The Spiritual side of Mongolia
Mongolians are deeply spiritual people. This, however, is not always apparent, as organized religion is but one small part of the spiritual matrix. Spirituality comes in many other forms, much of its day-to-day rituals rooted in Mongolia’s shamanic past. The ancient animist beliefs of the Siberian and steppe tribes who worshipped the sun, earth and sky are still very much alive, woven intimately into the fabric of modern Mongolia.
Mongol tribes have long believed in the spirit world as their shamans described it to them. Their cosmic view of the universe did not differentiate between the worlds of the living and dead, nor did they consider themselves any greater than other creatures in this or other worlds. Any imbalance between the human and natural world could cause calamity.
Shamanism is based around the shaman – called a bo if a man or udgan if a woman – who has special medical and religious powers (known as udmyn if inherited, zlain if the powers become apparent after a sudden period of sickness and apparitions).
Two of a shaman’s main functions are to cure sickness caused by the soul straying and to accompany the souls of the dead to the other world. As intermediaries between the human and spirit worlds, they communicate with spirits during trances, which can last up to six hours.
Shamanist beliefs have done much to shape Mongolian culture and social practices. For example, nomads today still fill in the holes left by their horse posts when they move camp, inherited from an old shamanic custom of returning the land to its natural state. The fact that Mongolia’s landscape is being torn up in search of minerals is inexcusable according to shamans and may lead to retribution from tenger (heaven).
Sky worship is another integral part of shamanism; you’ll see Mongolians leaving blue scarves (representing the sky) on ovoos. Sky gods are honored by flicking droplets of vodka in the air before drinking.
Shamanism has seen an explosion in popularity in recent years, and hundreds of shamans now offer their healing and consultation services in Ulaanbaatar and other cities. On weekends, shamans gather south of the Tuul Gol (river), about 1km east of Marshall Bridge (near Ikh Tenger valley). All over Mongolia, on cars in particular, you'll see swastikas, which may look offensive to Westerners but are symbols of ancient shamanism for Mongolians.
The Mongols had limited contact with organized religion before their great empire of the 13th century. It was Kublai Khaan who first found himself with a court in which all philosophies of his empire were represented, but it was a Tibetan Buddhist, Phagpa, who wielded the greatest influence on the khaan (emperor).
In 1578 Altan Khaan, a descendant of Chinggis Khaan, met the Tibetan leader Sonam Gyatso, was converted, and subsequently bestowed on Sonam Gyatso the title Dalai Lama (dalai means ‘ocean’ in Mongolian). Sonam Gyatso was named as the third Dalai Lama and his two predecessors were named posthumously.
Mass conversions occurred under Altan Khaan. As young Mongolian males became monks instead of soldiers, the centuries of constant fighting seemed to wane (much to the relief of China, which subsequently funded more monasteries in Mongolia). This shift from a warring country to a peaceful one persists in contemporary society – Mongolia is a UN-sanctioned ‘nuclear-weapons-free nation’. Buddhist opposition to needless killing reinforced strict hunting laws already set in place by shamanism. Today Buddhist monks are still influential in convincing local populations to protect their environment and wildlife.
Buddhism in Mongolia was nearly wiped out in 1937 when the communist government, at the urging of Stalin, launched a purge that destroyed most of the country’s 700 monasteries. Up to 30,000 monks were massacred, and thousands more sent to Siberian labor camps. Freedom of religion was only restored in 1990, shortly after the democratic revolution.
While Christianity was the fastest-growing religion in Mongolia in the 1990s and early 2000s, Buddhism is making a comeback thanks to renewed nationalism. Even the government (which ostensibly separates church and state) has supported Buddhist activities, including the Danshig Naadam, held each year in August.
In Mongolia today, there is a significant minority of Sunni Muslims, most of them ethnic Kazakhs, who live primarily in Bayan-Ölgii. Because of Mongolia's great isolation and distance from the major Islamic centers of the Middle East, Islam has never been a major force in Bayan-Ölgii. However, most villages have a mosque, and contracts have been established with Islamic groups in Turkey. Several prominent figures in the community have been on a hajj to Mecca. Besides the Kazakhs, the only ethnic Mongols to practice Islam are the Khoton tribe, who live primarily in Uvs aimag.
Nestorian Christianity was part of the Mongol empire long before the Western missionaries arrived. The Nestorians followed the doctrine of Nestorius (AD 358–451), patriarch of Constantinople (428–31), who proclaimed that Jesus exists as two separate persons: the man Jesus and the divine son of God. Historically the religion never caught hold in the Mongol heartland, but that has changed in recent years with an influx of Christian missionaries, often from obscure fundamentalist sects. In Mongolia, there are an estimated 65,000 Christians and more than 150 churches.