Contemporary Buddhist Revival in Kalmykia: Survey of the Present State of Religiosity

6. Feb 2012

Geographical and historical background

Even today, in spite of the westward expansion of Buddhism, Kalmykia remains the only ethnic Buddhist community in Europe. At present Kalmykia has a status of a republic with a presidential form of government within the Russian Federation. It is situated in the southeast of the European part of the Russian Federation in the territory of the Volga steppes. The population of present-day Kalmykia is about 330,000; of these Kalmyks comprise more than 50%, Russians around 30%, Chechens, Armenians and other minorities constitute the remainder. Ethnically the Kalmyks are of Mongolian origin; their language belongs to the Mongolian group of languages.

Buddhism began to spread among the Kalmyks in the 13th century A.D.[1] At that time the Kalmyks inhabited South Siberia and were known as the Oirats or West Mongols, comprising several ethnically and linguistically related tribes. The name kalmyk, which is a word of Turkish origin and means ‘remaining’, ‘separated’, was applied to the Oirats who in the 17th century migrated to Russia.[2]

When the Kalmyks became subjects of the Russian Empire, they brought Buddhism as their main spiritual tradition. Throughout the 17th century until the second half of the 18th century the Kalmyks had very close ties with Buddhist centers in Tibet and Mongolia. The religious policy of the Kalmyk khanate was conducted under the leadership of Tibet. However, at the end of the 18th century Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great prohibited any relations between the Kalmyks and Tibet. Kalmykia became isolated from other Buddhist centers, which had an impact on the development of Buddhism among the Kalmyks. Nevertheless, until the beginning of the 20th century the Kalmyks followed the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism.

From the 1930s to the 1980s Buddhism was persecuted by the Soviet government, and not a single prayer-house functioned in Kalmykia.[3] The most tragic event in the history of the Kalmyks was the deportation of 1943, when the entire population of Kalmykia was exiled to Siberia and Central Asia and the republic was abolished by the Soviet government. More than 40% of the exiled Kalmyks lost their lives during the years of deportation. Only in 1957 were the Kalmyks given the right to return to their home on the steppes of the Volga.

The Complexity of the Present Buddhist Revival

After almost a century of severe persecution of Buddhism by the Soviet government the traditional religious institutions of Kalmykia are being restored now. The first Buddhist community after the collapse of the Soviet Union was registered in October 1988; and since the beginning of the 1990s there has been a boom of religious revival in Kalmykia: temples (khurul)[4] have been built in almost every Kalmyk town, more and more Kalmyks receive Buddhist education, Buddhist teachers from abroad visit Kalmykia regularly, and pilgrims come to Kalmykia from all parts of Russia. However, as my fieldwork experience showed, the present situation of religious revival is very complex and differs greatly from the state of religiosity in Kalmykia before the Soviet period. The present Buddhist revival is much more than a restoration of only one Buddhist tradition. The complexity consists in the parallel development of several levels of Buddhism. Two levels of Buddhism are developing in Kalmykia now: the level of institutionalized Tibetan Buddhism and the level of folk religion; both levels are far from being homogeneous and can be further subdivided.

Community Revival. Picture by the author.

Tibetan Buddhism in contemporary Kalmykia

The Gelugpa tradition

Historically most Kalmyks belong to the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, which is still the dominant religious tradition in Kalmykia. The first Buddhist temples and prayer houses opened in Kalmykia after 1990 belong to the Gelugpa order; and the overwhelming majority of monks in present-day Kalmykia adhere to the Gelugpa tradition.

At present the Gelugpa order in Kalmykia is centralized and interlinked: all Gelugpa monks and khurul in different regions of Kalmykia belong to the Kalmyk Central Buddhist Monastery Geden Sheddup Choskhorling. Therefore, the term ‘monastery’ in this case signifies a network of Buddhist temples and prayer houses functioning throughout Kalmykia.

The head temple of the monastery is The Golden Abode of Buddha Shakyamuni[5] or the Central Khurul as it is often called. It was constructed in only nine months of 2005 and now it is the largest Buddhist temple in Kalmykia and in Europe. The Central Khurul is an important cultural centre and a famous pilgrimage site in Kalmykia. The khurul has a center of traditional Tibetan medicine and a Buddhist library with a large collection of scriptures.

The head lama of the Kalmyk Centralized Buddhist Monastery and the Shadzhin Lama (the ‘Supreme’ Lama) of Kalmykia is Telo Tulku Rinpoche (Erdne Ombadykov), an ethnic Kalmyk and a citizen of the USA.[6] He was recognized by the 14th Dalai Lama as the 7th incarnation of Tilopa, the 11th century Indian yogi. The tradition of recognized reincarnations (tulku) was lost in Kalmykia already in the 17th century; therefore, the establishment of tulku is an innovation for Buddhism in Kalmykia, indicating a significant change in religious authority under the influence of Tibetan Buddhism. As a result, the head lama acquired additional power in the eyes of the laity: home altars of many Kalmyk lay believers also have images of Telo Tulku Rinpoche.

A need for trained monks is a serious issue for Kalmykia. At present there are 22 monks in the Central Khurul and about 20 monks working in other Gelugpa temples throughout Kalmykia. Most monks are neither Kalmyks nor Russians, but Tibetans, mainly from Tibetan exile communities. Nevertheless, new generations of Kalmyks receive their monastic education abroad, mainly in Tibetan monasteries in India. The usual place for the training of Kalmyk monks is Drepung Gomang Dratsang monastery in Karnataka (South India), which adheres to the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Telo Tulku Rinpoche supports the tendency of unification of Buddhist practice and orientation towards the Tibetan Buddhist heritage and the Tibetan government in exile. It is obvious that Tibetan monks play a very important role in the contemporary Buddhist revival in Kalmykia. However, some Kalmyks believe that it is not the traditional ethnic Kalmyk religious heritage that is being revived in the republic at present. For many lay Kalmyks, especially for those of older generations, is it very important to see the restoration of the regional form of Buddhism that had developed in the Kalmyk steppes during the 17th – 19th centuries, which is regarded by many Kalmyks as different from other regional forms of Buddhism. Telo Tulku Rinpoche, however, refutes the notion of “Kalmyk Buddhism”, arguing that Buddhism as religion overcomes all ethnic and national borders and cannot be divided into Kalmyk, Tibetan or Mongolian variants.

Other Tibetan Buddhist schools represented in Kalmykia

The Nyingma stupa and temple. Picture by the author.

Apart from the Gelugpa order, other schools of Tibetan Buddhism are present in Kalmykia now. Of special interest are the Nyingmapa communities developing in Kalmykia now. Whereas the Kagyupas and the Sakyapas are represented in Kalmykia only on the level of Dharma centers, the Nyingmapa tradition functions on the level of khurul; which gives it additional importance in the eyes of believers.

In contrast to the Central Monastery, the Nyingma communities try to give Buddhism a Kalmyk flavor, which is very appealing for some Kalmyk laity (especially from smaller towns and villages). As Padma Sherab, the abbot of the first Nyingma khurul in Kalmykia and Russia, said, “Our community is a synthesis of the Tibetan Nyingma tradition and Kalmyk Buddhism”. The Kalmyk Nyingmapas position themselves as being much closer to lay people than the Central Khurul. All sutras and most ritual-texts used in the Nyingmapa khuruls have been translated into the Kalmyk language; so far they have been the only ones to use Kalmyk as ritual language in Kalmykia. As mentioned above, most monks in the Central Monastery are Tibetans and do not speak Kalmyk or Russian, although I was told that one of the main reasons for lay people to go to khurul is to discuss their problems with a lama or a monk. Some lamas even see themselves more as psychologists than ritual experts.


The role of the Kalmyk government and Kirsan Ilyumzhinov in the religious and cultural revival in Kalmykia

The present religious revival in Kalmykia is not just the result of missionary activities, but also the result of the governmental support. Of special importance is the role of the first president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, an eccentric and charismatic figure. He was first elected the president of Kalmykia in 1993 at the age of 31; at that time he was already a millionaire businessman, promising prosperity and development to the republic; he even refused to accept his salary of the republic’s president.  Ilyumzhinov occupied this post until 2010, having been reelected three times.[7]

Ilyumzhinov is popular with the Kalmyks for his support of all religions and of Buddhism in particular. Himself a devout Buddhist, he once mentioned in a television program that he may want to become a lama one day. Though the Constitution of the Russian Federation separates religion from the state, from 1993 to 1995 religion and church was declared by Ilyumzhinov an essential part of the state policy of Kalmykia. During these years a special Department for Religious Affairs functioned as executive agency subjected to the president of Kalmykia. Large subsidies were collected by the department and donated for the building of Buddhist temples as well as Christian churches; moreover, Ilyumzhinov sponsored the construction of temples and churches from his private funds. The first initiative to build the Central Khurul also belongs to the first president.

The Kalmyk culture-of-heroes approach to the leader has been employed in creating the image of the president. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov is perceived by many Kalmyks as a national long-awaited hero corresponding to the image of a leader in Mongolian legends and epic: young, charismatic, claiming to be of kinship with Chingis Khan, oriented towards spiritual development, supporting Buddhism and other religions. In spite of his authority, Ilyumzhinov is democratic in his attitude and accessible for common people.

Playing up to his image of a mythological ruler from a spiritual land, Ilyumzhinov became known outside Kalmykia and the Russian Federation for some of his sensational announcements. Thus, for example, in 1997 he openly confessed in a television programme that he had seen a UFO and had been kidnapped by aliens for a two-hour tour around their spaceship. Some Kalmyks I talked to during my fieldwork believe in Ilyumzhinov’s ability to see spirits and aliens, but most people that I had a chance to interview see it as the president’s unique sense of humour. Nevertheless, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has been endowed with mythological properties and has become a near-cult personality in contemporary Kalmykia, he is even worshipped as bodhisattva by some Kalmyks.


The level of folk religion, “folk Buddhism” and the ancient cult of the White Old Man interpreted anew

The White Old Man statue. Picture by the author.

Besides schools of Tibetan Buddhism other Kalmyk religious traditions that are dynamically revitalizing at present can be referred to the level of folk religion. This level is not institutionalized; it is represented by religious experts (of both genders and of different ages) who perform various rituals for the benefit of the laity. In Kalmykia folk religious practices, beliefs and movements are often called “popular” or “folk” Buddhism, because they combine elements of Tibetan Buddhism with Oirat-Kalmyk pre-Buddhist, folk-religious spiritual traditions. Some scholars and representatives of the Kalmyk Buddhist clergy reject the notion of “folk Buddhism”, arguing that contemporary folk religious practices in Kalmykia have nothing in common with Buddhism and the teaching of Buddha Shakyamuni.

Kalmyk folk religious practitioners do not have monastic education, but receive knowledge and power from their guardian deities of Buddhist as well as pre-Buddhist origin. The most important deity for them is the White Old Man (Tsagan aava), a pan-Mongolian pre-Buddhist deity, the owner of the land and water, included in the Buddhist pantheon in Kalmykia with the function of a dharmapala, i.e. a defender of faith, in the 18th century.

The scope of practices of Kalmyk “folk Buddhist” ritual experts is very wide: they heal illnesses, tell fortune, have prophetic dreams, remove curses and bad luck, carry out love magic rites and calendar rituals. They use various methods and implements, ranging from Buddhist prayers to animal sacrifice depending on the individual practitioner.

It is difficult to state the exact number of folk religious practitioners in Kalmykia now because of their unofficial status. However, some ritual experts form communities. Thus, a community of ritual experts was registered in Kalmykia in 1999 under the name the Buddhist Community «Revival», though the application of the term Buddhist in this case is very debatable. The name “Revival” reflects the main aim, which is to revive traditions and ceremonies of the Oirat-Kalmyks and to restore the faith in the White Old Man. The cult of Tsagan Aava is seen by the community as the true ethnic Kalmyk spiritual heritage. The head and the founder of the community is a fifty year old Kalmyk woman, Galina Muzaeva. The community believes that Galina is Maitreya, the future Buddha; she is called the Bakshi (which means ‘teacher’) and all other members in this organization are her students.

The community largely draws inspiration from Buddhism as well: they venerate Buddhist deities, use Buddhist ritual objects, and perform rituals that traditionally have been conducted by Kalmyk Buddhist monks. The employment of Buddhist as well of Kalmyk folk religious elements attracts lay Buddhists to the activities of the community. However, Buddhist and traditional Kalmyk pre-Buddhist elements are mixed with new (at least for Kalmykia) ideas and aims that have nothing in common with Buddhism or shamanism. The final goal of the community is to unite the world religions and to create one faith in the White Old Man. Besides Buddhist deities, the community venerates Jesus Christ, Mother Mary and other Orthodox Christian saints. Thus, in the prayer house outside Elista, built in 2004, I saw images of Buddhist deities, the 14th Dalai Lama, Jesus Christ, Mother Mary and other Christian saints, a big poster of Prophet Muhammad and even a picture of the first president of Kalmykia, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov.

The old Mongolian cult of the White Old Man, however, has been reinterpreted, rather than revived by the community: Tsagan Aava is identified as the Highest Cosmic Intellect; therefore, this movement is also called “cosmic religion”. All ritual texts (numerous offering-prayers, healing prayers, etc.) the members of the community claim to have received telepathically from space in the “sun” language. The “sun” language is another invention of the community, which they believe to be “the sacred language of the White Old Man”. It is written in the Russian Cyrillic script and rhythmically may resemble Tibetan.

The community is actively involved in missionary activity, publishing books and a newspaper Maitreya. So far the community has published seven volumes of the cycle The Sacred Precepts of the White Old Man.  


Concluding remarks

In the context of Kalmykia it becomes rather problematic to use the word ‘revival’ with regard to religious and cultural developments; only if talking about a revival in a very broad meaning (as of religious activity in general). To what extent can these processes be called a revival? Buddhism in contemporary Kalmykia is not just revived but reinvented with new levels developing and new elements being added to what is believed to be “traditional Kalmyk Buddhism”. These new reinvented forms of Buddhism present a multifaceted material for ethnographic and anthropological research.
Valeriya Gazizova

PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Humanities (the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages) at the University of Oslo Study Areas: Buddhism and folk religion in Tibet, Mongolia, Kalmykia, Buryatia and Tuva.

[1] However, there is another opinion that the Oirats came into contact with Buddhism as early as the end of the 10th century through the neighbouring peoples.

[2] One of the main motives of the Oirat exodus was internal feuding over a shortage of pasture land created by continuous subdivision of the feudal domains.

[3] In the beginning of the 20th century more than 100 monasteries with about 2000 monks were registered in Kalmykia. But after the prohibition of Buddhism all monasteries were destroyed, the majority of monks were arrested, some even murdered.

[4] In Kalmykia Buddhist monasteries and prayer houses are called khurul.

[5] Burkhn Bagshi Altn Syume

[6] Telo Tulku Rinpoche was born in 1972 in a family of Kalmyk immigrants in the USA and studied in Drepung Gomang Dratsang monastery in India for twelve years.

[7] In November 2010 Aleksey Orlov became the second president of Kalmykia. Nevertheless, political life in Kalmykia to a certain extent is still focused on the figure of Ilyumzhinov, though he is no longer the president.