everybody has to join together. This idea that evolved in Europe of Shambhala as an area that will be a land of peace and that can bring about peace in the world, etc., has its origin back here, even historically, in the 10th century in this area of Asia.

Shambhala on an External, Internal, and Spiritual Level

Now in the Kalachakra teachings, the way that it’s organized is according to three areas. Kalachakra, as I said, means “cycles of time,” and it speaks of external cycles, internal cycles, and alternative cycles (which are the spiritual cycles). And everything that is described in the Kalachakra system is going to have equivalents on each of these three levels. That includes Shambhala as well. So we have the external level of Shambhala, and that’s a place – which we just described – where the Kalachakra teachings were preserved and flourished, which is in the north. And this place is… they have a specific location in the geography teachings, because the external cycles deal with the cycles of time in terms of astronomy, the movement of the planets, and so we have a lot of teachings on how to calculate the calendar, how to calculate the position of the planets, and how everything goes through cycles. And history goes through cycles as well. So, with this idea of like a kaliyuga, and a war to overcome these destructive forces, and the beginning of a new golden age – so all of that’s in there.

And Shambhala is the place where special spiritual teachings are kept and where the forces that will overcome these invaders will emerge. In a sense, it’s a pure realm; but it’s a pure realm within the human realm. The people who live there are humans; they’re not something beyond the human level. But the question is: Is it actually a physical place that you could actually go to? And if we look in the Buddhist version of the history, nobody ever got there who tried to get there, and so the conclusion that most people come to is that it is some sort of spiritual realm rather than an actual physical location on this planet.

But some people have actually gone there, and that’s not very easy to understand. My own teacher was one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama – he was called Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche – and his father [Serkong Dorjechang] was the most famous Buddhist yogi of his time and was in the lineage of the Kalachakra teachings; it was one of his specialties. And Serkong Rinpoche said that “My father went to Shambhala and he brought back a fruit from Shambhala, and it was there in our house on the altar.” So what does one make of that? But even though he says – and I wouldn’t imagine that he would lie – that his father had brought back a fruit from Shambhala, that doesn’t necessarily prove that Shambhala is a physical place that you could actually go to, because I don’t believe his father actually went on a caravan out of Tibet to go to Shambhala; but obviously he travelled there in his meditation.

So the usual explanation that we find of the physical places for Shambhala is that Shambhala itself is some pure human realm not in our dimension, but there can be places on our Earth, a place that could represent it. Because, for instance, there are many other holy Buddhist places, like for instance the holy mountain in which Manjushri lives, Five Peak Mountain, and there is an actual Five Peak Mountain [Wutai Shan] in China which is representing that. So is that the actual place where Manjushri lives? No, but it represents it, and it’s a very special place.

So if we look at the geography teachings in Kalachakra, it speaks about different regions, going further north, in the context of how do you measure the shortest day in the winter in these places, and it gives the measurements for that; it’s part of the astrology and astronomy. And if you do the calculations, it turns out that the latitude at which Shambhala is found, according to the texts, would correspond to the latitude where you would find Mount Kailash, a holy sacred mountain to both Hindus and Buddhists, and that would make sense. And also in the text you have a description of what Shambhala looks like geographically: and it’s a valley surrounded by mountains on all sides; and there are two little lakes joined with a piece of land in the middle of it, and that’s where the king had his palace. And interestingly enough, if you look at the maps of Kashmir, the Srinagar valley looks very much like this description, so that perhaps was the model. Srinagar is the capital of Kashmir. What it seems like is that different pieces were put together from geography, from Mount Meru and Mount Kailash ideas, and so on, and everything was put together into this picture that we have of Shambhala. And the teachings that everybody should come together into one caste are very appropriate for that area at that time, because in fact they were facing the possibility of an invasion and war.

The name Shambhala has the meaning of a “land of bliss,” and that also sometimes gets associated with Mount Kailash – that’s the home of Shiva; Shiva represents also bliss, etc. Now when you turn to a parallel on the internal level, then Shambhala is representing the heart chakra, which also in some systems has associated with it the place of bliss. In the internal teachings it talks about the cycles of time in terms of the cycles of the breathing, the movement of the winds or energies within the body, and so on; you have a whole big description of the chakras and the channels and the winds, and so on. And so the most important chakra is of course the heart chakra, and that’s represented by Shambhala; that’s the internal level representation of Shambhala.

So then we have an alternative level, and the alternative level is, as I said, the level of spiritual practice – specifically, Buddhist practice. Because when we look at the external and internal cycles, these are driven by forces of karma, it’s called; and so they’re driven by the habits and instincts and customs that are built up by people living with a great deal of confusion about reality. And because they’re confused about how they exist, about how other people exist, how the world exists, then they have a lot of disturbing emotions – greed, attachment, anger, jealousy, etc. – because they don’t see the interconnectedness of everybody, and so they’re very selfish, “I have to get everything for me,” and “Get everything away from me” – with anger and hatred – “that threatens me.” And on the basis of that, then people act destructively, they fight with each other, hurt each other, etc., and that builds up what’s called karma.

So it builds up habits and tendencies, and so on, to continue this whole thing in a cycle. It just goes on and on and on and on, both externally (in the world) and internally (with sickness and so on within the body) – everything being out of balance; no harmony. So all the suffering and problems that we have both externally (in the world) and internally (within our bodies) are driven by these what’s called the winds of karma, the energies of karma, which are all based on confusion – coming from confusion and anger and hatred and greed, etc. And the aim of the Buddhist practice, Kalachakra practice, is to overcome all of this, those energies of karma. Right? That’s the real battle. And the invaders are these winds of karma, these energies of karma. And the way to bring about liberation from all of this – peace – is first to do that internally, and that will spread externally. So how do we do this?

In order to be able to overcome these forces of karma – these winds, these energies – that are running wild through the body, you have to bring them all together. And so through various types of yoga practices that are done in what’s called tantra practice, one works to bring all these winds and energies together into the heart chakra – on the basis of having correct understanding of reality, and having a proper motivation, and perfect concentration, ethical disciple, and so on. This is a very advanced practice. But it’s the same image that we had in terms of the Kalki, the holder (or unifier) of the castes. All these different winds of karma, energies of karma, running wild through the body are like the different castes not cooperating with each other, and in Shambhala you have to bring them all together into one caste. So in the heart chakra you have to bring all these winds together and make them one and, in this case, dissolve them. And when one does this and succeeds, then you get to what’s known as the subtlest level of mind. It’s known as the clear light mind. And that clear light mind is the deepest ultimate meaning of Shambhala because it’s with this mind that one is able to get the perfect nonconceptual understanding of reality and actually gain liberation and enlightenment. So that’s the ultimate level of what Shambhala is representing; that is in fact the “land of peace.”


We can see from this brief discussion that there are, in the actual teachings about Shambhala in the Buddhist sphere, many, many pieces, and these pieces give different aspects of these Kalachakra and Shambhala teachings. There are many different levels. And the early European pioneers who came to India only were able to pick up little, little pieces of it. They didn’t have available to them at that time – it wasn’t their fault – but they didn’t have available to them at that time the translations of the full picture. So they got the general idea, with this idea of Shambhala representing like a spiritual paradise, a land of peace, which on the one hand led to the idea of Shangrila that you find in this novel, Lost Horizon, by James Hilton; and also the idea of Shambhala as being the source of overcoming, in a sort of destructive war sense, the forces of ignorance, non-spirituality; and the association of this with a whole new golden age, whether on a spiritual level we’re talking about enlightenment or we’re talking about the end of the kaliyuga, or whatever. But you have this in the Western versions that evolved. So in this way we can understand that Shambhala as a symbol has been very helpful and useful, certainly in its original Indian context, both Hindu and Buddhist, and it has been helpful in the various Western occult traditions that have used it based on this early information that they had. So it’s been helpful in both spheres. But if we ask the question, “But what really is Shambhala?” the Buddhist answer would be “All of them,” which for some Western ways of thinking is not so easy to accept, but all of them have a certain validity.