Through contacts with neighbouring nomadic and sedentary populations, the Shamanist Mongols were exposed early to various religions such as Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Islam or Taoism, not to mention influences of Zoroastrism and Manicheism in former steppe kingdoms. Chingis Khan and his successors were interested in the spiritual and political benefits which could be gained from supportive mainstream religions in their dominions and consequently exempted religious institutions from taxes and military conscription. Although Nestorianism was initially favoured at the imperial court thanks to influent Christian wives of several Chingisids, Mongol rulers eventually converted either to Islam or, for those ruling in China, to Tibetan Buddhism.
A second conversion took place at the end of the 16th century, begining of the 17th century when the expanding power of some Eastern and Western Mongol rulers allowed them to interfere again in Tibetan affairs
and patronize some of its Buddhist schools. The Gelupas, whose political supremacy in Tibet will eventually be achieved through Mongol support, built a religious monopoly in Mongolian lands, discouraging all rival schools. Through active missionary work, indigenous shamanism was suppressed, good use being made in the process of magical aspects of tantric Buddhism, mantras and fierce deities in addition to creating a new repertory of rites and prayers to satisfy the religious beliefs and needs of the Mongols. The adoption of Buddhism involved this time all the Mongol subjects and constituted a nation-wide cultural shift. Shamanism survived in a few groups, not so much because of their remoteness from Buddhist centers but because of their specific ethnic features and social organisation. The Darkhads, for example, had not only an important monastery on their territory, but were themselves direct subjects or shabi of the Jebtsündamba Khutughtu, the more venerated Buddhist incarnation and main religious figure in Mongolia. It is the presence of shamanist elements from Tuva and of a clan organisation which best explains their strong shamanist traditions.
In the course of the 17th century most leaders in Southern and Northern Mongolia as well as the Chinggisid-born Buddhist hierarch chose to submit to the Manchu emperors rather than to fellow Mongols. The Qing dynasty was then able to fragment the power of the main Mongol princes between several dozen petty banner-rulers and to prevent further appropriation by Chinggisids of the prestige associated with Buddhism, while patronizing local Buddhism and keeping it under control. With the fall of the Manchus in 1911 there was no member of the Chinggisid lineage influent enough to rule the new independent Mongolia : so without much questionning, the Tibetan-born VIIIth incarnation the Jebtsündamba Khutughtu was put on the throne as Bogd Khan or ‘Holy king’.
The long-lasting relation between secular authorities and the Buddhist Church in Mongolia ended under the communist regime established in Northern (ex-Outer) Mongolia in 1921 with the help of Soviet Russia, thus preventing a Chinese occupation. During the following years some intellectuals attempted to reconcile a reformed, modern Buddhism with communist principles, but to no avail. Th
e Comintern advisers compelled the Mongolian government to first abolish the privileges of the Buddhist Church and the monastery estate system, then to weaken by all available means the economic foundations of the Buddhist Church. Nevertheless the influence of the lamas remained strong, and as late as 1934 one Mongolian Prime Minister, Ghenden, a dedicated communist who praised the Buddha as much as Lenin, would not bow to Stalin’s pressure for eradicating Buddhism.
The gruesome work was finally imposed and closely guided by the Soviets in 1937-38, at the time of the Great Terror in Russia. Kh. Choibalsan, their Mongolian executor, dutifully wrote down in his notebook that 797 temples and monasteries had been destroyed and 20,396 persons (probably more) executed over an 18 month period; high lamas and educated monks but also many simple monks and lay people. Some religious practice went on secretly as people kept on asking defrocked lamas to perform rites behind closed doors. After the war, a handful of monks were allowed to resume some Buddhist activity in what was left of the Gandan monastery in Ulan-Bator. This activity insured nevertheless a partial transmission of Buddhism liturgy in Mongolia.
Such was the situation in 1990 when, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Political pluralism was introduced and Mongolia opened to the Western world. The religious revival was rapid. The same year an Association of Buddhist Believers was founded and by 1992 a hundred temples had opened, many being often just a simple yurt with one or two old lamas, testifying to the strong religiosity among the Mongols. Today one can see worshippers queuing in one of the many new monasteries for private sutra-readings and other ceremonies, the names and fees of which are generally indicated on a board, or busy monks living in town among lay people, armed with cell-phones and 4-wheel cars who hold rituals in private homes. Many Mongols have a family lama they consult on various matters such as health, work, travel, family disputes, death and funerals, and of course astrological matters.
Shamans and other specialist were also fast in adapting to the modern environment with their specific answers to the requests made to them; curing illnesses, dispelling bad luck, securing success in commercial matters. Novative organisation and rituals appeared, for example the sharing by several shamans of the same facilities, the setting up of associations providing recognition (diplomas) to their members and aiming to present a modern, rational image of shamanism for the public, or the annual collective good-luck ritual organised in a wood near the capital-city for his clients by a successful “master” borrowing from both Buddhist and shamanistic traditions. And whereas some nationalists still view Buddhism very negatively through the eyes of communist historiography, they have a favourable perception of Shamanism, seeing in it the authentic Mongol religion followed by Chingis Khan himself, and in the shaman a priest able to address Heaven. This explains why shamans take part in state cultural ceremonies dedicated to sacred mountains (re-instaured by presidential decree in 1985), state banners or the emblematic figure of Chingis Khan.
Alongside the revival of Mongolia’s native religions came an unexpected phenomena – at least from a Mongolian point of view; the arrival of many foreign religions, denominations or cults of which the most numerous and zealous are the Christian protestant organisations. Their missionaries were already present in far away corners of the country as early as 1990, October 1990 for the Assembly of God and December the same year for the Bible Society. In 1998, the latter could boast 30 churches, representing some 5,000 members. Such Christian groups were completely new to Mongolia, as previous attempts had been limited to a small Catholic mission in Inner Mongolia (Ordos) and an even smaller and very short-lived community of English Evangelicals among the Buriats that had little local influence. Apart from Christianity, other religious movements started activities in Mongolia: the Baha’i, Moonies, Ananda Marga, etc. Some like the Jehovah’s Witness and the Church of Scientology did not get an authorisation for running centers. Mongols generally disapprove of “non-traditional” and “foreign” religions.
Christianity benefits from its association with the rich and trendy Western world. Missionaries use efficient recruiting methods, targeting poor or isolated individuals, of which there are plenty in post-communist Mongolia, and young people. Their religious teaching is done by trained people (a Bible Study Center was established in 1995 in which local missionaries are trained). Christian propaganda uses other less obvious channels, mainly through relief and humanitarian work carried out by NGOs. As in other places (Africa, South America, etc), the newcomers are more efficient and helpful that the local clergy in dealing with the disastrous economic effects of the transition process, although this does not always win them support. Another effective way of reaching the Mongolian population is the private TV channel Eagle TV, run by a Christian organisation. Efficient, professional and novel, it has become one of the main news channel of the country. A Christian slant influences the programs : Christian topics, criticism of the teaching of Darwinism and the theory of evolution in school, etc.
In the Mongolian newspapers one can read articles mentioning Christian who visit their neighbours and destroy their burxan “in order to prevent them from falling into hell”. In the countryside, missionaries (or Christian “masters” as people call them) buy the family sutras, either in Tibetan or in Mongol, and then burn them. Such things are said to happen regularly. Youngsters who became Christian force their parents to get rid of the Buddhist icons at home, often provoking quarrels in the family. Some elders prefer to try and sell their old books to universities or libraries. Islam is better able to resist. Christian missionaries arrived in 1993 among Muslim Kazakhs of Western Mongolia, at a time of deep economic recession, providing much needed help and medical care to the local population, and at the same time distributing Bibles in the Khazak language, and taking away from the people religious objects. This produced a rapid reaction from the mosques and from the Mongolian Muslim Association who eventually chased them away. They came back in 1998 but were no more successful. In the Khazak case, the Islamic attitude to apostasy is difficult to overcome. Families and neighbours unite against the missionaries although their relations with shamanist and Buddhist Mongol is harmonious. Buddhism on the other hand does not teach strongly against apostasy which makes conversion easier. After 60 years of anti-clerical and atheist policies, religion is not as strong among Mongols as among the isolated Kazakhs (over 83% declare themselves Muslim in 1994, against less than 70% declared Buddhists among the Khalkhas).
In 1990, the transition to democracy and the widening of its external relations has thus induced religious as well as political pluralism. Although this can be a cause of worry for the Mongolian authorities who fear for the future of their national culture, Mongols are presented with a choice of religions from which to choose as individuals rather than collectively as a nation or an ethnic group. Privatisation and individualisation of religion are becoming new features in modern Mongolia, as they have become - but over a much longer span of time - in the Western world.
From ‘On Mongolia’s Moving Religious Landscape’, Marie-Dominique Even, Le reseau Asia 2011.