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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Mongolia’s moving religious landscape

Marie-Dominique Even

Texte intégral

1November 2009

An initial religious diversity

  • 1 Much has been written on this religious tolerance of the Mongol empire, a striking feature in comp (...)

2Through contacts with neighbouring nomadic and sedentary populations, the shamanist Mongols were exposed early on to various religions such as Buddhism, Nestorian Christianism, Islam or Taoism, not to mention influences of Zoroastrism and Manicheism in the former steppe kingdoms. Chinggis 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 conscription1. Although Nestorianism was initially favoured at the imperial court thanks to influent Christian wives of several Chinggisids, Mongol rulers eventually converted either to Islam (the Golden Horde khans in Russia, the Ilkhanids of Persia and the Chagataids in Central Asia) or, for those ruling in China, to Tibetan Buddhism.

The nation’s adoption of Buddhism

3A second conversion took place at the end of the 16th century, beginning of the 17th century when the expanding power of some Chinggisid (Eastern Mongols) and Oirat (Jungar or Western Mongols) rulers allowed them to interfere again in Tibetan affairs and patronize some of its Buddhist schools. The Gelugpas, whose political supremacy in Tibet would 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 the main religious figure in Mongolia. It is the presence of shamanist elements from Tuva and of a clanic organisation which best explains their strong shamanic traditions.

4Over the course of the 17th century most leaders in Southern and Northern Mongolia as well as the Chinggisid-born Buddhist hierarch Zanabazar chose to submit to the Manchu emperors rather than to fellow Mongols. The Manchu 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 no member of the Chinggisid lineage was influent enough to rule the new independent Mongolia: so without much questioning, the Tibetan-born 8th incarnation, the Jebtsündamba khutughtu, was put on the throne as Bogd Khan or “Holy king”.

Compulsory Atheism

5The 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. This prevented Chinese occupation of the territory. During the following years some intellectuals, like the Buriad Tseveen Jamtsarano, attempted to reconcile a reformed, modern, Buddhism with communist principles, but to no avail. The close scrutiny of Komintern advisers, later relayed by Stalin himself, 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 – Genden, a dedicated communist who praised Buddha as much as Lenin – would not bow to Stalin’s pressure for eradicating Buddhism, “a state within the state, […] the lamas’ government, more powerful than the other one”.

  • 2 R. Henkel and H. Knippenberg, Secularisation and the rise of religious pluralism, in H. Knippenber (...)

6The gruesome eradication was finally imposed upon the Mongols and closely guided by the Soviets during the period 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. Monks were forcibly defrocked, married or enrolled in the army and thus there was no more Buddhist institution. Just as in the Soviet Union. The cujus regio, ejus religio principle (“whose realm, his religion”) was implemented from an atheist point of view2. Some religious practices went on secretly as people kept on asking defrocked lamas to perform private 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.

Religious revival

7Such was the situation in 1990 when, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, political pluralism was introduced and Mongolia opened itself widely to the Western world. The religious revival was rapid. The same year an Association of Believers, i. e. Buddhists, was founded and by 1992 a hundred Buddhist temples had opened, the temple being often just a simple gher (yurt) with one or two ancient lamas, testifying to the strong religiosity among the Mongols. Today one can see worshippers queuing in one of the many new monasteries for private sûtra-readings and other ceremonies, the names and fees of which are generally indicated on a board outside. Busy monks living in town among lay people, armed with cell-phones and 4-wheel drive cars, visit families and 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.

8Shamans and other specialists were also fast in adapting to the modern environment with their specific answers to the requests made to them: curing illnesses, putting an end to a string of bad luck, securing the success of a commercial company. Innovative 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. One can observe new ceremonies such as a good-luck ritual in the woods near Ulan Bator, organised for his clients by a successful “master” borrowing elements from both the Buddhist and shamanic traditions. And whereas some nationalists still view Gelugpa Buddhism very negatively through the eyes of communist historiography, they have a favorable perception of shamanism, seeing in it the authentic Mongol religion followed by Chinggis Khan himself, and in the shaman a priest able to address Heaven. This explains why shamans take part in state ceremonies dedicated to sacred mountains (reinstated by presidential decree in 1985), state banners or the emblematic figure of Chinggis Khan.

... and foreign proselytism

9Alongside the revival of Mongolia’s native religions came an unexpected phenomenon – 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 of the same year for the Bible Society. In 1998, the latter could boast 30 churches registered in Mongolia, representing already 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 Buriads that had little local influence. Apart from Christian ones, other religious movements started activities in Mongolia: the Baha’i, Moon, Ananda Marga, etc. Some like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Scientology did not get an authorisation for running centers in the country. When talking about these religious Mongols oppose “traditional” to “non-traditional” or “foreign” religions.

10Christian proselytism benefits from its association with the rich and trendy Western world. Missionaries use efficient enrolment methods, targeting poor or isolated individuals, of which they were, and still 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 can be trained). Christian propaganda uses other less obvious channels, mainly through relief and humanitarian work carried out by NGOs. As in other places in the world (Africa, South America), the new comers are more efficient and helpful than the local religious actors for taking in charge the disastrous economic effects of the transition process. Although they do not seem, for the moment, to benefit in return from the same high favor. Another influential way of reaching the Mongolian population is the private TV channel, Eagle TV, run by a Christian organisation: efficient, professional and experimented, it has become one of the main news channels of the country. Ideological stands of this channel appear in programs: Christian topics, critical views on the teaching of Darwinism and the theory of evolution in school, etc.

11In the Mongolian newspapers one can read articles mentioning Christians who visit their neighbours and destroy their burkhan (Buddhist icons) “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 Christians force their parents to get rid of the Buddhist icons at home, provoking quarrels within the family. Some elders prefer to try and sell their old books to universities or to libraries. As it happens Islam was better armed 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. At the same time they distributed Bibles in the Kazakh language, and took 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 did not do any better. In the Kazakh case, the stand of Islam against apostasy is difficult to overcome, from a religious as well as from a socio-cultural point of view. Families and neighbours would unite against it although locally their relations with shamanist Tuva or Buddhist Mongol herders were not conflictual (they do not intermarry but can share the same encampment). This is not the case of Buddhism which does not anticipate nor prevent religion shifting. After sixty years of anti-clerical and atheist policies, religion itself was not as strong among Mongols as among the isolated Kazakhs (over 83% declared themselves Muslim in 1994, against less than 70% who declared themselves Buddhists among the Khalkhas).

12In 1990, the transition to democracy and the widening of Mongolia’s 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.


1 Much has been written on this religious tolerance of the Mongol empire, a striking feature in comparison with the rulers in Medieval Europe, and today a matter of pride for the post-communist Mongols in the process of re-evaluating their history. In his detailed analysis of imperial Mongols’decrees and attitudes on religious topics C.-P. Atwood has shown the limits of interpreting the imperial religious policy as governed by Enlightment ideas or even mere tolerance (cf. ‘A singular conformity? The Origin and Nature of the Mongol Imperial Religious Policy’, International History Review, 2004. The author observes that religions contradicting their political theology were ignored (Judaism) or even suppressed (Isma‘ili sect). Still, Mongolian native shamanism and rituals to ancestors and local spirits are non-dogmatic beliefs mostly concerned with efficiency and ignoring proselytism. They provide a tolerant ideological environment, if not a free field for other religious systems to step in.

2 R. Henkel and H. Knippenberg, Secularisation and the rise of religious pluralism, in H. Knippenberg ed., The Changing Religious Landscape of Europe, 2005, 1-12.


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