Religion in Mongolia


A History of Religion in Mongolia

Shamanism - Buddhism - Twentieth century


The native religion of Mongolia is, like the language, related to the Turkish tradition and would also have similarities with the Tibetan Bön. In general this religion is referred to as shamanism (Heissig 1980). Rather often shamanism refers to a specific form of this religious phenomena present in Siberia, and although there is a relation with this form it is not the same (Heissig 1980: 6). Above this `shamanism´ implies that a religious specialist is needed and central to it’s faith and practices while in fact it is an animist religion with an arsenal of beliefs and practices in which a shaman not necessarily is involved. 

This native religion is not unequivocal, with a unequivocal doctrine,  but rather a diversity of  local beliefs and practices, which by a number of common characteristics can be lumped together. Central in this belief is the worship of the Blue, Mighty, Eternal Heaven (köke tngri, erketü tngri, möngke tngri) (Heissig 1980: 6, 47-8). There is a total of 99 tngri or heavenly creatures of which Köke Möngke Tngri (Eternal Blue Heaven) is the chief. According to European sources from the thirteenth century this would be one god, from whom it is believed he is the creator of the visible and invisible (Heissig 1980: 48). In Asian Mythologies it is referred to as monotheistic with multiple gods. Next to Köke Möngke Tngri there is Qurmusata King of the Gods. He has a special relation with the origin of fire. It is said that “Buddha struck the light and Qurmusata Tngri lit the fire” (Heissig 1980:??). And fire still is considered sacred among Mongolians. One of the many etiquettes that applies in a ger is to never stamp out the fire, or put rubbish or water on it.


Larry Moses traces the first contact of the Mongolians with Buddhism back to the 4th century A.D. By that time the T´o-pa Wei dynasty would have some influence on the Juan-juan dynasty which dominated Mongolia at that time (Moses 1977: 23-4). A later Buddhist influence is that of the Kitan in the 10th century, from which at the time of writing a stupa in Kerulen Bars Khota and the remainings of Buddha statue at Khalkhin Gol. In 1125 the Kitan dynasty falls and Mongolia reverts to a disorganized collection of warring tribes in which Nestorianism, Manicheism and shamanism are the main religions. (Moses 1977: 34-9)

It is in the time of the Great Khans that the Tibetan form of Buddhism gains influence in Mongolia. In the beginning of the 13th century Chinggis Khan conquers Tibet. The leader of the biggest empire ever was known for his religious tolerance, having Nestorian Christians, Moslems, Manicheïsts and shamans within his realm. When after his death trouble arises in Tibet his grandson is send to settle things. Allthough doing this with a trail of destruction he makes friends with Sakya (Sa skya) Pandita, the patriarch of the Sa skya sect. With these two the special Tibetan lama-patron relationship starts. Godan´s successor Khubilai Kahn continued this relation with Sakya Pandita´s nephew Phags-pa. He was kept at the Mongolian court, but more for political than spiritual reasons. By holding a representative from the ruling Sa skya pa, Khubilai hoped to realise a friendly attitude of the Tibetans. While being at the Mongolian court Phags-pa converted great parts of the ruling class including Khubilai (Fonteijn 1999: 32-4; Heissig 24; email contact Henk Blezer). So for the first time Mongolia came under major Buddhist influence, although it seems to mainly have been limited to the upper class.

At the end of 16th century Altan Khan is in power. He meets with Sonam Gyatso, a Tibetan Buddhist leader whom he gives the title of Dalai Lama. This meeting means a revival of Buddhism in Mongolia. Later great-grandson of Altan Khan will pointed as an incarnation of the Dalai Lama, strengthening the ties between Mongolia and Tibetan Buddhism (email contact Henk Blezer). From that period on Buddhism becomes the predominant religion in the Mongolian territories and establishes a big clergy. At the end of the nineteenth century there were 583 monasteries and temple complexes and 243 incarnate lama's would be living in the Mongolian territories, of which 157 resided in Inner Mongolia (Heissig 1980: 1; Worden & Savada). The Buddhist clergy controlled about 20 percent of the country’s wealth and in the 1920s there were about 110.000 monks, making up one-third of the male population (Worden & Savada). Moses especially emphasis the negative impact of this clergy:

…[T]he evils of the monastic system; the greedy and corrupt lamas; the ignorance, poverty and disease perpetuated by an unresponsive, untutored clergy; and …the crushing economic burden of an unproductive and acquisitive clerical hierarchy.” (Moses 1977: 3-4)


Twentieth century
In the soviet communist Buryatya and People’s Republic of Mongolia both Buddhism and shamanism were suppressed. Ritual sites were destroyed and lamas as well as shamans were killed. Also in China, the religious traditions suffer much from the communist regime.

In the Mongolian People’s Republic the communist purges seem to be the most effective. In 1937 they are started leading to an almost complete wipe out of the Buddhist clergy. All but one monasteries were destroyed and thousands of monks were killed or deported. Moses states:

The Mongolian People’s Republic is perhaps unique in having successfully eradicated almost all vestiges of religion, from the dogma once taught to the people, to the individual monastic institutions that once existed all across Mongolia. […] Religion…is no longer a social factor in the Mongolian People´s Republic ” (Moses 1977: 2-3)

Seeing the great revival of Buddhism in the present time, we maybe must conclude that the elimination wasn’t as complete as Moses says. Nevertheless it was completely wiped out in public life. Many rituals and festivities were prohibited or tried to be secularized throughout all of Greater Mongolia. An interesting note that in Buryatya the elimination of Buddhism led to a growth of the “decentralized and flexible folk practice of shamanism” (Worden & Savada).

Although freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution of 1960 religious activity remains hardly tolerated. In 1989 then liberation sets in with a policy to reaffirm traditional culture (Worden & Savada). In 1990 under influence of the perestroika in the USSR communism falls in Buryatya as well as Mongolia and a revival Buddhism sets in. Monasteries and other religious are restored and inhabited again. People attend services and consult lama's for important events (Hind 2000).

Guido Verboom                            


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