Shamanism and Buddhism: Beliefs in Ancient Baikal
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November, 20

Shamanism and Buddhism: Beliefs in Ancient Baikal

Archaeological excavations prove that people lived near Lake Baikal since ancient times. And of course, they believed in various otherworldly creatures. Shamanism is still widespread in the territory of the lake, and after the invasion of the Mongols, it was joined by Buddhism.

Shamanism is an ancient form of religion associated with the animation of nature. Each weather or other phenomenon is associated with a spirit. Communication with otherworldly forces occurs through a human that serves as a link between the human world and the spirit worlds - shaman.

Since the Bronze Age, the inhabitants of the Baikal region have adhered to this belief. They consider the Eternal Blue Sky or “Huhe Munkhe Tengri” their High Spirit, but they also worship other "smaller" gods.

Each area, mountain, river, lake, or rock has its “Aegina”, a spirit-protector. They were made into figurines of wood, stone or metal - ongon. It is believed that this sculpture is inhabited by the patron of the family, clan, or craft. Ongons are treated with awe and respect.

This religious doctrine implies the division of the world into 3 levels: the top (deities live there), medium (the human world) and lower (world of the dead). 

Shaman is the mediator between these worlds. This word means "frenzied, excited man". Servants of the cult work themselves into a trance and can talk to spirits while in it.

According to legend, the first shaman was son of a deity who descended to earth in the form of an eagle. Therefore, this bird is revered among the inhabitants of the Baikal region to this day. To become a shaman, you must have Uthu, which is an ancestor of the same profession. Sacred knowledge is passed on from father to son and is not recorded in writing.

Shamans do not have special facilities for worship, because their one temple is nature. Rituals are held outdoors in sacred places. Such activities in the Buryat language are called “taylagan”. They offer sacrifices and gifts to the gods to appease them.
There is a tradition among the inhabitants of the surrounding towns and tourists that you need to appease the local god, Burhan, before visiting the lake, or he will bring bad weather or other troubles.

Which is why “Burhanit’” means sharing with the deity. Earlier, milk or grain was used in the ritual, but now it is mostly alcohol. When performing the ritual, you need to dip a finger in the glass and sprinkle a drop to the four winds and under your feet, and then drink the rest. If you do not drink alcohol, you can appease the gods with tea, juice, or mineral water. What is most important is that your motives are pure.

The people of Baikal also believe in the "Tree of Life" peculiar to the world of mythology. This sacred phenomenon is associated with “serghe” – a hitching post. It is divided into three parts that symbolize heaven, earth, and the world of the dead. Serghe is constructed twice in a person's life: after the wedding, and after the person's death. It should not be destroyed under any circumstances, or you will anger the spirits.
Place for an offering to the spirits in the Baikal shamanism is called “barisa”. 


Traditionally, serghe is placed near these places. So you should “burhanit’” near “barisa” as well. But since all of nature is considered to be the temple, it is not a binding rule.


While shamanism is widespread on the western shore of the lake, people in the east turned to Buddhism under the influence of the Mongol. Together with this religion, traditions of Tibet and Mongolia also found their way into the territory of Buryatia and Irkutsk.

At the heart of this religion is the belief that a person can achieve the enlightened state by abandoning the material and through the use of spiritual practices.

Buddhism has greatly contributed to the development of medical science and written language in these regions. Medical schools or “manba-datsan” were built. They did not only reprint classical works there, but also created new.


The main sanctuary in the Baikal Buddhism is Ivolginsky Datsan. It was built in 1947. Before you enter the temple, you need to walk around the territory of datsan clockwise while spinning prayer wheels (also called “hurde”) at the same time. Inside the temple, the central position is occupied by the most revered and sacred Buddha statue.

The main holiday of the Baikal region, Sagaalgan, is closely connected with the tradition of Buddhism. This is a unique New Year's Eve. On this day, a lot of people gather in datsans. They burn old things which is believed to take away the sins of the past year.

In early June, when planting is done but haymaking has not started yet, a holiday called "Surharbaan" is held. This event can be called a sport. The name translates as "shooting sur (leather target)" which is the main entertaining activity of the event.

The local residents also engage in horse racing and wrestling. The mandatory part of the program of the day is performance of a folk dance, “ehor”. Originally it was a magical dance performed clockwise while reciting spells. You can see that this tradition is primarily tied to shamanism, even though it is performed during a Buddhist holiday.

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