White Lama & ‘Tibet Land’

ORIENTAL REVIEW continues to reveal unknown facts about the American involvement in Tibet and the British role in achieving it. We published the previous chapter of the research titled ‘Arms and the Elephant‘ on August 12, 2013.

IN 1947, Arthur Hopkinson was India’s political officer in Sikkim. He was a pious man. Hopkinson chose the path of priesthood after his retirement in 1948. Paradoxically, his professional life in India involved dealing with, among other things, opium, arms and wars.

Hopkinson joined the Indian Civil Service in 1920. As part of the Foreign and Political Department, he was the Assistant Commissioner of Ajmer-Merawa, one of the biggest opium production centres in India. Later in his career, Hopkinson was directly involved in creating turmoil in Tibet.

On November 18, 1947, barely three months after Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Tryst with destiny” speech, Hopkinson floated a file for the procurement of “12 carbines for presentation to high personages in Tibet, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and His Highness the Regent”. While the proposal for “American carbines” had been set in motion within the External Affairs Department, Hopkinson also wrote a demi-official (D.O.) letter to Brigadier (later Lt General) S.P.P. Thorat, asking him to use his office to expedite the procurement.

Brigadier S.P.P. Thorat. He was asked to help expedite the procurement of U.S. carbines for Tibet. Photo:THE HINDU ARCHIVES
Brigadier S.P.P. Thorat. He was asked to help expedite the procurement of U.S. carbines for Tibet. Photo:THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Unlike the Political Officer, Brig. Thorat was cautious. He did help expedite the packing of carbines. However, when it came to replying to Hopkinson’s D.O. letter, Thorat’s staff officer wrote that the job had been done but the Brigadier could not reply directly because he was indisposed.

By February 17, 1948, 12 Carbines Machine Sten 9mm Mk.2 (not American carbines) were dispatched to Lhasa. The guns were transported through Kishenganj because it was considered unsafe to make them pass through Pakistani territory.

Hopkinson’s insistence on “American carbines” was symptomatic of the rise of the United States and the fall of the British Empire.

The British were keen to leverage Tibet as a strategy to put pressure on China. However, America was nuanced in its stance and cited Chinese constitutional claims of suzerainty over Tibet. In May 1943, expressing this worry, Calf Carce, External Affairs Secretary to the Government of India, wrote, “I should not like to think that we were now placing any dependence on American interest in Tibet’s independence, autonomy or whatever one likes to call it, as I do not think there is any evidence that such an interest yet exists.” The British knew that American help was a must to hold on to the remnants of the Empire.

Even as late as 1946, the Americans could not afford to annoy Chiang Kai-shek by challenging the status of Tibet. Dean Acheson, the then acting U.S. Secretary of State, while approving the proposal of George R. Merrell, U.S. Charge d’Affaires in India, to send an American delegation to Tibet, had advised him to keep such visits “unobtrusive and unofficial”.

American entry

Unlike the British who had lured the lamas with trade and guns, the Americans were more subtle in making their entry into Tibet; American mountaineers and students first made inroads into Lhasa. In the early 1940s, the American Alpine Club (ACC), linked to the U.S. Army’s elite 10th Mountain Division, started taking an interest in the mountains surrounding Tibet and Sikkim.

In 1937, Theos Bernard, a student of philosophy at California University, set foot on Tibetan soil. He travelled to India and Tibet to understand Indian mysticism and tantric powers. On his return from Tibet, Bernard set up a yoga centre in his university, and the media portrayed him as a leading religious figure in America.

In the National Archives of India, New Delhi, there is an interesting intelligence file on Bernard. British Intelligence discovered an article in Sunday Dispatch of July 14, 1946, relating to the divorce proceedings in a court in Santa Barbara, California, of a 53-year-old Madame Ganna Walska and her 38-year-old husband Dr Theos Bernard.

Ganna Walska, originally from Russia, was a celebrity opera singer of her time. Her performances in Paris and New York saw her popularity surge across the transatlantic divide. According to Sunday Dispatch, in 1942, Ganna Walska had met her sixth husband in a yogi temple in New York. She married the young man to help him “complete his mission to mankind”. Ganna Walska’s man identified himself as the “White Lama”.

Post marriage, the “White Lama” persuaded his besotted rich wife to buy a 32-acre estate, which was named “Tibet land”. This property was bought with the purpose of bringing some Tibetan monks to the U.S. The monks did not come.

When Ganna Walska questioned her husband about this, he used tantric threats and told her that the estate was not high enough for the Tibetans. To appease her husband, the rich lady then bought a mountain retreat, which was named “Penthouse of the Gods”, but still no monks arrived.

Douglas Veenhof's book on the White Lama, Theos Bernard.
Douglas Veenhof’s book on the White Lama, Theos Bernard.

Disillusioned with the “White Lama”, she sought divorce. According to the intelligence files, the White Lama was once again spotted in Calcutta, circa 1947, with his new wife. Douglas Veenhof’s book, White Lama: The Life of Tantric Yogi Theos Bernard, Tibet’s Lost Emissary to the New World, informs us that Bernard never returned from India. The man who introduced yoga to America was probably taken care of by British Intelligence, which had been tracking him for some time.

Russian connection

Ganna Walska was not the only Russian in the American scheme of things in Tibet. Leo Tolstoy’s grandson, Ilia Tolstoy, a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army, was the other Russian incorporated into Tibetan affairs. In 1942, with the assistance of the British, Tolstoy, along with his buddy Lieutenant Brooke Dolan, made a journey to Lhasa from Sikkim as emissaries of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. One of the gifts they carried for the Dalai Lama was an autographed portrait of President Roosevelt.

In 1942, little did the six-year-old Dalai Lama know that his future would be governed not only by his reverence for the Buddha but also by his allegiance to American Presidents. The Tibetan government was also presented with a wireless set to establish its own communication network. The American duo had video-recorded their expedition and stay at Lhasa.

Tolstoy was a godsend to the British, who were desperate to change Washington’s policy on Tibet—that apparently had no objection to China making a “dependent people” of Tibet—and on approving the return of Hong Kong to China. In 1944, when Tolstoy returned to India, O.K. Caroe in New Delhi had enthusiastically reported to R.T. Peel at the Indian Office, London: “From what Colonel Tolstoy has told us there is no doubt that they were impressed with the Tibetan case for independence and may be regarded as future American missionaries in that cause…. There seems to be some hope that informed American opinion may not be so far from the appreciation of the actual position and the means to be adopted to do justice to Tibet. Colonel Tolstoy is now a member of the American Office of the Strategic Services (OSS), and will no doubt make it his business to inoculate that organisation with his ideas about Tibet.”

The British had far too much at stake in Tibet to rely completely on Tolstoy to work on the American perception that regarded “Tibet as a remote territory in which Lamas flourish or as ‘Shangri La’”. To enhance American involvement in Tibet’s political status, the services of A.T. Steele, a reporter of Chicago Daily, was requisitioned from America.

A reporter’s analysis

Steele entered Lhasa in the “fifth month of the Wood-Monkey year”, with his passport duly stamped by the Tibetan Cabinet, Kashag. Steele took a promise from the British that his work was not to be published as propaganda material. He wrote a series of five articles on life and religion in Tibet, which he described as the “land of medieval charm and peerless alpine beauty”.

So impressed were the British authorities in India with Steele’s articles on Tibet in Chicago Daily that they republished the entire series, “In the Kingdom of Dalai Lama”, both in India and in the United Kingdom. Despite Steele’s stupendous efforts, T.A. Raman, the acting Public Relations Officer at the Office of the Agent General for India, Washington, lamented that “the articles were regarded only as good travel stories that failed to evoke any editorial comment or any political reaction”.

Steele had, however, assessed correctly: “The Tibetan question ranks with [the] Hong Kong question as one of the major points of difference between Britain and China…. Although Tibet is an arena of keen Anglo-Chinese rivalry, Tibetans want no trouble with their neighbours.” However, what was music to British ears was Steele’s analysis that suggested, “As an unresolved international puzzle, the hermit kingdom of Tibet poses complexities and dangers which the peacemakers of the world will be unable to ignore when the time comes for [the] reshaping of Asia.”

Tibetan children celebrating the Dalai Lama's birthday in Dharamshala on July 6. Photo:PTI
Tibetan children celebrating the Dalai Lama’s birthday in Dharamshala on July 6. Photo:PTI

It is through such persistent efforts that the British eventually succeeded in making the Americans carry forward the “apostolic succession” in Tibet. In the post–Independence period, Hugh Richardson, a British diplomat, continued tutoring Americans on Tibetan affairs; he remained at Lhasa as Head of Mission for the Government of India until the Chinese arrived there in 1950. Richardson was the originator of all intelligence inputs that shaped Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s and Nehru’s Tibet policy. Immediately after completing their task in Korea, the Americans began stepping up their involvement in Tibet, with Roger E. McCarthy creating a special Tibetan force to destabilise the region.

The Americans superseded their British mentors in their machinations by engineering a violent uprising in Tibet. Inadvertently, they fulfilled the “White Lama’s” dream of establishing a “Tibet Land”, but it was on Indian soil.

This time the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) ensured that the land was inhabited with Tibetan monks, including their chieftain.

Source: Frontline

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