Buddhist Factor in Promoting Traditional Culture in Mongolia by Sharad K. Soni

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Back in 1996, a story published in the Christian Science Monitor quoted a renowned Buddhist monk, the late Kushok Bakula Rinpoche as saying “Mongolian culture is directly related to Buddhism. To keep Buddhism alive is to keep their culture alive.”1

He rightly pointed out the close connection between Buddhism and the Mongolian culture which has been witnessing a revival especially in the post-Soviet era.

Mongolian traditional culture based on nomadic heritage and Buddhist culture has its own legacy which suffered greatly during the twentieth century for almost seven decades since Mongolia proclaimed its independence in 1921. In the pre-1921 period, Mongolia used to be the second stronghold of Buddhism after Tibet, with more than 100,000 monks taking care of Buddhist tradition in the country.

However, Buddhism was all but eliminated particularly in the late 1930s when the anti-religious worst persecutions were carried out by the country’s leadership under Kh. Choibalson.

As a result, tens of thousands of lamas and ordinary believers were executed, or forced into lay life, or worked to death.

Numerous Buddhist monasteries and temples were also destroyed, thus giving way to the weakening of Buddhism and bringing the country under severe social and cultural crisis.

But beginning in the 1990s Mongolia’s transition from socialism to democracy has had tremendous influence on the people’s socio-cultural traits and in the ensuing period new democratic changes have allowed the peaceful revival of Buddhism, so is the traditional culture.

At the same time, Mongolia has also been witnessing modernization of its society but not at the cost of traditional culture and values.

It is in this context that this paper seeks to analyze Buddhism as a factor in promoting traditional culture in Mongolia.

While doing so, it examines how the Buddhist revival is really contributing to not only promoting the traditional culture but also modernizing the country. Besides, it also deals with prospects of Buddhism in Mongolia.


Today, when the whole world has been witnessing a near completion of the first nine years of the twenty first century, new progress in the overall internal and external environment of a small country like Mongolia provides better opportunities to modernize her society.

However, there have been arguments also that modernization due to globalisation has been eroding the traditional national culture and values, especially the Mongolian nomadic civilization based on Buddhist culture.

In this connection, a statement given by B. Batbayar, popularly known as Baabar, one of the well known leaders of the democratic movement in Mongolia, is relevant when he says, “national language and national culture are indispensable elements for any ethnic group to not only survive but also discover a collective national identity and establish its statehood.”2

He further argues that all other things such as territory, statehood, sovereignty and independence are of secondary importance to these two basic ingredients- national language and national culture.3

In that sense, the task of preserving Mongolia’s national culture rests upon not only the government but also the people as a whole.

But what was the state of national culture in general and Buddhism in particular in the landlocked country of Mongolia during the twentieth century, especially after Mongolia got its independent statehood in 1924? In the Asian context, the twentieth century saw many ups and downs in preserving national culture in terms of religion especially Buddhism.

As Larry M. Moses elucidates,

The new secular governments have seen religion and its institutions as obstacles to change and development because of their hold over the loyalty of the people. The amassed wealth withheld from the developmental programs of the new regimes by churches has hindered economic development.
The need to lessen the hold of religion over wealth, and weaken its influence over the people, has been a necessary part of the revolutionary programs of most of the newly independent states of Asia. All of this has combined to weaken or destroy the existing religious institutions in the Asian world.4

Such a situation appears to have been relevant in the case of Mongolia too. Almost seven decades of communist rule (1924-1990) put its mark on Mongolian society so much so that the leadership of the ruling Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP) was blamed for eroding the traditional national culture.

At the same time, Soviet support in terms of technical knowhow and expertise as well as aid effectively took Mongolia into the industrial era. Nevertheless, many of the changes at the domestic front brought about during the Soviet period came at the expense of Mongolian’s traditional culture and way of life, and religion was ruthlessly suppressed.

The dominant religion of Mongolia, Buddhism saw its worst set back during the whole Mongolian history of Soviet dominance, despite its being “a highly developed system of philosophy,”5 which used to be so important in the life of the Mongols that in 1918 there were an estimated 115,000 monks.6 Even in 1937 the number of monks was calculated at 110,000 with 700 monasteries remained operated.

Evidently, Buddhism has had a long history in Mongolia with ups and downs at different points of time, which also reminds us about the tragic fact that during the late 1930s nearly all Buddhist monasteries and temples were destroyed or secularized and a large number of monks were killed.

According to Dashpurev and Soni, within two years of worst ever purges carried out between 1937 and 1939 under the leadership of Kh. Choibalsan, who was popularly known as Little Stalin, nearly 12,000 Buddhist monks were killed in Mongolia.7

Earlier, introduction of Buddhism, particularly its Tibetan form, to the Mongols had left positive impact on the society. Buddhism was said to have arrived in Mongolia as early as the third century B.C. with silk traders travelling from India but later it “developed spiritual links with Buddhism in Tibet as both followed similar lineage.”8

Further in the thirteenth century, Buddhism received state patronage under the Mongol ruler Khubilai Khan. Having converted himself to Buddhism as far back as in 1242 AD, Khubilai rewarded this religion by placing a Tibetan Buddhist monk the Phags-Pa Lama Lodoijalsan as the “State Preceptor” (kuo shih).

Significantly, from the Phags-Pa Lama he accepted the concept of a ruling duality in which two spheres- the sacred and the secular, operated co-terminously.10 Though the concept of the dual principle ended with the downfall of the Yuan, its ideal was preserved in both Mongol and Tibetan literature.

Not only was there an interchange of scholars and monks between Mongols and Tibetans, but also it was the Mongol ruler Altan Khan who gave the title Dalai (meaning “ocean of wisdom”) to the Tibetan lama Sonam Gyatso in 1577, thus began the lineage of Dalai Lamas of which the present title-holder is the 14th.

It has been revealed that the Tibetan schools of Buddhism passionately continued their missionary work among the Mongols.11

For many centuries, Buddhism in Mongolia flourished, excelling in art, philosophy and science. It became one of the most important decisive factors of Mongolian nomadic identity and also Buddhist monasteries turned into the unique cultural centres of the society.

Monasteries kept quite big libraries where not only Buddhist texts, but also many books related to the traditional science and history were preserved.

A lot of traditions and customs of the Mongols were enriched by Buddhist meanings and already by seventeenth century the Mongol speaking Buddhist nomads were quite different from the Muslim nomads both by religion and language.

In fact, Buddhism was the final touch in the formation of the nomadic Mongol society.

Buddhism and Modern Mongolian Identity

It was during the struggle for democratic reforms in 1989-1990 that the young Mongolian Democrats called, among other things, for “the revival of traditional Mongolian culture, reintroduction of the old Mongolian script, rehabilitation of Genghis [Chinggis] Khan and encouragement to Buddhism.”12

In this process, as Alicia Campi emphasized, the founding father of Mongolia was suddenly pulled from the rubbish heap of history by the young Mongols not only to criticise their communist elders but also to identify him as a symbol of new nationalistic identity.13

The name of Chinggis Khan is connected for Mongols with the acquisition of their own national and cultural identity.

As such the year 1206 AD when Chinggis Khan united the Mongols in to a single national unit, marked the opening of a new era in the history of Mongols in particular and the history of nomadism in general.14

As regards Buddhism, it has been another key symbol of modern Mongolian identity.

The sudden revival of Buddhism in Mongolia particularly after 1990 has been beyond imagination, though religion never ceased to exist at any point of time in this tiny populated country of just 2.8 million population. Since 1992 freedom of religion has been guaranteed in the Constitution, and the separation of religious and secular institutions has taken place.

Constitution deals with the emblems of national identity, and that these national emblems, which consist of the State Emblem, the Banner, the Flag, and the Seal, are described in terms that refer both to the traditional religion as well as Buddhism.

It is, thus, obvious that Buddhism is considered to be of prime importance in the Constitution of Mongolia so far as socio-cultural and religious life of the Mongols is concerned.

As a result today nearly 200 monasteries and temples have been restored throughout the country. Several thousand monks are registered now, and there are ongoing teaching activities mostly carried out by the Mongolian and Tibetan teachers trained in India, Nepal and elsewhere.15

More specifically, over 3000 monks are now registered and teaching activities are being carried out, mostly by Tibetan teachers from the Tibetan exile community in India.16

Besides, not only rebuilding of monasteries but also construction of new ones can be seen everywhere in the countryside.

In this direction International Buddhist institutions have helped considerably, particularly in disbursing the necessary financial support to revive the Buddhist traditions.

On the other hand, there are instances that Mongolian people constantly donate money for the restoration of old monasteries, temples, and stupas, like Darhan temple, apart from building such new establishments throughout the country.17

At present Buddhism appears to be in the heart of every aspect of Mongolian culture and the revival of this great Buddhist heritage is critical to the future peace and happiness of Mongolia. Even the cult of Chinggis Khan has its association with Buddhism because “Chinggis Khan was recognized by Mongolian Buddhists as the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Vajrapani.”18

This is evident from the fact that after the expansion of this cult, “Chinggis Khan was worshipped as a Chakravartin, the Buddhist universal ruler.”19

Commenting on this truth Agata Bareja-Starzynska and Hanna Havnevik observe that “Chinggis Khan reminds the Mongols of their glorious past…the cult [now] is actively used to strengthen the Mongolian national identity and is…explicitly used by those who maintain a pan-Mongolist vision.”20

In the current scenario, whosoever is in the governmental power in the post-Communist Mongolia well recognizes not only the glory of Chinggis Khan but also Buddhism as a pillar of Mongol national identity.

Challenges to Revival of Traditional Culture

Revival of traditional culture in Mongolia faces some challenges as well. First and foremost is the identity issue of the nationals.

While commenting on what will happen to the nomadic identity of the Mongols in the twenty first century, Batbayar and Soni make it clear that public opinion has been divided into two camps: Nationalistic writers such as politician M. Zenee and the poet O. Dashbalbar, both of them died in late 1990s, strongly backed the catchphrase “Let Mongols remain as Mongols”.

They stressed on understanding the “purity” of Mongolian nomadic heritage rather than believing in too much “westernisation” which, they thought, can easily destroy the basic characteristics of the nomadic identity.21

As opposed to this view, publicist B. Baabar and others have argued that in the twentieth century Western civilization through the Russians has had a strong influence on the Mongols to the extent that the Mongols really need to abandon their nomadic identity in order to be competitive in the twenty first century.22

Ts. Batbayar believes that Mongolia’s dilemma of making a choice between Central Asia and Northeast Asia as a region to which it now belongs absolutely concerns the struggle between a nomadic versus a modern identity of the Mongols.23

Now that Mongolia identifies itself as a Northeast Asian country, it implies that the country prefers to be a modern one. Mongolian ruling elite have also started thinking in the same fashion.

In 2001, during his interview to the Far Eastern Economic Review, the then Mongolian Prime Minister Nambariin Enkhbayar stressed on adopting the modern identity.

He stated that “It is not my desire to destroy the original Mongolian identity but in order to survive we have to stop being nomads.”24

Enkhbayar’s vision points to taking the country on the road of modern development in the twenty first century by way of building cities along a 2,400-km east-west highway, called the “Millennium Project”, and urbanizing up to 90 per cent of Mongolia’s population over the next 30 years.25

Nevertheless, there is also no denying of the fact that Mongolia’s Buddhist heritage has had positive impact on the reforms period, especially in influencing the mentality of the Mongols to preserve their traditional values and culture.

The issue has attracted a wide attention from many quarters, which can be summed up in the following words: Both Buddhism and nomadism can be used to not only keep alive the traditional value system but also to promote the country’s modern identity.

However, Mongolia has still been facing serious challenges both domestically as well as externally. And, therefore, modernization in the current scenario seems to be necessary for the country’s survival. It is unfortunate that as a result, traditional culture is disappearing.

In terms of challenges Buddhism in Mongolia has now been facing is that a growing number of young people and intellectuals are being drawn away from Buddhism. I

t is to be pointed out that there are now three generations of Mongolians who have had limited opportunities to practice Buddhism, and they know little of their religion.

Even knowledge of Buddhists scriptures, the liturgy, and the offering of ceremonies and rituals is limited.

Besides, most of the monastic teachers in Mongolia are very old, and so imparting education through teaching has become consequently difficult.

Even though, the truth remains that Buddhism wa s the principal force that promoted education in Mongolia. Exactly in line with that today many things are also attempted to discover and revive the old cultural and traditional heritage.

Not only has the religion been on the revival spree but also the language, ancient Uighur script has been reintroduced with many more such steps that could yield positive results towards cultural revivalism.

Since Buddhism emphasizes thinking issues with logic and reason, it provides an excellent framework for developing the intellectual flexibility and practical approach that are necessary for dealing with the complex issues of modern life. However, at the same time it seems impractical to completely revive the old traditional society.

Considering also the Mongolian point of views, as Otgonbayar puts in, “nowadays the most important question is how to find a proper combination of modernity and tradition in Mongolian society.”26

It is more so because, in the words of Huntington, “Spurred by modernization, global politics is being reconfigured along cultural lines.”27

To conclude, eight hundred years ago, Chinggis Khan succeeded in building the largest empire in the Eurasian history.

And there is little or no doubt that in the wake of the Chinggis Khan renaissance as well as revival of Buddhism, as several scholars are of the opinion, the traditional culture of the Mongols will surely have its forceful comeback.

With the unique historical process of re-Buddhaisation that is taking place vigorously together with the modernization of Mongolia along the road of democracy and market economy, Buddhism may prove to be an important factor in reformulating and rebuilding the national identity of th e Mongolian people.

It is more so because “Buddhism is today the only ideology that unites the Mongolian people, specifically the Khalkha tribe in Mongolia, the Buryats in Siberia and the Kalmyks in the Volga region.”28

No matter whatever steps the Mongolian Buddhist revival goes through, it has to meet, in one way or the other, the requirements of the country’s development along modern lines.

Only then Buddhism or Lamaism can regain its lost glory in the Mongolian spiritual life and become a guarantee of national and cultural identity.

In short, Mongolia has a glorious cultural and religious heritage that all Mongols should be proud of and that may provide the foundation for modern progress.