Mongolian Religion

Mongolian Shaman


This native religion is not unequivocal, with an 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). 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. 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 relationship with the origin of the fire. It is said that “Buddha struck the light and Qurmusata Tngri lit the fire”. And the fire still is considered sacred among Mongolians. One of the much etiquettes that applies in a ger is to never stamp out the fire, or put rubbish or water on it.

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. Rather often shamanism refers to a specific form of these religious phenomena present in Siberia, and although there is a relationship with this form it is not the same. Above this `shamanism´ implies that a religious specialist is needed and central to its 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. 



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. Later Buddhist influence is that of the Kitan in the 10thcentury, 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.

It is in the time of the Great Khans that the Tibetan form of Buddhism gains influence in Mongolia. At 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 sent 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.

“…The 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.” 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. 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 (Worden & Savada). Moses especially emphasis the negative impact of this clergy



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, 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 wipeout of the Buddhist clergy. All but one monastery were destroyed and thousands of monks were killed or deported. “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 ”

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 Buryatia, the elimination of Buddhism led to a growth of the “decentralized and flexible folk practice of shamanism”.

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. In 1990 under influence of the perestroika in the USSR communism falls in Buryatia 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.



One of the characteristics of Mongolian Buddhism is the many independent lamas’. These lamas’s don’t belong to any kind of monastery. Their income is partly derived from gifts or payments from people consulting them. These consults might concern religious, spiritual or medical issues. Also, lama's can be asked to ensure the well being of a certain project/for special occasions like I observed sometime when someone wanted to build a kiosk he had a lama come to bless the ground. These independent lama's in most cases have not taken the monks vows. The independent lama's might have bonds with a monastery or even work for them as for instance a librarian.



Mongolian traditional medicine is very much based on Tibetan Buddhist practice. There are some differences, however. According to Lama Baatar, working at the Medical college in the Dornogobi aimag, Mongolian medicine would be much better in handling physical problems because of the weather, diseases related to food and taking blood from the body. Furthermore, in the Mongolian tradition, there is acupuncture-like treatment with needles. At several monasteries, like Dashchoilon Khiid, Gesar Sum and Mamba Datsun it is possible to get medical consults. Also, there are independent lama´s who offer these consults.



In the Mongolian calendar years are named after one of the animals of the Asian zodiac (horse, sheep, monkey, bird, dog, pig, rat/mouse, cow/ox, tiger, hare, dragon, and snake). Together with this cycle of twelve years is a cycle of ten years in which two subsequent years are indicated with one of five elements (iron, water, wood, fire, earth). These cycles combined give a sixty (12x5) year period of unique combinations of an animal with an element. Every year is divided into lunar months which in principal consist of thirty days but might be shorter because unlucky days are not counted and some holy days are counted twice. Then every month has four special days of worship: the 8th, 10th, 15th and 25th. And every year has its special holy days. The birthday of Buddha was celebrated in 2002 on May 26.

In Mongolia the lunar New Year is called Tsagaan Sar, meaning the white month, which is celebrated during a few days at the end of the 81 days winter period. Nomads divide the year into periods of nine days and the winter thus is nine of these periods. The periods have names like: `Lambs must be covered´ and `Not cold enough to freeze the soup´. The main shamanistic ritual called the Great sacrifice is held on the third day of Tsagaan Sar.