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Mixing of Religions in Buryatia

June 1, 2012 at 7:08 am
By Danielle Bennon, Sophia Kissin, and Michael Mandelkorn,

Earlier in the term, we focused a great deal on a certain social phenomenon in Russian society that exists even to this day: dvoeverie. This is a religious system in which pagan beliefs and practices are maintained and observed, though practiced under a thin veneer of Christianity. Even well into Christian times, Russian homes often had pagan characters carved into the decorative molding above windows to ward off spirits. While the church tried to combat the continuation of pagan rituals, it was ultimately forced to accept their Christianized forms. Thus pagan traditions were upheld, only under the auspices of Christianity.

While dvoverie was happening in the Northern European forests, a somewhat parallel situation was unfolding on the Buryatia steppe in Siberia. But instead of a thin veneer of Christianity, we have Shamanism and Buddhism being practiced side by side, often with the boundaries between religions so blurred that supplicants have little success distinguishing which parts of which rituals come from which religion. Even Christianity has been mixed into Buryatian religious practices, but to a lesser extent.

The Republic of Buryatia is home of the Buryats, a people of Northern Mongols. Shamanism in this region and in Mongolia dates back to Stone Age hunters and Bronze Age horsemen. Mongolian and Southern Siberia shamanism is based on the worship of the Eternal Heavan (Munkh Tenger), Mother Earth (Gazar Eej) and ancestral and nature spirits. (Buryatmongol.org)

In Shamanism, the shamans themselves are not revered, but are respected because of their special relationship with the spirits. Part of a shaman’s work is to interact with other worlds, universes and contact spirits. Everyday religious practices do not require a shaman, rather a shaman’s assistance is used to restore balance or heal illness. This form of shamanism found in Buryatia has often been called Tengerism. (Buryatmogol.org)

Buddhism began in India in the 6th century BCE with the teachings of Prince Siddartha Guatama, the Buddha or “Enlightened One.” The Buddha’s teachings work to free all living things of ignorance and suffering by awakening their intrinsic wisdom to achieve pure enlightenment, peace, harmony, blessedness, and tranquility (Abaev 4).

Yellow Hat Buddhism, or Lamaism, a strain of Buddhism founded in the 14th-15th century in Tibet, came to Buryatia with the Mongols in the 17th century (Abaev 7, 18). Traditional worship of the spirits and gods of nature (i.e. trees, lakes, rivers) in Lamaism distinguishes it from other Buddhist teachings.

Orthodox Christianity has existed in Buryatia for more than 350 years. Orthodox Cossacks first came to the region in the 17th century, while old-believers were exiled to Buryatia in the 18th and 19th century. (Burytia.ru) At the start of the 19th century missionaries began to play a more active role in the region. They tour lamaseries, but the monks were unreceptive to them. (Reid, 79)

Driving around Buryatia, stopping at a sacred prayer site called an obo, along the side of the road is commonplace. These sites are often either sacred rocks or wooden poles called sarges swaddled in cloth, the sites themselves marked by Buddhist prayer flags wrapped around every available tree branch or free object, the ground absolutely covered with rice, coins, and other such items people see fit to offer (which can range from cigarettes to tubes of designer lipstick). It is custom to offer something called “beloye pishe,” or white food--rice, milk, or vodka-- to the gods. The gods also love shiny gold-colored coins.

During one of our stops on the road to Ust-Barguzin, we even saw a shaman mid-ritual, leading a family in prayer. He spoke Buddhist prayers, but walk in circles around the stone, pouring milk over the rock as he did so, thus providing a wonderful example of the mixing of Buddhist and Shaman ritual.

In Kyakhta, a town in Buryatia on the Mongolian border, we visited a museum filled with a hodge-podge of artifacts from Kyakhtan history. The museum housed everything to do with Kyakhta – from religious objects, indigenous people’s tools found in the area, to taxidermied animals and food designed for Soviet kosmonauts. It was heartwarming to note that, in a small side room dedicated to Buddhist artifacts, visitors had slipped coins and rice through the slits of the glass cases, offering gifts to the Buddhist idols just as one might in a Buddhist datsan. But even more interesting was the fact that, when we found ourselves in an exhibit on Christian Orthodox paraphernalia a few rooms later, we noticed the same small donations of cookies, candies, rice, and coins had been slipped inside the cases protecting the icons and crosses. This was a perfect example of the way religions considered to be fundamentally different by the West have coexisted and even melded together in Siberia. As we heard many times throughout our travels in Buryatia, from just about every one we met – “It’s all one god…”

 

Related Links:

A website, in English, about the history and culture of Buryatia. It provides great background for understanding Buryatia.

A website, in English, explaining Shamanism in Buryatia and the rest of Monogolia. It provides a translation of the "Epic of King Gesar," an epic recorded in poetry and prose chronicling the heroic deeds of Gesar. The site also discusses present-day Urban shamanism.

 

Works Cited

"History of Buryatia." Buryatia.ru. Web. 02 June 2012. http://www.buryatia.ru/buryatia/history/index_e.html.

"Passing on the Ancient Traditions." Buryatmongol.org. The Mongolian Shamans’ Association. Web. 31 May 2012. http://buryatmongol.org/the-mongolian-shamans-association/.

Reid, Anna. The Shaman's Coat: A Native History of Siberia. New York: Walker &, 2003. Print.