Burkhanism

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Burkhanism or Ak Jang (Altay : Ак јаҥ) is a new religious movement that flourished among the indigenous people of Russia's Gorno Altai region (okrug) between 1904 and the 1930s. Czarist Russia was suspicious of the movement's potential to stir up native unrest and perhaps involve outside powers. [1] The Soviet authorities ultimately suppressed it for fear of its potential to unify Siberian Turkic peoples under a common nationalism.

New religious movement Religious community or spiritual group of modern origins

A new religious movement (NRM), also known as a new religion or alternative spirituality, is a religious or spiritual group that has modern origins and is peripheral to its society's dominant religious culture. NRMs can be novel in origin or part of a wider religion, in which case they are distinct from pre-existing denominations. Some NRMs deal with the challenges posed by the modernizing world by embracing individualism, whereas others seek tightly knit collective means. Scholars have estimated that NRMs now number in the tens of thousands worldwide, with most of their members living in Asia and Africa. Most have only a few members, some have thousands, and a few have more than a million members.

Russia transcontinental country in Eastern Europe and Northern Asia

Russia, or the Russian Federation, is a transcontinental country in Eastern Europe and North Asia. At 17,125,200 square kilometres (6,612,100 sq mi), it is, by a considerable margin, the largest country in the world by area, covering more than one-eighth of the Earth's inhabited land area, and the ninth most populous, with about 146.79 million people as of 2019, including Crimea. About 77% of the population live in the western, European part of the country. Russia's capital, Moscow, is one of the largest cities in the world and the largest city in Europe; other major cities include Saint Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg and Nizhny Novgorod. Extending across the entirety of Northern Asia and much of Eastern Europe, Russia spans eleven time zones and incorporates a wide range of environments and landforms. From northwest to southeast, Russia shares land borders with Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia and North Korea. It shares maritime borders with Japan by the Sea of Okhotsk and the U.S. state of Alaska across the Bering Strait. However, Russia recognises two more countries that border it, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which are internationally recognized as parts of Georgia.

The Gorno-Altai Autonomous Oblast was formed as the Oyrot Autonomous Oblast in 1922 and renamed in 1948.

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Originally millenarian, charismatic and anti-shamanic, the Burkhanist movement gradually lost most of these qualities—becoming increasingly routine, institutionalized (around a hierarchy of oral epic singers), and accommodating itself to the pre-existing Altaian folk religion. It exists today in several revival forms.

Charismatic movement trend of historically mainstream congregations adopting beliefs and practices similar to Pentecostalism.

The charismatic movement is the international trend of historically mainstream Christian congregations adopting beliefs and practices similar to Pentecostalism. Fundamental to the movement is the use of spiritual gifts (charismata). Among mainline Protestants, the movement began around 1960. Among Roman Catholics, it originated around 1967.

In religious studies and folkloristics, folk religion, popular religion, or vernacular religion comprises various forms and expressions of religion that are distinct from the official doctrines and practices of organized religion. The precise definition of folk religion varies among scholars. Sometimes also termed popular belief, it consists of ethnic or regional religious customs under the umbrella of a religion, but outside official doctrine and practices.

On the whole, the Burkhanist movement was shown to be a syncretistic phenomenon combining elements of ancient pre-Shamanist, Shamanist, Lamaist and Orthodox Christian beliefs. According to a Professor of Tomsk State University L. Sherstova, it emerged in response to the needs of a new people - the Altai-kizhi or Altaians who sought to distinguish themselves from the neighboring and related tribes and for whom Burkhanism became a religious form of their ethnic identity. [2]

Eastern Orthodox Church Christian Church

The Eastern Orthodox Church, officially the Orthodox Catholic Church, is the second-largest Christian church, with approximately 260 million baptised members. It operates as a communion of autocephalous churches, each governed by its bishops in local synods. Roughly half of Eastern Orthodox Christians live in Russia. The church has no central doctrinal or governmental authority analogous to the Bishop of Rome, but the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is recognised by all as primus inter pares of the bishops. As one of the oldest surviving religious institutions in the world, the Eastern Orthodox Church has played a prominent role in the history and culture of Eastern and Southeastern Europe, the Caucasus, and the Near East.

Origins of the name

Burkhanism is the usual English-language scholarly name, which has its origin in the Russian academic usage. One of the Burkhanist deities is Ak-Burkhan, or "White Burkhan." Burkhan means "god" or "buddha" in Mongolic languages, yet Burkhanism is not considered Buddhist, as the term is also used in shamanistic nomenclature. For example, in Mongolian Shamanism, the name of the most sacred mountain, the rumored birthplace and final resting spot of Genghis Khan, is also Burkhan Khaldun. [3] Ak-Burkhan is only one of a pantheon of deities worshiped by Burkhanists (see list below), but Ak-Burkhan nevertheless provides the name of the religion in Russian, and thence into other languages.

Mongolic languages language family of Eastern and Central Asia

The Mongolic languages are a group of languages spoken in East-Central Asia, mostly in Mongolia and surrounding areas plus in Kalmykia and Buryatia. The best-known member of this language family, Mongolian, is the primary language of most of the residents of Mongolia and the Mongolian residents of Inner Mongolia, with an estimated 5.7+ million speakers.

Genghis Khan founder and first Great Khan of the Mongol Empire

Genghis Khan was the founder and first Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, which became the largest contiguous empire in history after his death. He came to power by uniting many of the nomadic tribes of Northeast Asia. After founding the Empire and being proclaimed Genghis Khan, he launched the Mongol invasions that conquered most of Eurasia. Campaigns initiated in his lifetime include those against the Qara Khitai, Caucasus, and Khwarazmian, Western Xia and Jin dynasties. These campaigns were often accompanied by large-scale massacres of the civilian populations, especially in the Khwarazmian– and Western Xia–controlled lands. By the end of his life, the Mongol Empire occupied a substantial portion of Central Asia and China.

Burkhan Khaldun Mountain in Mongolia

The Burkhan Khaldun is one of the Khentii Mountains in the Khentii Province of northeastern Mongolia. The mountain or its locality is believed to be the birthplace of Genghis Khan as well as his tomb. It is also the birthplace of one of his most successful generals: Subutai.

The Altaian name for the religion is Ak Jang ("White Faith"). "White" refers to its emphasis on the upper world (in the three-world cosmology of the Turkic and Mongolian Tengriism). Alternatively, the name may also allude to Ak Jang's rejection of animal sacrifices in favor of offerings of horse milk or horse-milk alcohol. "Jang" means authority; faith; custom; law or principle; and canon or rules of ensemble. In more colloquial settings, the term may also be used as a "way of doing things" and is used in reference to religions as well as political systems. [4]

Early history

[5]

Chet Chelpan and his wife Kul Chet Chelpanov.jpg
Chet Chelpan and his wife Kul

In April 1904 Chet Chelpan (or, Chot Chelpanov) and his adopted daughter Chugul Sarok Chandyk reported visions of a rider dressed in white, and riding a white horse. This figure, whom they called Ak-Burkhan ("White Burkhan"), announced the imminent arrival of the mythical messianic hero Oirat Khan who was actually a real historical figure Khoit-Oirat prince Amursana. [6] The central figure in the research of Burkhanism in the past forty years, however, has demonstrated that Oirot-khan is a mythologized image of the Dzungar past of the people of Altai-kizhi. [7] Chet and Chugul gathered thousands of Altaians for prayer meetings, initially in the Tereng Valley. These were violently suppressed by mobs of Russians, instigated by the Altaian Spiritual Mission, who were afraid of the potential of the competing religion to decrease the Orthodox Christian flock in Altai. [8] Chet and Chugul were arrested, Chugul was released, and after a prolonged trial Chet was fully exonerated by court and released in 1906. [9]

Oirats ethnic group

Oirats are the westernmost group of the Mongols whose ancestral home is in the Altai region of Xinjiang and western Mongolia.

Amursana Dzungarian khan

Amursana was an 18th-century taishi or prince of the Khoit-Oirat tribe that ruled over parts of Dzungaria and Altishahr in present-day northwest China. Known as the last great Oirat hero, Amursana was the last of the Dzungar rulers. The defeat of his rebel forces by Qing dynasty Chinese armies in the late 1750s signaled the final extinction of Mongol influence and power in Inner Asia, ensured the incorporation of Mongol territory into the Qing Chinese Empire, and brought about the Dzungar genocide, the Qing Emperor's "final solution" to China's northwest frontier problems.

Researcher Andrei A. Znamenski (see article below) compares the Burkanist movement to other indigenous revitalizing movements around the world, such as the Native American Ghost Dance or the Melanesian Cargo Cult. An excruciatingly detailed treatment of the comparisons and comparability of Burkhanism with the Melanesian Cargo Cult, the Mennonites, the Dukhobors of Georgia, the Mariitsy of Nizhnii Novgorod, and many other movements, is provided in Sherstova's dissertation from the 1980s. [10]

Znamenski says, the prime motivating factor was Altaians' fear of displacement by Russian colonists, Russification, and subjection to taxation and conscription on the same basis as Russian peasants. [11]

Andrei Vinogradov (thesis linked below) sees Burkhanism as a typical nomadic Turko-Mongolian mobilization pattern—aiming to link families and clans (seok) into a steppe empire (which in this case never materialized). The Burkhanists' veneration of heroes from oral epics, he says, serves much the same cultural centralizing function as the veneration of other divine heroes such as Gesar, Manas, or Genghis Khan. As such it constitutes a major aspect of Turko-Mongolic religion, distinct from shamanism.

After the arrest of Chet and Chugul, Tyryi Akemchi arose to become the most prominent iarlikchi, and helped organize the movement. Having been exposed to Buddhism through his years as a translator in Mongolia, Tyryi added a number of Buddhist trappings to Burkhanist ritual, such as bells. Within a decade, most of the Altaian population had joined the new faith.

In 1918 Gregorii Choros-Gurkin and other Altaian leaders declared the formation of something called the "Karakorum Regional Committee" (Karakorumkaia Okruzhnaia Uprava), with the object of establishing an "Oirat Republic". This was intended to include not only Altai but also neighboring republics of Tuva and Khakassia. It was forcibly dissolved with arrival of Bolshevik power in 1921.

Deities

Oirat - Messenger of the White Burkhan by Nicholas Roerich. Oirot.jpg
Oirat – Messenger of the White Burkhan by Nicholas Roerich.

Burkhanism accepts the "three worlds" of Mongolic and Turkic tradition. (These are the upper, middle, and lower worlds—in other words heaven, earth, and the underworld.) However, it rejects worship of traditional deities associated with the underworld. In addition, it imports into worship many figures from Altaian oral epic lore, which were not worshipped in the "shamanic" part of the Altaian religion.

Uch Kurbustan--"Uch" means "three," while "Kurbustan" comes from the Soghdian "Khormazta" (and thence from the Avestan "Ahura Mazda"). Thus, a triune God. Though imported from oral epics, Uch Kurbustan is a generalized spirit rather than a hero of stories with a personality. He may be analogous with the Turko-Mongolian High God Tengri ("Heaven").

Rather than an import from Buddhism, Christianity, or Turkic Islam, this particular trinity is likely to have been inspired by other triune gods and heroes from Turkic culture (sometimes in the form of a god with three sons). Uch Kurbustan is connected with the following three messianic heroes, also from Altaian oral epic lore:

Oirat or Galden-Oirat--mythological ancestor of the Western Mongols. A conflation / dim historical memory of a number of real-life Western Mongolian leaders from around the seventeenth century including Galdan Tseren.
Amursana --a legendary Khoit-Oirat chieftain who fled Chinese territory for Russian after the 1756 Qing destruction of Dzungaria.
Shunu ("Wolf")--the Altaian version of Asena, the totemic lupine ancestor recognized by various Turkic peoples.

The gods of the upper world, or aru tos ("pure ancestors"), are considered fragments or eminations of Uch Kurbustan. Burkhanism calls these Burkhans. Among them are:

Ak-Burkhan ("White Burkhan)--depicted as an old man with white hair, a white coat, and white headgear, who rides a white horse. Possibly analogous to the Mongolian "white old man," Tsagan Ebugen. A symbol of good fortune.
Jajyk--a formless spirit-mediator, assists with human-divine communication. Vinogradov compares with the Holy Spirit. Altaians distinguished between an Ak-Jajyk ("White Jajyk") who carried messages to the gods of the upper world, and a Sary-Jajyk ("Yellow Jajyk") who did the same for gods of the middle world, and is identified with the hearth.
Umai--the goddess of childbirth and children. Other Turkic lore--but not the Altaian--makes her the consort of the High God Tengri, and thus a primordial mother figure.
Ot-ene, the "Mother of Fire"--worshipped before every sacrifice, but especially during one of the three major Burkhanist festivals

Gods of the "middle world"—i.e. the familiar spheres of nature and human affairs—include numerous local spirits, such as spirits associated with mountains (taika-eezi) or springs (arzhans), or "masters of the game". They may also be associated with particular clans (seok). More generalized ones include:

Altai-eezi, the "Master of Altai"--a sort of genius loci , suitably adapted for an Altaian national consciousness.
Ul'gan--a spiritual ancestor of several Altaian clans. Originally a proper name, now generalized. Some sources describe Ul'gan as the creator of the universe in Burkhanist theology; this is probably a misunderstanding.

Historically, Burkhanism rejected the traditional gods of the underworld, notably Erlik (Yerlik), its chief. This rejection is closely related to Burkhanism's rejection of Altaian shamanism, and corresponding elevation of oral epic singers (yarlikchi). (By "shaman" is here meant manjaktu kams, i.e. the "costume-wearing" specialists who communicate with the underworld gods.) Both rejections are likely to have been inspired by oral epic lore, which regularly features shamans as villains.

Practices

Some sources speak of a list of "Twenty Commandments" for Burkhanism. The evidence for this is sparse. Alcohol and tobacco were proscribed in the early years.

Chugul came to be venerated as the main recipient of the original message. This was much less true of Chet, although both were addressed with honorific titles.

Notable Burkhanists

Grigorii Choros-Gurkin, a Soviet landscape artist and leader of the Karakorum Executive Committee.

Burkhanism today

Russian painter Nicholas Roerich and his wife Helena Roerich passed through Altai in 1926. Nicholas painted Oirat—Messenger of the White Burkhan based on his understanding of the movement.

(Note that the painting's title apparently gets the theology backward—it was rather White Burkhan who was the messenger for Oirat.) Followers of Agni Yoga, an esoteric movement founded by the Roerichs, have encouraged a recent revival of interest in Burkhanism among non-Altaians. At the same time they have insisted on a link with Tibetan Buddhism and a veneration of Mount Belukha, elements not found in traditional Burkhanism.

A number of Burkhanist revival organizations emerged during the 1990s, mostly as attempts to formulate or preserve an Altaian ethno-nationalist identity. To that end many of them have been persuaded to reconsider earlier Burkhanism's vexed relationship with shamanism and/or Buddhism. A list of movements follows, with the name of a founder or leading supporter in parenthesis. For more information see Agniezka Halemba's article (linked below).

English-language sources

Russian-language sources

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References

  1. The most detailed account of the events of 1904-1906 is available in Russian. Sherstova (1986, 2010), Burhanizm [Burkhanism]), Tomsk State University Press. Chapter 2.
  2. Sherstova, Burhanism, Chapter 1, 2, 3. Almost three hundred pages of the book leave little doubt about the validity of this conclusion by Sherstova made in 1977-1986.
  3. Reinhold Neumann-Hoditz; Dschingis Khan, published by Rowohlt Verlag GmbH; trans. 2005 by Piet de Moor, ISBN   90-5466-910-1
  4. Agnieszka Helmba, 2003. "Contemporary Religious life in the republic of Altai: The Interaction of Buddhism and Shamanism", Sibirica 3(2):165-182, p.4
  5. The most detailed account of what happened in Altai in 1904-1905, including the files of the court trial of Chet Chelpanov and his "colleagues" is only available in Russian. See: Sherstova, Burhanizm, Tomsk (1986, 2010). Chapter 2.
  6. Andrei A. Znamenski. "Power for the Powerless : Oirot/Amursana Prophecy in Altai and Western Mongolia, 1890s-1920s". Millénarismes et innovation rituelle en Asie du Nord. revues.org. Retrieved 19 August 2014.
  7. Sherstova, Burhanism, Tomsk (1986, 2010)
  8. Sherstova, Burhanism, Tomsk (1986, 2010), Chapter 2.
  9. Chapter 2 of Sherstova, Burhanism, Tomsk (1986, 2010) provides a reconstruction of the court proceedings on the basis of the court files that the author discovered in 1985 in the State Archive of Tomsk Region. The discovery caused a major sensation during the defence of Sherstova's dissertation in the Leningrad branch of the Institute of Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.
  10. Sherstova, Burhanism, Tomsk State University Press (2010), Chapter 4
  11. See Chapter 2 of Sherstova, Burhanism, Tomsk (1986, 2010)