Tengrism in Mongolia

The traditional religion of Mongolia is Tengrism, a shamanic faith shared by a number of Eurasian steppe cultures. Its major deity, Tengri of the eternal blue sky, is a supreme creator being who sees and understands all things. Lesser gods like the Earth-Mother, Eje, and ancestral spirits are also worshipped. Tengrism emphasizes spiritual harmony with the universe and nature. People find happiness and meaning by leading virtuous lives within their society. In the same way, a virtuous ruler passes prosperity on to his subjects. Shamans work and negotiate with the gods and spirits, though regular people may conduct sacred rites as well.

Religious Diversity in the Mongol Empire

Genghis Khan practiced Tengrism and attributed his success to Tengri, but the empire he founded was known for its religious tolerance. The shamanic faith did not need to convert other populations, and it taught that any righteous person could find favor in Tengri. The Mongols’ respect for the customs of conquered nations allowed them to rule over Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Taoist, Jewish, and Confucian subjects, among others. Citizens of all faiths served in Mongol courts as advisers and bureaucrats. Emperors like Kublai Khan even hosted debates between scholars from different religions. Kublai was known to admire Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity in particular. In 1295, the leader of the Middle Eastern Ilkhanate, Mahmud Gazan, converted to Islam. Buddhism and Islam proved especially popular throughout the empire.

Buddhism and Modern Worship in Mongolia

Mongol rule in China ended in 1368 with the fall of the Yuan dynasty. In time, Mongolia itself came under the control of Qing China. During this period, Tibetan Buddhism became its most popular religion. Buddhist monasteries, once nomadic as well, grew to be the major power centers of Mongolia. They offered education and community in Mongolian society, and about a third of men joined their ranks as lamas. Tibetan Buddhism shrank during the socialist era, sometimes by violent repression. Buddhism has seen a recent surge in popularity in Mongolia today, alongside a new appreciation for its ancestral shamanism.

According to the CIA World Factbook, the current religious makeup of Mongolia is as follows:

  • Buddhist: 53%
  • None: 38.6%
  • Muslim: 3%
  • Shamanist: 2.9%
  • Christian: 2.2%
  • Other: 0.4%
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