Buriat Religion

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BURIAT RELIGION . The Buriats, northern Mongols, are the most significant minority native to eastern Siberia. They are not a homogeneous body; there are two cultural extremes, between which exists a range of intermediate groups.

The western or Cisbaikalian extreme is represented by the Ekhirit-Bulagat tribe, forest dwellers who are engaged in hunting and fishing. Although they were isolated from the Mongolian empire, they had begun to practice livestock breeding through the influence of Mongolian émigrés at the time of the arrival of Russian cossacks in the mid-seventeenth century. After colonization and sedentarization, their segmentary clan structure survived more ideologically than practically. Shamanism has remained strong there up to the present, successfully resisting the assaults of lamaist propaganda and affected only superficially by Orthodox Christianity.

The eastern or Transbaikalian extreme is represented by the Khori, who, as a result of Mongolian civil wars during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, settled with their herds in the steppes. They were treated favorably by the rulers of the Russian empire because of their strategic position in relation to the Chinese empire. Beginning in the eighteenth century, lamaism, which had come from Mongolia, spread rapidly. While lamaism favored the ideals of nomadic pastoralism and developed the tendency toward a centralizing hierarchy, it was forced to adapt its practice to traditional shamanic forms and to fight the power of the shamans themselves.

Shamanism is a constituent element of traditional Buriat society. Within the framework of the clan institution, due to its control of the spirits (which originate from souls), it assures a mediation between man and the supernatural concerning access to natural resources, thereby assuring a general regulation of societal life, transcending by far the individual shaman and his activity. Many authors have tended to exaggerate the role of the shaman's personality and to construct an independent and rigid pantheon of spirits fundamentally linked with daily tribal life. The shamanic institution and its practice varies according to the modes of subsistence and society and associated exterior influences. Three kinds can be distinguished, the second being the only well-documented one.

The Hunter's Shamanism

The first type of shamanism is associated with hunting. Animals, conceived as being organized in exogamic clans maintain relations of alliance and vengeance that are analogous to those that obtain between humans. Hunter and shaman are each in his own way similar to the son-in-law who takes a wife and gives a sister: in return for the game meat taken from the forest spirits, the hunter feeds the animal spirits (ongon s); in return for the living human and animal souls obtained from the corresponding spirits, the shaman restores the souls of the deceased to their world, whence his role in birth and death.

Any misbehavior or infraction entails sanctions that always affect biological life, resulting in such occurrences as intemperate weather, absence of game, sickness, and death. Because the soul is indispensable to bodily life, it is the shaman's lot to conduct preventative and restorative mediations. With the help of the personal allies he has made among human and animal spirits, he symbolically travels and meets the troublemaking spirits in order to negotiate a return to order. Invested to serve his clan, the shaman may be led to act against other clans (by diverting game away from them, afflicting them with sickness) and become the symbolic architect of wars.

The Cattle Breeder's Shamanism

The second and best-documented type of shamanism is found among those of the Ekhirit-Bulagat tribe who breed cattle. The essential part of relations between the human and spirit worlds consists of relations between the living and the dead. Subsistence is dependent upon one's ancestors (übged), who are "masters" (ezen) of the mountains dominating the clan territory. These ancestors legitimize and protect the economic life of their descendants and punish them with biological harm for every breach of clan ethics. In the tailghan sacrifices (of mares or sheep) offered by each clan to its ancestors, the shaman participates as a member of the clan.

The principal causes for recourse to shamanic mediation are accidents in the realm of filiation ties and rules, that is, anything that affects patrilineal continuity: sterility, difficult childbirth, childhood illness, and even conjugal disputes and women's flights or escapades that entail the risk, for a man, not to have any descendants. (According to legend, shamanism originated from a wife who ran off.) Those involved must both be cured during their lifetime and spared frustration that would incite them to inflict harm after their death. Private sacrifices (khereg) are offered to their souls after death, first to neutralize and soothe them and then to transform them into zayaan. These spirits are the exceptional dead (of which the positive examples are the great shamans, warriors, or hunters), who govern the fate of men and are of prime importance in the religious practice. The ordinary dead support their descendants in wars against other clans; a clan without a shaman to intervene by mediating with its dead takes recourse to flight rather than expose itself to combat. In the pastoral setting, however, the restorative activities of the shaman generally prevail over the offensive ones.

The shaman

Among the Ekhirit-Bulagats, in order to become a shaman (böö) one must have a shaman "essence" (udkha), that is, a genetically transmitted right, which is evidenced by the existence of shamans among one's ancestors. It is imperative for one of the descendants of a shamanic line to become a shaman so that the ancestor shamans can have a representative on earth. Equally important is that the candidate demonstrate his capability in order to be supported and invested by his people. Finally, although gender is proclaimed irrelevant, male shamans are much more numerous than female shamans (udaghan s); patrilineal rule is compulsory.

A shaman's career generally is decided at adolescence, under a certain amount of pressure from the boy's relatives. Fainting fits, visions, flights or escapades, and anorexia called khüdkhe ("disordered state") are interpreted as signs that the shaman is familiarizing himself with the spirits under the aegis of his ancestors. He trains in the shamanic manner of singing and gesticulating (in a lugubrious voice with animal-like cries, sighs and gasping fits, leaping, swaying, etc., representing the voyage to the spirit world) and imitates or assists experienced shamans for several years. At the end of this apprenticeship, he is invested by his community through a rite (called ughaalgha ) in which he receives his accoutrements (costume, drum, etc). This rite consists of symbolically "reanimating" the shaman, making him both spirit and human, dead and alive. It is this amalgamation of the two modes of being that permits him to ensure mediation. He then takes an oath to serve his people, who will monitor him closely in this work and who will not hesitate to replace or do away with him should they become dissatisfied.

Without an "essence" one still can become a shaman if one has numerous deceased relatives, particularly if one relative was struck dead by lightning, a process that energizes a new essence. His ability would then have to be demonstrated. Should the obligation to become a shaman be perceived as unbearable by the sole descendant of a line, the shamanic role nevertheless provides an excellent opportunity for an individual to emerge, especially for women. Female shamans whose vocations are thwarted become the most formidable "fates" (zayaan) upon death. In addition, those who are not shamans occasionally shamanize, either for their own psychic needs or within the framework of collective peregrinations (böölööšen or naĭguur) while trying to face natural disasters or pressures of acculturation.

The principal moments of the shamanic séance are (1) the censing of the area with the smoke of burning spruce bark (the spruce, known to the Buriats as žodoo, is the symbol of the shaman's function) in order to effect the shaman's entrance into sacred space-time; (2) the incorporation of auxiliary spirits; (3) the transcendent vision, in which the shaman identifies the spirit responsible for the disturbance; (4) the journey of the soul to the realm of the spirit in question in order to negotiate with him; (5) a sacrifice in accordance with his wishes; and (6) general divination. Following the séance, the shaman resumes his normal life.

The sky creators and their founding sons

If the spirits of the deceased rule over daily life, the tengeri s (or tengri s; "skies," a class of supernatural beings) creators and predestinators of humans, appear in the background. They are divided into opposite camps, the fifty-five White Tengeris of the West (or Right), whose leader is considered older, and the forty-four Black Tengeris of the East (or Left), whose leader is considered younger. This division, which illustrates the conflict between the Elder and the Younger, on the one hand denotes the principle of clan segmentation (and perhaps an ancient organization by moieties); on the other hand, it denotes the principle of dualistic power, viewed as a conflict between the established authority (symbolized by the elder) and the challenge to that authority (symbolized by the younger). The elder represents the clan institution, which has inherited legitimate authority but no real power; the younger represents the shamanic institution, which has real power but must subordinate the exercise of its function to the interests of the clan and which has a social position, resting on ability, that is always susceptible to being challenged (whence the fact that the shaman is both indispensable to the clan and feared by it at the same time on account of his ability to manipulate the powers of the spirits).

The first legendary shaman carried the adjective khara ("black") in his name. It seems that the notion of a white shaman is an artificial creation that resulted from religious acculturation or was a reaction against it: an examination of the facts reveals the nonexistence of white shamans as such. While the tengeri s remain in the sky, expressing themselves through atmospheric phenomena, their sons descend to the earth, as did Buxa Noyon the Bull Lord, founder of the Ekhirit-Bulagat tribe; the epic hero Geser, founder of the rules of marriage; and the various "kings" (khad) of mountains and waters.

Marginalized Shamanism

The third kind of Buriat shamanism is that which survived in the lamaist regions in spite of persecution (which occurred at the beginning of the nineteenth century, primarily in the regions of Barguzin and Tunka). There the shaman is no longer a sort of "clan property." His role and status is marginalized; personal desire is the key motivator for becoming a shaman, and the door is open to women. Occasionally a family may have both a son who is a lama and a daughter who is a shaman. It is not unusual for one to contact a shaman to "call back the soul" (hünehe kharyuulkha) robbed from a sick person by a spirit after a lama's attempt has failed, for the shaman is still considered the more capable of succeeding.

The biggest changes affect the conception of the supernatural world (which continues to expand and develop as a hierarchy) and the social significance of rituals. The faces of the celestial tengeri s are becoming more individualistic, borrowing traits from lamaist deities and occasionally becoming merged with them. It is to them and no longer to ancestral spirits that milk offerings and prayers are directed in order to obtain an increase in offspring and livestock. Some new faces appear, such as that of Erlik, master of the world of the dead. Some are transformed, like the spirit of the hearth fire, represented west of Lake Baikal by a couple worshiped by all hearths of the same clan; in the east this couple becomes an independent woman, tengeri or khan of the fire, worshiped separately by each family.

To compete with the clan sacrifices (tailghan), the lamas organize great bloodless rituals (oboo), which are open to a large parochial community and are held on a mountain summit. The lamaist practice threatens to eliminate or at least to overtake the shamanic practice on all levels (through control over pastoral space and daily life, divination, medicine, and magical demonstrations). Judging from the actual relics, it is clear that the lamas have succeeded only superficially. The establishment of an actual Buriat Lamaist church in Transbaikalia was encouraged by the Russian Empire in order to avoid dependence on Mongolia and hence on China; in fact, lamaism obtained a strong sociopolitical position but was nearly emptied of all Buddhist content. Comparatively, in the agricultural regions of Cisbaikalia, Orthodox Christianity has had only a superficial influence over the ritual seasons (for example, the cults of Saint Nicholas and other saints). Along with the official existence of the lamaist monastery at Ivolga, the cult of Maydar (Maitreya), the future Buddha, seems to be the only living practice today; it is supported by a kind of nationalistic prophesying, but it is very limited geographically.

The Adaptation of Shamanism

Organically linked with a noncentralized type of society, pragmatic in its own principle, deriving its power from simple spirits, turning each shaman into a rival of others, shamanism is vulnerable to every centralizing influence and to the penetration of any dogma that implies transcendental entities and is represented by a constituent clerical body. This weakness is at the same time a strength: shamanism can adapt. The spirits are brought into line with current tastes (for example, the souls of revolutionaries who died tragically, victims of the Second World War), whereas in the sky, such a figure as Lenin deliberates with the tengeri s concerning world affairs. Despite these innovations, illness, especially children's illness, remains the principal occasion for true shamanic intervention. Free from all liturgy and cultural servitude, based on flexibility and individual innovation, the shaman's practice is all but formalist and may take place in secrecy. Communication with the dead plays a role in the awareness of ethnic identity; certain ritualistic details, like the drops of alcohol poured at the inauguration of all feasts, or like the ribbons hung on trees growing through a hill or near a thermal spring, have become true cultural traits of the Buriats.

See Also

Erlik; Ongon; Shamanism; Southern Siberian Religions; Tengri.


Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1951). Princeton, 1964. The only general overview on shamanism covering a wide range of peoples. Includes extensive data on the Buriats.

Khangalov, M. N. Sobranie sochinenii. 3 vols. Ulan-Ude, 19581960. A remarkable compendium of data gathered at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century in the regions to the west of Lake Baikal by a highly learned Buriat authority on shamanism.

Lamaizm v Buriatii XVIII-nachala XX veka: Struktura i sotsial'naia rol' kul'tovoi sistemy. Novosibirsk, 1983. An excellent study of the conflicts and accommodations between lamaism and shamanism in Transbaikalia during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.

Manzhigeev, I. A. Buriatskie shamanisticheskie i doshamanisticheskie terminy. Moscow, 1978. Presents, in the form of a glossary, the notable personalities and concepts of Buriat shamanism and mythology.

Mikhailov, T. M. Iz istorii buriatskogo shamanizma (s drevneishikh vremen po XVIII v.). Novosibirsk, 1980. A history of Buriat shamanism, treated as a discrete religious system. Balances both critical and theoretical approaches.

Sandschejew, Garma. "Weltanschauung und Schamanismus der Alaren-Burjaten," Anthropos 22 (1927): 576613, 933955; 23 (1928): 538560, 967986. A richly informative panorama of the shamanism of the Alar Buriats (west of Lake Baikal) based on the personal observations of the author.

New Sources

Balzer, Marjorie Mandelstam, ed. Shamanism: Soviet Studies of Traditional Religion in Siberia and Central Asia. Armonk, N.Y., 1990.

Fridman, Eva Jane Neumann. "Sacred Geography: Shamanism in the Buddhist Republics of Russia." Ph.D. diss., Brown University, Providence, 1998.

Hamayon, Roberte. "Abuse of the Father, Abuse of the Husband: A Comparative Analysis of Two Buryat Myths of Ethnic Origin." In Synkretismus in den Religionen Zentralasiens: Ergebnisse eines Kolloquiums vom 24.5. bis 26.5.1983 in St. Augustin bei Bonn, edited by Walther Heissig and Hans-Joachim Klimkeit, pp. 91107. Wiesbaden, 1987.

Hurelbaatar, A. "An Introduction to the History and Religion of the Buryat Mongols of Shinehen in China." Inner Asia 2, no. 1 (2000): 73116.

Kiripolska, Marta. "The Twelve Deeds of the Buddha: A 19th Century Buriat Translation of the Hymn [Buriat Manuscript found in the Collection of Naprstek Museum in Prague]." Mongolian Studies 23 (2000): 1742.

Tkacz, Virlana. Shanar: Dedication Ritual of a Buryat Shaman in Siberia as Conducted by Bayir Rinchinov. New York, 2002.

Roberte Hamayon (1987)

Translated from French by Sherri L. Granka
Revised Bibliography