While Chinghis Khan looks down from his newly-burnished pedestal, a Buddhist renaissance gains momentum on the steppes of Mongolia.
A gathering of almost 2 percent of a country´s population is large by any standard. In Mongolia, given the near absence of roads and the sparseness of population, it is gigantic. Yet, an estimated 30,000 devotees attended the opening ceremonies of the Kalachakra initiation conducted by the Dalai Lama at the Gandan Hiid Monastery in Ulaan Bataar last August. They poured in from the countryside, many came from as far away as the south-Siberian Russian republic of Buryat.
The Kalachakra initiation is one of the highest tantric rites of Tibetan Buddhism, and this was the first time it was being held in Mongolia since the 1921 Communist Revolution. Before Sovietification, Mongolia had about 300 monasteries and an estimated 110,000 monks, or a third of the male population. By 1990, only Gandan Hiid had survived—primarily as a showpiece. The 200 or so monks there were mostly government appointees, and knowledge of ritual and observances, so important to Tibetan Buddhism, was practically lost.
But, incredibly, Buddhism survived in the minds of Mongolians, and the faith still bums. Today, there is a small temple in every town or rural settlement, many of them housed in gers, the traditional Mongolian octagonal tents.
As the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama has come calling more than once since 1990, despite loud protests from China. The Mongolian government maintains that the visits are purely religious, and avoids giving the Dalai Lama the formal reception reserved for visiting heads of state. However, the real importance it accords the visits is much greater.
The Dalai Lama´s personal involvement in the week-long Kalachakra initiation was particularly replete with symbolism. After all, it was Kublai Khan, the grandson of the most famous Mongol, Chinghis Khan, who accepted Tibetan Buddhism as the state religion. He also started the relationship of patron and priest between the Mongolian ruler and the main Tibetan lama—the former providing political protection in exchange of spiritual guidance.
The Red Hero
Ulaan Bataar reminds one of a Russian town plunked in the middle of Ladakh. The centre of the town (whose name translates as “Red Hero”) is dominated by attractive colonnaded pastel-shaded public buildings. Surrounding these, with plenty of dusty space between them, are the not-so-attractive blocks of Soviet-style flats. People do not have street addresses, only building numbers On the outskirts, about half the population still lives in gers. However, many of them prefer to do just that, since they are closer to grazing land for their cows, and can grow vegetables.
When the communist system was dismantled in 1990, religion was not the only force that moved in to fill the psychological and cultural vacuum in Mongolia. A sense of nationalism also came to the fore, which was responsible for the rehabilitation of Chinghis Khan after 70 years in the cold. The legislature initiated lengthy debates on weighty matters such as the design of the national flag, the national emblem, and on changing the name of the capital, which, however, remains Ulaan Bataar since no agreement could be reached. The nationalist sentiment has been taken to impractical extremes as well, such as when demands are made for the unification of all Mongols. More Mongols live outside Mongolia than in it, with the largest number, over three million, in Chinese Inner Mongolia.
Buddhism is not alone in the ongoing battle for the Mongolian soul. In the city (and Ulaan Bataar accounts for a quarter of the country´s population), young people are more inclined to the West, and many are interested in Christianity. Among the Christian missionaries active in the cities, some are from India. Hindu sects also have a small presence, as they do in other Central Asian countries, most notably the Anand Margis, but also ISKCON and Ramakrishna Mission.
However, Buddhism has one distinct advantage—95 percent of Mongolians are Buddhist by birth, and Mahayanism is bound to figure prominently in the ongoing search for a new Mongolian identity. As one official put it: “What is Mongolian culture without Buddhism? Even when atheists get together to have a drink they make the traditional offering in the four directions.”
The Tale Lama
For centuries, Tibetan Buddhist lamaseries were the only permanent habitations in this land of nomads. These monasteries were the nuclei around which the first towns were founded, notable among them being the one that developed in the region of Urga around the residence of the Jebtsungdamba Khutugtu, the highest-ranking Mongolian monk. Today, this city is known as Ulaan Bataar.
The past is also on the side of Tibetan Buddhism. When the Mongols were ousted from the Chinese throne and returned to Mongolia, a Mongol prince Altan Khan, conferred the title Tale (ocean), on a visiting monk of the Gelugpa, or Yellow Hat, sect in 1578. It was not long before this new sect commanded the loyalty of most of the Mongol tribes, (see box)
Ever since Buddhism arrived among the fierce warrior tribes, it has figured prominently in the history of Mongolia. After their conquest of Mongolia in the 1680s, the Mingand Manchu emperors of China played the Mongol Buddhist clergy against each other to keep the Mongols divided. And, when Mongolians finally overthrew Chinese rule in 1911, they turned to religion for guidance. They installed the jebtsungdamba Khutugtu as the Living Buddha, ruler of the country. (In 1920, during the Russian civil war, many Tsarist Russians took refuge in Mongolia and began ruling the country through the Living Buddha, while continuing their resistance to the Bolsheviks. Within a year, however, the communists had defeated the white Russians and a communist regime was established in Mongolia. When the Living Buddha died in 1924, Mongolia was declared a People´s Republic.)
Democracy and the Monk
Much of the credit for the revival of Buddhism in Mongolia goes to Kushak Bakula (see profile on page 27), the 80-year-old Ladakhi monk who also happens to be the Indian ambassador to Mongolia. Bakula has brought some 50 Mongolian monks to India for studies in Dharamshala and Tibetan centres like the Institute of Higher Buddhist Learning in Sarnath, near Varanasi. Tibetan masters from Dharamshala visit Mongolia regularly and Bakula himself travels around the country, giving lectures and discourses. He has set up a school of Buddhist learning in Ulaan Bataar and has even ordained nuns for the first time in Mongolia. There are now three nunneries in the country.
When he was named Indian ambassador to Mongolia in 1989, the reincarnate lama thought there was nothing much he could do. “I was looking forward to a period of quiet contemplation and study and renewing my contacts with Mongolians whom I had been visiting since 1970,” he recalls. But Bakula was in for some excitement.
March 1990 saw a sudden turn of events as the pro-democracy movement gathered pace in Ulaan Bataar. Hunger strikes were held and protests erupted in the square in front of parliament building. Bakula´s ambassadorial rank suddenly took a back seat to his status as the spiritual head of Mongolia, since he was the highest ranking Buddhist in the country.
Bakula recalls that a Tiananmen-type situation was brewing when protestors came to see him one evening in March. He told them: “It would be improper for me to give you any advice on your movement. All I can say is never, ever, resort to violence. “He did give the students the Buddhist sacred thread (zangia in Mongolian, sungdhut in Ladakhi). While taking leave, they asked for a few more. “I thought they were taking them for their family members. You can imagine my surprise when I saw them being distributed to the hunger strikers on national TV that evening!”
Whether it was the sacred thread, or the example of the excesses that had just taken place in Romania, good sense prevailed, and 80 percent of the Ulaan Bataar´s communist party organisations voted in secret ballot that night for the resignation of the Politburo. Soon after, the government amended the constitution to allow multiparty elections, which were held in July 1990. Freedom of speech, assembly and religion were granted. Bakula could not have arrived at a better time.
The Bodhisattva´s Return
Ambassador Bakula has been using his personal clout to great advantage in reinstating Buddhism in Mongolia. Apart from the Kalachakra ceremony, in 1993, he had the satisfaction of persuading the Indian government to allow holy relics of the Buddha (housed in the National Museum in New Delhi) to be displayed outside India for the first time ever.
“Everyone, from the President on down, attended. Almost the whole of Mongolia turned up,” he says with pardonable exaggeration. “The Mongolians kept their religious beliefs alive for the 70 longs years of the previous regime. They are re-learning the rituals and the philosophy. What is important now is strengthening the observance of the Vinaya vows of monastic discipline.”
The next major event, planned for the summer of 1996, is the consecration ceremony of a new 13-metre-tall gold-plated brass statue of Avalokitesvara (the bodhisattva who is the “universal saviour”), the original of which is said to have been melted down by the Russians for making ammunition. And the Dalai Lama is expected to preside again.
– P. Ghate is an economist and writer who divides his time between New Delhi and Madhya Pradesh.