“Before Christ, Allah, and Buddha, there was Tengri,” writes H.B. Paksoy, a distinguished scholar of Turkic studies. “Faith in Tengri was one of the oldest, if not the oldest religion in the experience of humans, emanating from the heart of Asia.” In this first part of a post series examining the continuities of Central Asian spirituality, Paksoy details the fundamental principles of this ancient belief system.
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).
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.Share
H.B. Paksoy (D. Phil., Oxford University) is a distinguished scholar of Turkic studies. He is currently with the Faculty of General Studies in Baker College, Michigan. He has previously taught at Harvard University, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Ohio State University, Franklin University, and Central Connecticut State University.