Helena I. Roerich (1879-1955)
Truly great things are better seen from a distance. This is exactly what happened to the creative heritage of a Russian philosopher and writer Helena I. Roerich. The greater part of works created by this outstanding woman in the first part of the 20-th century, only recently became the property of the cultural and spiritual life of Russia. The Heritage aroused keen and sincere interest of our compatriots, especially those of them who aspire to find answers to the most stirring problems of Being.
Helena Roerich was born on February 12, 1879 (January 31, old style) in St. Petersburg in a family of architect Ivan Shaposhnikov. She was a great grandniece of Mikhail Kutuzov, the great Russian field marshal (who defeated Napoleon’s army in 1812). The Russian composer Modest Musorgsky was another prominent relative. In her early age Helena showed outstanding abilities. By seven she could read and write in three languages. Since the very youth she was seriously interested in literature and philosophy. After graduation from Mariinsky gymnasium in St. Petersburg, she received musical education. Her teachers forecasted a brilliant career as pianist, but fate had something different in store for her.
In 1899, during her stay in the estate of her aunt Princess Putyatina, Helena Shaposhnikova met for the first time the young painter Nicholas Roerich, her future husband and close spiritual companion, who would share all her aspirations. A deep mutual feeling and lofty ideals of life made their alliance incredibly lasting. They walked hand in hand all their life, creatively and spiritually fulfilling each other. Their first son Yuri (George), who would become a world-famous orientalist, was born in August 1902; the second son, Svetoslav, was born in October 1904, and would follow in his father’s footsteps.
In 1916 the Roerichs moved to Finland according the doctors’ prescription, as Nicholas Roerich became gravely ill with pneumonia. After the Rusian Revolution they found themselves cut off from their Motherland. Their further way lay through Stockholm, Copenhagen, and London, where Nicholas Roerich was invited to arrange his exhibitions and design sets for some Russian operas. In the autumn of 1920 the family moved to US on the invitation that came from the director of the Chicago Art Institute; besides New-York, the artist's exhibition traveled to twenty-eight cities across the country. Roerich’s work attracted a wide following among American artists and the general public alike. One can be amazed at the scope of cultural activity of the Roerichs and a group of followers in America. The Master Institute of United Arts, International Art Center Corona Mundi (Crown of the World), Roerich Museum were established with the active participation of Helena Roerich. Being the starting point of their activity, the institutes influenced not only the cultural life of America but far beyond the borders of the country.
Numerous cultural societies and educational institutions, acting throughout the world under the aegis of American organizations, unified under the dome of Culture not only creative personalities, but everyone who shared humanistic ideals and aspired to improve life. «It’s joy to see in the dark days», Helena Roerich wrote, «the light souls unifying in the name of Culture in order to keep sacred fire and give a joy of creative labor and expansion of consciousness to everyone who searches for way out of mental impasse that caused a disaster in our physical world».
On December 2, 1923, the Roerichs arrived to India which had long been attracting them by its rich spiritual and cultural traditions.
From 1925 to 1928 Helena Roerich participated in a unique Central Asian Expedition organized by her husband.
The starting-point of the expedition was Sikkim. The main rout lay through Kashmir, Ladakh, Chinese Turkestan (Sinkiang). Having reached the Soviet border in the region of Tien Shan, some members of the expedition, Helena, Nicholas and Yuri Roerichs, went to Moscow, where they had some important meetings.From Moscow they made their way to the Altai region, Buryatia and then to Mongolia. After crossing Mongolia the expedition entered Tibet. Nicholas Roerich planned on crossing the Tibetan Highlands at Lhasa. It was the most difficult part of the rout. No other researcher of Central Asia had taken such a path. But a few days journey from Nagchu the caravan was stopped by Tibetan authorities. They spent five long winter months in summer tents on the Chantang Plateau, which was considered the harshest part of Asia. That caused the death of 5 people and 90 animals. In the early spring the expedition was permitted to leave the station and move through Transhimalaya to Sikkim.
In 1926, while in Ulan-Bator, Mongolia, Helena Roerich’s book «The Foundations of Buddhism» was published. In it there were interpreted the fundamental concepts of Buddha’s Teaching such as reincarnation, karma, nirvana and also the highest moral aspects of the Teaching. In her book Helena Roerich refuted the stereotype rooted deep in the Western mentality that a man in Buddhism was a worthless and God-forsaken being.
In 1927, there, in Mongolia, one of the books of Living Ethics, «Community», was published.
After the Central Asian Expedition, in 1928, the Roerichs settled in the picturesque Kullu valley (Western Himalayas). Since thån, Helena Roerich almost entirely devoted herself to the main work of her life – the series of books called Living Ethics, the philosophical and ethical Teaching. She had begun working on books on March 24, 1920, in London. Living Ethics was created in cooperation and under guidance of the Spiritual Teachers of the East, Mahatmas, named so owing the highest spiritual level of consciousness. For many people all over the world they became guidebooks to life. The books focus on issues of ethics as the most important conditions of the further spiritual and cultural evolution of humanity, and address, first and foremost, the earthly, everyday conditions of life for every person.
The appearance of the Teaching had a direct correlation to the processes that were occurring in science, culture, and the spiritual life of the 20th century. All the processes including so-called «scientific revolution» laid the foundations of a new, integral approach to the exploration of the surrounding world. The great minds of that time (Russian scientists V. Vernadsky, A. Chizhevsky, K. Tsiolkovsky, as well as philosophers-cosmists I. Ilyin, P. Florensky, and N. Berdyaev) stated that the destiny of humanity and the life of the Cosmos were inseparable, and that up-coming New Era would be the time of man’s cooperation with worlds of other material substances.
Being based on the ancient knowledge of the East and the achievements of modern science in the West, Living Ethics concerns peculiarities of cosmic evolution of humanity and creates a new system of its perception. The Teaching pays particular attention to the Great Cosmic Laws that determine the motion of planets and growth of natural structures, birth of stars, and also human behavior and the development of Universe. Nothing exists beyond Cosmic Laws. The authors of the Teaching state that these Laws influence the historic and social processes in human life and unless the humanity realizes this the life can’t be improved.
According to Living Ethics, Universe is the immense spiritual-energy system in which a man plays the most important role.The moral perfection, strict observance of ethical laws and comprehension of key factor of Culture in the development of human society are basic principles of spiritual and historical development of humanity. It’s impossible to build the better future without respecting knowledge and Culture.
A man, according to the Teaching of Living Ethics, influences the Cosmic processes greatly. Particular attention is paid to the consciousness of a man and the culture of thinking, as thought is energy, capable of filling space and effecting its surroundings. A man is directly responsible for the quality of his thoughts, words, and deeds, because not only his spiritual and physical health depend on them, but also the condition of the entire planet.
Calling people to live in accordance with Cosmic Laws, the Living Ethics opens unlimited possibilities for the spiritual transformation of life, the expansion of consciousness, and the acquirement of high moral standards.
In 1929, Helena Roerich’s book «On Eastern crossroads» was published under the pseudonym of J.Saint-Hilaire in Paris. In it the author depicted legendary and historical events of the ancient times and shed light on unknown aspects of life of the Great Teachers of humanity – Buddha, Jesus Christ, Appolonius of Tiana, Sergius of Radonezh. A separate book, «Banner of the Reverend Sergius», was dedicated by Helena Roerich to St. Sergius of Radonezh, the Guardian and Protector of the Russian Land. In the book she combined her profound knowledge of history and theology with a deep love to the great devotee.
The letters to the followers of Living Ethics occupy a special place in a creative heritage of Helena Roerich. In clear and simple words she explained to her correspondents the most complicated problems connected with the role of a man in the Universe, influence of the Cosmic Laws on humanity and interaction between spirit and matter. One cannot help wondering at her vast knowledge of ancient philosophical systems, works by Eastern and Western thinkers, as well as her deep and clear understanding of the foundations of Being. «The Letters» is an integral part of the Teaching of Living Ethics. H. Roerich carried on the vast correspondence with people having different levels of consciousness. But she invariably answered in the spirit of tolerance and benevolence. Her cordial attitude became true support for many going through hard time.
The two volumes of «The Letters by H.Roerich» were published in 1940, in Riga, Latvia. It was only a small part of Helena Roerich’s rich epistolary heritage transferred by her junior son Svetoslav to the International Centre of the Roerichs in 1990. At present the complete set of letters by Helena Roerich’s is published by the Centre-Museum by name of N.K. Roerich.
Helena Roerich translated into Russian «The Secret Doctrine» by Helena P. Blavatskaya (1831-1891), the founder of the Theosophical Society, and also selected Mahatmas’s Letters («Chalice of the East») and, thus making it possible for Russian-speaking readers to familiar with the books.
In January, 1948, shortly after the death of her husband, Helena Roerich together with Yuri (George) Roerich had left the Kullu Valley, and after a short stay in Delhi and Khandala settled in a small resort town of Kalimpong on the Eastern slopes of Himalayas.
Helena Roerich always strived to return to Russia. She requested permission from the Soviet Embassy to come home, petitioned the Soviet Government, but all her attempts were to no effect. In spite of rejections, Helena Roerich never gave up hope to return to Russia, bring all the treasures, collected by the Roerichs, and to work for Russia for at least several years. The idea of homecoming quite often appeared in her letters of the last years. But she was not fated to return. Helena Roerich left this life on October 5, 1955.
The more time passes by and the deeper we comprehend the heroic creative heritage of Helena Ivanovna Roerich, the clearer becomes the great meaning of the works created by her and those who stood beside her. Her heritage is inexhaustible. Helena Roerich's scientific and philosophical discoveries are aimed at the Future, the New World, where heroic creativeness will be a rule and not an exception.