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In the Beginning was Tengri, Part 1: “Grace is the heart of belief”

A diagram of Tengriist metaphysics on a shaman's drum. At the center is a world-tree connecting the three dimensions of the underworld, middleworld and upperworld.  Image from Wikipedia user Erdaal (GNU Free Documentation License).

A diagram of Tengriist metaphysics on a shaman's drum. At the center is a world-tree connecting the three dimensions of the underworld, middleworld and upperworld. Image from Wikipedia user Erdaal (GNU Free Documentation License).

Editor’s note: H.B. Paksoy (D. Phil., Oxford University) is a distinguished scholar of Turkic studies at Baker College, Michigan.  This is his first post with neweurasia, in which he discusses the general principles of Tengriism, an ancient Central Asian religion.

Over the past quarter of a century, while pursuing other historical, cultural and anthropological objectives, evidence indicating a distinct monotheistic belief system centerred around an ancient Central Asian deity has been encountered time and again: before Christ, Allah, and Buddha, there was Tengri.  Faith in Tengri was one of the oldest, if not the oldest religion in the experience of humans, emanating from the heart of Asia.

Even though Tengriism has no known written tradition, elements of this belief system have survived, albeit in fragmentary literary and oral traditions.  The first step, therefore, if one is intent on learning the foundations of Tengriism, is to cull the extant corpus of this tradition to extract the essence.  What follows is my assessment of the its fundamental principles.

An ecological vision

Because its central deity, Tengri, resided in the blue sky, the color turquoise was its symbol of worship and constant reminder of the grace of the creator.  Grace is the heart of belief.  When Tengri chose to withdraw Grace, downfall was the result; when bestowed, it was the source of all benefaction.

Tengriism was ecologically sensitive from the very start. One who defiled water was immediately and physically condemned because water in this parched portion of the earth was one of the Graces granted by Tengri.  For example, both crops and the reign of a monarch were entirely dependent on water; the good behavior of the adherents and the presence of Grace were thus linked.

Historically, Tengri followers chose different paths to salvation and happiness. For example, eastern Tengriists in particular concentrated on proper etiquette (because of population pressures and order of society).  In contrast, other Tengriists have emphasized living harmoniously with nature (during the religion’s emergence, it was as necessary to co-exist with nature as it is today).

Vision-questing

No wars were waged in Tengri’s name, nor did it seek converts like other belief systems. It did not even create a centralized clerical structure, or, indeed, a clerical class.  In some localities, a few individuals offered their services to the adherents as “one way” messengers.

These seers underwent trances to explore the reasons why a certain event did or did not take place.  However, they could not intercede or change the results.  Finally, they were also skilled in oral verse composition, having mastered the arts of music and visual performance to deliver the results of their ritual vision-quests.

Waste and resiliency

One of the attributes of a great civilization is its members’ desire and ability to enjoy the fruits of past generations’ labors without substantially making contributions in kind. This is akin to withdrawing from the family joint checking account without making deposits.  It can be argued that this leaning also may lead to decadence, and eventual downfall of a culture.

A particular attribute of Tengriist belief was the principle, “do not waste”.  When combined with its emphasis on harmony with nature we can construe a built-in resiliency against any tendency toward cultural decay or opulence within Tengriism.  Of course, there may be attenuating factors affecting the practice of this principle, but for the most part available evidence suggests its consistency in practice.

The archetypal belief system?

Arguably, Tengri constitutes the  archetypal value system of human beings, apart from being, perhaps, the historical original or prototypical belief system itself.  In this capacity, it can also serve as a benchmark for what was to follow.

Apart from being members of an ancient tradition, Tengri believers existed in the crossroads of an eschatological battleground fought over by later religious arrivals like Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism.   Next weekend I will examine their struggles with these late-comers.

A portion of the extant material for Tengriism is publicly available, and a reading of this corpus to fully extract the Tengri references in contrast to the belief systems of the adherents’ neighbors is also likely to yield some surprises.  Leave a comment if you would like to learn more or discuss and debate what I’ve written so far.

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10 Comments »

  • Martin Nowlin says:

    Can you please provide a reference to the best publicly available information for Tengriism?

    Thank you.

    Reply

    Turgai Sangar Reply:

    Martin, maybe this can be of use: Laruelle, Marlène (2007), “Religious revival, nationalism and the ‘invention of tradition’: political Tengrism in Central Asia and Tatarstan”,Central Asian Survey, 26 (2), 203-216.

    PDF can be downloaded here if you have access:
    http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a781908806~db=all~jumptype=rss

    If not, drop me a line.

    “This article aims to analyse the birth of a new ideological movement called ‘Tengrism’. According to its theoreticians, Tengrism represents a key element in the identity renewal of Turkic-Mongol peoples and should be adopted as the official religion by the new states of the region. This paper enquires into the ways in which Tengrism is being politically deployed in the service of post-Soviet nationalisms in Kyrgyzstan and Tatarstan and to a lesser extent, in Kazakhstan, Bashkortostan and Buryatia. Although the ideologues of Tengrism may be marginal to the political mainstream, it is nonetheless important to analyse the role of ‘ethnicized’ forms of religious expression and their relationship with the search for post-Soviet national identities.”

    Reply

    Lela Shook Reply:

    @Turgai Sangar, Very interesting article. Lela

    Reply

    Martin Nowlin Reply:

    @Turgai Sangar, Thank you! I will pursue this article.

    Reply

    James Allen Reply:

    @Martin Nowlin,

    the best publicly available source would have to be:

    http://www.tengerism.org/

    Reply

  • Turgai Sangar says:

    My pleasure. From the same author, there is this: http://www.cacianalyst.org/?q=node/3837

    It seems that the supposed revival of Tengrism in Eurasia fascinates certain international intelligentsia. Yet the question for Paksoy and others is whether it can and will become anything more than a subculture pretty much like Celtic and Germanic neo-paganism in Europe are.

    Also, in a number of cases there were official attempts in Eurasia to promote pre-Islamic civilisations and cultures – or, as often, a sanitised makeover of them – as a ‘national ideology’ that had to counter Islam. One example is the promotion of ‘ancient Aryan civilisation’ in Tajikistan (cf. http://www.cacianalyst.org/?q=node/3437). Yet as often, that proved completely artificial and took no root among the population. Often, it came to the cult of Lenin under another brand.

    IMO, the future of religion in Tatarstan and Southern Eurasia will more likely depend on the evolution of Islam. Even the regime in Tajikistan udnerstood that by recently promoting Hanafi Islam as a semi-official religion.

    Reply

  • [...] I wrote in my earlier post series, shamanism is the earliest known belief system here.  It is based on spirituality, courage, [...]

  • Bay Kader says:

    I am Turkish from Turkey,I know most, if not all about Tangri/Tanri,sm. I can see what’s happening now is, in the name of “do not waste” taking without giving by politicians, defiling tanri’sm to shamanism, cros breed religion that is dogmatised, in Turkish today and way back as Tangri/ Tanri was known as the name Tangri or Tanri,it stans for one God, that what Tanri was and is in Tirkish language to any Turkish, not of this tangri that tangri but Tangri, it is it is Turks indigenous religion politically got wiped out,do I practice it or not will be a funny question it still is in all of Turkish tradition. I am the decadent of, Ogus kagan, bumin kagan, bilge kagan, kultikin/gultekin,Cengiz Kagan, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk. you name it no room here. In the hands of politicians any religion will always be the most deadliest tool and wepon wee have ever known. “TANRI” is not russian and Tanri’cilik is about GOD=Tanri not shaman’ism. I am DR: of Martial Arts and Master of my own style and as Turkish to it is mybusiness to put things the way it was.

    copyright act 1968 (c) Tum Haklari Sakldir.

    Reply

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