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Buriats, Religion and Modernity
by Valerie Sartor
2014-01-03 12:47:12
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baby buddhistThe Buriat are an Indigenous Siberian people who have lived around Lake Baikal for some 300,000 years. Their lands were invaded in the 17th century by the Russians; they were further colonized by the Soviets, in the early 20th century. In the early 1990s, the USSR crumbled, and the Buriats experienced a massive economic depression, along with the freedom to rebuild themselves as a people and as a nation. In 1993, the Buriat realigned with the newly established Russian Federation, in the hopes of living harmoniously with the Russians. As members of the Russian Federation, the Buriats distinguish themselves from other Siberian republics and peoples by their traditions, language, and worldview. Much of the Eastern Buriat (Khori) sense of self rests in their religious beliefs and traditions. 

Yet it is unrealistic to try to define anyone, much less the Buriats, by their adherence to a specific set of traditions. However, one can postulate that Buriat spiritual concepts and their sense of religion are directly related to the sense of Buriat identity. These beliefs are longstanding and have been experiencing a revival after the breakup of the USSR in the early 1990s. Perhaps this breakup, as well as other periods of time when Buriats and Slavs have interacted with each other, positively and negatively, has stimulated a greater awareness of socio-political forces, as well as consciousness of Buriat ways and worldviews. Certainly being aware of one’s history, and not just from the dominant cultural perspective, can lead to greater pride and respect for Indigenous traditions and ways of thinking. In fact, this new consciousness can be viewed as an unexpected benefit from the fall of the USSR in late December 1991. The collapse generated a deep economic crisis in its wake, from which many Russian citizens of Siberia, including the Buriat, still suffer. In Siberia, however, ethnic groups, such as the Buriat, are finding new ways to define and create themselves as people, joining with the global community, while holding on to their ancestral wisdom.

Today Buriat spiritual practices are wide ranging, including often a mixture of animistic Mongolian beliefs (tengri), Buddhism, and shamanism. These ancient religious systems have remained valuable and viable. Significantly, some spiritual practices have now evolved to meet the needs of 21st century Buriats. For example, there are now shamanic organizations and shamans who live in the cities, as opposed to those who once lived in rural and undeveloped areas. Modern shamans may practice wearing ordinary clothes, rather than traditional garb.  Likewise, Buddhist temples are being rebuilt, in many different places around Buriatia. In effect, for Buriats, personal choices regarding spirituality, have expanded and evolved - rather like the liberalization of the American Catholic Church in the 1970s to present.

buddhist ceremony My Buriat friends tell me that their spiritual base is a critical element in their sense of ethnic identity. These beliefs both set them apart from other Indigenous groups in Siberia and, to some extent, link them together in a pan-Mongolian brotherhood with other Mongolian peoples outside of Russia. This latter point is important, as the Soviet era fractured the sense of Buriat and Outer Mongolian cultural cohesion. Reverberations of this schism exist to the present day, with some Outer Mongols calling the Buriats Russified, for their food preferences and Russian loan words, and the Buriats often deeming the Outer Mongols as their poor, wild neighbors. Yet today, the Buriats and the Mongols can and do employ spiritual practices and beliefs to empower their respective communities and to establish links with each other. This pan-ethnic regrouping can create a sense of political as well as cultural cohesion, as sharing religious practices can build trust, and establish shared experiences and worldviews.

Clearly, the past has shaped the Buriat language and culture, and influenced the ways in which Buriats have accepted and adapted to Russian waves of invasion and colonization. As the  anthropologist  Marjorie Balzar said, religion can serve as  an idiom for everyday life, as well as a basis for religious rituals which affirm value systems and beliefs. Significant life passages: birth, marriage, decline, and death, are outlined by Buriat rites that trace back to antiquity. They continue, despite the fact that some Buriats may also practice “the Russian way” as well. I now briefly introduce Buriat religious concepts, which broadly fit into three categories: Buddhism, tengriism, and shamanism. I use the term category broadly, as many Buriat rituals and practices have fused amongst the three over the centuries.

The Buriats are followers of Yellow Hat Buddhism, the sect of the Dalai Lama. (See Thomas Laird’s 2006 book, Conversations with the Dalai Lama, for a clear history of the different types of Buddhism). Buriat Buddhist practices include a belief in reincarnation, as well as a myriad set of deities, some good and some not so good. Spiritual legends and tales about these deities offer ethical and moral advice, as well as historical content regarding Buddhism. The Buriat regard the Dalai Lama as a world leader as well as their personal leader. In Buriat history, there have also been some extraordinary Buriat lamas. For example, one sacred lama whose body is said to be yet uncorrupted for almost one hundred years; he rests in a temple near Ulan Ude.

buriat datsanEvery Buriat home I have visited has a Buddhist altar, and every altar had a picture of the Dalai Lama, as well as votive candles, prayer wheels, incense, and other Buddhist paraphernalia. Buriat children are socialized at an early age to learn Buddhist practices. Children together with their families visit various datsans -temples around Buriatia, with the adults seeking advice or cures for physical and spiritual illnesses. Religion is not closed to outsiders. As an outsider/friend/researcher, I was always invited to participate when Buriats visited datsans for celebration or for consultation.

A second key concept concerning Buriat ethnic identity is knowing one’s family and place: this means being able to trace back one’s ancestry for multiple generations (theoretically nine generations), and knowing where the sacred spots are located for a particular Buriat family and kin. All the Buriat children I studied told me that they knew these things; family genealogy was an important subject from early childhood onwards. Buriat children are brought to these places, sacred springs and trees and rocks, in order to learn to identify them, and to learn how to pay respect to the ancestral spirits as well as other spirits, that reside in these places. This animistic belief system, as well as the Mongol concept of tengri: the Eternal Blue Sky, is as old as the Buriat people. At such places, libations of milk or alcohol are made along with prayers and good wishes; often a family will camp and enjoy the natural beauty of place when they make a pilgrimage to ancestral land. Lake Baikal, it goes without saying, is a sacred spot for all Buriats. They consider the lake as alive, and offering positive healing energy to all.

camping at lake baikal In addition to libations, Buriats may place money in front of Buddhist deities or thankgas (images of deities), as they visit a Buddhist datsan, or temple. With Buriat friends I have often stayed in guest houses owned by a datsan, because the trip to visit these places is social and enjoyable as well as dignified and spiritual. I have also camped with Buriats around Lake Baikal, enjoying the natural surroundings and making myself open, like my Buriat friends, to the positive energy emanating from the lake.

Moreover, all the outings I have made together with Buriat friends were family affairs; I feel that it is rare for a Buriat to go on a spiritual mission alone. This could be because Buriats are not individually inclined; another significant part of their ethnic identity involves being nested within family relationships. Maintaining kin networks is important, and family rituals, from religious ceremonies to marriage, are expected to be conducted in family groups. The Buriat New Year, for example, offers a chance for people to visit extended family with all sorts of “white food” (dairy products) as gifts; friends are also visited and welcomed.

The third spiritual concept which defines the Buriat concerns shamans. The gift to shamanize can be inherited or can be a gift that manifests itself over time. Buriats, like other Siberian peoples, feel that one risks great physical injury to one’s self or to family by refusing to take on the duties of becoming a shaman.  Some Buriats I know well have been consulting with one shaman for many years. He is approximately twelve years younger than this couple, and they watched him progress into becoming a powerful shaman. “We knew his teacher, and we were told by this man when to start consulting him,” they told me. I, too, have consulted him, to good effect. This man never asked anyone for money. People who consult with him usually discreetly give his numerous children envelopes filled with money as their donation, and these envelopes hopefully make their way into his pocket. Buriat friends will also arrange to send this man and his family gifts of food, such as fresh fruit or meat, from time to time.

Buriats go to shamans to access the spiritual dimension, especially if there is a family emergency, or an important financial decision to make. Some shamans are believed to have the power to heal physical illness; others can foresee the future; still others can diagnose a spiritual illness and eradicate it. Buriat shamans can be young or old, male or female. They may hold ordinary jobs, such as an artisan position, or they may be community leaders, such as a lawyer. Some simply shamanize full time. My friends have told me, that despite the repressive measures legalized during the Soviet era, shamans continued to work in secret, and people consulted them. The Soviet health care system, although better than the post- Soviet system today in Buriatia, did not make people feel confident in western medicine. Today, shamans around Buriatia and other parts of Siberia are enjoying a revival, but like any spiritual practice, it should be noted that there are some that may not have the integrity or skill as others.

eternal_blue_sky_400I have briefly outlined the complex, hybrid and evolving spiritual practices of the Buriat, and I have noted that this religious system is critical to the Buriat sense of self. Unfortunately, Buddhism, tengriism, and shamanism - these words may seem, in English and to western ears, to hold a derogatory connotation. They may sound “primitive,” especially to those western people who adhere to Christianity as the standard and the norm. In fact, many western scholars define Buddhism as a kind of philosophy rather than as a religion, and some think that being atheist equates with going to a shaman or conducting rituals honoring tengriism. But in fact, these religious concepts are older than Christianity, and appear, to the Buriat and to myself, as less aggressive toward the natural environment and to our fellow men. 

For today’s Buriat, the revival in their ancient spiritual practices is also part of the post-Soviet ethnic revival. These values have survived many difficult political climates. Today they have evolved to meet the needs of 21st century Buriats. These religious systems embody positive human ideals: Respect for the land and the ancestors, belief in souls and reincarnation, and the gift of talented shamanic intermediaries to understand problems and stop suffering - they are part of the enduring Buriat consciousness.

Can I end by stating definitively that there exists a measurable Buriat identity, complete with measurable spiritual concepts? No more than a western person can assure me that there is a Catholic or Jewish or Muslim identity. Not all Buriat think alike or believe and practice in exactly the same ways, just like Catholics, Jews, and Muslims. All that is certain is that Buriat youth are holding on to and transforming their religious beliefs as they negotiate their way through the post-Soviet world. Buriats have entered post-modernity: They are becoming more physically mobile, traveling throughout Inner Asia, Russia, and beyond. They are also exploring their lives and identities by accessing technology and media, which gives them endless, creative opportunities to connect with global ideas. Yet they endure as they evolve, holding onto being modern and being Buriat. 


All photos by Valerie Sartor

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L. Nannery2014-01-03 20:33:58
It is not true that these people go back 300,000 years. There is no evidence of any humans existing more than 50,000 years ago.

Emanuel Paparella2014-01-04 14:37:44
I suppose Larry it all depends on how one defines “Man.” If by the skull that looks half that of a chimpanzee, half human, then he is at least 7 million years old. If by the ability to walk upright (bipedality) on two legs and smaller canine teeth than other primates, distinguishing early hominids from gorillas, (homo abilis) then he is at least 3 million years old. Of course by that standard an ostrich could be considered a man too. If the ability to create tools and start fires is what defines man then he is at least a million years old and he originates in Africa. If by the ability to think rationally like Plato and Aristotle, then he originates in Greece ony two thousand years ago. On the other hand one can make a case that such an ability is not prevalent in the species as a whole and then alas man is not man yet and we need to wait for Nietzsche’s uberman…The evangelist of course believe that the universe was created only seven thousand years ago in one fiat by God, therefore man for them could not be more than seven thousand years ago. I suppose, as the political evangelist who insist that Obama was born in Kenia, it is all a matter of faith, what one wants to believe. And so it goes.

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