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Religion

The nomads of the vast expanse of the Mongolian steppes shared a vision of the universe and the world of human experience that was characterized by religious concepts, rituals and magical practices that came to be known as shamanism from the word "shaman." The shaman was a kind of a priest or medium who acted as a conduit between the human world and the realm of the gods, demons, and spirits of ancestors. A person didn’t choose the profession of shaman but was selected for the job by a messenger from the spirit world. The arrival of this representative was usually announced by the chosen person’s falling seriously ill or suffering hallucinations. Shamanism, however, was not an organized religion. Although there were "grand" and "lessor" shamans, there was no elaborate hierarchy of the kind recognized by the Buddhists. The shamans’ individualism served them well in times of persecution and suppression when they remained hard to catch. Buddhist monks, concentrated in large monastic communities, on the other hand, were more vulnerable to suppression. In traditional Mongol society, women took the men’s place when they went off to war and had to be skilled in all aspects of animal husbandry and hunting. So it is not surprising that is a fundamental equality between men and women existed and that the important functions of the shaman could be performed by men and women alike. Shamanism in Mongolia, embedded in the nomadic life style of the people since ancient times, has managed to survive against enormous odds, including centuries of persecution by Buddhists and Stalinist efforts to eradicate this ancient tradition. In the soviet communist Buryatya and People’s Republic of Mongolia both Buddhism and shamanism were suppressed in twentieth century. Ritual sites were destroyed and lamas as well as shamans were killed. Also in China, the religious traditions suffer much from the communist regime. 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. Although 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. 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. From that period on Buddhism becomes the predominant religion in the Mongolian territories and establishes a big clergy. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the sculptor par excellence among the Buddhist countries of Asia was the Undur Gegeen Zanabazar (1635-1723), the first Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, or Bogdo Gegeen (King Bogd), and the greatest sculptor of Mongolia. He was the founder of our art school "Zanabazar“. Since Zanabazar, this highest-ranking representative of the Buddhists in the 17th century, the title Khan Bogd (King Bogd) has been established. Khans were simultaneously highest-ranking Buddhist as well as profane leaders. The last Mongolian Khan Bogd died in 1924. He was the last religious and profane ruler of the Mongols who resided in the Khan Bogd Palace. The place of residence was called Ulaanbaatar, i.e. 'Red Warriors' or 'Red Heroes'. 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. 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 . In the soviet communist Buryatya and People’s Republic of Mongolia both Buddhism and shamanism were suppressed in 20th century. 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.



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