The religious culture of Mongolia may commonly be considered Shamanism but this is a broad term, so what does that entail? Well, the native religion in Mongolia was eventually dubbed ‘Tengrism‘, and as far as we know, didn’t involve any unequivocal doctrine of any sort. At the core of their beliefs resides their worship of the eternal blue sky, or ‘Tengri’, the mother spirit ‘Eje’ and the holy spirit of the sky. Strangely enough, they held quite a parallel to many Buddhist principles, in which they believed that in doing good in the physical world, they could maintain spiritual balance and strengthen their soul, which they referenced as their ‘Wind Horse’.
Tengrism originated with the huns but lost it’s vibrance within the hun community when the Uyghur Khaganate’s proclaimed Manichaeism as their sovereign religion.
Despite Tengrism being undeniably influential, most of their followers eventually turned to Buddhism which was brought to the area due to social exchange with the T’o-pa Wei dynasty during 4th century A.D. It’s popularity began in the upper class structures of society at this time but due to the khans conquering Tibet in the 13th century, even commoners began to slowly convert. This was not a situation unique to Mongolia, as Buddhism was spreading all throughout Asia during this time.
Islamic Influence and Religion Under Genghis Khan
Islam was also making it’s bouts around Mongolia during the 13th century and about 5% of the current population still practices Islam today. It never really took hold in the Yuan empire but there was a point in time when it was the popular religion of the khanates and in nearby regions until the era of Genghis Khan.
Although Genghis Khan was a brutal warlord and devout Tengrist, his dynasty was quite tolerant of other religions, including Islam. So even after his reign came to an end, there remained a devout following in the country.
Today Islam in Mongolia is still found predominantly in the western region, the same place where it used to have more influence before the khanates lost power.
Dawn of a New Era
At the end of the 16th century, Altan Khan, the Mongolian ruler at that time, met with Sonam Gyatsom, a prominent Buddhist figure.
This man, Sonam Gyatsom was given the title ‘Dalai Lama’ by Altan Khan and began not only a blood legacy, but caused a swift revival of Buddhism in his country.
Problems began again again in the 20th century when the country came under Soviet control. They began suppressing traditional Mongolian religions, destroying ritual sites, and killing religious leaders and clergy members. They removed Genghis Khan’s name from textbooks, and even the simple mention of his name was disallowed. The witch hunt ended when Mongolia later obtained independence.
It is interesting to note that as of 2016, the current Mongolian administration was put under political pressure from China due to inviting the Dalai Lama to Mongolia for religious purposes. Mongolia has stated that the government “feels sorry” for allowing the Dalai Lama to visit the country in November and that the Dalai Lama “probably won’t be visiting Mongolia again during this administration,” according to Bloomberg News.